Fantasy Noir – a genre for the new millennium?
It’s traditional to begin the New Year with a retrospective post about the previous one, but I thought – why stop there? Why not look back on the whole decade? So, here are my thoughts on what I see as the big fantasy trend of the new millennium.
Over the past ten years, a new sub-genre of fantasy has been gaining ground. Fantasy noir has been aptly described by SF&F website io9 as “magical cities in decay”, a phrase that sums up the combination of urban grime and sleazy glamour perfectly. From Scott Lynch’s Venice-alike Camorre, with its ancient, alien glass bridges over stinking, all-too-mundane canals, to an Elizabethan London haunted by implacable mind-raping fae in Mark Chadbourn’s new series The Swords of Albion, fantasy noir has brought a realistic and deliciously nasty flavour to a genre many outsiders see as a realm of idealised escapism.
Maybe it’s not an entirely new sub-genre – there were fantasy novels set in run-down imaginary cities before now (e.g. the sublime In Viriconium by M John Harrison) but, I think, never so many of them as in the noughties. So what is it that has made noir so popular with editors and readers alike?
One possibility is that modern readers just don’t click with the rural landscapes that dominate much of fantasy. We live in an increasingly technological world, and whilst some may long for the good old days of villages dotted across a wilderness, others may simply find such worlds irrelevant or even “sappy”. Also, describing a wild landscape well takes a lot of writing skill and more importantly, familiarity with the subject. As writers we are always being told “write about what you know” – and what most people know is cities.
Or perhaps it’s simply that, more than half a century after Tolkien, we have just had enough of mountains, forests and castles, of quests, noble knights and dark lords. Yes, there are readers aplenty who still flock to epic fantasy, as the continued success of Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson and George R R Martin prove. But for the rest of us, we seek new wonders, new ways to explore the fantastic. And when it comes to TV, we don’t just watch Buffy and Supernatural; we watch CSI, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood and all the other genres.
To my mind, that’s a defining element of fantasy noir. It’s not just about the rundown cities or the magic, but the introduction of tropes from other genres. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a heist caper; The Sword of Albion is a James-Bond-esque spy thriller. Noir is practically defined by its “mashup” nature, and that’s what our magpie culture loves. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Why the hell not?
Is genre dead, or at least dying? If it is, fantasy noir is right there in the vanguard. And I for one will be cheering it on and throwing flowers in its path. Vive la revolution!