When Fantasy Isn’t Fantasy

Sometimes making a story look like something it isn’t can frustrate readers. Other times, it can be immensely satisfying.


(Mild spoilers for The Shattered Sea ahead – don’t want this article turning into something you didn’t expect.)

Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy is mostly a straightforward, if rather dark, YA fantasy series. In a world ripped apart by a long-ago war, Viking-style raiders plough the seas, looting, trading, and making war on each other. The story has its twists and turns, all in keeping with the style of story it lays out from the start – one of deception and betrayal in the cause of greater goods.

There’s also another twist hidden in the world building, one that slowly becomes apparent as you read the story.

This isn’t a fantasy world. It’s our world in the future. The elven ruins are the remains of modern cities, magical artefacts modern technology. Hints dropped along the way let the reader work this out without the characters ever finding the truth, which is irrelevant to their lives. They care about what those artefacts can do, not what it really means for magic to exist.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. John Christopher did something similar in his 1970s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and he’s not alone. But the reason this works isn’t precedentt. It’s the way it affects the reader.

Finding out that you’re not reading the story you thought you were can be frustrating. The writer pulls the rug out from beneath your feet and then stands there smugly grinning, with a look on their face like “aha! I tricked you!” They’re proving how clever they are.

Abercrombie’s books have the opposite effect. You as the reader get to feel clever, as you put the pieces together and work out the truth. That’s a great feeling. We accept the bait and switch because of the way that it’s presented.

I’ve talked about this idea a bunch of times – that we feel good about books when they make us feel smart. From a little kid learning to recognise letters to an undergraduate student ostentatiously reading Ulysses, feeling smart makes you feel good, which makes you like the thing that made you feel smart.

So yeah, I really liked The Shattered Sea series. Not just because of that smart feeling, of course. There are compelling characters and events presented in clear, enjoyable prose. But that fantasy that’s not fantasy, it certainly helps.

Humour in Joe Abercrombie’s Grim Darkness

Some writers have a reputation that doesn’t quite fit their style. One aspect of the work gets exaggerated, especially in the eyes of those ill-acquainted with their writing. In my mind, one of those is Joe Abercrombie.

Don’t get me wrong, Abercrombie is no victim of misrepresentation here. Having embraced the title of Lord Grimdark, and the twitter handle to match it, he’s become the figurehead for a particularly dark style of fantasy. It’s a gritty, muscular, action-packed sort of darkness, rather than the angst of goths, vampire novels, and urban fantasy. But I imagine that the very label “grimdark” puts some people off.

Yet there’s a wonderful humour to Abercrombie’s work. Reading his short story collection Sharp Ends has reminded me of this. Little details, from thugs discussing architecture to one-liners in fights, round out the world and its characters. As a reader, I’m never left drowning beneath the sea of sorrow that “grim” and “dark” imply. This is all about the black humour.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. The phrase “grimdark” originally applied to Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe, whose catchphrase referred to the “grim darkness” of the future. Like Abercrombie, GW created a setting of darkness so exaggerated it can sometimes become cartoonish. Humour and hideousness are inseparably intertwined. Characters and places become over-the-top in an entertaining way. The pleasure of reading them comes from smiling at the absurd side even as you prepare for a serious moment to follow.

Like the spaghetti westerns he paid tribute to in Red Country, Abercrombie creates stories that are somehow both grounded and mythologising, humourous and serious. Their very existence undermines the false divides we try to set between these things, splitting our world into black and white. It’s damn fine stuff, to which I find myself returning over and again.

But then, what should we expect from such a self-mocking title as Lord Grimdark?

Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King and the Medieval Mindset

I recently read Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, and was struck once again by his ability to evoke the medieval mindset. Though the book is set in a fantasy world – one with hints at a possible post-apocalyptic background – it’s a fantasy world that feels brutally different from our own, in large part because of the way it draws upon the thinking of an earlier European era.

This isn’t the medieval thinking of chivalric romance or the increasingly formal hierarchies of the later Middle Ages. It’s the brutal outlook of the early Middle Ages, the time often referred to as the Dark Ages. This was a time of Viking raiders, tribal warbands and the emergence, through violence and failures, of the kingdoms and principalities that would dominate the following centuries. It’s the time when feudalism really was about feuding.

