Rogue Fantasy: an anaysis and overview
So for my second term of high school (I do clonlara school, basically an online high school) I decided to give in to nerdery and do a summary on the Rogue Fantasy subgenre. I know, I know, it’s crazy. But here it is.
Introduction and general overview
Fantasy is an incredibly rich genre, but since it’s birth, it has grown enormously, new subgenres evolving seemingly endlessly. Fantasy as we know is fiction whith otherworldly, unnatural and/or magic elements incorporated to the story and world.
To name a few genres;
There’s High Fantasy & Epic Fantasy – great stories that take place in entirely fictional universes, often letting the reader follow several protagonists’ points of view.
There’s Urban Fantasy, which is fantasy themes applied to an urban, often steampunk setting.
There’s ‘Grimdark’ where the name almost speaks for itself, dark worlds filled with evil and disaster, where the morality of the characters are in most cases questionable.
I’ve recently been reading a lot of Rogue fantasy. Like the name suggests, it’s subgenre about thieves and rogues, where the criminal aspects are key to the story.
However, I’ve had a hard time defining the genre. The books I’ve read during my work with this genre have all fit into different subgenres according to other readers, and because of that, I’ve been able to see connections between different subgenres.
For example, I read a series called the Gentlemen Bastards Sequence – a story of thieves and conmen in a world which is not entirely dissimilar from our own rennaisance world. Someone classified those books as Grimdark fantasy. I read another book, a classic, the Princess Bride, just to realize that this book is more of a 'Swashbuckler’ fantasy novel. Swashbuckler fantasy is mainly about heroism in a world full of adventure, with swordfighting and pirates and whatnot. And then I realized that I could absolutely fit the Gentlemen Bastards books into the Swashbuckler genre as well as the Grimdark genre. And so on.
I think that this particular genre, although it’s a very popular one – with thieves more or less dominating the Young Adult section of fantasy – is rather 'unclassified’. Or maybe that’s the wrong word. Rather that the books can fit into several genres, which would make more sense.
For example, I could see the book 'The Princess Bride’ as a rogue fantasy book because it shares the Swashbuckling action and adventure that many other 'rogue’ fantasy books I’ve read have. I think it’s very important to realize that when talking about different Fantasy genres, it’s often a personal case of classifying it.
1: The Rogue
If I had to name one thing that makes Rogue fantasy Rogue fantasy – it would of course be the rogue herself. But there isn’t just one rogue – there are different kinds. Especially in this genre, the types of rogues are many. I’ve made a list where I describe the different kinds of rogues I’ve found in fantasy fiction.
First off, the word 'Rogue’ means 'An unprincipled, deceitful, and unreliable person; a scoundrel or rascal’.
This means that a rogue doesn’t have to be a thief although most of us probably think of an assassin when we hear the word rogue (courtesy of World of Warcraft) but that’s only one of the many things a rogue can be.
The different kinds of Rogues
The first thing that springs to mind when we think of Rogues is probably the Thief.
There are many kinds of thieves just as there are many kinds of rogues, but a thief is always a person who steals, if not, they’d be called something else. The thief could be anything from a professional housebreaking burglar to a lowly orphan pickpocket to a corrupt politician working to fill his coffers on the work of others, But in the end, it’s still a thief we talk about. The fantasy thief we get to follow is often an orphan, either working alone, a miserable soul alone in a dangerous adult world, or they could be a member of a gang, where the orphan works together with others. Often, these gangs have distinct hierarchies where the bigger, tougher orphans keep the younger ones at bay with violence and threats, with the younger ones doing the hard work just to have their stolen goods confiscated by the ones higher up in the ladder. But a Thief can also be adult, of course. Then we’re looking at burglars and pickpockets who could either have grown up doing their job, or have become thieves as a result of for example poverty or bankrupcy. In the end, anyone could be a thief, if there are no other choices.
Another of the most well-known types of Rogues is the Assassin. Just like the case with thieves, there are numerous forms of Assassins; From the lowlife cutthroat waiting in the alley for someone to kill and rob to the professional hired killer that hunts down people in exchange for payment. The typical fantasy Assassin doesn’t usually hold any personal grudge against her target – she simply kills because whoever paid her told her to. For this, the assassin has to be cynical and resistant to emotion. The idea of killing anyone – young or old, king or peasant – has to be acceptable for the ideal assassin. The Assassin is known to work alone. She rarely have friends or close contacts, maybe because she has a habit of not trusting anyone she’s not threatening with a dagger. However, assassin guilds are not entirely uncommon in the world of organized crime. An important thing to remember is that not every assassin is a specialist trained to kill kings and politicians, quite the opposite actually. Being a professional assassin takes a lot of practise and a good pinch of skill, so simple cutthroats and stranglers are common in gangs, working along with burglars or other thieves to achieve a common goal: money.
