Wednesday 23 December 2015

Is Grimdark a thing?

I was impressed to discover that there's a definition (of sorts) of Grimdark on Wikipedia ... and I'm on it!

Cited on the page with me as examples (presumably prime) of Grimdark authors are Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan, neither of whom I've read, and George RR Martin, who I have read.

The key ingredients of Grimdark appear to be:

Nihilism, Violence, Darkness, Dystopian, Moral ambiguity / Lack of moral certainty

Now, I can't claim an overview - I haven't even read two thirds of my fellow examples! But if I constitute one of the four pillars of the alleged sub-genre (even as the least and last) then it might be instructive to see how these key ingredients apply to my work.


Often associated with moody teenagers, and reasonably so. When children reach the stage where they have to make some decisions, do something with their life, find a place in the world etc it's not unusual to question why you're doing such things, and the lack of concrete answers can be rather unsettling, inducing angst and nihilistic tendencies.

Since my first trilogy concerns a young man growing from 14 to 20 it doesn't seem particularly ground breaking that the lad should show some nihilistic tendencies. However, I really don't think that Jorg embodies many of the traits popularly associated with nihilism in youth culture. He is neither mopey nor apathetic. Instead he's ambitious, energetic, with a sense of humour,

Moreover, the nihilism charge is leveled against the whole world in a Grimdark novel. I reject that on the Broken Empire's behalf. We see the world through the eyes of one person in the Broken Empire trilogy - that perception is bound to be coloured by who they are and what they're doing. There's absolutely nothing to suggest, for example, that 98% of the citizens of Crath City aren't perfectly happy, living well-adjusted lives full of joy and well-balanced relationships.


General: Well I've blogged on this before. It's nonsense to say that violence in fantasy is anything new. I've seen violence just as graphic in fantasy books that aren't considered Grimdark as in ones that are, and much 'worse' in other genres.

Specific: The Guardian fantasy columnist told me that Prince of Thorns is full of torture scenes... That's a guy who is paid to read books and write about them. There are no torture scenes in Prince of Thorns. There's a scene in a torture chamber where torture is interrupted by the point-of-view's arrival. And there's one person describing (in non graphic terms) the torture of another person. Put all those words together (neither of them torture scenes) and you have maybe half a page.

I throw this out there as an example of how easily it is to be mislead, or to actively mislead people about the content of a book.

I also point at this quote: (Prince of Thorns) "was exactly as I expected it to be - which is to say, full of unrelenting rape". When of course there were ~61 words in the whole book concerned with rape and they referenced 'off-screen' events.

So, when it comes to the level of something, such as violence, it's very easy to be swayed in your judgement by what other people are saying. Janny Wurts (fine author, great person) told me she thought Prince of Thorns was very well written but too dark for her. I've just started her book Curse of the Mistwraith (great so far, but I'm only 30 pages in). The levels of darkness and violence seem pretty high to me - a sailor clinging to wreckage is beaten to death with oars, the other one in that pair is now trying to provoke the crew into killing him rather than being returned to the king for tortures unspecified... I've said before (provoking a wave of laughter at the Grim Gathering) that I never considered Prince of Thorns to be a particularly dark book. And I really don't. As Jessica Rabbit says: I'm not bad, I'm drawn that way.

General: Well, this is a pretty vague one. I guess it's a tone thing. There's certainly 'noir' in film. The city is tall, grimy. and it doesn't stop raining. Whiskey is drunk, the PI is cynical, there's a dame...

But in the books labeled Grimdark? Apart from mine I've read George Martin's, Luke Skull's Grim Company & Sword of the North, Bakker's The Darkness That Comes Before, Richard Ford's Herald of the Storm, Week's Way of Shadows, Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora ... I don't see any repeating motifs or themes or tone. Perhaps I'm blind to it, but I don't really buy into that. Returning to my current read ... Wurts has 'the Master of Shadows' front and center, he who is trying to get murdered rather than tortured ... he keeps plunging the ship into unnatural night. That seems to be both literal and literary darkness to me right there.

Specific: In a poll of my readers most considered the Broken Empire books to be 'cheerful'. From my point of view whilst there are ups and downs ... the tone is about defiance as much as anything. A refusal to submit rather than gloom and despair.

General: I see this one a lot. It's possible that many of the people using the term haven't properly considered its meaning. The Hunger Games book is set in a dystopian world. There is an established society that, as in Orwell's 1984, is run along lines that the audience would consider highly undesirable. Someone has made up a bunch of nasty rules and is applying them rigidly to an oppressed populace. Yes there's a resistance but it's a struggling one.

