The Steel Remains - Richard Morgan
I've been looking forward to this one for a long time. Richard Morgan, purveyor of action-packed cyberpunk noir since 2002, turns his hand to fantasy. In The Steel Remains, Morgan takes his usual themes of grizzled veterans, bloody close-combat fighting and a dark political backdrop, and mixes it up with the fantasy elements of barbarians, vengeful gods and special swords. However, this is not straight fantasy, as his sci-fi background seeps through all over the place - the stars, for example, are not just for telling fortunes by, they are definitely seen as a place you can go to or come from, and we quickly gather more than a few hints that the "magic" is of the sufficiently advanced technology variety. Think The Dying Earth with added barbarian badassery - this is some very superior genre-blending.
"Gritty" has been fantasy's flavour of the month for quite a while now, and gritty is something that Morgan does very well indeed. Our protagonists are three veterans of the last war - Archeth, a black lesbian engineer from an alien race, now working as advisor to a corrupt emperor; Ringil, a gay exiled-noble-turned-battle-commander, now drowning his past in a remote tavern; and Egan, another retired warrior returned to his nomad roots, who doesn't want to admit how much he misses civilisation. The war's messy conclusion has left them all bitter and cynical, as their original ideals of saving mankind were swallowed up in petty border conflicts, religious intolerance and the revival of the slave trade. However, a combination of emerging supernatural menaces and divine intervention forces them all back into the fray, where some very nasty remnants of the world's history are waiting for them...
As the book went on and the stakes kept getting higher, I became increasingly worried that the rapidly-approaching end would either be a disappointing cop-out or a lame half-conclusion leading in to Another Bloody Trilogy - how could something so big be resolved in so few pages? In the event, it was neither - the final battle is satisfyingly bloody with a decent explanation for its relatively small scale, but there are enough loose ends left over to justify at least one more outing in the same world. As has become evident with Takeshi Kovacs and Carl Marsalis, Morgan likes his educated hardcases, and Ringil is another one in the same vein - similarly, half of the fun is the gradually-revealed details of his background, and there's still plenty more of that left a mystery. The plot itself wasn't as tight or convincing as it could have been (for example, the way that the three ended up meeting was rather contrived) but this is a good bit of brutal fantasy fun, with some very interesting characterisation and a nice line in SF-crossover. If we get more from Morgan in the same vein then I'll be one happy bunny.