Sun
May 12 2013 10:00am

My Sword is Quick: Fantasy Meets Crime Fiction

Escapism is one of the appeals of the fantasy genre. It’s a chance to visit a world where impossible things like magic and monsters are real, and to go on epic quests to save the world. It can be just as fun and interesting though to see those elements bump up against real world events such as crime and murder. Generally you only see that collision in fantasy tales set in the modern worlds like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. There are a number of authors, though, who have combined the elements of crime and noir with stories set in mythical or ancient realms.

Fantasy generally comes in two flavors: Epic, which focuses on large scale conflicts and often involves a cast of thousands; and Sword and Sorcery, which generally focuses on the personal battles of individual and small groups of characters.

Crime and criminals usually aren’t a part of Epic fantasy stories. The heroes of those stories are usually on world-spanning quests that pit them against rival armies or nations. The only real Epic fantasy series I’ve been able to find that heavily incorporates elements of crime and noir fiction is George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The series takes place on the fictional continent of Westeros where summers and winters can last decades. Over the course of five books (the first of which, A Game of Thrones, lent its title to HBO’s acclaimed TV adaptation) Martin has chronicled the heroism, deceit, murder, and wars in which the members of various powerful families engage. In an earlier post, I took a longer look at some of the crime elements in both the initial book in the series and the television adaptation.

Since Sword and Sorcery tends to take a smaller scope it can incorporate individual aspects of society, such as crime and murder. In fact crime was a regular element in the Conan the Barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard, the man who developed the Sword and Sorcery subgenre. In Howard’s Conan stories the character engages in a variety of occupations and most of them are illicit. In two of my favorite stories “Tower of the Elephant” and “Queen of the Black Coast” Conan is a thief and pirate. Del Rey Publishing’s “The Coming of Conan” is a good book for those looking to become acquainted with some of Conan’s most famous adventures.

Howard’s Conan debuted in the pages of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s, which also introduced the world to the works of another Sword and Sorcery writer, Fritz Lieber, who would also become famous for stories featuring grounded fantasy characters who dealt with crime and corruption. Lieber’s stories most frequently featured a barbarian named Fafhrd and his friend and partner the Gray Mouser, a former wizard’s apprentice turned thief. These tales follow the roguish duo as they try to make their way in the decadent world of Nehwon and its greatest city Lankhmar. Over the years the stories have been collected into a number of omnibus editions, the first of which is Swords and Deviltry.

Richard K. Morgan’s “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy follows the adventures of three heroes in the aftermath of a great war. The characters are drawn into an investigation in the various corrupt and decadent kingdoms of the world that involves an ancient prophecy and an underground slave trade. The trilogy began in The Steel Remains, continued in The Cold Commands, and will conclude in the forthcoming The Dark Defiles.

One of my favorite fantasy-crime hybrids is by an author I recently discovered named Daniel Polansky. In Polansky’s debut novel, Low Town, he introduces readers to a fascinating protagonist named the Warden. Polansky tells the story from the Warden’s compelling perspective, which is colored by his past vocations of soldier and intelligence agent, and his current occupation: drug dealer. In Low Town the Warden is drawn into an investigation of the murdered children who are being found in the slums of a city-state called Rigus. 

Polansky recently brought the Warden back in Tomorrow the Killing, which digs deeper into the Warden’s past as a soldier and begins when a wealthy general tries to hire the Warden to find his missing daughter. The cynical drug peddler agrees to take the case because the girl’s dead brother is one of the few commanding officers the Warden respected when he was a soldier. His search leads him to a powerful veteran’s group and some of Low Town’s other drug cartels.

I haven’t had a chance yet to read Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, but it’s definitely on my to-read list. It appears to be the story of a group of thieves and con men known as The Gentlemen Bastards, who get involved in a battle for control of the underworld in the City of Camorr. The characters return for more heists and thievery in Red Seas Under Red Skies and the forthcoming The Republic of Thieves.

These are just a few entries in the growing subgenre of crime-fantasy hybrids set in ancient and medieval-style realms. So if you’re looking for adventures that involve swords, magic, and ancient worlds that are more morally murky than your average fantasy tale, give these books a try.

Artwork at top from King Conan: Hour of the Dragon, an upcoming comic book adaptation of the Robert E. Howard novel from Dark Horse Comics.


Dave Richards covers all things Marvel Comics for the Eisner Award-winning website Comic Book Resources and his book reviews and other musings can be found at his blog Pop Culture Vulture.

Read all posts by Dave Richards for Criminal Element.

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7 comments
Melita Kennedy
1. melita
Let me mention Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett's Point series (Point of Hopes, Point of Dreams, and Point of Knives ) and Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper trilogy. Both follow a member of a proto-police force. Both series are excellent.

Tamara Siler Jones also has a trilogy about Dubric Byerly.

Daniel Hood had a more light-weight series about a scholar, Liam Rhenford, and his familiar Fanuilh (whom I remember as being smarter).
2. Nicholas Winter
tI think the best take on this idea is Simon R. Green's Hawk & Fisher seRies which has a husband and wife team of beat cops taking on fantastic crimes in a city with a Medieval level society.

For a real treat, lesson to the GraphicAudio adaptations of them!
3. Adam12
I'd include those Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett focusing on The Watch (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discworld#City_Watch), for something a wee bit sillier. Also missing are two alt-universe modern-day 'fantasy' (swords & sorcery included) series: Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam and Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy novels.
Clare Toohey
4. clare2e
I keep having Locke Lamora on my TBR instead of already-read pile, but I'm determined to get to it, because I've heard such wonderful things.

Huge fan of Vimes, Carrot, Nobby...all the Watch!
5. Matt B
I am a huge Jim Butcher fan and would appreciate some recommendations for fantasy in the direction of the Dresden Files. I am a big fantasy reader, of the RA Salvatore type. However, since reading the Dresden series I have been hungry for more modern fantasy, if that's even a term. I'm a dad of 2 with two jobs and not a lot of time to investigate new books, or even "oldie but goodies". Thanks for any help or suggestions.
Christopher Morgan
6. cmorgan
Hey Matt,

I too am a Drizzt and Dresden fan, just something about those D's. Simon R. Green (Nightside), Kevin Hearne (Iron Druid), and Stacia Kane (Downside Ghosts) are all great Dresden like reads that aren't terribly demanding when it comes to time invested. Their series have a bit of an over arching theme, but most of it is just a case-a-book, much like Salvatore's Adventures and Butcher's Case Files.

One of my personal favorite Authors is Glenn Cook and he has a Garret PI series that is less Urban Fantasy and more Noir Fantasy. It keeps the vaugly Medieval settting typical of Fantasy but does so by creating a version of 1920s chicago in that world.

There are more, but these are just some of the ones I go to for quick fixes when I don't want to get bogged down in politics and world building.

Speaking of, if anyone does have time, and doesn't mind minutia, L.E. Modesett's Imager series is pretty much a spy/military thriller in a fantasy universe.
7. Matt B
Thx Cmorgan. I will be checking these out! Thx again!
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