A noir light is shining over fantasy — many of the best fantasy books on the shelves right now feature bloody-minded, morally gray protagonists battling their way through rotten cities and bleak landscapes. Here's why noir is truest urban fantasy.
Many of our favorite fantasy books of the past year or so feature a self-consciously noir tinge. Perhaps the most buzzed-about of these is The Steel Remains by Altered Carbon author Richard K. Morgan — it's gotten an amazing reputation since it came out last January, but if anything the hype understated this book's greatness. Profane, riotous and utterly captivating, The Steel Remains follows three thick-skinned veterans of a terrible war against lizard people, as they investigate the rise of a new supernatural power that threatens to obliterate everything they fought for.
Other recent books in the "noir fantasy" niche include Richard Kadrey's Hollywood revenge saga Sandman Slim (which we reviewed here), China Miéville's weird detective story The City And The City (reviewed here), Elizabeth Bear's supernatural alternate history detective stories collected as New Amsterdam, John Shirley's psychic bounty hunter saga Bleak History, Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels, and io9 contributor Jeff VanderMeer's hardboiled detective novel Finch, plus several others.
Fantasy detective stories are nothing new, of course, and neither are morally grey protagonists or dark storylines. The "vampire detective" and "urban ghost-hunter" genres are decades old at this point. But this new crop of books seems uniquely "noir" by virtue of its extreme nastiness. They're coarse and often overtly sexual, they often feature extreme graphic violence, and they seldom offer you a clear-cut right and wrong. Their protagonists are has-beens, losers, or not-quite-epic champions, with tarnished armor.
And just as classic hardboiled detective fiction often features assholes who are untouchable because they're rich, these novels often feature people, or things, who are too powerful to mess with — except that, instead of just having lots of money, these fiends tend to have mystical power or ultra-powerful friends.
These novels take place in cities and towns already crushed under the weight of history before the story even begins — Finch, for example, is VanderMeer's third book about Ambergris, his fictional city, and it takes place 100 years after Shriek: An Afterword, when the mushroom-like Grey Caps have retaken the city and are systematically oppressing the humans. And in Shirley's taut Bleak History, we come in in the middle of a struggle by a shadowy government organization to control psychics like Gabriel Bleak, who can see ghosts and communicate with The Hidden, a supernatural realm beyond our own. Bleak works as a bounty hunter, using his supernatural gifts to track down bail-jumpers. The government stooges remind each other that under the new rules, they don't need evidence to run them in.
Bleak History also features some appropriately lurid descriptions of New York as a hot, humid cesspit full of crooks, ghosts and thugs. Including this lovely Spillane-esque passage:
A few hours later, the sun was just down; the buildings of Manhattan, across the river, were wearing the last glimmers of sunset like Day-Glo caps on their rooftops. Bleak stood in the screen of trees, in Hoboken, and tried to make up his mind.
You know you're reading a noir-ish book when a simple description of an urban sunset turns garish, menacing and disturbing. As I mentioned in my review, the descriptions of the menacing decay of Los Angeles in Kadrey's Sandman Slim also stay with you. Like this bit:
Sometime while I was gone, Hollywood Boulevard had a nervous breakdwon. Vacant storefronts. Trash dissolving in the street. Nothing but ghosts here — shadows of runaways and dealers huddled in padlocked doorways. I remember the Boulevard full of wild kids, drag queens, manic Dylan wannabes, and tourists looking for more than their next fix. Now the place looks like a whipped dog.
Another thing that sometimes sets apart the protagonists of this new noir writing is their outlawed sexuality — two of the three protagonists in Morgan's The Steel Remains are queer, and we're never allowed to forget how much people despise them for it. The warrior Ringil Angeleyes is the gay swordsman you didn't know you've been waiting for, who'll sleep with anyone, including the mythical fairy-like creatures that are hell-bent on crushing the human race. (And then Ringgil will turn around and dismiss his sleeping-with-the-enemy stunt as a meaningless fuck.) At every turn, Ringgil is called a faggot by people who want to drum him out of decent society — but they can't, because he's a war hero and still the only hope they have of surviving. Another protagonist, Archeth, is a lesbian and the last representative of the mythic race of the Kiriath, aka the Black Folk, and both aspects of her identity are deeply offensive to the new wave of religious zealots who are taking over the Empire. Meanwhile, Bear's story collection New Amsterdam features a gay vampire detective, Sebastian.
