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An Opinion of One’s Own

The recent debate on women’s visibility in SFF has thrown up a few issues facing women in the genre, but has mostly focused on male blindspots and the predominance of male reviewers, awards judges, survey participants and so on. On the other hand August started well, with proof that the trend is not universal: out of the six novels shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award, four are by women (and three of those women are black).

There’s more to the issue than women writers, however. Women also publish, read and review SFF, and many of those books are inevitably by men (somewhere around 60%, according to various estimates). In fantasy in particular, where stories are often set in historical or quasi-historical patriarchal cultures, a significant percentage of male protagonists (written by both sexes) are going to be, well, less than enlightened in their attitudes towards women. I, and most women readers, have no problem with this; as a writer you have to be true to the setting you write about, and fantasy characters who behave and think like modern Westerners are just not very believable.

However this is a fine line to tread, as proved by this week’s debacle du jour, which appeared on Tor.com, the web magazine hosted by SFF publishers Tor. One of their regular contributors posted a review of The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence saying that, although well-written, it wasn’t to her tastes owing to the unrelentingly brutal, misogynistic world-view of its protagonist. The review was, in my opinion, well-balanced, and admirably achieved its aim of warning away readers who might be offended by the content whilst attracting those who like their fantasy dark to the point of nihilistic.

All this would have been totally unremarkable had it not been for a comment on the post, from none other than the head of the imprint that published the book. She (and I deliberately point out the sex of the commenter) posted to deny that the book was misogynistic, her argument being that it couldn’t be because she and other women at the publishers had liked it. (And made other, deeply unprofessional accusations that do not bear repeating. Visit Tor.com if you want the gory details.)

Excuse me? So now a minority of women are allowed to tell other women what they can and cannot find misogynistic? Since when has it been impossible for a woman to be misogynistic? I have to confess that I don’t like my own sex all the time, often find them incomprehensible and would rather read about a dashing male hero than a stay-at-home mum – but that’s not the same as wanting all women to be more like me. (Although it would reduce the birth rate and over-population problems considerably!)

I think the problem is that in the effort to reduce sexism, we have become hypersensitised, not to misogyny itself but to the accusation of it. “My author is a nice guy who loves his wife and daughters,” the editor protests, “his book cannot be misogynistic.” Sorry, but it can. It might not be intended that way. The author probably was intending a brutally honest portrayal of a misogynistic culture, but got so carried away with the realism that he had no idea how it would be received by some female readers. In one forum thread I likened it to Orwell’s image of the future in Big Brother: “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. That’s what it feels like to some of us to read a deeply misogynistic point of view, and that’s why we like to know which books to avoid. Telling us our opinions don’t matter is in itself misogynistic – and we won’t stand for it.

And yes, the title of this post is a deliberate play on Virginia Woolf’s essay :)

21st Century Pulp

There’s a lot of debate about ebooks pricing and the future of publishing at the moment. At one extreme you have Big Publishers charging hardback prices for new ebooks; at the other, self-publishers setting prices as low as 99 cents for a full novel. The latter might seem great for readers, and a really successful ebook at this price point can earn more for the writer than a typical debut advance – but as both Amanda Hocking and John Locke have shown, the key to self-publishing success is having a whole bunch more books that fans can buy once they decide they like the first one. Typically, these big hitters of the self-publishing world have not sold one book to a million readers – they have sold around 10 books to 100,000 readers. OK, so that’s still around ten times as many readers as a debut novelist might reach, but let’s back up to the other half of the equation. They sold their readers ten different books – which means they had to write ten books. Not one, or even a trilogy. Ten. At a bare minimum that’s half a million words.

Cover of "The Black Mask" magazine (1929)
Cover of "The Black Mask" magazine (1929)

It was whilst considering this point that it struck me that today’s self-publishers are not unlike the pulp writers of the 30s and 40s. For a very modest payment (royalties on a 99 cent Kindle book are 35 cents a copy) they are churning out popular entertainment which is distributed in the cheapest, most disposable form available. Back then it was cheap-as-it-comes woodpulp paper (hence the “pulp” moniker); now, it’s electronic files that you do not even “own”. Pulps were popular in a time of economic depression; ebooks “need” to be inexpensive right now because of the cost investment of the hardware required to read them (and the aforementioned lack of real ownership).

