This is not a book for everyone. I guess you either love it or hate it, no in between. Graphic violence, graphic sex, a shedload of seriously weird beasties and enough swearing to last the average squaddie or indie-band-with-attitude for a couple of lifetimes. Anyone sensitive to the f-word should move swiftly on. But, for a gritty realism fantasy, it has a charm all its own. The main character, Ringil, is a pugnacious, arrogant, in-yer-face type of bloke, a world-weary ex-warrior who prefers to settle any kind of dispute with a barrage of expletive-laden abuse, followed in short order by some good, solid killing. Not a guy to mess with, then, but quite fun to see in action.
He also happens to be gay. Now, this is a nice take on the fantasy warrior stereotype, and, were this simply a subtle character motif, would merit no more than an approving footnote. World-saving hero is gay - hoorah! But Morgan doesn't do subtle. Ringil is just as pugnacious, arrogant and in-yer-face about his sexual preferences as everything else, and since homosexuality is illegal in this particular world, this creates problems as he punches his way through all levels of society. Fortunately, his family is both rich and powerful, which allows him to escape any kind of retribution for his actions. It's a pity, however, that his aggressive gayness is almost the only source of dramatic tension in his thread in the early part of the book, so that somehow everything that happens to him turns out to be about him being gay. It's pointed out explicitly on page 1, and in case we miss that, there are repeated comments about queers and faggots. When he meets the local inquisitor, his venom is not just because he's a snotty little lowlife upstart, but that the man once had a lover of Ringil's executed, horribly and painfully. When he rescues a former soldier from trouble, it turns out the trouble arose from beating up gays. Oh the irony . So what might have been simply a fantasy novel which just happens to have a gay protagonist, turns out to be a novel about a gay bloke which just happens to be fantasy.
Even this, in itself, would not be so bad, if the created world were not so disappointingly unoriginal. The author can be endlessly creative when it comes to races and bizarre lifeforms and gruesome methods of execution, but the rest of it... Blokes pack into the local tavern for alcohol, whores and a jolly good fight. The church is an evil, repressive force. The emperor is dissolute and has the inevitable harem. Local officialdom is corrupt. Slavery (particularly sex slavery) is legal. Women are domestic drudges, whores or mothers, while men (particularly rich men) run everything. This is both a grotesque caricature of the semi-recent past, and also a very common portrayal of a fantasy world, to the extent that it's almost a cliche.
The treatment of women in this book makes me very uneasy. It is commonplace in fantasy with a pseudo-medieval background to portray society as an entrenched patriarchal one, where women have no role beyond those defined by men - daughter, wife or mother (of a man), sexual plaything (of a man), low-level servant (of a man). This is something of a distortion of the true medieval situation, where women, while not enjoying equality, nevertheless had many rights and some independence (which varied according to time and place and her exact position in society, but was never, ever as bad as portrayed here). Very often the fantasy version is also pretty grim for men, but they still have far greater powers than women do, and some freedom of movement, choice of employment and so on.
In this book virtually all the women depicted are whores or sex-slaves (compulsory unpaid whores) or promiscuous (voluntary unpaid whores). Even characters who might be expected to be gender neutral (innkeepers or house servants, for example) are male. There are two exceptions. One is Ringil's mother, who was married at the age of thirteen to a man she dislikes (also a kind of sex-slave, actually). The other is Archeth, who is an advisor to the emperor (and is therefore at the disposal of a man). Other women mentioned in passing (like the wife of Egar's brother) are spoken of disparagingly, or, like Erith, are barking. Even the female dwenda is bitchy. Why would an author do this? When you can create any kind of world your imagination can dream up, why confine yourself to this already over-worked vision? Low-technology doesn't necessarily equate with the worst kind of patriarchal society, and even if an author wishes to explore the dark side of humanity, it's surely possible to invest the background with some original twists, and populate it with ordinary people (male and female) just getting on with life.
But having said all that, the book is actually an exciting, pacy read. Apart from Ringil, the other two main characters are both ex-war comrades. Egar is head of his clan of herdsmen, but finding himself increasingly uncomfortable in the role. Archeth, as mentioned, is an engineer in the service of the emperor. Their plot threads are less dramatic than Ringil's, but still interesting, partly because they illuminate different corners of the created world and its history, and here the author has done a better job than with the social structures. The places all feel very believable (and I like that there's no moon, just a band of something-or-other draped across the sky), and there's a nicely-worked out history, with pieces cleverly dropped here and there. There is a real feeling of depth to the various races, in particular - the recently-departed and technologically superior Kiriath, the semi-legendary and feared dwenda, the defeated lizards, the gods/demons. And there are dragons, ape-like creatures, some strange beasties that prey on corpses... And while the imperial religion, with its Revelation (which allows a man six wives!), is a standard issue repressive hierarchical organised religion, elsewhere the herdsman clans each have their shaman, there are sorcerous rituals going on in far-flung corners, and a general feeling of intriguing complexity. Whether there is any actual magic going on (as opposed to manipulation of natural forces) is not clear.
None of the characters is particularly believable, they're all simply too over the top for that, but Ringil in particular is great fun, especially while in rampaging warrior mode. Egar is fairly superfluous, his sole purpose, apparently, is to play axe-wielding support to Ringil in the big battle (which he does rather well). As for Archeth, being a badass with knives and having a liking for weed is not enough to create a fully rounded character. I found her situation completely unbelievable. In a world entirely dominated by men of power (whether military or financial or religious), where women have (apparently) no role beyond the subservient, Archeth manages to be the only exception. She has no army behind her, no organisation, no money, no unique skills and, it seems, no friends, yet she is treated with a respect bordering on reverence. She is entirely at the mercy of the emperor, yet he protects her because he promised his father he would? Really? I hope the subsequent books in the series will provide something a little less flimsy than that.
The plot is pretty thin and at times some of the devices required to get the characters into position for the big battle sail dangerously close to (literal) deus ex machina. However, it might be that the gods/demons really are integral to the story rather than a plot device, so I'll reserve judgment on that. The writing style is very Ringil-esque (if I can put it that way) - sharp, aggressive, colourful, vividly over the top, sometimes. Occasionally a metaphor falls flat on its face, but mostly it works. The fight scenes are terrific, especially the final confrontation, which pulses with energy. The sex scenes are fine too, although there's one in particular which felt rather like porn, and I did briefly wonder at one point if I'd drifted into a paranormal romance by mistake. The otherworldly sequences are brilliantly done. It's very difficult to do this kind of not-quite-reality well, but to my mind this was quite the best part of the book. There's an overpowering sense of loss - of innocence, of simplicity, of clarity of purpose, of lives and loves and friends and youth.
This is one of those books that, while recognising some flaws, I nevertheless enjoyed immensely. It had passion and depth and thought-provoking undertones, and some nice sci-fi-ish nuances. Morgan's writing is flamboyantly self-confident, in a show-offy kind of way, although I don't think it's quite as clever or original as it likes to think. There's plenty of humour, too, which is always a plus. Being the first part of a trilogy, there's scope for the author to develop his themes, round off his characters and fill in the gaps in the background with (hopefully) some more realistic female roles. And Ringil's gayness works, too, and brings an unexpected resonance to his interactions with the dwenda; I don't think that part of the book would have worked nearly as well as it does with a heterosexual main character. Four stars.