Recently, I read Joe Abercrombie’s novel, The Blade Itself. I’ve seen this book named many times as a “to read” selection for fans of genre fiction, especially if the audience wanted a darker tale. I’ll review this book in another post, but I wanted to take a minute to reflect on “grimdark” in genre fiction.
Grimdark isn’t really its own genre. It’s a sub-genre of fiction, usually, genre fiction that, according to Dictionary.com dystopian fantasy fiction characterized by harsh settings, extreme violence, and a bleak, fatalistic perspective on the future of humanity. It’s hard to see how grimdark could stand on its own as a genre, at least to me. Once a writer begins incorporating elements of fantasy or science-fiction, then the tale is necessarily absorbed into the larger genre. If it were literary fiction, then maybe it could be some iteration of transgressive fiction, but the issue remains. Grimdark is its own little subgenre in fiction, a distinct form that can shape a story.
By definition (see above) grimdark is not really cheerful. It serves a purpose, but as a generalized framework, there is a real risk of things becoming too negative, with no chance for any variation. In another medium, I feel like grimdark would be similar to painting, but the artist was only allowed to use varying shades of gray. If everything is bleak or harsh, what is left but to carry on in the face of so much misery?
Like I said, there’s a place for this. Fantasy in particular is guilty of too many epic heroes, and characters destined for greatness. Stories can become trite very quickly, and grimdark can serve as a correction to all of that. However, because it is so limited, grimdark offers severe limitations to a writer.
None of this is to say that I think grimdark is bad, just a bit narrow. Along with The Blade Itself, Glen Cook’s series of books, The Black Company, are often highly regarded examples of grimdark. Furthermore, there is absolutely an audience for these kinds of tales. They offer their respective genres a more varied perspective and invite more experimentation on a variety of approaches to presenting a narrative. This last bit is especially true with regard to morality. If everything is horrible and stands to remain horrible for the foreseeable future, how does one determine what is “good”? It’s a complicated question at the best of times, but in a situation where hope is less an ideal and more a historical concept, articulating morality becomes a much different challenge.
What’s more, grimdark isn’t limited to books. Try using grimdark as a keyword in Google and you’ll get Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop war game. Yes, Warhammer has its own line of fiction, but the tagline of “”In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.” sums things up very well for the darker vein of storytelling.
Grimdark has an audience, and it doesn’t require statistics of book sales to prove that. However, it’s a particular audience because the appeal is limited. Perhaps that’s the point. Grimdark will invite readers that seek a harsher story than what they might be used to. To that end, grimdark is a great variation on the selection of available reading.