Sunday, December 05, 2010

What Works: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

This edition of What Works focuses on one of the most rip-snorting, unrestrained and wonderful fantasy novels I've read, The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan.

This book doesn't hold anything back, and for that reason I'd only recommend it to people who know they can handle foul language, graphic violence and graphic sex. That said, hoo boy do I recommend it! The novel is brilliant and shocking, with wonderful characters, great writing, and a hugely imaginative, quasi-science fiction take on the idea of elves.

Ahem. Enough fan-girling. Here's an excerpt, and please note there is some very rude language here.
The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

And from within the closed iron cylinder, more precisely from the mouth of one downthrown open hatch in a row of five that were set into the underside of the hull, came the furious, repeated clang of metal pounding on metal. The sound, it seemed, of something trying to escape.

Glances went back and forth, hands dropped to the hilts of well-worn weapons. The Emperor's messengers drew closer at a pace that declined with every step they took into the shadow of the fireship's propped bulk. Finally, they piled to a halt just inside the circumference of the dry-dock framework that supported the vessel, and a good dozen paces back from the hatch, all of them careful not to step on any of the drooping feelers that trailed from the hull and lay flopped in the shipyard dust like so many discarded carriage whips. No telling when something like that, no matter the intervening years of disuse, might twist and snap to sudden murderous life, coil about an unwary limb and jerk its owner off his feet and screaming into the air, to be lashed back and forth or slammed to a pulp against the grimy iron flank of the ship.

"Syphilitic son of an uncleased, camel fucking CUNT!"

A massive metallic crash fringed the final word, but could not drown it out. The messengers flinched. In places, blades came a few inches clear of their sheaths. Hard on the echoes of the impact, before anyone could move, the voice started up again, no cleaner of expression, no less rabidly furious, no less punctuated by the clangour of whatever arcane conflict was raging in the confines of the hull. The messengers stood frozen, faces sweat-beaded from the fierce heat of a near-noon sun, while recollected witch rumours crept coldly up and down their bones.

"Is it an exorcism?"

"It's krinzanz," reckoned a more pragmatic member of the party. "She's off her fucking head."

Another of the messengers cleared his throat.

"Ah, Mistress Archeth..."

"...motherfucking close-mouth me, will you, you fucking..."

"Mistress Archeth!" The Reachman went up to a full-scale shout. "The Emperor wills your presence!"

The cursing stopped abruptly. The metallic cacophony died. For a long moment, the open hatch yawned and oozed a silence no less unnerving than the noise that had gone before. Then, Archeth's voice emerged, a little hoarse.

"Who's that?"

"From the palace. The Emperor summons you."

Indistinct muttering. A clank, as the engineer's hammer was apparently dropped, and then an impatient scrambling sound. Moments later, Archeth's ebony head emerged upside down from the hatch, thickly braided hair in stiff disarray around her features. She grinned down at the messengers, a little too widely.

"All right," she said. "I've done enough reading for one day."
There are a bunch of things that work really well in this excerpt, so I'll outline the ones that stick out to me.

001) The group of messengers are treated as a composite entity, not individuals. Their emotions and actions are described homogeneously.

This is useful because one of the things novels don't do well is deal with complex scenes featuring lots of characters. When there are too many elements in a scene, the reader can't keep the positions, names and conversations straight in their head.

If you must portray a scene with many people in it, either you need to focus in on one small piece of the scene at a time, or work very hard to keep the reader clear on what is going on, or you need to do what Mr. Morgan does and simplify things.

Describing a group of people as if they're a single entity accomplishes this. None of the messengers are given names and they're either described as a homogeneous group or treated as interchangeable. Anything else would be confusing to the reader.

010) Almost every action and emotion is shown, not told.

The messengers bunch together and slow their pace; they touch their weapons; they sweat. Fantasies about murderous ship-tentacles and witch powers pass through their (collective) mind.

But the author doesn't say these men are frightened. That's implied.

Likewise, Archeth's rage, and then her silence and subsequent movement to the fireship's hatch, are only described. The author keeps us firmly inside the head of the group entity that is the messengers. The scene's action is something the reader has to work out from pure description.

The reader can also work out that Archeth is black (in a book that has thus far only featured white characters) without the author needing to say so explicitly. Archeth will prove to be a starkly unique person in The Steel Remains--literally half-alien--and this is a natural way to introduce one of her most obvious differences.

011) The character of Archeth is set up in a memorable way, and in a way that will likely make at least some readers empathize with and like her.

She's an engineer, but when we meet her, she's beating a machine with a hammer and swearing viciously at it. This is a moment most of us can empathize with.

When she then gets surprised by the Emperor's representatives, she is probably embarrassed, but she recovers quickly, offers zero apologies and even makes a joke of it. In other words, she's a confident and bold person, although possibly a little gonzo. This makes her quite likable.

In Summary: What works best about this excerpt is the author makes some very smart choices and shows a firm grasp of his craft. He simplifies the thing that would be most confusing (the individual identities of the group of messengers), skillfully shows (rather than tells) the reader what the characters are doing and feeling, and establishes his major character in an engaging and memorable manner.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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