This volume is a cognac of Lovecraftian wine, left on the distillery a bit too long. It's got reptile creatures, enigmatic aliens, ruined cities, backwoods inbreeding, crazed beings from a parallel dreamworld, grotesque horrors, elder deities walking the ground and offering deals, terrible crimes long ago committed, hints of conspiracies of world historical intent, things arising mysteriously from the sea, even severed human heads somehow still alive. That's more or less the whole of Lovecraft, originally presented as separate pieces, but here consolidated--what's boiled away is the style, tone, voice, diction that make Lovecraft what he is. Not one of the grotesque horrors, for instance, is described as eldritch
. The narrators are not academics who lose their minds in seeing a glimpse of something ancient and awful.
None of that makes this a bad book, which has plenty of gore and politics and sex and religion to qualify as a serious writing for adults. There are, however, some defects.
The setting is difficult to pin down. Perhaps I am truly brainwashed by maps in speculative fiction, but I was unable to sort out the geography. I got the impression, though, that, like Abercrombie, there's land and ocean, with the land divided between an empire, a confederacy of sorts, and an area inhabited by nomadic pastoralists. Unlike in Abercrombie, I didn't catch any detailed cartographic discussions.
It does, also, have some problem with point of view discipline. We begin with a seeming protagonist in each of the geographic zones aforesaid, all of whom know each other from a prior war against the reptile creatures. The narration for these three is generally over-the-shoulder third person, except, on occasion, the story breaks away from this regimen. The nomad pastoralist's story, for instance, is on occasion taken up by his micro-antagonist, a nomadic pastoralist shaman. That's kind of a mess. Then, at other points, the narration slips into a more omniscient third person, for reasons that I missed. I consider this kind of narrator proliferation to be a breach of writerly etiquette or authorial cheating or whatever, kind of like in A Feast For Crows
, which is perhaps the archetype of this type of writer default.
I may have been a bit annoyed at times with the dialogue, wherein most characters used the same series of vulgarities. I was certainly annoyed by the more or less standard narrative device of representing the ruling class, a complaint that I've made about a number of novels in fantasy fiction. But what is to be done? That's the hand that fantasy literature is holding now, I suppose.
Every once in a while, this volume read like Bakker Lite. We get some interestng information on religious dispute and theological discussion, but it's quick, just enough to be suggestive, but not sufficient to explain. Similarly, there is some history in this setting, but it's not thickly developed. Some of the same concerns about ideology and class power are here, also, though the protagonists are not intellectuals or academics, so their critique of ideology is limited to "people are stupid," which sounds a bit more Goodkind than Bakker. (One character is an aspiring writer, but his manuscript on military doctrine was declined by the publisher, sadly.) The aliens here are not really the Inchoroi, and the cabal is not really the Consult--but the intertextuality is manifest.
Some have otherwise complained that the representation of homosexuality is patronising or injurious, but I don't know enough about homosexuality to track that complaint. From what I can see, the novel is a serious effort to represent homosexual protagonists who operate in a setting that oppresses homosexuality. I consider that effort to be meritorious, even if there are legitimate objections to the representation from those who join the text in supporting the rights of homosexuals.
Those are all minor quibbles. What's less trifling is that the nomadic pastoralist character is a bit thin, compared to other such guys in recent writings (Logen, Drogo, Cnaiur). He's into sex with teens and killing things, and is proficient at both. His interaction with the novel's macronarrative needs a deus ex machina
to commence, which is a sort of inversion, I reckon, of normal narrative progression, unless we consider the standard biblical hailing of the hero by the deity (e.g., Jonah, Jeremiah, Moses, Noah, Abraham, &c.) to be the actual rule in fantasy writing, from which 20th century items have deviated. That said, I don't much care for deities interacting with people as a means of narrative development. Deities as characters is jumping the shark ab initio
The other two main protagonists are a bit more interesting, and their micro-narratives move more effectively--each is involved in a detective story: one on a missing person search, the other on a major crime scene. Both investigations carry them to the same far off locale for the denouement, along with our nomadic pastoralist. A bit pat, sure, but, hell, it's fantasy, and we usually need to assemble a seven samurai.
Not sure what to do with the title. Is it a noun phrase, or a complete sentence? If the former, I'm not making much sense of it. If it's a sentence, then it fits nicely with a statement by the setting's emperor, that "we are no longer at war." But yet: "the steel remains." The three principal protagonists are veterans of the setting's pseudo-Thermopylae, wherein the battle ended in favor of the army trying to hold the mountain pass. This is a fairly amazing feat, and the novel is maybe oversubtle in conveying this, as no less than Herr Delbruck, in Warfare in Antiquity
, informs us that it is generally impossible to hold mountain passes sufficiently long or well to obtain a strategic victory. The battle that the novel recalls is therefore a Big Deal; the contrast with how its victorious veterans have been received afterward could not be more stark.
We have, then, the setting's Leonidas and other principal survivors of a horrible battle against lovecraftian reptile things who incidentally eat human children. They've won the war, and now have a hard time coping with the peace. Each of the three main protagonists resorts very quickly to lethal solutions in dealing with problems that might've been finessed. The war is over, and yet the steel remains. The novel is certainly more than suggestive that the three veterans have lost their minds during the war, each becoming involved with narcotics culture. Our Leonidas often indulges in quirky internal dialogues--crazed? Maybe so. Because of the war, because of internalizing his culture's homophobia, because of rejection by his own parents? No idea--but it's certainly complicated enough to be worthy of our attention. I'm likewise not sure if this is intended to be an appraisal of the psychological effects of warfare on soldiers (there are certainly sympathic depictions of disabled veterans otherwise), and, if so, is it, like the representation of homosexuality, considered patronizing by some? As I am not a soldier, again, no idea.
The last defect, not really a spoiler, since it's in the marketing copy on the jacket, involves a prophecy on the rising of a "dark lord." That's all very annoying, and this volume could've done without it. The denouement implies who the dark lord might be, and that points forward for the series. Perhaps the following novels will focus and develop further the useful concepts in this one.
Recommended for readers afflicted by corpsemites, people who make planetary rings into religion, and fans of consensual supernatural sex scenes.