Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fantasy Noir

There's talk (is that vague enough?) about a new sub-genre called fantasy noir. This inevitably raises images of hardboiled PIs cruising the mean streets of Faerie Town and in fact there's already a long line of such works, most famously Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but also including Jonathan Lethem's first novel Gun, With Occasional Music, Hjortsberg's Fallen Angel, Steve Niles' Cal MacDonald books, Garrett's Lord Darcy series, far too many vampire detectives and so forth. But fantasy noir is supposed to be something different, apparently familiar fantasy elements re-arranged and pumped up but is most likely somebody trying to rope unrelated books together.

One of the most commonly referenced, even acclaimed, is Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains (2009). I wasn't impressed by his Altered Carbon, mostly a routine detective story with SF elements tacked on or to be more accurate since the SF elements are the core of the set-up, it's a story that could have been told as easily without the SF. He also did a Black Widow mini that was neither here nor there.

The Steel Remains isn't much of a departure. It's yet another story of a down-and-out soldier and some buddies who have to prevent a take-over of their world - that's way too simplistic but is basically what's happening. That it's considered "noir" is because of the cursing, violence and sex (two of the three main characters are gay though since one never acts on it that's mostly theoretical). Just shocking, I'm sure. But none of this is new and compared to, say, Martin's A Game of Thrones this looks like the work of a 12-year-old. It's also worth noting that Morgan hedges his fantasy by providing a kind of SF explanation for what might be "magic" though that's never entirely clear. All this noir-ness doesn't add anything to The Steel Remains which is at heart very conventional, even predictable, and I certainly won't be reading the next book in the series.

More successful is Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim (2009) which places an escapee from Hell on the trail of the people who put him there. In some way this is also predictable but for an even more obvious reason than The Steel Remains. Sandman Slim is more or less a rewrite of The Hunter, the first book in Donald Westlake's Parker series (filmed indelibly as Point Blank and too delibly as Payback). At least Kadrey doesn't try to hide this - Westlake used the pseudonym Stark for the novels and Kadrey's protagonist is named Stark.

I believe I read Kadrey's first novel, 1988's Metrophage, back when I was plowing through anything even vaguely cyberpunkish but after looking up some descriptions online can't be sure - in any case it definitely didn't leave too much of an impact 20 years later. In Sandman Slim the "noir" aspect is more conventional since it's set in L.A. and has that familiar first-person narrative tone. But it's a book filled with demons, black magicians, talkative severed heads, white-power thugs, Victorian criminal Vidocq himself, etc, all done with just a bit of humor that comes from realizing how silly this is even if we won't admit it. Escapee Stark does have his goals but is somewhat amoral, not enough to seem psychopathic but enough that his idea of the right thing to do doesn't always match the reader's - John Constantine is an obvious influence. Some of the cultural references (Esquivel, Martin Denny) are so dated that it suggests this book was in Kadrey's drawer for the past decade and he over-does the wisecracks at times. Still, the story is completely wrapped up and has a surprise at the end that it would be impossible to guess but means the next book might be even better.