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Noblebright stories

The writer C.J. Brightly and her colleague Mike Reeves-McMillan got into a discussion sometime ago about a type of fantasy fiction that’s in contrast to grimdark. The term they adopted for the type of story they had in mind was noblebright.

Here’s how C.J. Brightly describes noblebright. (Complete description here.)

Noblebright fantasy has at least one important character with noble, idealistic motives who does the right thing out of principle. The character is flawed, but his or her actions are generally defined by honesty, integrity, sacrifice, love, and kindness. The story upholds the goodness of the character; the character’s good qualities are not held up as naiveté, cluelessness, or stupidity, but rather shown to be worthwhile. Good characters can make a difference. Noblebright characters can learn and grow. They can deliberately choose to be kind when tempted to be unkind, they can choose generosity when it hurts, and they can influence their world and other characters for the better. In a noblebright story, even villains are not without hope; their stories may have a redemptive ending, or they may have some kind of conversion experience (religious or not). It’s not guaranteed, of course, but in a noblebright story, it’s a possibility.

Noblebright fantasy is not utopian fiction. The world of a noblebright story is not perfect, and indeed can sometimes be quite dark. Actions have consequences, and even good characters can make terrible mistakes. But a noblebright story is generally hopeful in tone, even if there are plenty of bad, grim, dark things going on in the world.

I love this idea. There’s room under the umbrella of that definition for many types of stories, including dark ones. It’s the mindset that makes the difference: a belief in the possibility of a hopeful future.

I’d love to hear in comments people’s thoughts both of the term and any novels that they think fit the bill.

Meanwhile, C.J.’s done more than simply promote the term noblebright—she’s also pulled together a collection of 12 indie-published fantasy stories that are noblebright in one way or another, and they’re now on preorder for only 99 cents. I’m very pleased and honored that she asked me if she could include Pen Pal, and I said yes. People reading here have had plenty of opportunities to get Pen Pal, but there are 11 other stories in the collection (plus bonus short stories by some of the authors) that you might be interested in. Under the cut are taglines for each of them. (For mine, I’ll be forever indebted to sartorias, who came up with it.)

C.J. Brightly, The King’s Sword: A disillusioned soldier. A spoiled, untried prince. And a coup that threatens the country they both love.

Lindsay Buroker, The Emperor’s Edge: A law enforcer being hunted for a crime she didn’t commit must work with a cold-hearted assassin to save the only person who can clear her name.

Sabrina Chase, The Last Mage Guardian: Most thought the Mage Guardians simply a myth, but their old enemy knows better--and of their number only one remains to thwart his plan of magical domination and revenge.

Francesca Forrest, Pen Pal: It starts with a message in a bottle and ends with revolution.

Kyra Halland, Beneath the Canyons: A bounty-hunting wizard and a rancher's daughter with untrained powers must stop a renegade wizard who is tampering with dangerous magic.

Angela Holder, Into the Storm: A massive hurricane will destroy Elathir unless Larine and her fellow wizards sacrifice everything to stop it.

Ronald Long, On the Shores of Irradan: Ealrin Belouve and his friends travel to a new land and face new dangers in search of a tree that may restore magic to one of their own.

Mike Reeves McMillan, Hope and the Patient Man: A talented young mage must overcome a curse to be with the wounded hero who loves her.

T. A. Miles, Six Celestial Swords: The dragon Chaos threatens the magical world of Dryth. Xu Liang sets out on a quest to unite the only six magical blades that can save it.

Christina Ochs, Rise of the Storm: When a renegade priest prophesies an imminent apocalypse, a conflict is sparked which will tip a continent into war.

Sherwood Smith, Lhind the Thief: Lhind enjoys life on the run, taking what she wants, until her secrets are uncovered one by one.

Emily Martha Sorensen, The Keeper and the Rulership: In a world where mathematics and magic are forbidden, Raneh's growing magic and can't figure out how to stop.

Preorder link here (Amazon), here (Apple), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Kobo).

But truly, I want to know: what novels have you read that you'd label noblebright?


( 57 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 22nd, 2016 03:19 pm (UTC)
Well, Noblebright definitely fits my Goddess's Honor series. Two books out so far--PLEDGES OF HONOR and BEYOND HONOR. As for other authors--alas, most of my reading of late has been catching up with regional literature and Stuff I Don't Buy But Want To Read (i.e., lit fic) so I'm blanking at the moment. However, old classics--The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Lloyd Alexander's Taran series come to mind right away. Cherryh's Morgaine series.

Hmm. Good potential panel discussion here. Thanks for sharing!
Aug. 22nd, 2016 03:28 pm (UTC)
Good to know! I'll mention your series on Twitter.