Of course the existence of the pulp market didn’t prevent the production of more expensive editions, but it did ensure that reading material was available to everyone at a price point they could afford. There will always be people who prefer the premium edition – indeed Apple have staked their entire business on such a model, and won. So I don’t think cheap ebooks will bring down the publishing industry, any more than the pulps did. But commercial publishers will have to adapt to keep up – and so will writers.

Sisters – doing it for ourselves

There’s been a lot of debate recently following an online survey asking readers for their “must read” SF list, the issue being that less that 10% of the suggested books were by women. Why, it was asked, the overwhelming bias?

Various explanations – and solutions – to this woeful state of affairs were put forward. Many pointed out that there is no lack of women working in the genre. From the writers themselves, through the often female-dominated corridors of the publishing industry, to the many women readers, we are everywhere. The problem is not absence but invisibility. Women’s writing is, by and large, being published, but apparently not reviewed, reprinted or talked about.

To me it all seems to come down to the same issue. Women are brought up to be mild-mannered and self-effacing. Girls do less well in mixed schools because their male classmates hog the teachers’ attention. Women have a cliched reputation for being talkative, but scientific observation has proved time and time again that in a mixed group, men do more of the talking and are far more likely to dominate the conversation. This is the real obstacle we are facing as women SFF writers – not active sexism or bias, but something entrenched deep in our culture, a potent mix of nature and nurture that drowns the female voice everywhere. Even we women are guilty of buying into this silencing, every time we worry that by standing up for women we are sticking our heads above the parapet and asking to be labeled as harridans or, perish the thought, feminists.

Lauren Beukes at the Arthur C Clarke awards. Photo courtesy SFX magazine
Lauren Beukes at the Arthur C Clarke awards. Photo courtesy SFX magazine

The fact that women’s voices can make themselves heard, without any apparent fuss, is proved by one writer currently in the limelight. Last month Lauren Beukes won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award for her novel “Zoo City”. Now I haven’t read it yet, though a copy is sitting on my iPad waiting patiently, but I have a feeling that what attracted the nominations was not simply the quality of the book but the visibility of the author. Beukes is a South African journalist, a career that certainly isn’t for shrinking violets, so it’s hardly surprising that she is outgoing and fearless in the face of male domination of her genre. However she goes about it with such canny charm: stuffed toys based on elements from her books accompany on her public appearances, simultaneously disarming and attracting everyone she meets. She talks to everyone, and soon has them eating out of the palm of her hand.

Of course not everyone can follow her example – we’re not all that brave and extroverted. But it does show that, as the old saying goes, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. If there’s going to be any positive discrimination going on, it needs to be just that: positive. No whining, no apologies for making a fuss; simply tell the world about all the damned good SF and fantasy that just happens to be written by women.

Postscript: on checking my own blog, I have realised to my shame that, of the six books I have reviewed, only one is by a woman. Part of that is because I have been researching the competition, and my corner of the genre is dominated by men. Currently on my TBR pile are Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard and Romanitas by Sophia McDougall. However I would very much like to find more women writers to review, so if you know of anything suitable, please give your suggestions in the comments! I’m looking for recently* published fantasy with a strong historical flavour, either real-world or secondary-world – but preferably no dragons, which bore the pants off me :)

* I have read – and loved – The Curse of Chalion, and will probably review it some time, but it’s several years old and I’d like to focus on new works.

Romance and geekdom

There’s been a teeny debate online this week between two people I met at EasterCon: Gavin Pugh of Gav Reads, and Sophia McDougall. The discussion centred on slash fiction and whether it was right to (homo)sexualise fictional characters in fan fiction. I won’t go into that here–you can read the respective blogs if you’re interested–but it got me thinking about the impetus behind slash, and ‘shipping in general. In other words, geeks vs romance.

