Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Review: The Dark Defiles

The Dark Defiles is the final book of Richard Morgan's fantasy trilogy that started with The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands.

I'm a huge fan of Richard Morgan, but the problem with his approach to fantasy is to take all the complexity of modern fantasy and dial it up to 10. The result is a mix of races (dwenda, aldrain, kilrathi), fantasy (magic, dark magic, and super science) and situations that would take a very long novel to explicate.

Well, The Dark Defiles is a very long novel, but I'm not sure it fully succeeds in the explication. It's also only somewhat satisfying. The three main characters, Ringil Eskiath (the gay Barbarian swordsman), Egar Dragonbane, and Archeth (the last half-breed Kilrathi left on the planet) are split right at the start of the novel, and become only two by the end of the story.

As the story proceeds, it becomes more and more clear that the story is a far future science fiction novel, rather than a standard fantasy. This is all very nice, though it's been done before, it's usually done in some long drawn out series because most such authors seem to think it's a cool trick that should be drawn out. Morgan has no such compunctions and has no issues doing one big reveal after another.

Nevertheless, the book is deeply flawed. While the previous novels in the series do a good job of upending standard fantasy tropes, The Dark Defiles spends a bit too much time wallowing in its own meta-fiction, therefore eliminating any chance that you care about the characters. In particular, Archeth seems particularly dense for being an immortal being whose the last daughter of a race of super-engineers.

Furthermore, even the meta-fiction leaves too many questions unanswered. For instance, if the world was so broken when the Kilrathi arrived, why did they bother fighting for it? And the questions of where the random other deities that popped out remains unanswered. Even the fates of our protagonists is annoyingly left untied.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that the book isn't worth reading. The action sequences are done in ways that only Richard Morgan can. You'd be hard put to come up with a better effects budget than what occurs in the mind's eye, and Morgan shows how to do it. Each individual section of the book is comparatively well written, it's just that the whole doesn't quite come together properly and the result is unsatisfying.

Ultimately, the mystery of why this book took so long to come out, and why it was comparatively disappointing is solved when you read the afterword: the author had a son during the writing. That explains everything. Nobody can be coherent after one of those events, and it explains why the novel is so chaotic and unpolished.

If you're a fan of the fantasy genre, this book's definitely worth reading because it does a good job of being very different from what anyone else has done in the genre. If you're a fan of Richard Morgan, however, be prepared to be very disappointed. It's more ambitious than Altered Carbon, but fails far short of those ambitions and hence is probably the second weakest book in his portfolio.
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