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Epic fantasy? What does that even mean?

Yesterday I finished the final draft of The Prince of Lies – yay! – which inevitably left me feeling more than a little punch-drunk, like I’d been hit round the head with a 135,000-word manuscript…So I goofed around on Twitter a bit, and whilst chatting about book lengths and genre I realised that fantasy really needs a new name for a rather common sub-genre.

Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk
Cover art for “Shadow’s Master” by Jon Sprunk

OK, before we get going, yes I know that sub-genres are artificial and that you shouldn’t try to shoehorn your work into one of them, but once you have a book – or three – written, and you start to look at what market you’re going to be aiming at, it can be helpful to have a label so that everyone knows what you’re talking about. Except – are they really talking about the same thing?

The discussion that sparked this was about the ideal length for a debut epic fantasy, which varies from agent to agent, but certainly somewhere in the 100-150k ballpark as a rule. For other kinds of fantasy, as well as SF, the suggested length is more like 90-120k.

The thing is, what do agents mean by “epic fantasy”? I suspect that for some in the business it’s a synonym for secondary world fantasy, or indeed anything that isn’t very clearly either steampunk or urban fantasy. Because it’s like Tolkien and George R R Martin, right?  And in one respect they’re right – all non-contemporary fantasy has broadly the same audience, and it’s distinct from (though it may sometimes overlap with) urban fantasy/paranormal romance.

The thing is, a lot of the secondary-world fantasy that I read isn’t what I’d call epic. There are no continent-spanning wars or treks through sweeping landscapes, no wide-eyed young heroes venturing out of their comfy hobbit-holes and being swept along on An Adventure. Typically they’re based in one city (just like urban fantasy), with a cast of characters who are far from innocent: thieves, spies, assassins and the like. You know, those Hooded Men who’ve been gracing the covers of our favourite books for the past decade…

(As an aside, if you google “hooded man” images, the cover art for The Alchemist of Souls comes up quite high in the results. Which is ironic, since there’s not a hood in sight!)

This sub-genre used to be known as swords’n’sorcery, and it was typified by Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. Lots of swashbuckling swordplay, but also lots of monsters and evil wizards and the like. The thing is, modern-day S&S is typically quite low in magic and often the characters are all human, so the label doesn’t really fit any more. Nor does the newer label “grimdark” really help, as it’s a tone, not a subgenre as such. Both GRRM and Joe Abercrombie have been described as writing grimdark, but their books are also epic fantasy.

I raised this on Twitter, suggesting “cloak’n’dagger” as an alternative. I got some great (not always serious) alternative suggestions:

  • The Streets of Darkness
  • Hooded Figure Fantasy
  • Poignards’n’privies (very apt in my case!)
  • Mock-Tudorpunk
  • Grime’n’punishment
  • Alchemical romance (by analogy with Wells’ “scientific romance”)

What do you think? Do we need a new label for non-epic, non-contemporary fantasy?

Torture in fantasy – how much is justified?

Last week I blogged about fantasy noir, mainly in the context of it epitomising the 21st century love of the mashup. Noir brings in themes and tropes from other genres, particularly crime and thrillers, so it’s inevitable there should be a thick strand of violence in the mix. Worryingly though, at least for me, is the preponderance of torture in many of these books.

Firstly, let me say that I understand that fiction cannot shy away from the ugliness of life altogether, otherwise it would be bland, undemanding fluff, suitable only for very young children and those of a nervous disposition. And in far too many human cultures, torture and cruelty are, and have been, rife. Note also that I’m not saying such material shouldn’t be published. Each to his own, and all that. What does bother me as a reader is when writers take evident and frankly unhealthy relish in that ugliness.  So, if we cannot avoid the topic altogether, what is the role of torture in a supposedly escapist genre like fantasy?

For my examples I shall (coincidentally, perhaps) take the two books I mentioned last week: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn. Note that there will be minor spoilers in the following discussion!

The former book contains (IMHO) a brief example of what is often known as “torture porn”. The hero, Locke Lamora, is visiting the headquarters of the big crime boss of the city, and to show us how utterly despicable the fellow is, Lynch proceeds to describe the torture and death of a minor criminal. The process involves a bag of ground glass being placed over the man’s head and its contents rubbed into his flesh, and is dwelt on in such vivid, excruciating detail that I literally had nightmares after reading it. It’s the only really gruesome scene in the book, and is there purely to raise the stakes by making us fear that something similar might happen to Locke. I suppose it served its purpose, but frankly I would have enjoyed the book more if the details of the torture had been left to the reader’s imagination. I think what really irks me, though, is the extreme change of tone in a book I was previously enjoying. The blurb and opening chapters promised Oliver Twist meets Ocean’s Eleven, and suddenly I get sadistic horror instead.

Contrast this approach with that of Chadbourn, in his book set in Elizabethan London. His hero Will Swyfte attends the torture on the rack of an enemy and is shown as complicit in the man’s torment, even though he is not personally responsible for it. Swyfte himself is later tortured by the fae, using a form of waterboarding (who knew the Unseelie Court were so forward-looking?). The former event shows us the moral depths to which Swyfte has sunk in his fanatical pursuit of those who stole his beloved Jenny, and the latter puts his devotion to his cause to the test – but in neither case is the torture described in such gruesome detail as to be distressing to the reader.

Apart from this one difference, the two books are not that dissimilar in tone. Both are pitched as ripping yarns, a series of high adventures by less-than-perfect heroes in a flawed society. In other words, pure entertainment. And torture porn is not entertainment, at least not to this reader. It makes it difficult for me to recommend Lynch, particularly to female friends (many of whom are a great deal more squeamish than I am), and reluctant to buy any more of his books. By contrast, Chadbourn maintains the delicate balance between historical reality, noir grittiness and tasteful writing; the result is a much more enjoyable read, and I look forward to the publication of the sequel.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve taken Chadbourn’s lead in my own novel. I needed my hero to be interrogated by the bad guys, and I had already hinted that their methods were brutal. So, I had to come up with a way to cause great pain to the hero whilst making readers (and myself) wince in sympathy rather than turning stomachs. As for how I did it – you’ll just have to wait until the book comes out!

In conclusion, I think torture (like rape) is a sensitive subject that, treated well, adds depth to a realistically gritty novel. But it needs to match the tone of the rest of the book, otherwise it comes across as gratuitous and self-indulgent, and can lose you readers.

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!