Romantic/erotic fan fiction is largely written by women for women, and seems to me to be a response to the lack of female-oriented storylines in early SF, particularly on TV. Yes, Kirk could often be found snogging the female alien-of-the-week in Star Trek, but as with most episodic TV, everything had to be reset to zero by the end of each story, so there was little space to develop a believable romance. Besides, maybe you didn’t dig Kirk, in which case you’d be lucky if the writers threw you a bone once per season with a story about Spock’s pon farr or a few scenes in which Sulu takes his shirt off. The response of female fans was to write their own stories. This still begs the question, why?

It’s not as though the world is lacking in romantic fiction. Indeed, it’s the bestselling genre by far, outstripping crime, thrillers, SF&F, etc put together. So it’s not like female geeks lack reading material. Or do they? Until recently, the romance genre was largely confined to contemporary, mainstream settings, with sidelines into popular historical eras such as the Regency period. These have limited appeal to the average geek girl, who wants her fiction to have aliens or faery folk in it, not doctors or shipping magnates (at least, not unless they’re xenobiologists or spaceship magnates!).

By the end of the twentieth century, things were starting to change. More and more women were writing SF&F, and romantic, even erotic, storylines were creeping into the genre. Mostly this was confined to new subgenres of fantasy, particularly urban fantasy (predictably enough – vampires have been a metaphor for sex since Bram Stoker’s day), although a few venturesome authors like Catherine Asaro dared to write romances firmly within the SF genre.

And yet, romance is still looked down on within SF&F. My publishers, Angry Robot, had a lot of fun on April 1st by pretending they were going to start up a romance imprint. A few people were taken in by this, perhaps because AR are an innovative publishers with a wicked sense of humour, so the bogus titles listed didn’t seem that far-fetched, at least not at first glance. But there’s a serious side to this story, in that romance still has “girl-cooties” and male SF readers in particular don’t want it in their books.

Myself, I fall in the middle of this spectrum. I enjoy a good romance as much as the next girl (The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee is one of my favourite books and makes me cry every time I read it), and when developing story ideas I find myself drawn to romantic plots and subplots almost against my will. At the same time it’s not the main thing I look for in a book, so I have sympathy with the guys.

To be honest, I reckon there’s more than enough room for both readerships in our genre. Room for the whole spectrum, from romance-free hard SF to steamy love stories that just happens to be set in a fantasy world. The important thing is that the cover copy and artwork don’t mislead readers into thinking they are getting one thing then giving them something completely different. The cover of my book is going to feature my hero with his sword out* for a good reason…

Caveat emptor. Here Be Romance. Or not, as the case may be.

 

* No, hush! Stop that giggling at the back!

 

The truth is out there – or is it?

Last week, the press release went out from Angry Robot about my new book deal – hurrah! AR did a nice job in summing up the story, or so I thought:

“Explorers have returned from the New World bearing strangely primitive natives – and their uncanny elders, regal beings straight out of the Norse legends who call themselves skraylings. Hired to protect these strangers, disreputable swordsman Mal Catlyn soon finds himself dragged into a world of conspiracy and dark magic.”

That’s maybe not quite how I would have put it, on reflection – the skraylings have ships of their own, thank you very much, and don’t need explorers to bring them across the Atlantic like fairground attractions – but otherwise it’s pretty close, and conveys the mood of the story.

Next day The Bookseller published their own story based on the press release:

“The Night Masque trilogy is about a team of explorers who have returned from the New World with a band of primitive elders. A swordsman hired to protect them, Mal Catlyn, soon enters a world of conspiracy and magic.”

Hmm. Notice the difference? Suddenly, the mildly bogus setup line has taken centre stage, presumably because it comes first in the description, and so a series about a disreputable swordsman has transmogrified into one about a team of explorers. WTF?

Part of the problem, I think, is that my premise for the series doesn’t use familiar tropes like vampires or fairies or, gods forbid, dragons. Putting across an original concept in a few words isn’t easy – I know I’ve found it damned near impossible to come up with an “elevator pitch” for this book, and it’s not for want of trying. I can pitch the premise of the series, and I can pitch the plot of Book One, but neither of these alone can explain “what the book is about”.

