I reviewed this ages ago, but have just gotten around to re-posting.
If what you feel has been missing from your average Tolkien-clone is hot, gay sex, then this is the book for you.
No, j/k, I’m being immature, and I’ve never been one to let a one-liner lie. What I have been missing from your average Tolkien-clone is hot, gay sex. While I love Tolkien, his far-reaching over-shadowing influence on later fantasists results in an awful lot of heraldic bullshit and courtly fol-de-rol, with wide-eyed teenage boys who are Ken-like from the waist down pining for perfect gfs and bloodlessly questing for the Sparkly McGuffin. Oh, the Sparkly McGuffin! Forged in the fires of Mount Plot by the Great Evil Tautology!
Richard K. Morgan strides in with his great swinging dick – I mean dirk – and knocks all this stuff over. Smash! Smash! Wheee! This sounds like it could be a lot of fun – and there certainly is fun to be had – but as Morgan’s first foray into fantasy, he seems to fall into some common fantasy traps. The world building is painfully slow, clearly designed to be nuanced enough to cover another couple of books, but I wonder how much of this could have been contracted or excised completely. (I can’t believe I’m bitching about nuance.) The names are all annoyingly polysyllabic and oddly similar, meaning lazy readers such as myself are often confused and lost. I get why people in fantasy can’t be named “Steve” and “Bob,” but the names seemed tin-earish. (Also, why does everything have to start with a G or a K? What is it about these letters that says “sword and sorcery” to English speakers? C’mon, linguists, I need to know.)
At about halfway, I was ready to give up, so I came on bookface and got a little pep-talk from Mike’s review — unfortunately no longer extant — which reminded me why I tend to dig Morgan’s stuff: the snarling misanthropy, the unbelievably brutal violence that is neither precious nor glorified, the biting political invective. The later half of the book rapidly picks up steam; the almost tedious details of the earlier half of the novel coalescing into textured history – and one that doesn’t feel the need to name every damn rock and twig in remembrance of some heroic act a millennium ago, but one that has a dirty, lived-in feel. All the f-bombs, drug use, whores – and believe me, I’m sick to death of authors using whores to make their fantasy worlds seem “real” – mesh convincingly into a world that values character over genre conventions. I actually lol’d when, late in the novel, one of the principles meets with what is functionally an elf princess, the sister of his new lover, and they have one of those standard heraldic-I-can’t-really-speak-your-language meet-cutes full of ye gads forthwith forsooths, at the end of which she says, “Fuck with my brother, and I’ll kill you” in roughly that phrasing. Ha! Good times.
And did I mention the gay sex? Mostly, I think sex scenes in non-romance novels fail because they do not do work to push the narrative along. (Romance novels tend to understand the importance of the physical mirroring the emotional.) Like Morgan’s fight scenes, the sex is embodied and explicit, and discomforting to read. The protagonist’s homosexuality isn’t something pasted on, theoretical, but a fledged desire. Morgan’s got himself some running themes about how the powers that be build an artifice of morality that they hide behind, using your “sins” – the ones they created for you – as a lever to make you perpetrate real crimes, institutional crimes like war, the kind of crimes you never really come back from. There’s a running gag where characters ask one another “Have you ever killed a child?” Invariably, the answer was, “I was in the war, wasn’t I?” It would almost be funny, if it weren’t so damn sad, that a lot of reviews I’ve read (here and elsewhere) spill more ink about the man-on-man-elf action than they do about the explicit horror of the violence – the thing with the heads in the third act I’m not going to be able to scrub out for a while – and I think this is Morgan’s point. An institutional morality that justifies war while squealing like a bunch of faux-prissy voyeurs over a private, consensual act creates institutions, and moralities, that I find distasteful, to say the least.
Burn it, burn it all, might be Morgan’s take-home message, one that I’m not comfortable with either, but one for which I have no easy retort. Morgan explicitly takes on the “consider the children” argument and tears it to shreds. I’ve often joked about finding nihilism sexy, but it’s mostly because I’m afraid of it, and desire and danger like to hold hands and skip together. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading this trilogy – and Morgan earns my respect for tying this one off in a way that I could end it here – but in writing my review, I’ve talked myself into it. The dark lord is rising. Let’s see what he does next.