The Lord of the Rings and Lloyd Alexander's stuff definitely came to mind for me, too.

And yeah, I think it would make a great panel discussion!
Aug. 22nd, 2016 03:26 pm (UTC)
I love that definition! I think my favorite books are all dark noblebright stories. Because I love stories that show that the world can be really dark and bad things can happen but hope and love can win out in the end.

I tend to describe my favorite books as "I need a happy ending, and a happy ending is where nobody dies." Because I like the dark side of stories, and most of the time I don't want something that's simply fluff, but I don't want something that makes me feel like the world is hopeless and can't be saved because...just...why.

So the Kushiel novels by Jaqueline Carey, which I've recently reread, fit that category of dark noblebright. As do all of Anne Bishop's novels. (Her most well known is the Black Jewels trilogy.) And...pretty much all the books I like well enough to buy fall into the noblebright category.
Aug. 22nd, 2016 03:31 pm (UTC)
I think it's a big tent! I haven't read the ones you describe, but if they have a hopeful feel and commitment to ideals, I think they'd qualify.

So now I'm sort of wondering if there are novels that aren't grimdark, but aren't noblebright. I'm thinking certain sorts of light, fluff stories might not qualify because they simply don't engage with big questions. They're bright, but not noble, if you know what I mean. What do you think?

ETA: Not that a story needs to be *ponderously* noble... it just does need to address big questions. I think it could be done with a light touch. But some novels don't--that's not what they're aiming for.

Edited at 2016-08-22 03:38 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - danceswithwaves - Aug. 22nd, 2016 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 22nd, 2016 05:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - danceswithwaves - Aug. 22nd, 2016 05:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 23rd, 2016 06:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 22nd, 2016 03:43 pm (UTC)
I like that! The works of Tolkien come first to mind for me -- LOTR and The Hobbit were already mentioned, but I want to throw in The Silmarillion too.

Maybe The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison? One of the things I really like about it is that the protagonist is kind and tries to do the right thing when he's suddenly put in a position of power.
Aug. 22nd, 2016 03:45 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, from everything I've heard about The Goblin Emperor, it definitely would be noblebright.
(no subject) - nancylebov - Aug. 22nd, 2016 04:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 22nd, 2016 05:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 22nd, 2016 03:46 pm (UTC)
So many possibilities. I like the idea that the mindset is one of the criteria. The Goblin Emperor is the first to mind, but Michael Sullivan's trilogy comes to mind as well.
Aug. 22nd, 2016 05:28 pm (UTC)
I don't know Michael Sullivan! Have you reviewed him? (Probably you have and I'm just forgetting...)
(no subject) - sartorias - Aug. 22nd, 2016 05:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 22nd, 2016 05:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 22nd, 2016 05:53 pm (UTC)
Yes, The Goblin Emperor and the Discworld books immediately came to mind.

I think also some of Barbara Hambly's works fall into this category... I'm thinking of Antryg Windrose or Oryn the Peacock King - or in another genre, Benjamin January - characters who you can trust will do the right thing, no matter how grim the circumstances.

And maybe some of Frances Hardinge's books might qualify? Though her heroines often face a struggle with their consciences, in the end its their sense of integrity that comes through.

Aug. 22nd, 2016 07:54 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the Benjamin January books, but I've heard a lot about them. I wonder, based on what I've heard, if those stories have enough sense of hopefulness? I guess it's going to be something of a matter of opinion, but I got something of an impression that Benjamin January's voice and actions were sort of like a light in a dark place, like he was at risk of being destroyed by the grimness around him.

... which might still be noblebright, depending on where one felt the emphasis was.
(no subject) - puddleshark - Aug. 24th, 2016 06:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 24th, 2016 11:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 22nd, 2016 07:49 pm (UTC)
David Weber's work, definitely. ursulav's, when she's not writing horror (!). Lloyd Alexander! (Taran is the definition of noble!) Madeleine L'engle, too.

*stops herself from continuing*

You know, I realize almost everything I keep and re-read is noblebright. o_o
Aug. 22nd, 2016 07:51 pm (UTC)

And it's good to remember that a writer can sometimes write noblebright and sometimes write something totally different!
Aug. 22nd, 2016 08:58 pm (UTC)
Hexwood, definitely, and really most of DWJ, although the size of the questions and how dark it gets varies a lot (to some extent with the age of the protagonists).
Aug. 22nd, 2016 09:23 pm (UTC)
Excellent--thank you. This is turning into a great to-read list!
(no subject) - amaebi - Aug. 23rd, 2016 01:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 22nd, 2016 10:57 pm (UTC)
I'm afraid that the term 'noblebright' does nothing for me. I understand wanting a counter-movement to grimdark, but a) what's wrong with high fantasy, and b) if the stories that come to mind include LOTR, Discworld, and Barbara Hambly (all of whom I like, but for different reasons) then maybe the definition of 'noblebright' is too vague.
Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:48 am (UTC)
Putting aside the term, what thoughts does the block quote from C.J. Brightley call to mind?
(no subject) - marycatelli - Aug. 23rd, 2016 01:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 22nd, 2016 11:37 pm (UTC)
Anything by Emma Bull.

Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:54 am (UTC)
More for my reading list ^_^
(no subject) - pameladean - Aug. 23rd, 2016 01:22 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 23rd, 2016 02:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:41 am (UTC)
"Noblebright" feels excruciatingly self-conscious to me - nothing that anyone would set out to write - any more than they'd set out to write grimdark, surely? These both feel like post-hoc terms, applied from the outside, and not especially favorably.

Edited at 2016-08-23 12:41 am (UTC)
Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:54 am (UTC)
I think it was very much a post-hoc thing. Not many of the writers I know set out to write to labels anyway (except maybe if there's a call for submissions to an anthology or something), but I think people can often want to characterize what they do write, or what they like to read.

I've only got the one block quote from the post, but earlier on, C.J. notes that the term, when originally coined, was somewhat tongue in cheek.

It's true that labels are often applied aggressively or as a way of dismissing or disparaging something. I like the qualities C.J. describes, though.
(no subject) - heliopausa - Aug. 23rd, 2016 06:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:52 am (UTC)
Lord of The Rings is the defining type.

And I do try myself. The novels are Madeleine and the Mists and A Diabolical Bargain -- and there's the collections or the individual short stories.

Some others:
The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip
Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett
some of Kurt Busiek's Astro City -- I pick out The Tarnished Angel and Confession particularly -- but the rest are uneven -- I don't recommend Dark City, and Local Heroes is uneven, though "Pastoral" is exactly this. On the lighter side, his The Wizard's Tale
The Cloak Society, Villains Rising, and Fall of Heroes by Jeramey Kraatz
Wearing the Cape and its sequels by Marion G. Harmon
Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:55 am (UTC)
Excellent! I'm loving collecting all these titles.
Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:59 am (UTC)
That's awesome
Aug. 23rd, 2016 02:04 am (UTC)

I'm glad you think so!
Aug. 23rd, 2016 01:28 am (UTC)
Pen Pal definitely qualifies.

As a matter of curiosity, how would you classify Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy?
Aug. 23rd, 2016 01:43 am (UTC)
Also,have you read Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion books?
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 23rd, 2016 02:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - amaebi - Aug. 23rd, 2016 02:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 23rd, 2016 02:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - amaebi - Aug. 23rd, 2016 02:42 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 23rd, 2016 03:58 am (UTC)
I'm not sure about the term--it feels a bit forced, but I definitely like the definition. Two urban fantasy series that come to mind when I read that definition are Seanan McGuire's October Daye books and Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books.
Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:08 pm (UTC)
"October Daye" is a great character name! And, from what I've heard,** Harry Dresden is a great example of a hero who struggles to do the right thing while making mistakes along the way.

**yet again I prove my un-well-read status.
(no subject) - ericmarin - Aug. 23rd, 2016 01:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Aug. 23rd, 2016 02:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ericmarin - Aug. 23rd, 2016 02:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 23rd, 2016 07:57 am (UTC)
I'm not sure that I like the term "noblebright" because I feel it makes the genre feel too goody-goody, but the definition is exactly the type of thing I like to read. It's what I write too, but recent publishing trends have moved away from that type of story and now valorise grimdark as being more "realistic", which of course it isn't.

It's not nobility that I want in stories. That sounds too highflown and anyway the nobility are not always noble in character" Noblebright makes it sound as though it's about lords and ladies and high elves when I prefer tales about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It's characters with integrity (even if they slip occasionally) and courage that I like to read about. Now if someone could come up with a term that epitomises those ideas, we could have a new sub-genre.
Aug. 23rd, 2016 12:14 pm (UTC)
I can see how the term would make a person feel they're going to get nothing but Galahads, and yeah, that's not what I'm into either. I think some people who embrace the term may be into that--certainly many of the stories in the collection seem to be set in a high-fantasy universe with nobles--but I do think it's meant to be more about honoring hope, determination, and struggle to do the right thing even though you may be muddled or confused about what that is, may get it wrong, etc. In other words, I don't think it's about trappings or time period or character type, but about attitude and tenor. ... But I can see how the term works against that understanding.

When CJ first linked me to a discussion in which people were talking about stories that they felt qualified, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time came up. So from the start, I think the intention was to include more than high-fantasy-style stories--even if this particular collections skews toward high fantasy.
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