October is wrapping up along with a great month of GrimDatkTober guest content from a few of my favorite people across the SFF blogosphere. I hope everyone has found a few more books to add to their ever growing TBRs!
Today I’m happy to present the last GrimDarkTober guest post for you all. Nowadays he mostly sticks to Science Fiction, but Alex from At Boundary’s Edge used to be a huge fantasy reader as well. True to his brand of cranky-but-actually-cinnamonroll-in-disguise vibes, check out this great piece on why he eventually put GrimDark aside
Why I Gave Up On Grimdark Fantasy
I grew up reading fantasy. I tried a thick, somewhat battered omnibus of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings twice before I was 10. Admittedly, I never made it through The Return of the King, but I was absolutely enchanted by the world. I remember seeing Robert Jordan’s Winter’s Heart on the shelves of a used bookstore and thinking from the sheer size that it must be something truly Shakespearean in content. I didn’t complete either Tolkien’s or Jordan’s epics until much later on, but I filled my time with other classical epic fantasy. The Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks were my first adventure in collecting a whole series. I read David Edding’s The Belgariad and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and knew I was hooked on fantasy. As I hunted out new books to read, and sent my mother to do the same, I soon found myself in possession of a book with a bloodstained map for a cover. It was called, rather enticingly, The Heroes, and it was written by a man named Joe Abercrombie.
I was fifteen, and The Heroes offered me a new window on fantasy. This was a fantasy where people died a lot. There were no heroic sacrifices, just meaningless and pointless deaths. It was great. Blood spattered on every page, there was no clear-cut good and bad. Most of all, it was absolutely hilarious. It wasn’t only Union soldiers who had split sides by the time I reached the end. I rushed out by the other books set in the same world, and found them all in a similar vein. Though the books were filled with hateful characters, the writing itself was a clearly loving poke in the eye of the tropes and stereotypes of the fantasy I’d read up to that point. It was while looking for Abercrombie’s next book that I encountered the word that would change it all. Grimdark.
Finally I had a label for this darkly humour thing I enjoyed so much. I let that label guide me to my next reads. And so I came across Mark Lawrence. The Broken Empire wasn’t quite as riotously funny as The First Law, but Jorg had a way with words that could get a laugh out of me at times. His successor, Jalan from Prince of Fools was a much more jovial character. The comedic elements running through this books were distinctly British. A raised eyebrow and a ‘here-we-go-again’ mentality when it came to the tropes. These stories weren’t so much subverting tropes as having fun by actively running against them. And that’s what grimdark became to me. Fun. Over the top violence and a fistful of jokes wedged in for good measure.
At around the same time as I was reading Lawrence, I started Peter V. Brett’s The Demon Cycle and Brent Weeks’ . Both of these were books I had seen bearing the grimdark label in some corners of the online community, so I assumed they’d fill the same void. But they didn’t. I enjoyed both series, but neither was particularly funny. Even when they were over-the-top, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being played straight. They weren’t laughing at how bloody they could be, they thought it actually meant something. It was a emo, edgelord mentality that left me utterly cold.
Within a year or so, I discovered the work of David Gemmell, a forebear of grimdark who truly believed in heroism, and his work was a breath of fresh air. Gemmell’s work also led me to that of Stan Nicholls, who surely deserves more credit for running ahead of the grimdark curve. His Orcs novels are a sweary, bloody spectacle, at one point putting a unicorn horn to truly inappropriate use. But they’re funny. Weapons of Magical Destruction in its title alone tells you the tone of the book. A satire not only of fantasy, but of real-world events, all told with a crazy grin and an axe in each hand.
Meanwhile, the modern grimdark train rolled on. As an avid fantasy reader, I did what I could to keep up. I bought the first book of countless series, looking for that same witty high. I bought Anna Stephens’ Godblind, Michael R. Fletcher’s Beyond Redemption, Devin Madson’s We Ride the Storm, and Mike Shackle’s We Are the Dead. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed a single one of them. They were well-crafted books, but they proved to me one incontrovertible fact. Grimdark had started taking itself seriously. The joy was gone. The laughter was dead. There were still some good books falling under the grimdark label. R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War is more of a historical fantasy, but uses that history of violence to provoke thought. Adrian Selby’s Snakewood is one of the few books to include a magic system that doesn’t make me pull my hair out. Anna Smith Spark’s Empires of Dust is a literary masterpiece in terms of prose, and even includes some of that too-rare humour amid all the misery and tragedy.
As the grimdark label covered more and more books, it ceased to hold the meaning that had drawn me in all those years ago. Worse still, the nihilism had spread to the far corners of the fantasy genre. Fantasy became a place where hope was for idiots and anyone calling themselves a hero was only after your money. It just wasn’t fun anymore. The worst offender was R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Came Before, a book that was, with its central thesis that men exist only to destroy and subjugate each other, so utterly devoid of cheer that I finally decided to call it a day.
Grimdark has cultivated a reputation for telling it like it is. For showing the world for the horrible place it is. But that’s wrong. Yes, there are bad things in the world (and worse than you’ll see in most grimdark books), but there’s joy in the world too. Even in the worst of situations, people will crack a joke. If all you’re doing is showing humanity being horrible to itself, you’re not being anywhere near as smart as you like to tell yourself. So much of modern grimdark seems intent on wallowing in self-pity, and dragging the reader down with it. Quite frankly, it’s become dull.
So yes, I’ll still read Joe Abercrombie. I’ll pick up Anna Smith Spark’s next book. But because of the author. Not because of the genre label that gets slapped across the cover.
Grimdark – whatever you are anymore – I’m done with you. Let me know if you get your sense of humour back.
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