Now, this is such a trivial thing that it’s not worth getting het up about. I mean, it’s a whole year until the book comes out, and by then everyone will have forgotten about a two-sentence description in a minor news item. But it just shows how a hurried reading can lead to someone getting entirely the wrong end of the stick. (And let’s just gloss over the missing ‘s on the series title. Typos happen to the best of us.)

I don’t know there’s anything one can really do to prevent this sort of thing happening, but it demonstrates the cruel reality of releasing one’s creation into the wider world. Sooner or later, someone’s going to read something into one of my books that I never wrote or intended, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it…

Going back to my roots: conlanging for novels

I have a confession to make: I’ve been playing at making up languages since before I discovered Tolkien.

It started in school, inspired (I think) by Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy; a friend and I created a whole world, albeit more SF than fantasy, and made up our own “language” out of obscure words we found in the dictionary and made up new meanings for. A few years later I read Lord of the Rings and discovered that Tolkien had done a much better job, and I was too much in awe of his magnum opus to try and compete.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the advent of the internet, which was when I discovered The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. It showed me that my early attempts at a conlang (constructed language) was a mere cipher of English, so I immediately rose to the challenge and started studying linguistics to try and make my invented languages more realistic.

During the course of writing my fantasy series, I realised I would need two languages for my non-humans, the skraylings: the everyday language they use among themselves, and a much older language, analogous to Latin. At first I went crazy with the linguistics, coming up with intricate verb morphology inspired by Native American languages, but I seemed to spend most of my time on the structure and history of the languages, and didn’t produce much actual vocabulary for use in the book. The other constraint was that I wanted the languages to be aesthetically pleasing; admittedly a purely subjective thing, but one that’s important to me. Trying to make all these things work was a disaster – like my early attempts at writing a novel, I made false start after false start, throwing each one out as I became dissatisfied with the results.

Finally I came across Holly Lisle’s Create-a-Language Clinic, which was a timely reminder that I was creating these languages explicitly for use in a novel, not as an intellectual exercise in itself. As with the novel, the reader comes first. A reader who speaks English and probably little or nothing else.

I’ve therefore had to make compromises. On the one hand, I’ve stated in the book that the Elizabethans find the skraylings’ names unpronounceable and therefore warp them into Anglicised versions; on the other, I can’t make the language too weird, because I use snatches of it here and there. So I abandoned my over-intellectualising and just played with sound patterns until I had something that looked a bit alien but was still easy to render in normal letters. Then I reverse-engineered the structure of the language, creating just enough complexity for it to be realistic – and no more. It’s taken longer than I hoped, because it requires an intuitive approach to what had previously been a very left-brained process. On the other hand I now have snatches of language that I’m pleased with, and enough documentation on those examples that I can expand them in future.

William Morris said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. I would argue that the same applies to novels. I hope that my conlangs are both beautiful and useful, and I like to think Tolkien would approve.

Here Be No Dragons

When I was much younger, I loved dragons. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy  and of course The Hobbit were amongst my favourite books. As a teenager I devoured all of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. When I got a job as an ecologist-cum-illustrator and had access to an art studio and free batik supplies, one of my first spare-time projects was a huge Chinese dragon that still hangs on my bedroom wall.

And yet somewhere between then and now, my love died. Maybe I just read too many fantasy novels with dragons in them and grew jaded, the way other readers do with elves and dwarves. All I know is, I now avoid books with dragons in them like the plague.

There are two downsides to this. Firstly, I have friends who write books about dragons; Stephen Deas, for example, whom I’ve known since he was a fellow struggling writer. I’d love to be able to say “I’ve read all your books, mate, and they’re brilliant!” — but that would mean reading about d– d– those big mythological reptiles. And there are, to be honest, far too many books in my TBR pile already.

Secondly, and worse, are the books that don’t even mention dragons on the cover but manage to sneak them in nonetheless, often as some kind of draco ex machina (which is maybe the source of my phobia in the first place). One may even be several dragon-free books into a series before the beasts raise their ugly, scaly heads.

