The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan is the story of Ringil “Angeleyes” Eskiath, the hero of Gallows Gap and wielder of Ravensfriend, and is set a decade after the end of the war with the Scaled Folk. We join him at the novel’s beginning in a backwater town where he resides in an inn living off his fame as a warrior. Here he remains, drinking and fucking, until his mother arrives requesting his assistance.
Ringil’s cousin Sherin has been sold to slavers and in accepting the mission to track her down, our protagonist’s fire and fury have been reignited and given a focus. When Ringil puts his mind to something he is unapologetic, unswerving and steadfast. He is heralded as a champion throughout the land for his deeds but to those who know him better, he is often spoken about as being depraved and perverted. The reason for this is that Ringil is homosexual. I can’t think of many gay male leads in medieval history inspired grimdark so I found Ringil’s voice and representation refreshing and great to follow.
I thought Ringil was a brilliant character and after reading a few of his chapters I decided to buy the next two books in the series as I knew I was going to be fully invested in him. Ringil reminded me of Sapkowski’s Geralt of Rivia with his temperament and I often envisaged grunts or “for-fuck-sakes” before he acted. I think the very opening paragraph presents Ringil’s disposition expertly:
“When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options. You can smell his breath, take his pulse and check his pupils to see if he’s ingested anything nasty, or you can believe him. Ringil had already tried the first course of action with Bashka the Schoolmaster and to no avail, so he put down his pint with an elaborate sigh and went to get his broadsword.”
In addition to Ringil’s, there are two other main point of view perspectives. That of clan leader Egar the Dragonbane and of Archeth, a kiriath half-breed who is an advisor to the Emperor of Yhelteth. Both were interesting characters yet their sections were not quite as intriguing as Ringil’s point of view. Like Ringil’s, though, they both reflect on the past and their important contributions in the great war ten years before. The further through the book we progress, it becomes evident that the three main characters knew each other well in the past and this definitely sparked my attentiveness to see if these past relations and experiences will have any impact on the current day storylines.
I would certainly class The Steel Remains as epic fantasy and although the novel is quite short by that genre’s standards at around 350-pages it has high-quality world-building, comprising of deep histories, religions, races, magics, and what is and isn’t acceptable in particular cultures. To say it features romance wouldn’t be quite correct as Ringil isn’t shown as being the romantic type, but the novel does feature LGBTQIA+ relationships and some graphic sex scenes.
‘Ringil, I …’ He shook his head. Gestured helplessly. ‘You, you know … if you’d just been … If only you …’
‘Didn’t like to suck other men’s cocks. Yeah, I know.’ Ringil came to life, heading for the door, walking quickly past Gingren so he wouldn’t have to watch his father’s face twitch in revulsion.
He paused at the other man’s shoulder, leaned close and murmured. ‘But the problem is, Dad, I do.’
I was engaged in The Steel Remains from the very start but it wasn’t unputdownable. Around the 60-70% mark, I thought the pace was pretty slow and I was almost slogging through, that I couldn’t really pinpoint more than 3 or 4 exciting moments up until that point, and, honestly, couldn’t see how Morgan could conclude the novel and wrap it all together in a way that would stagger and truly impress me. Yet, he did. I thought the final scenes and the overall conclusion were majestically weaved, featuring a spectacular speech by Ringil, and I will not be completely content until I’ve seen a big-screen rendition of that moment as it was that impactful. Some of the amazing imagery created around the finale and the implications of what could follow in this series means that I am now fully involved in what a few reviewers I respect class as an underrated grimdark classic series. Ringil could become one of my favourite fantasy antiheroes and I’ll be started The Cold Commands this evening. The Steels Remains is a violent and intense grimdark tale with a great lead narrator, a fine supporting cast, and a well-realised gritty and dark fantasy world. Final note: Simon Vance is excellent reading the audiobook. His delivery of certain standout moments gave me goosebumps.
The Lord Administrator of Tidal Watch reached him, and lashed out with his left hand. The move caught Ringil by surprise; it was unlooked for, there was no weapon apparent, just a pair of gloves. The rough patterned leather stropped his cheek, and stung. ‘I demand satisfaction, Eskiath.’
Ringil punched him in the face.