Book Review: The Dark Defiles – Richard K. Morgan

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The Dark Defiles is the third and final book in Richard K Morgan’s ‘A Land Fit for Heroes’ series, and it is an incredibly detailed, startlingly evocative, and wonderfully atmospheric fantasy novel gifted with an intriguing plot, extremely vibrant, well-written characters, and a premise fit for a King.

(Or a Queen.)

The Dark Defiles shrugs away every single trope that might be overly-optimistically applied to it, and utterly defied my expectations. It is unapologetically dark, inducing an admirable sense not only of intrigue, and despair at what might befall our plucky heroes, should the bad guys prevail, but also of sincere and worrying jeopardy, and the very real presence of the kind of consequences that the characters would surely struggle to come back from, if they even managed it at all.

(In short: this novel deserves a round of applause, and I’m leading the wave.)

The premise is simple. Powerful forces are gathering, poised to attack, and our ragtag band of heroes, anti-heroes, and those that loiter somewhere in the middle of the two groups move to defend against them, making a feverish, last-ditch attempt to save the world they know and understand, if not love. This is by all accounts standard fantasy novel fare, but Morgan’s execution is flawless, ultimately producing a profoundly original take on a familiar structure.

Ringil, the protagonist of the series, returns in The Dark Defiles, to grow, develop, and, of course, suffer, as the lengthy narrative draws neatly to a close. His path might be determined by the heavy weight of prophecy, but he refuses to yield, stubbornly clawing out a fate for himself. His story is then certainly not a happy one, in perfect keeping with the aforementioned delightfully dark atmosphere, but although he subsequently fits neatly into the ‘bloody tragic backstory’ trope that has become a staple of fantasy novels – not to name names, but I’m glancing in your direction, Robin Hobb – he is not defined by what he has suffered, or what he has yet to suffer, but by what he has achieved, instead, and how he has grown and changed as a result of it. Despite the constant sense of impending doom (and gloom), Ringil is written with arguably a palpable sense of power and potential, and, at least initially, of a destiny as yet unwritten.

Ringil is extremely well characterised (this is not flattery, I promise, but the truth as I see it), as is every other character. The Dark Defiles has interesting character arcs in abundance, in a kind of equal measures arrangement seemingly intended to prevent anyone and everyone from stumbling across even the slightest hint of a remotely cheerful ending. It’s decidedly satisfying, in the sense that it adheres not only to the stipulated dark and vicious atmosphere and general style, but also to some standard of realism, as Morgan’s depicted universe doesn’t seem the kind to subscribe to happy endings and friendly woodland characters, and as such including them wouldn’t mesh.

(Sorry, Disney.)

Additionally, Morgan touches upon many disparate (and interesting) themes throughout the course of his series, from concepts such as honour and loyalty, to considerations of friendship and family, and, especially in The Dark Defiles, discrimination and prejudice. He ticks many, many lovely boxes when it comes to representation, as several of his main characters, both male and female, admit to preferences that are not widely shared in their respective societies, and do openly suffer for their choices – this is no enlightened world of acceptance – but the bulk of their character development comes from other reasons and other choices, and as such they are neither defined nor eclipsed by their sexualities.

To take a slightly different perspective, although The Dark Defiles is the startling conclusion to an established series, it can easily be read and enjoyed by anyone unfamiliar with the context provided by the other two novels. Naturally, reading the first two will inform one’s reading of the third, and provide the enterprising consumer with a wealth of background knowledge that the newcomer will lack, but it can be enjoyed equally well in isolation.

(Which was, incidentally, how I enjoyed it, as I was late to the party yet again.)

In keeping with my general attempt at flattery, this is, again, a clear indicator of Morgan’s genius. His efforts at world building are exceptional, and his novels immerse the reader in entirety into his depicted setting. From small-town prejudices to farming practices, no stone is left unturned, no detail left to fall helplessly by the wayside, and the result is an incredibly detailed setting that is vivid enough that it practically springs off the page. Morgan’s mastery of intense imagery is particularly noticeable here, presenting a picture into which his equally vivid characters fit with consummate ease.

The plot is admirable for similar reasons, with arguably breathtaking scope, bringing together the numerous disparate threads from across the series into an understandable, cohesive whole. No character arc is left incomplete, no storyline unfinished and abandoned, and the conclusion is undoubtedly climatic, brimming with drama.

Morgan keeps the reader guessing until the very last page, and he doesn’t pull his punches.

Finally, then, I think it is at least approaching safe to say that I enjoyed The Dark Defiles. I expected to, of course, because not only am I extremely clever, it also sits squarely into one of my favourite genres, and as such is in possession of many of the attributes that I find to be particularly enjoyable in the books I read. On the other hand, however, I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did, as despite a fundamentally intriguing premise and a decidedly persuasive blurb, I was concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my soaring expectations.

Needless to say, The Dark Defiles didn’t just live up to them, it exceeded them in entirety, blasting straight past (to infinity and beyond). I could not fail to give it five stars, and would not hesitate in picking up anything by Morgan in the future. This is an exceptional novel from a profoundly accomplished author whose contributions to the genre, and to fiction in general, just keep giving.