To me it feels like the author has run out of cool ideas for the books, or is trying to prop up flagging sales by introducing a popular trope. Maybe that’s a mistaken assumption on my part and the dragons were being kept hidden to increase the impact of their revelation, but there’s often zero foreshadowing, which makes me think not.

I’m currently in two minds about reading the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire, since the “dragon eggs” given to Daenerys in the first book are looking suspiciously real and ripe to hatch. About the only “dragon book” I can still read is Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, probably because anyone who can come up with a tiny fire-farting dragon named after the father of jet propulsion* deserves my admiration for sheer pun-tastic inventiveness.

So, whilst many of my own projects are still no more than vague glimmerings of inspiration, there is one thing I can guarantee: there will be no living dragons in them. If you find any, you have my permission to have me committed, as I will clearly have lost it.

* in the Discworld, “whittle” is the term for the runt of a dragon litter

Book One of…: the enduring power of trilogies

Ever since George Allen & Unwin decided to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, the trilogy has ruled the fantasy genre to the point of becoming a cliché. Admittedly fantasy didn’t invent the trilogy–it goes back at least as far as the Victorian three-volume novel–but it certainly picked it up and ran with it. So why has the form persisted for so long?

Part of it is the Western obsession with the number three, particularly in relation to story structure. From The Three Little Pigs via the three caskets in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to the structure of many jokes (An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…), the three-step story forms a pattern we all know and take for granted. Setup. Complication. Resolution. The three-act structure of Aristotle, now enshrined in scriptwriting dogma.

Is it something the publishers are doing? After all, we read so much about author X getting a three-book deal. Well, yes, publishers like to pin a writer down with multi-book deals, because a lot of work goes into establishing that author’s brand through jacket design and so on, and if the first book turns out to be a massive hit they don’t want their star to be lured away by another publisher with deeper pockets. But multi-book deals are the norm in most genres, regardless of whether the books themselves are standalones (as is usually the case in mainstream, romance, etc) or part of an open-ended series (a favourite in crime/mystery, ever since the days of Sherlock Holmes).

So if it’s not the publishers per se, who is driving the desire for trilogies? My feeling is that it’s the readers. Publishers want to buy what sells, because they’re in business to make money – and what sells most reliably is trilogies. Or tetralogies. Short, finite series.

Part of it is setting. A great fantasy story depends, more than anything else, on great world-building. And building a whole world takes a lot of the writer’s investment of time. Why throw all that hard work away and start again from scratch? And yet… Terry Pratchett has built his career on a single setting, the Discworld, without ever writing what could be called a trilogy in the usual sense. Every Discworld book is pretty much a standalone, even though it may be a sequel to one earlier in the series or at least feature some of the same characters.

However Pratchett’s books are small-scale, focusing on individuals and usually satirising one specific topic, be that football, the early days of cinema, or whatever. The true home of the trilogy is epic fantasy. And perhaps now we approach the crux of the matter. Epic fantasy is, thanks to Tolkien and his imitators, the most high-profile sub-genre of fantasy. Generally set in a secondary (i.e. invented) world, it uses a broad canvas to tell sweeping tales of adventure involving multiple cultures and/or sentient species. Even for a writer who doesn’t waffle or get sidetracked by his huge cast of characters, it takes a lot of words to describe such a story. Usually at least 250,000 of them and often a lot more. And it’s at this point that publishers balk at the page count and want to publish the story in three volumes.

The trilogy has become such a staple of the genre that it’s the go-to structure even for writers like me who prefer each book to have a self-contained plot. I have a manuscript on submission and have been explicitly asked “how a second and possibly a third book in this series might pan out”, so I have to at least consider making it a trilogy. I have no problem with that – the novel deliberately leaves some plot threads open because the background conflict is way too big to resolve in one book – but I do cringe ever so slightly at the thought of “Book One of (insert pretentious series title here)” appearing on the cover.

So, how do you as a fantasy reader, or writer, feel about trilogies? Love ’em? hate ’em? Classic or cliché?

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!