I wrote the Steelhaven trilogy between 2012 and 2015. During that period there was a slew of other writers releasing fantasy novels, riding on the popularity of the Game Of Thrones TV show, which were labelled as “Grimdark”. Naturally, Steelhaven was clumped in with those, and having a cast at least partially consisting of amoral, shades-of-grey characters, and with the grim world they inhabited, I had wasn’t going to argue. Why would I, when I was riding a new wave of popularity? The label seemed a fitting one and I was happy to accept it. However, more recently, the buzz around the publishing industry is that grimdark has been abandoned for more ‘traditional’ fantasy stories and settings. But what is this subgenre we call Grimdark? And was it ever actually a ‘thing’?
A quick look on Wikipedia tells me: “Grimdark is a subgenre of speculative fiction with a tone, style, or setting that is particularly dystopian, amoral, or violent. The term is inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: In the grim darkness of the far future there is only WAR.”
Having written some 40K fiction and followed the worlds of Warhammer for years, I can attest their stories are certainly grim and dark. But is this a new thing? And does it deserve to have its own subgenre?
The first I’d heard the term ‘grimdark’ used was in relation to Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books. Certainly there’s violence but are its characters amoral? I would argue not. Each character has their reasons for the acts they perform, but none of them are malicious in their motivations. They are ultimately trying to serve a greater good, from Glokta trying his best to rescue a city under siege (albeit via subterfuge and sometimes torture) to Bayaz attempting to avert an invasion by the Gurkish through ANY means necessary. As for ‘dystopian’, Abercrombie’s world is one any student of history might recognise as analogous to our own, with the Union’s righteous colonialism or the feudal brutality of the North. There is nothing dystopian about it, it’s merely a fantasy reflection of our own world. So why the label?
I’d suggest that whether a background is ‘grimdark’ or not is a matter of perspective. It completely depends on what fantasy you’re used to consuming. I can understand that someone moving straight from Tolkien to Abercrombie would be shocked by the stylistic dissonance – one is presented as the retelling of a historical myth, while the other is more a naturalistic character study – but their themes are essentially the same. In fact one might suggest LotR has a much more grimdark setting since everywhere beyond the Shire is riven by war and decay.
It’s this interpretation (misinterpretation?) of grimdark themes that has led to a pigeonholing of certain novels. The unconscious (and sometimes conscious) need to place everything in a box. One 2016 article in the Guardian said, “The fantasy genre has been dominated by “grimdark” in recent years, which means bigger swords, more fighting, bloodier blood, more fighting, axes, more fighting and, one suspects, a not-all-that-covert commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers. It’s well beyond time for the evil eye of genre publishing to swing back towards a truly epic and more emotionally nuanced kind of fantasy”.
This seems more of a disingenuous attack on (and underestimation of) “adolescent male readers” than a sensible commentary on a perceived subgenre. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with trying to appeal to a certain demographic, whatever it may be. Secondly, if you think the majority of novels labelled Grimdark are not “emotionally nuanced” then you haven’t been paying attention. Try reading recent ‘grimdark’ novels by female writers such as Godblind or the The Court Of Broken Knives and then tell me they just appeal teenage boys.
One of this year’s biggest fantasy releases is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan, which on the surface would appear to contain definite grimdark elements – a dark gloomy city-without-hope, a bunch of desperate thieves, blood by the bucketful. I asked Gareth his thoughts on the subject, and in particular whether he considered his own book to be ‘grimdark’. Here’s what he had to say:
“I think the definition of Grimdark has shifted in the last few years; I’ve always thought of Grimdark as absurdly over-the-top darkness, grim darkness so grim and dark it becomes humorous – Warhammer 40k being the obvious example, especially the near-parodic bits where a billion soldiers get marched to their deaths because some bureaucrat ticked the wrong box or whatever – the intersection of the Venn diagrams of Warhammer, Brazil and the Paranoia RPG. By that definition – which I picked up primarily from gaming – Gutter Prayer isn’t grimdark. I think the literary definition has shifted to “morally ambiguous protagonists, lots of grime and grit, not high fantasy” – in which case Gutter Prayer probably qualifies. The protagonists are thieves, to be fair to them they don’t actually kill anyone directly, although the book’s death toll as a whole is pretty huge. Some of the reviews do hold it up as an example of grimdark, and I’m fine with that – it’s certainly consciously “realistic”, or as realistic as one can get in a setting of gods and monsters.”
So it seems even authors of books purported to be grimdark aren’t sure if they’re grimdark. I certainly don’t. There are gritty elements to my current series War Of The Archons, but does it fit the prerequisites? I’m not sure it does, but by the same token, I’m not sure I care. Readers and reviewers can use whatever labels they like. One reader of A Demon In Silver even invented the term ‘High-Dark’; yet another new label you might think I’d look on with ambivalence, but you know what – I’m taking it, and you’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands.
Grimdark was hailed as a new phenomenon, but it’s easy to ascribe certain aspects of it to the fantasy of old. Gemmell, Howard, Cook and others all wrote bloody fiction with morally ambiguous anti-heroes, but were they merely grimdark? Was the invention of this “new” subgenre just a tool for book publicists to sell a new wave of fiction that has actually been around for decades? If that’s the case, can we assume it never really existed in the first place?
Personally I’d say no, it never did. It was always an affectation – a shiny new term to tantalise the reader, or a stick used to beat an author who dared to write in a certain way. And I’m sure it won’t be long before some new shiny subgenre comes along that booksellers are clamouring to fill their shelves with. In the meantime, readers will carry on reading what we all call fantasy – whether it’s grim, high, epic, heroic, historic or anything else we choose to come up with. I know I will.
Hangman’s Gate by RS Ford is available now from Titan Books.