Most of all, these books tend to feature tarnished heroes, who are facing people (and creatures) who are much more powerful than they are, and who think that they can rule over the festering sewer that is the city, and trample anyone who gets in their way. Whether it's ancient demons, rich assholes with magic, evil fairies, or government spooks, there's always somebody wanting to rule over the dungheap — and usually the only person standing in the way is an outsider who's past his or her prime. You also often sense that the world is heading the wrong way — in The Steel Remains, slavery has become legal and is fast becoming the Empire's main industry, while religious bigots are working to crush every last shred of culture or sophistication.
And the heroes of noir fantasy aren't just damaged — they're traumatized. In The Steel Remains, all three of the protagonists are carrying around the weight of the mass slaughter in the war against the Scaled Folk and the pointless wars among humans that followed, plus Ringgil is scarred mentally by having watched his lover tortured to death by the Inquisition. In Sandman Slim, we're constantly getting flashbacks to Stark's years of fighting for his life in Hell's arenas.
So why are we seeing an upswing in noir fantasy now? I asked some of these authors, and they pretty much all saw their work as a continuation of noir themes that have always been present in the genre.
John Shirley says:
Think of Mordor — and how Mordor, and also the earthworks of Saruman, were always very industrial. And noir happens in the shadow of industry. So in The Lord of the Rings it was about the intrusion of the darkest side of the urban on the green heart of Middle Earth. Urban fantasy though is a mutt, half fantasy, half urban noir. Our era does seem morally challenged—we're stunned by the immorality of Wall Street. Trying to make sense of it we project it onto supernatural villains. Going back, my novels Cellars and City Come A-Walkin' were early fusions of sf, magical realism, dark pop sensibility and noir fantasy. Bleak History just continues that thread in my writing.
And Kadrey sounds a similar note:
Am I part of a movement? I don't know. Movements are like pandemics. There's always another one coming along to make you bleed out.
Cities have replaced the black woods of medieval Europe as the home of the Black Beast, ghouls and bloodsuckers. You can't hide in the woods anymore. We've clearcut them to make foldaway entertainment centers for Ikea. The only place left to be invisible is in the city. There are the empty industrial zones where no one ever goes and the crowded downtowns where no one ever looks at you. Plus, porn and cable.
I don't think that there's anything special about this era's stupidity and corruption. Every era is the worst one ever. Every century is the end of the world. The fantasy I write isn't dark it's logical. There's a French saying, "Inter urinas et faeces nascimur," which means, "We are born between piss and shit." In a world of shit, my heroes are the people who choose to be just a little less shitty.
Sir Galahad is dead. Good. Fuck him.
I'm not an expert on early fantasy, but I'm pretty sure Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser weren't the first noir protagonists in fantasy, and they are considerably older than I am (first appearing in 1939, quoth Wikipedia). So I don't think morally ambiguous protagonists are a modern phenomenon—but I do think that morally complex people are more interesting to write (and more engaging to the reader) than four-color heroes with whom the world conspires, so that there is always a morally unambiguous choice.
So, if it's a movement, it's one that's been going on for a long time. It's definitely a *conversation,* however!
(But then, I'm suspicious of literary movements and subgenres and marketing categories, so my own objective bias must be exposed.)
Finch is a lot of things besides noir — a spy story, a surreal fantasy, a commentary on failed or occupied countries, a political statement about the last eight years of American empire, so I don't feel like part of a noir fantasy movement — I thought of Finch back in 1998, just didn't start work on it until 2005. But the appeal, I think is the built-in suspense and structure. You even see it in the Potter books, especially the early ones, which are all mysteries wedded to fantasy. Noir is a dangerous thing to use, though. In the wrong hands it becomes a series of cliches or it lends itself to the status quo. As for the anti-hero idea, while it's somewhat prevalent in noir, Finch isn't really a good example. John Finch is an honest, decent man in a bad spot. The real anti-hero is, in a way, the occupied city in which he lives. And the point of wedding noir to fantasy in Finch isn't to maintain the status quo but to explode it. Why are there several noir fantasies out recently? I don't really know. As an avid mystery reader, they all seem as different from each other as anvils, oranges, and bacon.