The different outlook of the era comes through in various ways. There’s the pragmatic acceptance of deaths and slavery as elements of daily life. The way that violence is used in political disputes. A morality built around strength and obligation, not kindness and consideration. Actions that would be considered evil in many fantasy settings are just the way things are done here.

It’s an uncomfortable yet intriguing world to enter, one that could have been built for the ageing barbarians of Abercrombie’s earlier books. And if you’re looking for some gritty low fantasy adventure, or to explore a different outlook on the world, then it’s well worth a read.

Bankers – the new daleks?

Doctor Who is going to face a villainous banker. Of course he is. Since the financial crash bankers have become a pop culture pariah, a go to baddie that guarantees an audience reaction. It’s fair enough – the creators of our culture have a duty to address current concerns, both for the good of public discourse and for the good of their own income. But are we really handling this issue right, in science fiction, fantasy and beyond?

Doctor Who

A villain as old as pantomime

Lets face it, the banker villain isn’t a new trope. Despite the efforts of It’s A Wonderful Life, bankers have turned up as bad characters more often than good, whether they’re foreclosing on the hero’s house or corrupting the values of the young with their materialistic ways. Even Mary Poppins, that childishly bonkers work of fabulous fantasy, has banker villains and a character whose arc is about learning not to be such a banker.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6DGs3qjRwQ&w=420&h=315]


If Mary Poppins thinks you’re a bad egg then you really are in trouble. But bankers have hit a new cultural low in recent years, and that raises some complicated questions.

Not all banks are made equal

The cultural slum status of bankers undoubtedly has a lot to do with the financial crisis and the mechanisms that brought it about. The increasingly complicated and dubious techniques being used by hedge fund managers have rightly drawn criticism. When men in skyline offices are profiting from mechanisms that destroy years others’ hard work then something is amiss. Some of these people were literally living off the misery of others.

This is the image of banking picked up on by Joe Abercrombie‘s Valint and Balk, the shadowy, manipulative bankers who occasional peak out from behind the scenes of his fantasy world. Even in a world where banking is far less commonplace, the bankers have managed to make themselves villains.

Just before the crisis I worked in a company that published data on investment funds. It was a spirit crushing job, our work completely divorced from the real, productive world. I didn’t stay there long, but I have to keep reminding myself that a lot of banking isn’t about those funds. There’s a wide spectrum from the micro-finance idealists bringing money to poor Indian villagers, through the helpful mechanism of high street banking, to the bloated leviathan of high stakes investment banking.

The problem is that our culture seldom reflects that variety or that nuance. The grasping investment bankers are a minority, but they dominate the way we portray modern finance, and that’s starting to undermine those portrayals. The banker as villain is becoming a cartoonish cliché, and much as I love Doctor Who I doubt it will avoid that trap.

The pantomime villainy is making the message less powerful, causing people to react against the demonisation of bankers and forget that there is a real problem here.

Money is power

It’s a cliché but it’s true – money is power. And right now that form of power is in conflict with political power. The power of finance is eroding state institutions, investment bankers taking over from the politicians. It is, in my opinion at least, a profoundly undemocratic trend. At the ballot box we all have equal power, in the market place our power depends on our wealth, whether earned, inherited, stolen, or otherwise acquired.

This is an issue that science fiction in particular is well placed to address. It’s a big feature of Richard Morgan’s excellent Market Forces. Whatever your views on this change, it’s one worth exploring, and science fiction’s capacity to look to the future is a great way to do that.

More variety please

If that exploration is to have any impact then we need a more nuanced approach to portraying bankers and finance, one that acknowledges and explores the difference between the helpful little guy and the huge corporate villain. Literature, TV, films, games – these all have the power to change views and so shape the world.

Even an episode of Doctor Who.

A hat like that – genre mashing westerns

 “Man walks down the street in a hat like that, you know he’s not afraid of anything … ” – Mal, Firefly

Straight up westerns aren’t all that popular these days. Despite the success of the magnificently dark Deadwood and Hell on Wheels there are very few on television, and even fewer in the cinema. Yet in sf+f we’re seeing western elements find their own growing niche. Not since Clint Eastwood sang his way through Paint Your Wagon have western mash-ups been so popular.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNvOl_Yml3U&w=420&h=315]


Science fiction westerns

It all seems to have started with the science fiction westerns. Star Trek was famously sold as Wagon Train in space, and while it may not have had many western trappings it certainly dealt with many of the key themes – wild frontiers; manly men in the rugged outdoors; civilisation transformed in the face of the other.