A disclaimer: When I say bandit, I don’t mean the same kind of criminal as the Thief. The bandit, to me, is a criminal with an adventurous spirit. Think Robin hood, or Captain Jack Sparrow, for example. The Bandit usually has slightly better morals than the thief or the assassin, but that doesn’t mean they are kind members of society. Bandits steal and pillage too. But the bandit is in some occassions almost a folk hero. He steals from the rich and (sometimes) gives to the poor. There are many kinds of bandits. There’s the forest bandit, working in gangs together, robbing kings and dukes and then withdrawing to the safety of the deep forest, there’s the heroic but scumbag-ish pirate, who is the most 'evil’ kind of bandit, there’s the highwayman – an almost ghostlike bandit who appears out of thin air on the roadside to rob you of your belongings. There’s the steampunk freebooter, much like a pirate, often a member of an often dysfunctional criminal gang dedicated to adventure and treasure-seeking.
To summarize the bandit;
Where the thief does it because she has no other choice, the Bandit does it just because she can.
This is a tricky one. See what I did there? No, but seriously, this is where the lines start to get blurry. From the corrupt aristocrat to the orphan street actor, the Trickster is a thief who swindles others. Also often called a conman, this is one of the more interesting types of thieves according to me because it involves so much play. The Trickster carefully plans his jobs, wether they involve the swindling of a wealthy aristocrat or a simple street con. The Trickster is often a richer kind of thief, who can afford costumes and disguises which he or she can use in their jobs. Example: The Gentlemen Bastards book series is about a gang of tricksters. The first book involves them playing a heist against a rich nobleman, seamlessly weaving a totally fake story to get his attention, and then, spinning the web even wider, they begin hauling off bags of money right in front of their eyes. The Trickster often enjoys his job. A personality trait common to many tricksters is good charisma. The Trickster can convince and bluff anyone with a little time and perhaps just a little bit of luck, wether it be that rich, influental lady down in the Ballroom or the paranoid duke in his well-guarded office.
This is another kind of weird type of rogue because the Bruiser is often not just a bruiser. A Bruiser is a strong person who has experience with weapons and can handle themselves well in a fight. For example, the Bruiser might be a war veteran or ex-guardsman. The Bruiser is a teamplayer, definitely. She is very important in a gang of Rogues. A Bruiser can rough people up while the Thieves empty their treasury, or if something goes wrong in a job, one can always rely on the Bruiser to be there with either her fist, swords, or in Jean Tannen’s case – his two hatchets. But as I said, the Bruiser must not be limited to just fighting and brawling, in many cases, a Bruiser is skilled in the arts of stealth and pickpocking as well
~The Rogue Character~
In Rogue fantasy, the main ”element” is the character, without doubt. What I mean with this is, in for example, Epic fantasy or High fantasy, the world is the focus. Worldbuilding is key. But Rogue Fantasy involves getting personal with the characters. Very personal.
The rogue is a lawless person, who steals money or valuable property from others for their own gain. The morals of a rogue are always a relevant topic in Rogue Fantasy. What separates a heroic ”steal from the rich – give to the poor”-bandit from a lowly murder? Both are criminals, right?
For a rogue fantasy story to be interesting and enjoyable to read, the rogue character has to have some human side that can be understood by the reader. This can and will of course vary from reader to reader. I’ve seen reviews of books with ”evil” characters where I really don’t agree at all – and vice versa. It’s a tricky thing to know who’s going to enjoy the book and who’s going to disagree with the mission of the main characters. Sometimes one can both enjoy the book and also disagree with the characters mission, as I said, it’s a very personal thing.
This is also something that varies from author to author. But the Rogue fantasy books that I have read have actually surprised me. I would have loved to see even more female main/important characters but I will have to give this genre a pass on the gender equality test. Sexism was actually very sparse in the books I read, even Goldman’s 'The Princess Bride’ from the 1970’s, which did include some sexism, but that was in the 70’s and from what I’ve seen and read, Rogue fantasy and Fantasy in general has more or less grown past sexism. But again, this varies. Not all authors are the same of have the same views on society, but I’m very happy to see that the authors I picked for this analysis haven’t dissapointed me.
The Female Rogue
I’m only doing this paragraph because even though the sexism I found while reading was sparse, it existed. I’m writing this to sum up all the positive depictions of female rogues I got while reading.
The female rogue is every bit as skilled as the male one. There is no difference between the sexes. I’ve met tall, brutal killers and short sneaky assassins among the women in Rogue Fantasy stories. Just like their male counterparts. Badass female rogues are very common in todays Rogue Fantasy, which I think is epic.
One of the main characters in Scott Lynch’s 'Republic of Thieves’ is Sabetha Belacoros, a total criminal expert and con artist mastermind.
In 'Red Seas over Red Skies’, in the same book series, we meet the ruthless and widely feared pirate Drakasha, ruler of the Sea of Brass, and her swashbuckling sidekick Ezri.
