I’ve been thinking a lot about grimdark fantasy for the past few months.
I’ll start off by saying I’m not really a fan of the label. Like most identifiers, it tries to reduce something complex into a simple label that we can fling around.
So let’s start with at least a vague definition: When I talk about grimdark fantasy, I’m talking about stories in which good and evil isn’t necessarily easily delineated. Characters aren’t champions of light and darkness, but are complex characters. But more than anything, I’m talking about stories that embrace a darker tone, willing to pull back the curtain on horrible violence and brutality.
In the past few decades, we’ve seen an explosion in works that are classified as grimdark. From A Song of Ice and Fire to Malazan and The First Law, there are no shortage of books that fall somewhere on the grimdark scale.
I find that I have really mixed feelings about grimdark.
First, let’s look at the bright side of grimdark:
I think the greatest contribution of the subgenre (if it can even be called that), is the more ready acceptance of rogues and morally complex characters. Such characters have existed for a long time, of course, but grimdark has brought them to the forefront, and I believe complex, morally ambiguous characters are more interesting and lead to better stories. I appreciate stories in which protagonists struggle against their character, and I appreciate that sometimes they fail.
Likewise, grimdark allows for more complex conflicts. It’s not just good vs evil or light vs darkness. Grimdark more accurately reflects the world we live in, which I think makes the works more impactful.
But, as with all things, the pendulum can swing too far in one direction. I read a book last year in which I could almost hear the author asking himself, “What’s the worst thing that I could do here?”
Ooh, let’s have the protagonist protect a young orphan.
Except the orphan has a fatal disease.
And the orphan gets possessed by a demon.
And the orphan gets enslaved, starved, and beaten.
Then when the hero tries to rescue the orphan, the orphan is brutally tortured and killed.
I exaggerate a little, but not by as much as I wish I was.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with highlighting the darkness that lives side by side with us. I actually think it’s important.
But darkness for darkness’ sake creates a weaker story and numbs the reader.
Which is why grimdark is hard to do well.