Beginning with his 2003 novel, Altered Carbon, Richard K. Morgan began a stellar career with compelling novels set in a noir far-future featuring a gritty private eye named Tadeshi Kovacs. Now Morgan has taken a change of direction with The Steel Remains (Del Rey, $26), the first in a new trilogy of fantasy novels.
But does the world really need another fantasy trilogy? Surprisingly, the answer may be that yes, indeed, we do.
On the surface, The Steel Remains is typical testosterone-saturated heroic quest fantasy, Conan with more sex. Ringil Eskiath is a hardened and cynical sword-wielding veteran of a war against invading reptilians, estranged from his aristocratic family, the despotic empire he helped to defend, and the corrupt society that considers his homosexuality aberrant. Egar Dragonbane, a nomad tribal leader on the barren steppe, is also a war veteran, and if anything more fierce a fighter than Ringil. Archeth is a knife-wielding female member of an advanced dark race who helped humans win the lizards war. They left her behind when they returned to their own world, and she is now a special advisor to the emperor. Ringil's quest is to recover, at his mother's behest, a female cousin sold into slavery, but while doing so he uncovers a threat to the empire that may be even greater than that he fought in the war.
But it becomes clear as you read this novel that this is not really another mindless, generic medieval fantasy. There are numerous signs that this world of barbarians and magic is actually a far-far-future Earth with a degenerated human empire beset by interplanetary and interdimensional beings who utilize extremely advanced science and technology. Not sword and sorcery, but rather sword and technology so advanced it's indistinguishable from magic. Maybe we should call this subgenre hard science fantasy.
In his acknowledgments, Morgan cites Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner and Poul Anderson as influences for this novel. George R.R. Martin's compellingly real fantasy novels are probably also an influence. Possibly Samuel R. Delany's gay heroic fantasy novels as well. But for me the best example of this subgenre can be found in the work of Gene Wolfe, beginning with his Book of the New Sun novels, fantasy novels set in a remote but very imaginable future that have the gritty realism of the best science fiction.
Richard K. Morgan is clearly mining Wolfe territory, and that is fine territory indeed. The Steel Remains is a novel that both SF and fantasy readers should find compelling.