Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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How do you like the term “noblebright”?

So, a term I’ve seen around recently, which is supposed to be the antonym for “Grimdark,” is “Noblebright.” What do you all think about that? I like it, more or less, though it sounds like the sort of term that would be applied mainly to a subset of high fantasy rather than across SFF subgenres.

How would you define it? Apparently it’s been around in roleplaying game circles for a while: An Urban Dictionary entry from 2010 reads: used to describe roleplaying settings, noblebright is the opposite of grimdark, used to describe settings where noble heroes valiantly fight against evil forces to create a brighter future. That sounds like a fine definition to me. I think you do need both elements: the protagonist needn’t be one-dimensional and certainly shouldn’t be artificially saccharine, but he or she ought to be fundamentally “noble.” Which definitely includes “striving for a better future.” I think that’s a very important element.

Also important: the quest toward a brighter future has to be successful. The world must be objectively better off at the end of the story than it was at the beginning. I think that’s also crucial for anything that’s supposed to be an antonym for grimdark.

The protagonist should be a better person at the end, too: stronger or more morally confident or something of the kind — the opposite of (say) Abercrombe’s FIRST LAW trilogy, where the guy who becomes in the end a puppet king was striving to become a better person but instead becomes weaker; or even more so in the related BEST SERVED COLD, which is the one that solidified my own vehement dislike of grimdark. Heroism goes nowhere in grimdark; that’s part of the definition. THE GASLIGHT DOGS had the same kind of character arc for one of its protagonists; he started off weak and ended up evil. UGH.

So, what would be some examples of noblebright fiction, if you defined the category by example? I’m looking specifically for fiction, not games or movies.

I mean, lots of stuff is “not grimdark” but also does not strike me as fitting into any possible “noblebright” category.

Take Scott Lynch’s LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA series, say.

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Why it’s not grimdark: It’s just not. It doesn’t have that world-going-unavoidably-to-ruin hopelessness.
Why it’s not noblebright: the main characters are in it for themselves — they’re not striving for anything but their own wealth. Also, too gritty. So, since I feel that last is a count against it in this context, obviously I would add “not too gritty” to the definition of noblebright fiction.

How about Django Wexler’s THOUSAND NAMES?

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Why it’s not grimdark: It’s just not. Also, I presume the bad guys will not ultimately win (the series isn’t finished, but it doesn’t seem aimed in that direction).
Why it’s not noblebright: Winter is focused on herself and her own life. Marcus is focused on himself and his immediate surroundings. Who the heck knows what Janus bet Vhalnich has in mind? It’s impossible to be completely sure he’s even a good guy. I love these protagonists, but they don’t strike me at all as noblebright protagonists.

I like Lynch’s series; I need to read the 4th book. And I LOVE the first two books of Wexler’s series and look forward very much to starting over at the beginning and reading the whole series straight through when it’s finished. But they’re not noblebright, imo.

What is?

How about …

The Sharing Knife series. Fawn is focused mainly on herself and her small-scale concerns, but Dag is definitely focused on the broader picture.

The Chalion series. Even more so. The way the religion is handled on top of the protagonists and the basic structure of the plots makes this series definitely fall into the noblebright category.

The Goblin Emperor. Although I wish it had a sequel. But even from the first book, you can see how much better the world will be after Maia’s reign.

I started off by thinking of adult fiction, but I wonder if more YA falls into the noblebright category. Robin McKinley’s books, say. You know, The Wings of Fire series totally fits the criteria.

What do you think of the proposed category and its name? What are a couple examples you can think of — and are they MG, YA, or adult?

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12 Comments How do you like the term “noblebright”?

  1. Kim Aippersbach

    I hate the name. It doesn’t roll off the tongue at all, and it sounds almost cheesy.

    But I love the concept. That’s pretty much the only kind of book I read, TBH. (Except you’re right about Thousand Names not fitting, and I like books like that, too.) But almost all my favourite books are noblebright (it doesn’t even type smoothly. There must be a better name, one that isn’t obviously a mirror of grimdark.).

    Can’t think of anything Bujold has written that isn’t—Miles definitely has the overall improvement of Barrayar at heart, though his nearer motivations are often more personal. I haven’t read a lot of space opera, but I would say it often starts out with seemingly petty characters and plot arcs, but ends up turning noblebright by the end, when it turns out the universe is in danger and only the ragtag bunch of adventurers can save it. Andrea Host’s books are like that, too.

    Megan Whalen Turner—you can’t tell me Gen isn’t noble and valiant (whining and underhandedness notwithstanding)! I think Black Dog definitely fits—at least, please tell me there is a brighter future at the end?

    I think YA definitely tends more to noblebright than adult, maybe because adults have a depressing tendency to be more realistic …

  2. Craig

    I don’t like the sound of “noblebright” — too many syllables, and the “b”s cluster unattractively.

    (I haven’t run into the term before, incidentally, although I’d have to concede I am elsewhere than the mainstream of roleplaying gaming, these days.)

    ‘Making the world a better place’ is more restrictive than it sounds at first, since fantasy has a very strong tradition of heroism focused on preventing things from getting much worse but not necessarily leaving them better. E.g. THE LORD OF THE RINGS doesn’t seem to fit the category.

  3. Evenstar

    I really like the idea, not fond of the name. Here’s a few that jump out as I look at books I’ve read in the last year:
    Patricia Mckillip’s Riddle Master of Hed trilogy
    C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series
    Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses and Elemental Blessings, although the characters may be too self centered in the latter (still some of my favorite comfort reads)
    Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising
    Naomi Novik’s Uprooted

    I agree with the above comment that almost everything by Bujold fits too.

