All too often lately I’ve heard of this “sub-genre” of fantasy so lovingly lauded as Grimdark. Looking through fantasy novels written and praised over the last few years I kept seeing this term arise to the point that it had piqued my interest. Now I know that this is in no way a new term as it seems to have emanated from Warhammer 40,000’s tagline “In the grim darkness of the far future” and then gained some form of traction with Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ trilogy. However, the Grimdark had not invaded my conceptual boundaries of fantasy until recently.
With Abercrombie being the main proponent of this so called genre, it would have made sense to begin my venture in to this new realm with ‘The Blade Itself’. I’m ashamed to say, given how much of a popular series this is, that I have yet to delve in to the highly praised books. And the fact that they are so popular pushed me to search for something a bit newer; a bit more on the cusp of the unknown than Abercrombie’s work.
I did a bit of research and the most recent entry in to this subgenre of fantasy appears to be Luke Scull’s Grim Company series. So I decided to purchase the eponymous first novel, ‘The Grim Company’, as well as the second novel, ‘The Sword of the North’ and I spent the last two weeks tethered in their depths. So many sources categorised these books as Grimdark, which was the main pull to them in the first place. But after finishing these novels (reviews will be uploaded imminently) I had to ask myself, is Grimdark truly a subgenre of fantasy, or could it be categorised as a style of writing?
So why does this question burden me, I bet you’re asking? Well, when I did my research in to Grimdark I looked at a few definitions of what it is. These definitions threw around words such as ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’, and most infuriatingly ‘flawed heroes’. Novels that writhe amongst this idea seem to cast their net of grime and squalor, demeaning acts and degradation, far across the span of their characters and their actions. A lot of the definition for Grimdark seems to be that it deviates away from the Tolkienesque idea of intrinsic goodness and evil, and rather revels in showing characters that trudge in the murkiness between.
In practice this results, often, in the visceral decadence of meticulously tortured heroes, dismembered sidekicks, degraded women, all in the name of conveying a sense of reality. It portrays a fear that to make the hero truly likeable as a fundamental paragon of moral integrity is apparently in dire conflict with what humanity truly is.
For this reason I don’t believe that Grimdark truly is a genre, or sub-genre, of fantasy. Those novels that I have read that embrace such a term appear to go to such lengths in presenting flawed individuals that they actually stray from the goal they initially attempted to achieve. Characters become a parody of the idea of the anti-hero. Brutal acts become such common place that readers are soon desensitised to their impact, the whole effect becoming rather droll and often arduous. While trying to escape the confines of the general theme of good versus evil, good triumphs over evil, they also escape, to an extent, a truly engaging story in favour of a study in to what they believe humanity to be.
Now, on the other hand, if you look at Grimdark as more of a style or tone in which to help convey the horrors of your story, rather than twisting the story to fit the tone, you become drawn in to a world that is truly brutal, truly shocking, and, dare I say it, truly gritty. You only have to look at well-known works such as A Song of Ice and Fire, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the Black Company, and you get to see epic fantasy riddled with tones of Grimdark. The Grimdark in these instances, used as a convention of writing, helps the reader understand that the world is a dark place and true heroes have to commit heinous acts in order to survive. But they remain heroes nonetheless. We like them, we support them, and when they do commit these acts, their rarity truly helps present the desperation that they have to sink to in order to survive and achieve the greater good.
As I see it, Grimdark has been around since long before the phrase flickered in to existence. We see its influence stretching back decades in film, books and TV shows. There is nothing wrong with certain novels grasping to this phrase as a sub-genre, especially if it helps the consumer distinguish it as a novel that clings to their fancies. But its influence is so vast and all-consuming that to simply categorise it in such a singular form fails to do it the justice it deserves. To view it as a tone that rides gallantly through the realms of so many genres and sub-genres, then we truly get to see what a valuable weapon it can be to the author.