Some of the books I've seen called Grimdark have elements of this. The Lies of Locke Lamora for example. But most of them are actually war-torn. A civil war, countries at war, landscapes ravaged by raiders etc ... none of this is dystopian.

Specific: The Broken Empire isn't dystopian. There's no repugnant order being imposed on a repressed populace. The Broken empire is a chaotic war-torn landscape, and actually during the course of the books Jorg is technically struggling to bring unity and (as a consequence rather than a motivation) peace.

Neither is it dystopian in a 'civilization in decline' sense. Yes in the past there were higher levels of technology/social order. This is also true of say Norman and pre-Norman England - the Romans had more technology and order 1,000 years before. But, like Norman England, the Broken Empire is actually on the up-path from a previous low, rather than on the continuous down path from a distant high. Jorg is a uniter, an empire builder.

Moral ambiguity / Lack of moral certainty
General: While this is certainly true of many of the characters I've seen in books labeled Grimdark it also seems to be true of many others too. To me it's more a sign of mature writing than anything else. Many of the heroes from 80s fantasy didn't feel like real, conflicted, people with doubts and with limits to how much they would risk to do the 'right' thing. You would find those sorts of people in literary fiction, in 20th century classics, but they wouldn't be wielding swords or spells. All, it seems to me, that's happened, is that a greater percentage of fantasy writers have started to try to write 'real people' into their made up worlds, sensing an appetite for it from a more grown-up readership.

Specific: Again, I show the world in the Broken Empire through one set of eyes and that individual is definitely amoral to a large degree. But that doesn't mean the whole world he walks through shares that trait. Many of the occupants do, just as many of us do. But there are certainly people who try to do the right thing, who try to be honest, and who follow/agree with generally accepted definitions of good behaviour.

Well. If you take something as simple as an undulating 2D surface and consider the issue of mountains and molehills ... people will argue about it. Absent moles, when does a bump move from molehill to mountain? Set a value in height as definition and the bumps that reach one foot to either side of it will rage against that definition.

The stories we tell form a rather more complex manifold in many more dimensions and any attempt to draw a boundary with a few words and label those that fall inside it is going to be open to debate.

I don't have any objection to such attempts, but it does sadden me when I see people saying that they will read only Grimdark or won't ever read Grimdark, That mindset implies a belief that Grimdark is a real thing and that books given such a label really will tick a selection of boxes (they won't) and that by doing so they guarantee to contain a story that will or won't please you (also not true).

We're tribal by nature. Fandom is too. People like labels, not only to define books (and many other things) but by doing so to define themselves through their likes and dislikes. Some take it further - one set of labels constitute friends, and the others enemies. You'll see people blanket-hating (or loving) Grimdark with the same passion that others 'love' Manchester United and 'despise' Liverpool. That's fine. Enjoy. As long as nobody is taking it seriously.


  1. The people who go on about grimdark or your books as being beyond dark and rapey are full of shit or intentionally trying to score interweb points. The Guardian guy you mention is a downright moron and every time I see anything written by him I immediately ignore it. That the guy considers himself a fantasy writer and he writes fantasy articles is an embarrassment to the British Fantasy scene.

    I read all your books and a bit of Abercrombies stuff, I find none of it dark. You guys write fantasy that has a modern edge but it's not dark compared to other genres. Modern lit fic is darker than your stuff. Modern crime fiction like Scandinavian Noir is dark and makes your Thorn books look like what they are, fantasy. Your books don't even come close to being as dark as 19th century Russian lit so I don't know where these people get these ideas. They must not read a lot outside the genre.

    Yes fantasy is getting darker but it still has much much more to go until it even catches up to the darkness of it's cousin SciFi let alone non speculative genres.

    1. We're a society conditioned by Disney to sing along with happy princesses. It should be a rule that everyone has to read the original fairytales that include all sorts of rape and violence and not so nice heroes and heroines...

  2. Holy shit, I'm on that Wikipedia definition as well. That's hilarious. (Also, excellent post.)

  3. I haven't read your's or Morgan's works... (sorry) but I have read all of Abercrombie's. His books are definitely nihilistic, dark and morally ambiguous. Great reads. The one reason that is keeping me from your books is that I read somewhere that the main character is a lot like Kylar from the Night Angel Trilogy (SPOILERS!) in that both him and Kylar are pretty much invincible. I like when the main character has a chance of dying.

    1. It's a trilogy written in the first person ... draw your own conclusions about how likely the PoV character is to die.