In Brandon Sanderson’s 'The Final Empire’ (Mistborn series), there’s Vin, the assassin/crook who uses ancient metallurgic magic to gain superhuman powers as she helps ignite the flames of revolution in an autocratic country.
In 'Retribution Falls’ by Chris Wooding, we meet all sorts of steampunk pirate women. There’s the navigator Jez who is hiding a secret which has kept her running across the country for many many years. Most notable character in this entire book: Trinicka Dracken. Bounty hunter. Captain of a huge airship. Cold-blooded traitor and killer. Former lover of the main character. A great character!
Another character, this one from a non-Rogue Fantasy novel is the debt collector Devi from The Name of the Wind. She’s definitely malicious and tricky enough to earn an honorable mention in this list.
2: The Goal
Crooks want money. That’s common knowledge. Often, the goal of the Rogues in a story is a pile of gold, but like most fantasy heroes through ages of epic stories, many Rogues seek adventure. This is especially seen in Swashbuckler fantasy, closely related to Rogue fantasy.
But that adventure is often achieved on the road to that big pile of gold.
Most thieves become thieves because of two reasons: 1), They have no choice, or 2), they have a great greed for wealth and power, and achieving it the lawful way is too hard and takes too much time. To complete this goal of wealth and/or power (the two often come together), some things are essential. Brains are the number one components in the plan, second come nimble fingers for picking locks and cutting purses, muscles for breaking open doors and immobilizing guards and also, very important, cunning. The rogue must be able to think quickly, and act quicker. She needs to be able to make important decisions quickly and under pressure if the situation comes to that.
That’s why it’s important to the rogue to either be all of this things herself if she works alone, or assemble a trustworthy and qualified gang where everyone is assigned their role. Both work. Both have their pros and cons.
Back to the goal.
In many rogue fantasy books, the goal is achieved and the rogues live happily ever after (until someone catches them and they meet a swift end at the edge of an axe or a not so swift one at the end of a noose) but sometimes that goal can be quite nasty to reach. It may take a few books (or seven, as Scott Lynch allegedly plans for his Gentlemen Bastards) but at least in most completed Rogue Fantasy book that I have read, the main characters reach their goal and all is well. It takes a lot to write a story where the main characters fail their goal and still have readers praising the book.
3: The World
Just because I stated above that Rogue fantasy is built on character development doesn’t mean that the world is less important. For the story to be interesting and believable, the world has to be as well.
Rogue fantasy is incredibly adaptive. It can take place in an urban setting. It can be set in High Fantasy worlds like for example ”The Way of Shadows” by Brent Weeks. It can be set in a world historically similar to ours, like in ”The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch, where the world is similar to our own Rennaisance Venice.
I like to think that while High Fantasy worlds are vast and with many different countries and provinces, Rogue fantasy worlds are often smaller and more focused on a few places, usually. Of course, there are exceptions but the Rogue fantasy books that have really stood out to me and been the most enjoyable have been that way.
The rogue fantasy world is often somewhat evil. I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it certainly often has a dark undertone. I think it is there to amplify the dark theme of Rogues and crime, and Victorian Steampunk is a classic theme for these stories.
For example, not that the Sherlock Holmes stories are thief stories – it’s the other way around, but they’re criminal stories set in a kind of dark Victorian england. That kind of world is perfect for rogue fantasy, as seen in the video game Dishonored, where one plays an assassin in a huge steampunk city.
But as I said, High Fantasy worlds suit Rogue Fantasy perfectly. This is seen in Swashbuckler fantasy stories for example, like ”The Princess Bride” and even sometimes, although the world is darker and grimier, in Brandon Sanderson’s ”The Final Empire”.
The world plays a great role in Rogue Fantasy. The character is the main element, while in High Fantasy, the worldbuilding is key, more often than not. But for the story to be alive and functioning, emulating a living society where the Rogues do their play, the world has to be seamless. Who lives in that huge city where the thieves roam at night? Who’s that baker and what’s he hiding in his basement? That rich aristocrat in the fancier neighbourhood, I heard he’s got a stash of gems that could easily be lifted with a little tricking. People play huge roles in fantasy stories. Where they would usually be more ”good” in stories like ”The Hobbit”, they might be more cynical, ”evil” or otherwise wicked in some way. This is especially seen in the High Fantasy series ”A world of Ice and Fire”. That kind of world, like in Martin’s novels, fit Rogue Fantasy extremely well.
A hostile world is a perfect environment for Rogues.
The world has to be functioning like our own in order to achieve as good a story as possible. I’m not saying everyone has to do that, I’ve read stories where the world isn’t really that well-crafted and unique but the story hasn’t suffered from it at all.
Other than those few points like darker undertone and ”strange” people, a Rogue Fantasy world could be just like any other fantasy world.
Summary: Rogues are awesome and Rogue fantasy is the best thing for rainy days, best enjoyed with chocolate and a cup of tea. (based on personal experience)