More recently Joss Whedon put the western elements front and centre in Firefly, possibly the most mourned show ever to face early cancellation. Again he explored themes of civilisation and borderland living, along with outlaws and the lingering divisions that follow civil war. But this time there were cowboys, shootouts and even a train robbery – yeehaw!

Steampunk westerns

In many ways steampunk’s a great fit with westerns. You’ve got the nineteenth century technology, outfits and attitudes. You’ve got frontier living again, combining technological and geographical frontiers. You’ve got dreams of a greater future twisted round with dark consequences. OK, so all of this was pre-empted by Wild Wild West, but now that steampunk’s properly emerged as a genre you can see the two being combined to good effect. That’s why the likes of Josh Stanton are scribbling away at steampunk westerns. Even I’ve had some success in that area.

Fantasy westerns

Now we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe Abercrombie‘s also done it with Red Country, stripping away the technology of the western but keeping its tension and drama, from the grand conflicts between settlers and governments back home to the intimate brutality of the pre-shoot-out stand-off. It’s the social side of the old west, the behaviours and the social structures, rather than the technology and fashion, and it’s utterly compelling.

Back to the beginning

It’s great to see all these mashups. I love westerns and I love to see them combined with other genres in this way. It’s why I’ve written things like A Sheriff In The Deep and The Cast Iron Kid. But you can still never go wrong by going back to the classics. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the stories I’ve mentioned above then do yourself a favour and go watch some Clint Eastwood too. Pick up Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales. They’re exciting, evocative films, and worth every moment.


Lord Grimdark and the critics

Not listening to the people who put you down is one thing, making them your strength is quite another. And that’s what fantasy author Joe Abercrombie has been doing, under his Twitter handle of @lordgrimdark . Abercrombie often posts quotes from his one star reviews, fragments of why people really hated his books.

This sort of thing is generally considered bad practice for an author. You’re either spreading negative press about yourself in the form of the review, or you’re making more bad publicity by picking an unwinnable public fight.

But it seems to work for Abercrombie. It fuels a public persona that has the grim, resilient humour of his characters. By sharing largely without comment he removes any power those critics had over him, not rising to the bait but making them part of his own book-selling machine, resolving the conflict not into a flame war but into something for his Twitter followers to discuss.

There’s something pleasing about it all. Something almost Taoist, turning your opponents’ strength against them. I hope next time any of us comes in for criticism we can take a lesson from Lord Grimdark and turn it to our advantage.

It’s just business

I love a good fictional business, especially in science fiction and fantasy. Kingdoms and nations are all well and good, but there’s something more fluid about a company, something about its aims and practices, the way it crosses borders and slides quietly into the corners of our lives, that makes it more interesting. Something that makes it, in many cases, more sinister.

What Batman made on his lunch break
What Batman made on his lunch break

Businesses of the future

Science fiction is the obvious home for this, whether it’s the corporate hegemonies of a William Gibson novel or the extreme hedge funds of Richard Morgan’s Market Forces. Corporations are the staple villains of techno-thrillers and cyberpunk, Big Brother. Its that insidious nature, that ubiquity, that focus on profit over principle that fits them so well to a world built on sci-fi and noir.

Superheroes and the business as mask

In the superhero genre corporations play a more benign and far less interesting role. They’re usually the cover operation for a superhero, whether it’s Batman, Green Arrow or Iron Man. Sometimes their nature as businesses might play into the plot, as Bruce Wayne uses his front companies to move technology around or Tony Stark faces a corporate takeover. But for the most part these are just companies as masks, empty of the stuff businesses do. Even Lex Luthor mostly uses super science for his nefarious schemes, not the more straightforward mechanism of investments and mergers.

A notable exception to the superhero pattern was Joe Casey’s last two years writing the Wildcats, under the title Wildcats 3.0. Teleporting android Spartan takes over running the Halo front company and starts using it to change the world. For the first time the alien technology the Wildcats have access to gets to change the world they live in. And then… poor sales, fascinating book cancelled due to lack of fist fights and lycra-clad women. Damn.