  4. Rachel

    Well, there seems to be a general consensus that the name is not great but the category would be useful. I do suspect that society would be better off if “noble” and “honorable” and such words could still be used without sounding cheesy. But for better or worse, “noble” does have a corny feel to it today.

    While plenty of fantasy would fall into the category, there is now and I think always has been a whole lot of conventional fantasy that does not; ie, all “low” fantasy to start with. It’s interesting how the noblebright category doesn’t even map that well onto high fantasy, since for example The Sharing Knife is too small scale and too focused on daily life to count as high fantasy, but is still noblebright.

    Whew, you know, it really is annoying to type that word. I keep having to hit the backspace bar. What *would* be an easier, better word?

    Also, I do want to add: grimdark is not at all realistic, imo. So to the extent that grimdark is a phenomenon of adult fiction, I don’t think it’s because it is “more realistic” than YA, though adult readers may be more likely to accept a world skewed toward hopeless.

  5. Elaine T.

    I would put LOTR in the category as part of being noble (in my definitions) is accepting losses and going on anyway, and certainly that is part of it. Besides, without Sauron the world must be a better place.

    I think Dave Freer’s YA Changeling’s Island probably counts, although it is small scale. The protaganist improves a lot over the story and his corner of the world is better at the end than the beginning.

    In SF Torgersen’s The Chaplain’s War which, swiping from an Amazon review, deals with “Torgerson also does something you don’t see much in conventional military space opera…he opens by presenting us an utterly defeated member of an utterly defeated Earth fleet, going through the motions of a passive task that seems meaningless at first glance—a man marking time as he waits for death. …
    It does arrive eventually, and it’s worth the wait, because this is a story that aims for something more than bang-zoom. Yes, it’s a tale about how a war might be resolved by means other than force of arms, but it’s mostly about that man in the little handmade chapel, lighting lamps and dusting pews in the service of a God he can’t comprehend, on behalf of people who are clinging to their last shred of hope. He’s not a chrome-plated hero, or a spiritual paragon. He cares about the people around him and is trying his best to do the right thing as he sees it, moment to moment.
    As it turns out, that’s enough.”

    I’m sure there are others, but that’s what is coming to mind this morning.

    On the name of the category, yeah, noblebright is clumsy. I think it is aiming for the same thing that other people have christened Human Wave. … pokes around the internet .. and finds this attempt to define: 1) entertaining. 2) Shouldn’t leave anyone feeling like they should scrub with pumic .. for the crime of being human … 6) you will have a positive feeling to your story.

  6. Sandstone

    I admit to mixed feelings about it for several reasons. I agree the word doesn’t really roll off the tongue, but also “noblebright” doesn’t really capture what I’m looking for as an opposite of “grimdark” either- the “bright” part is fine, but for me “noble” is more character behavior, while “grim” is more about the feel of a story, the claustrophobic feeling of options being cut off as you head for the inevitable ending that comes from everyone being terrible.

    A Twitter friend, Roanna Sylver, uses “dys-hope-ia” for her books, where things are really hard but everyone comes through, and while obviously this is somewhat limited in scope as wordplay on “dystopia” I think the “hope” part is the opposite of grim for me.

    Maybe “hopebright” would be a better term, then, in my opinion? It’s still cheesy as all get out, though :)

    (I also admit to personal reservations about noblebright because I learned the term from an essay by an author of “clean Christian fiction,” specifically the particular subset of “Christian” and “clean” that is exclusive of people who aren’t straight, and I had the impression that the term originated with that author- knowing it comes from a background in gaming instead makes me feel a little better about it.)

    Examples that come to mind:

    – Intisar Khanani’s Sunbolt
    – Andrea K. Host’s Touchstone trilogy
    – Francesca Forrest’s Pen Pal
    – Nahoko Uehashi’s Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
    – Carol Berg’s Song of the Beast (possibly it’s a little dark/gritty though?)
    – Marie Brennan’s Doppelganger duology (a little older, but definitely focused on reforming society for the better, especially in book 2)
    – Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown (this may seem an odd choice given Prunella’s extreme self-interest, but I loved the way that both she and Zacharias were dedicated to using their political power to uplift others like them disadvantaged by sexism and racism at the end)

  7. Rachel

    “grim” is more about the feel of a story, the claustrophobic feeling of options being cut off as you head for the inevitable ending that comes from everyone being terrible.

    Oh, yes, this! I hadn’t conceptualized this feeling as claustrophobic, but I think that’s accurate, and a big part of what doesn’t work for me.

    The “clean” categorization doesn’t really work for me, either, even though I prefer a discreet veil to explicit sex nearly all the time. There’s a big, big difference in the ways authors treat sex that is elided by this term — and I’ve never much cared for “dirty” as a synonym for sex or sexy anyway.

    I ought to have thought of Andrea K Host. Her books are really good examples of noblebright … or whatever we eventually decide to call it.

  8. Sandstone

    Agreed about “clean”- I decidedly prefer fade to black/off-screen sex if there’s sex, but using “clean” to describe that feels a bit creepy and dystopian somehow!

    Grimdark has never really had much appeal to me as a reader (neither has its cousin-genre, “retellings but if everything was horrible because people are horrible”).

  9. SarahZ

    I have never read any grimdark, because I just have a visceral, negative reaction to the idea of it. Definitely not for me. I mean, I don’t need my books to be all unicorns and rainbows, but it can’t just be nihilistic misery.

    That being said, noblebright doesn’t sound that appealing. Someone being described as “noble” can carry some weird baggage – it makes me think of privilege and self-righteousness.

    For examples of that type of story, though, how about the Tortall books? They go through a lot of positive social change in the course of their various series.

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