|Richard K. Morgan pulls out all the stops for the finale of his “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy, bringing the story to a grand closing.
The British author, best known for his cyberpunk Takeshi Kovacs novels (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies), turned his eye towards the fantasy genre in 2009 with the acclaimed The Steel Remains. The dark epic introduced a trio of antiheroes Ringil Eshkiath, the gay scion of a prominent Northern family; Egar the Dragonbane, the restless warlord of a nomadic tribe; and Archeth Indamaninarmal, immortal, drug-addicted, half-human and the last surviving daughter of an immortal race of black-skinned aliens, the Kiriath. The three were heroes of the War against the Scaled Folk, a decade before the trilogy, but have since seen their service disrespected and the people they protected falling into corruption and complacency.
A word for the squeamish. The series is textbook Grimdark, with the trio wading through rivers of blood and gore as they battle the inhuman dwenda, a demonic race that ruled the world before the coming of the Kiriath. It is also filled with graphic sex, both gay and straight.
The Dark Defiles brings the series to a (mostly) conclusive ending, as the final pieces in the grand war against the dwenda are moved into place. The story, told in alternating POVs from the trio of heroes, picks up shortly after the ending of the previous entry, The Cold Commands. The three are on a quest to find the grave of a legendary enemy of humanity, the Illwrack Changeling, an immortal human who will stand with the dwenda. Archeth is also searching for a mysterious Kiriath city that could hold the key to her people’s abandonment of the world.
The heroes quickly separate, however, and the action jumps from location to location, as Archeth and Egar survive a shipwreck and set out across the barren Northern wastes to return to the Southern Empire. Meanwhile, Ringil is captured by agents of the Empire’s enemies and transported to his hometown of Trelayne, a sacrifice to the dwenda who have taken control of the city. There are also several scenes where Ringil spiritually travels to the Grey Places, learning powerful magic from the mysterious Dispossessed Prince to defeat the dwenda.
One problem I had with the previous entries in the trilogy was Morgan’s slow-paced story development. Much of the previous two books was laying groundwork for the finale, and The Cold Commands especially felt like little more than a prelude to The Dark Defiles.
This novel, however, was fast paced and filled with action the previous books kept me enthralled with their character and world-building; The Dark Defiles didn’t need as much of that, concentrating on movement and action. There are several grand battle scenes, so much that it was almost distracting to switch POVs at a crucial climax.
Morgan also widens the scope of his epic, the battle grows from struggles between the Empire, the Trading Guild and the Church into a spiritual struggle between magic and science, with humanity (and especially Ringil) acting as pawns for the Gods and demons.
My biggest complaint about the series remains, however, the language. F-bombs, c-bombs, gay slurs are liberally littered throughout. But it’s not the obscenities that bother me, it is the tone of the language. The characters all talk like Vinnie Jones in a Guy Ritchie film. Maybe it’s the overt Englishness that bothered me, but it felt overdone for a fantasy novel.
I applaud Morgan for his frank handling of homosexuality, however. I have not read another fantasy series that featured two prominent gay characters in its lead (Archeth is also a lesbian, although this is less of a plot point than Ringil’s sexuality). Honestly I haven’t read any fantasy novels that featured a gay protagonist. Morgan doesn’t flinch from Ringil’s actions, or from the homophobia that turned him into a nihilist killer. He also doesn’t flinch from portraying the thinly veiled prejudice of Ringil’s friends and allies.
Ultimately, I believe Morgan’s goal behind the “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy was to subvert the traditional fantasy tropes. And I think he succeeded. The protagonists aren’t driven by lofty goals, more by a sense of revenge and because they don’t know how to do anything else. They don’t speak like nobility, but like underworld thugs. And they are deeply, deeply flawed. Even Ringil’s sexuality is a subversion of the heroic ideal. And by the end there is heroism and glory, but is there truly victory?
I’m not so sure. ~~ Michael Senft