The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan.
Morgan's latest novel, and his first fantasy. Resembles a lot the themes of Mieville's stuff (particularly Iron Council) and some of Morgan's own earlier stuff. The resemblance is a bit unfortunate, because The Steel Remains isn't nearly as strong, and might have been more enjoyable if I hadn't set really high sights on it. Ultimately I have mixed reactions. The book feels in some ways more like the middle volume in a trilogy than the first one it is, all the characters and the setting coming in with a lot of stuff already in action. Partly this makes it feel decently fleshed out, like a lived-in world with a lot of history, but it's also alienating to connect with the characters. There's a lot of anger in this book, against homophobia, against the selling and domination of people, against varied forms of militarism, exploitation, hypocrisy and fanaticism. Morgan's story is tight enough that this isn't just a case of the character or author stopping the narrative to lecture, or filling the world with strawman. It's a grim environment, but a complex one, with few easy moral decisions and an overall believability. I was reminded several times of Iran late under the shah--repressive, corrupt, and with the waiting forces in the wing preparing to launch the society into an even more repressive and homophobic theocracy. I'll be interested to see if the later volumes follow up this parallel at all. Clearly one of Morgan's main projects in this was to take the standard fantasy template and add a whole awareness of homosexuality, homophobia, slavery, sexual violence--common to human societies, and aren't going to change just because of magic.
One standout element in this work is the relation of the main character to violence. He's from a very violent context, and he inhabits this type of position to earn his living, as well as to assert his own way of living, but this isn't presented as a redemptive thing. It's a basically destructive force, even when used against all-slaughtering invaders or bigoted fanatics it doesn't make a hero, it produces an extremely dangerous man. The most notable moment of this is the flashback shown where
Ringil kills a child. About the most extreme provoking circumstances one could imagine--the child was throwing stones as part of the torture of Ringil's lover--but the act of violence was excessive, unhesitating and basically unthinking, and it brings home the problems with both the society and Ringil's own actions in relation to it.
Still, I find the project far less satisfying or interesting than Market Forces. Partly because the fantasy tropings and mystical invasion forces do give a tone of unreality that make the grim focus of the human environment appear too polemical. The biggest factor, though, is that the plot through this deconstruction isn't that engaging. While George R. R. Martin is good at anchoring his darkness to an interesting narrative and Mieville is fantastic at it, The Steel Remains doesn't work great as an actual plot. At least one too many eldritch menacing forces, and a bit too much circling the wagons in terms of political intrigue and resuce-the-slave. The character stuff is more engaging, and it's apparent that Morgan was really quite ambitious in setting up this kind of work, but there are significant areas where I don't think it fully delivers. I'll be interested in reading the rest of the series and in following Morgan's work, but this particular story isn't top tier fantasy for me.
Better than: Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon
Worse than: China Mieville's Iron Council