Well, things have certainly changed since 2008. Back then, advance rave reviews regarding Richard Morgan's forthcoming The Steel Remains proclaimed that fantasy was about to get real. The author's fantasy debut was heralded as the work that would turn the genre on its head. With such lofty expectations, before the book even hit the shelves worldwide, it was no wonder that The Steel Remains failed to amaze SFF fans eagerly awaiting its release. Indeed, although it was an entertaining and action-packed read, unfortunately it was nowhere near as groundbreaking as advertised. In my opinion, Morgan relied too much on shock value. Instead of focusing on multilayered plotlines and his habitually superior storytelling skills, the author's main problem was that he went only for the grit, the nastiness, the explicit language, the "in your face" violence, the gore, the drugs, the sex, homosexuality, etc. Stripped of those elements, however, The Steel Remains didn't have a whole lot to offer in terms of plot.
Though not perfect, The Cold Commands was an improvement in pretty much every aspect of the tale. A lot of filler material created numerous pacing issues, yet plotlines progressed and hinted at a bigger, more ambitious overall story arc. It's no secret that epic fantasy has become nastier and more violent in the last decade or so. Dark and brooding epics have irrevocably altered the sub-genre, even if some authors are attempting to reverse that trend. Although it featured its fair share of blood, violence, and sex, in The Cold Commands Morgan avoided many of the pitfalls that made The Steel Remains at times so offputting by creating a better balance between all that grit and the actual storytelling.
Fastforward to 2014. . . Downgraded to trade paperback format on this side of the Atlantic, the final installment in A Land Fit For Heroes, The Dark Defiles, will be published next week with very little fanfare. Hard to believe that the series everyone was talking about six years ago is receiving little coverage now that it's coming to an end. Too bad, as this third volume probably is the best of the bunch. Once again, far from perfect and suffering from some of the same shortcomings as its predecessors, The Dark Defiles nevertheless brings the series to a close in interesting fashion.
Here's the blurb:
Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold meets George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones in the final novel in Richard K. Morgan’s epic A Land Fit for Heroes trilogy, which burst onto the fantasy scene with The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands. Ringil Eskiath, a reluctant hero viewed as a corrupt degenerate by the very people who demand his help, has traveled far in search of the Illwrack Changeling, a deathless human sorcerer-warrior raised by the bloodthirsty Aldrain, former rulers of the world. Separated from his companions—Egar the Dragonbane and Archeth—Ringil risks his soul to master a deadly magic that alone can challenge the might of the Changeling. While Archeth and the Dragonbane embark on a trail of blood and tears that ends up exposing long-buried secrets, Ringil finds himself tested as never before, with his life and all existence hanging in the balance.
The worldbuilding is one of the facets with which Morgan has been decidedly inconsistent throughout this trilogy. Within the pages of The Steel Remains this aspect was, to a large extent, quite barebone. Thankfully, the author didn't play his cards as close to his chest in the second installment and we learned a lot more about the universe and how it worked. These revelations demonstrated that there was more depth to A Land Fit For Heroes than met the eye. Once more, I particularly enjoyed how Morgan used some science fiction elements in his worldbuilding We learn much more about the mysterious Kiriath and their technology. And even though most of their secrets remain undisclosed, the author opens up about the Aldrain and their origins, the Dark Court, and the ikinri'ska.
As was the case with its predecessors, The Dark Defiles is another character-driven book and the various story arcs focus on the three main characters: Ringil Eskiath, homosexual hero of the infamous battle of Gallows Gap; Archeth, a kiriath half-breed abandoned by her brethren and now advisor to the Emperor of the Yhelteth Empire; Egar the Dragonbane, who fought for the Yhelteth Empire during the War against the Scaled Folk and was driven away by his own people. All three protagonists remain too edgy and over-the-top for their own good, which makes it difficult to relate to any of them and root for them. Back in The Steel Remains, Morgan created a cast of morally and sexually ambiguous characters, but failed to inject enough life into their personalities and back stories to make them memorable. Character development was much more present in the first sequel and the same can be said of The Dark Defiles. Trouble is, there are constant inner monologues occurring inside every character's mind, which often gets quite annoying. It always gets in the way of the narrative and I feel that it seldom brings anything to the tale.
As was the case with the second volume, the pace was probably the aspect of this novel which left the most to be desired. It starts very slow as we follow the companions' quest to find the last resting place of the Illwrack Changeling. Everything picks up in Archeth storyline, as the science fiction elements are introduced and suddenly I was hooked. Problem is, Ringil's chapters, meandering as they are, more or less kill whatever momentum generated by Arceth and Egar's POV sections. Which makes for a skewed reading experience. Through Archeth's chapters we learn more about Kiriath secrets, making these portions real page-turners. On the other end, though Ringil's chapters provide their fair share of revelations, everything moves at a much slower pace and are often kind of boring.
Although the ending offers some sort of resolution, by reaching the last page of The Dark Defiles readers will find themselves with way more questions than answers. Some people have asked me about A Land Fit for Heroes being connected with the broken moon and the Takeshi Kovacs books. I'm afraid I haven't read them all and I'm too far-removed from them to make the connection, if indeed there's one. All I know is that, even though the author does provide a number of answers before the end, not everything makes sense and in some respects I'm still a bit perplexed as to what the entire series was all about. There are quite a few surprises along the way, an impressive body count, and an ending of sorts. And yet, Morgan definitely leaves a lot of threads up in the air, which leaves the door open for more to come. He's under contract to write two science fiction books next, so it remains to be seen if a return to fantasy will be considered. . .
To a certain extent, beyond the grit, the profanities, the gratuitous sex scenes, and the graphic violence, The Steel Remains left readers with rather thin plotlines. The Cold Commands turned out to be an improvement in that regard, and so is The Dark Defiles. Still, it's likely a case of too little, too late. And since it suffers from pretty much the same shortcomings as the second volume, The Dark Defiles simply cannot save the day by elevating this series to another level. Expectations were certainly too high to begin with, but by focusing on shock value Richard Morgan failed to imbue this fantasy trilogy with most of what makes his science fiction works such remarkable reads.
If you like your fantasy dark and gritty, chances are that you might enjoy Morgan's A Land Fit for Heroes. And now that you can read all three volumes back-to-back, I figure readers might pick up a lot of the nuances that SFF fans who were forced to wait years between installments probably missed. It might not be as special and groundbreaking as publishers initially made it out to be, but fans of Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, and George R. R. Martin may find a lot to like about this series.