Monetising fantasy

There’s also a hint of business in Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy novels, with the occasional appearance by the sinister banking house of Valint and Balk. I love seeing business intrude in the unfamiliar space of a fantasy world, combining the innovations of Europe’s early banking houses with the implication of dark forces in the background. Because modern business didn’t just leap fully formed from the forehead of Adam Smith, and it’s interesting to see someone working with the grey world of their emergence.

So yes, I love a good fictional business, in all its myriad forms.

How about you? Can you think of classic examples of fictional businesses that I’ve missed? Do you enjoy their presence or see them as just one more part of the scenery? Leave a comment, let me know.


Picture by Images Money via Flickr creative commons

Abercrombie and action

I’ve been on a bit of a Joe Abercrombie kick recently. Having previously enjoyed his First Law trilogy, I ploughed through all 600 blood-soaked pages of The Heroes in December, finished Red Country last week, and have a borrowed copy of Best Served Cold next to my laptop as I write this.

If you haven’t read Abercrombie, and you enjoy action packed fantasy, then I really recommend all these books. He’s been growing as an author, and to my mind The Heroes and Red Country have shown him becoming more interesting and adventurous. But the reason he’s able to get away with these experiments – epic fantasy as war movie and western, respectively – is a good grounding in action and character.

People sometimes talk about plot or action as if they were antithetical to good character and idea writing, distractions from the art of depicting the depths of personality or exploring the possibilities the intellect provides. This seems to be a given of much highbrow literary study. Personally, I think that’s rubbish. Bad action and bad plot get in the way, but so does bad character writing. Good action, like Abercrombie’s, is both exhilarating and enlightening. It exposes the characters involved, their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and makes you care more about them for the perils they face. In Red Country, he uses action sequences to reflect upon the features of the western genre, and the nature of heroism, calling many assumptions into question. This doesn’t mean that the action slows while he writes a paragraph on the meaning of each blow, but rather that the meaning is coded into the action, for you to find if it interests you.

Clever writing doesn’t have to mean dull writing, thank goodness. And once again, I’ve found someone whose stories inspire me to go write.


Thinking about the nature of steampunk got me considering an issue that it tends to ignore, but which is inextricably tied into the industrial nineteenth century society on which steampunk is based. That issue is imperialism, and the nature of empires, and it’s interesting to think about how it fits into fantastic literature.

Empires are a fairly common feature of genre fiction, especially fantasy. Whether it’s the imaginatively named The Empire of Star Wars, or the expansionist evil of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, we love a good empire. But this is usually just empire used as a shorthand way of indicating an evil and/or expansionist nation, a big bad for the heroes to oppose. It doesn’t get into the nature of empire.

There are some notable recent examples bucking this trend. George R R Martin’s Westeros is clearly an empire, made up of disparate nations brought together by war and compromise, some more reluctantly than others. Martin uses features of empire, such as a government geographically and culturally distant from many of its people, and the resentments and rebellions that exist on the fringes of a vast state.

Joe Abercrombie hs created another example in his Union. Again, this is a nation that doesn’t self identify as an empire, but clearly is one. And again, features of empire are explored. An elite turning the efforts of the masses to their own ends, especially in the case of the mage Bayazid. The role of the military in such a society, with actions on the field of battle shaping and shaped by political competition and hierarchy. The dehumanising experience of people ground down, often to their deaths, by the needs of a state for whom they are anonymous resources, as shown throughout The Heroes. And the conflicts on the fringe of empire in Red Country, as so-called civilisation bears down upon the wilds beyond, restricting the choices of free living people, leaving them to flee, submit or die.

In some ways, it’s hardly surprising that empire is seldom dealt with in this way, especially in the sort of celebratory fiction that is much steampunk and Victorian fantasy. It’s hard to portray an empire as something sympathetic, and so it is usually a villainous institution seen from the outside, or an absence, an empire in name only, like the Britannia that plays background to much gaslight fantasy. I’m not judging this, just noticing the pattern, and perhaps the opportunity. As Martin and Abercrombie have shown, there’s a lot of interest to be found in this theme, and for writers of steampunk in particular, there are new ideas to be had.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve missed loads of other examples of empires. If so, let me know – it’s as good for me to learn something knew as to keep writing what I already think.