Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Gollancz (7 Aug 2008)
Morgan has best been known up till now for his ultra-violent SF. As a writer, he writes with an unusual intensity that not only includes explicit sex and violence, but that also brings a world sharper into focus than most manage in twice the length. In this, which is to the best of my knowledge his first work that could be classed as fantasy, the very first page is enough to let you know where one character, Ringil, is at.
Indeed, I'd recommend that first page as an object lesson in how to introduce a character, and a world.
This is an odd form of high fantasy. In the back-story is the battle of Gallows Gap, wherein the human world (and some not-quite-human allies) avoided being overrun by the Lizard Men. But it's now years later, and the heroes of that battle are dispersed, and their moral credit has just about expired. But the three main characters - former city-dweller Ringil, plains barbarian Egar Dragonbane, and the half-human Archeth turn out to have one more task to complete. It seems a new threat, the mysterious and invincible Dwenda, has appeared, and the Gods are now moving their former pieces into place to try to defeat them.
Well, that's pretty solid fantasy, perhaps David Gemmell, and a lot of this is reminiscent of Gemmell. But how fantasy it is is another matter. The Dwenda, when encountered, are initially unstoppable. They're like Elves - but the dark tradition of Elves (or perhaps how Tolkien's Orcs would have seen them) makes them terrifying creatures. However, you get the impression that much of the apparent way that things work could be explicable, and that Morgan just doesn't explain them, rather than them actually being magic. Certainly, some elements are science-fictional, and most of the fantasy feel is due to the overall lack of technology (excepting the unexplained fire ships and the like) rather than the presence of magic. Even the dragon is years in the past, so we don't know what it might have been.
This, with a decadent emperor who isn't incompetent (though Archeth really dislikes him anyway - and he's distinctly dangerous), brings a different feel to things. With the sex scenes being (so far as I noticed) almost entirely male-male gay ones, and a brutal hardness to the plot (the faded veteran will fail and die), this is not your usual Extruded Fantasy Product. The story twists and writhes, and if there are any plot coupons, the protagonists do a lousy job of tracking them down. At times, it feels like there's a trilogy trapped in here, trying to get out. Recommended, if you're not squeamish.