  4. From the first book I bought (and therefore I can say that that was MY first book), I've always thought about them more in terms of colour than in terms of "genre".
    When reading your first trilogy, the main colours were grey and red being the first one the stronger one. When reading the second trilogy, the main colours were also grey and red, but this time red being the stronger. A great coincidence with the title.
    If I compare that with the colours of other said grimdark books, like Abercrombie's (brown and red), or Scott Lynch's (black and brown), they seem to form a group.

    If I compare that with Rothfuss' series (green and blue, the same as Harry Potter) or Tolkien (green and golden), they seem to belong to a different world of stories.

    That's just my perception, and I know it's a very particular one, so I wouldn't like to pontificate about this.

    Grimdark? Dark Fantasy? I don't know, but they are dark colour books while the traditional authors are brighter.

    Nevertheless, the classification has some kind of utility because it lets readers know that if you liked one author it is possible that you will like another one whose writing and/or stories are similar. Not 100% accurate but near enough that you won't make as many mistakes as by going "blind". From a reader's perspective, it has some value.

    As an addendum, the colour of Road Brothers is a great combination of grey and red, again.

    Sorry about possible grammar mistakes, english is neither my first nor my second language.

  5. Oh my, I've never thought I'd write grimdark, but since my Fantasy NiP 'Kings and Rebels' has two full fledged torture scenes already, I must be really grim and dark. ;-)

  6. Jorg is an unusual protagonist in that he's by no means a classic hero and we see this entire world through his eyes. The entire series is basically not Hollywood happy ending, and I think that's where the biggest problem lies. For example, I can never stop laughing at the people who think The Hunger Games had a happy ending, when the main character utterly failed to do the one thing she set out to do when she volunteered for the Games.

    Ultimately, people want their good guys and they want their happy endings. So a book that goes against this must be pigeon holed into some strange new category that includes a bunch of buzzword definitions that don't actually fit anything, instead of just accepting it as fantasy from a different angle where the hero isn't always sunshine and flowers. The books categorized this was are dark, yes, but based on the definition of "grimdark," they are no darker than so many other fantasy books out there.

  7. I don't like labeling either, but find it a funny coincidence that all my favourite fantasy novels lately are classified as grimdark - the books of the author of this blog included, as well as the others mentioned in the linked article, and several others.

    I agree that it is hard (and I mean impossible :-D) to classify or define grimdark - but all these books have a very special "feel" (sorry, I don't know any better word for it, english is not my first language).

    And if this label means I will discover new and promising authors/debut books I like (and it did happen), then I'm all for it.

  8. I do love this talk about manifolds and high dimensional spaces :)

  9. FWIW, Oxford Dictionaries defines "dystopian" in a way that is not as narrow as your commentary implies: "Relating to or denoting an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one."

    Also, Wiktionary gives a more specific definition of "grimdark" than the Wikipedia article does (I'm not saying it's a good one): "Having a gloomy, dystopian atmosphere."

  10. Critics just need a box to put things they find difficult,uncomfortable or haven't really got round to reading them selves yet. Grimdark is a buzzword for them right now like "Sanderfan". Top 4 name in a made up sub-genre still a good effort I rekon ;)

  11. Excellent blog post as always. The facts behind some of the quotes where people have claimed this and that are hilarious and lead me to wonder as to whether some if not all of those people have read Mark's work at all.

  12. On a slightly unrelated note, I'm surprised you haven't read anything from Abercrombie.

  13. Excellent post.

    I think the point you're making about grimdark is hard to deny. I've always thought of the term as being more of a semi tongue-in-cheek convenient shorthand than a word describing something real. I'd say the term is a little self-deprecating because as as soon as we take it seriously or take it to its logical conclusion, grimdark is liable to become a parody of itself.

    Having said that, when I use the term seriously, I'm really talking about fiction that focuses on moral ambiguity. I think of grimdark fantasy as a particular postmodern take on fantasy themes, where the reader is forced to question his/her moral compass. It makes the reader confront the less noble parts of him- or herself.

    For the record, Prince of Thorns took me to the delicious and uncomfortable place I'm talking about. I think this is because Prince is so effective at drawing the reader into Jorg's perspective; the reader goes from being afraid of Jorg to sympathizing with Jorg to eventually rooting for him a little. All while knowing Jorg's not a "good guy."

    As you point out, moral grayness isn't unique to what we're calling grimdark fantasy. In a sense, were just talking about morally modern fantasy fiction, modern because it undermines simplistic and dualistic ideas of good and evil.

    Just some thoughts.

