Reading a Richard Morgan novel is like trying to find your way through a delightfully twisted hedge maze in the dark–if that hedge maze were the haunted remains of a long-dead race of demonic overlords jury-rigged into use as the headquarters of a robotic brothel and the dark was composed of the ectoplasmic innards of human history. It’s not your average piece of fiction, and the experience of reading it isn’t your average walk through your mother’s manicured garden. And let’s face it–if that’s what you were looking for, it’s unlikely you would ever have picked up a Richard Morgan novel in the first place.
If it’s not obvious from the paragraph above (and, in true Richard Morgan style, I like to think, it may not be), I’m a Richard Morgan fan. I haven’t read through his entire catalog (yet), but when I heard the author of Altered Carbon was trying his hand at epic fantasy, I happily started waving money in his general direction. He didn’t disappoint.
The Steel Remains was easily one of the freshest takes on epic fantasy (or perhaps sword and sorcery) that I’d read in years. It introduced the reader to the triad of viewpoint characters–Ringil Eskiath, Egar Dragonbane, and Archeth Indamaninarmal–who would carry the story to its ultimate conclusion in The Dark Defiles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Morgan’s previous work in hard-boiled science fiction, the trilogy (officially titled A Land Fit for Heroes) has a distinctly sci-fi feel to it, and shares more with the science fantasy of Gene Wolfe than it does with the heroic fantasy of Brandon Sanderson or even the grimdark epics of Joe Abercrombie. It certainly has a grimdark vibe to it, being both incredibly violent and fairly bleak in tone, but all of that is tinged with Morgan’s trademark hard-boiled attitude and caustic humor.
I won’t belabor the point; I don’t intend this as a full review. What I wanted to point out was the general power of the storytelling, byzantine though it may be, and the reality of the characters that shines through. Ringil is an antihero, certainly, one who often deals directly with his status as a hero and what his past and present sins mean for that status, and his companions are equally flawed men and women. Men and women who nonetheless get things done, and usually the right things, when others flounder or fail. Men and women for a deadly and dangerous age, one that makes quick work of more sensitive, less hardened people. Not a new idea, perhaps, but with Morgan’s signature gloss on it it quickly becomes a battle call: here are our heroes, flawed, grey, tired, and violent. Cross them at your peril.
The Dark Defiles isn’t perfect; the first two-thirds meander somewhat, and while the book never gets boring it also never quite reaches the addictive chapter-by-chapter gut rush of the first two books. But the last third of the novel makes it worth it.
Talking about the ending in any depth would require major spoilers, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that it is satisfying both plot-wise and style-wise. Morgan wraps up each of the three main characters’ arcs completely, bringing the oft-intersecting paths of Ringil, Egar, and Archeth to their inevitable conclusions. They may not all be pleasing endings, in the sense of traditional happy endings, but they are satisfying, if that makes any sense. Particularly notable is the very end, the last chapter, from Archeth’s viewpoint, and how Morgan leaves things: he sets up a situation where you know, without any shadow of a doubt, exactly what is going to happen next, but cuts the story off before he gets there. He teases you, and it’s brilliant. That’s all I’ll say.
The treatment of sexuality and queer issues in A Land Fit for Heroes deserves a mention; these three books contain what is easily one of the most compelling and realistic treatments of homosexuality and its place in an intolerant society that I’ve ever read. In her review for Tor.com back in 2011, Brit Mandelo said it perfectly:
The sensitive and complex handling of sexuality in “A Land Fit for Heroes” is, rather obviously, what drew me to the series in the first place — it’s not exactly common to see an epic fantasy series where two of the three protagonists are queer, and even less common for them to have explicit sex scenes, and even less common than that for them to be placed in a society which is dangerous to the point of being deadly to them. The social setting, which is familiar enough to anyone who’s studied a little Eurasian history, is not imaginary — it’s been real, and it still is real for queer folks in many countries today. The resonant engagement with what it means to be queer in a world where you can be tortured to death for it in these books is extremely well-handled, and makes them read frequently as much like queer literature as like speculative fiction; Morgan thinks through the psychological effects on his characters and their engagement with and denial of their identities.
If you don’t mind dark and gritty and graphic, definitely worth your time. I would also imagine that the trilogy gets even better when read back to back, so if this the first you’re hearing of it, you’re in luck.