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.