  14. I think part of the issue here is that Wikipedia is using some different definitions. So I'll try to translate. And just to be clear, I *loved* the Broken Empire books, and will gladly recommend them to people.

    Nihilism - I think it's meant more as a general lack of hope, that things will get better, or that the good guys will win. Which I think is pretty accurate for the Broken Empire books. I mean, the one truely good, decent character in the entire trilogy gets murdered. Off screen.

    Violence - Where "grimdark" is concerned, I think it's less the amount than how it's portrayed. It's one thing when the hero valiantly fights his way through armies of mooks with no real details provided, and another when all those gory details are provided. It's the difference between how popular culture in the US views WWII and the Vietnam War.

    Darkness - Yeah, that is a tone thing. While we don't get to see much, life in the Broken Empire does seem pretty rough and unpleasant. Maybe an army won't come marching over the hill to burn your village to the ground, but that's still a distinct (and not even unlikely) possibility. And while the Broken Empire books are very funny at points, the humor is *very* dark.

    Dystopian - This is actually a weird example, because I think Wikipedia is going with the original definition, rather than the one that's become popular. "Dystopia" literally means "bad place", and was used in contrast to "utopia", which were supposed to be perfect. Also, "dystopia" is usually conflated with "post-apocalyptic", which the Broken Empire certainly is.

    Moral ambiguity/amorality - I think this is more in general than for particular characters. Yes, most modern fantasy tends to eschew clearly defined "good guys" and "bad guys", but that's usually done by giving both sides positive and negative traits (grey vs. grey), while grimdark stuff tends to make everyone the "bad guys" (black vs. black). Jorg is, in my opinion, is right there in the "hero in name only" area of the sliding scale of anti-heroes.

    So yeah, I would call the Broken Empire books great examples of grimdark novels. And that's not a bad thing - if that means some people won't read them because of it, then that's their loss.

  15. The fact that people remain marked by things that you only really allude to (i.e. rape and torture) is actually a testament to good writing. It's not easy to leave such a a huge impression on people using so little words.

  16. The prince of thorns is definitely grim dark, and it's largely a matter of tone. More specifically, it's dystopian because the world used to have advanced technology that it doesn't have any more . Dystopia is not just about politics, it's about standard of living .Voilence, it's the attitude as well as the level of voilence, plus your style of writing also makes the voilence seem more voilent. Nihilism and morality, it doesn't matter what is going on in the rest of the world with characters we don't see, only what's going on with the ones we are spending time with. Also, just because it is realistic doesn't mean it's not dark - in the real world, you could choose to tell the story of mother Teresa or Bin Laden. One is darker than the other.

    1. The world had technology 1000+ years ago, reverted to almost stone age and progressed, with several dark age reversals, to the state in the book and is in the process of moving forward / reuniting (albeit slowly). So I don't think it's dystopian in that sense either. It's not the dying embers after a slow decline, it's a patchy recovery after a very distant sudden decline.

  17. Much like his lovechild Jorg, Mark would not be shoved into a box.

    Poh tah toe.

  18. My first encounter with the term Grimdark came when talking to a friend about recent fantasy I'd enjoyed. He said I seemed to like Grimdark (I think the authors we were discussing were GRR Martin, in particular his Song of Ice and Fire, and Richard Morgan's fantasy novels). I googled around and found that I do tend to like a lot of books described as Grimdark - The Iron Dragon's Daughter, Dan Abnett's Warhammer novels, Matthew Stover's Caine novels, Abercrombie, etc.. I take the term as tongue-in-cheek, and I'm sure its coining means that eventually there will be a ton of crappy, sub-par wannabe Grimdark novels, but so far it's been a good filter to find books I enjoy. I was recommended your series a while back but haven't got to it, yet. I'll remedy that as soon as possible.

  19. *Zooms in*

    Norman england wasn't particularly less technically advanced then Rome and in many ways more technically advanced. The idea that the middle ages, or even the so called dark ages part sees a loss of technology or culture is a modern misconception. The chaos of the fall of rome in the west and the rise of the Germanic world isn't even particularly more chaotic then the crisis of the third century, or the civil wars of the end of the republic.

    Normans, not living in a worse world then romans. :D.

    1. That's an area of ongoing debate. Certainly the Normans didn't have much by way of central heating, or build many aqueducts that lasted, or know much of Greek mathematics etc.

      It's also beside the point - which was that there have been periods where technology levels are less advanced than earlier periods but in which technology is being recovered/rediscovered and which, like the Broken Empire, are not dystopias.