This year, as both my regular readers already know, I went through the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, a fantasy series that not only belongs to the so-called grimdark subgenre, but that seems to perfectly exemplify its tropes and its spirit. As I reviewed each book of the trilogy, I often found myself having thoughts that went beyond my appreciation or criticim of the single novels, instead extending to the very premises and characteristics of grimdark more in general.
Hence this post. I’m writing this not to vent my annoyance or sing my praises of an entire subgenre, but to better elaborate on some concepts that are often implied or taken for granted, while they do indeed deserve a deeper analysis (and yes, I am well aware that I’m not by any means the first one to engage in a similar discourse, however I still want to add my two cents).
So, what is grimdark? The name is inspired to the notorious tagline of Warhammer 40.000: “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war“, and it’s used to describe works of speculative fiction – but mostly fantasy – that are characterised by both a bleak, hyperviolent setting, and similarly bitter and amoral protagonists. The first names that come to mind are George R.R. Martin and, of course, Joe Abercrombie, as well as Glen Cook, Richard K. Morgan, Steven Erikson, Mark Lawrence. For those who enjoy dissecting labels: whereas “grim” refers to characters, “dark” applies to the fictional world they inhabit; while its polar opposite is called “noblebright”, hybrid creatures are also concievable, so “nobledark” and “grimbright” are also terms you can hear… and I’ll leave it like that, because analysing each of them is beyond the scope of this post.
Given the definition above, I can hear you say that, hey, there is no lack of depressing settings and antiheroic characters in fiction, but not all of them are labelled as grimdark. And in fact, there is more to the subgenre than an all-encompassing sense of pessimism. The main trait worth underlying is its deliberate opposition to traditional fantasy (which essentially means: Tolkien), which the authors and fans of grimdark see as overly idealistic and simplistic in its clear-cut opposition between good and evil – and whether that is an accurate definition of Tolkien’s works is beside the point, since if nothing else it accurately describes the popular perception of traditional fantasy. The bleak and cynical approach of grimdark is largely a way to systematically deconstruct, subvert, destroy such conventions, shocking the reader’s expectations as much as possible.
The purpose is certainly that of exploring new avenues of fantasy, shedding stylistic constraints that were perceived as naive and childish, and finding a space for less conventional stories and a more complex, mature, and realistic take on morality and character development. Take note of the word “realistic” because we’re going back to that later.
The first thing to note is that grimdark is built in largely oppositional terms. Its signature style isn’t born just of a fascination for cynical characters and crapsack worlds, it is purposely conceived to overthrow established tropes. Now, as I mentioned in my reviews of Abercrombie’s books, such an approach can be very powerful, shocking, and in a way even refreshing if you’ve been reading nothing than Tolkien abrdiged versions meant for children – but it soon loses its bite if you have a more varied reading experience. That said, dark and gritty stories can be fascinating in their own right; a doomed and corrupt world could be a fine backdrop for action, adventure, and all sorts of twisted plots, and morally bankrupt individuals may be good subjects for some merciless character study. What I mean is, the “transgressive” element of grimdark (or of anything really) gets tired very quickly, however, depending on your liking, the resulting stories may potentially be interesting in their own right.
A point I want to address more thoroughly, however, is the claim of realism. Realism has indeed been a main reason of pride of the subgenre; supposedly, the very decontruction of idealistic topes isn’t just aimed at writing something different and edgy, but at building stories that are true to life, as opposite of being draped in implausible heroic dreams. And when grimdark novels have been often criticised for the exploitative depiction of rape, graphic violence, blatant mysoginy and whatnot, the classic defence can regularly be resumed as: “But it’s just REALISTIC”.
Now, first of all it should be noted how extreme bleakness isn’t necessarily more realistic than extreme idealism. Depending on your worldview, you can argue that one extreme is closer to real life than the opposite one, but no matter how you see it, grimdark novels often go to extremes that come across as over the top even in comparison to the historical standards to which they are inspired, often being closer to a edgy caricature than to an accurate reenactment. Since traditional fantasy has often leaned at the opposite end of the spectrum, introducing an increased sense of danger and depicting violence without any veneer of romanticization may work as an appeal to reality, just because it points our attention to otherwise neglected implications of fantasy tropes, however all things considered the worldview adopted by grimdark is just a different example of selective attention.
I am more interested, however, in the purpose for which these subjects are brought up, and what calling them “realistic” actually implies. While other genres may at times address equally disturbing themes and build perhaps even more horrifying settings, they often do so in order to engage in a larger discourse and in more or less subtle criticism of real world issues. The most prominent example is dystopian literature: by it very definition, it deals with bleak scenarios of injustice and oppression, but in doing so it calls our attention to the flaws of our own society, to the dangers we may face if we don’t stand up for our rights; in shoving the worst possible future in our face, it encourages us to be better than that.
Whilst grimdarks just seems to tell us: well, this is how the world works, it’d be silly to even dream otherwise. True, it delivers some generic criticism of human nature, it somehow reminds us not to romanticise war – but all in all it treats all its parade gore, rape, abuse, and misery, as an immutable fact of nature that must be taken as it is.
Now, there is not to say that grimdark novels can’t ever by any means address topical issues in a less passive way. The example that comes to mind is the Poppy War trilogy by R.F. Kuang, that fits all the criteria of the subgenre by mercilessly depicting a world torn apart by a war between factions that are all despicable in different ways, and a main character that doesn’t miss a chance to dive down the moral events horizon. However, since the setting is not a generic past, but a world that closely resembles to XX Century China, the story prompts us to meditate on real historical responsibilities; it makes us more aware of real life horrors that we’d rather forget. More often, however, these stories are set in the evil and corrupt version of your default fantasy Middle Ages, a setting so removed from us, and at the same time so archetypical of fantasy, that we don’t really perceive it as a meaningful historical reality, but if anything as a universal statement on human condition.
All this said, however, we haven’t really addressed the elephant in the room. That is to say, that we are discussing realism in fantasy. Because indeed, none of these stories are set in our reality, but in secondary worlds populated with wizards and dragons and whatnot. The claim of realism then only affects very selected aspects that are deemed more essential than others – because apparently we can suspend our disbelief on flying lizards, but a world without rampant sexism wouldn’t be realistic. It might not be the intended purpose, but by cherrypicking the most unpleasant social dynamics and calling them a requirement for a setting that is true to life, you’re elevating them to universal constants, even trascending our world to encompass all possible ones.
Now, I have nothing against dark and disturbing themes, however I find them much more rewarding when they are addressed and problematised; when injustices aren’t treated as a matter of fact, but as something worth discussing, both in imaginary worlds and in our own. Am I saying, then, that no despicable action should be depicted unless it comes with a moral lesson? Of course not; not all stories are supposed to be equally thought-provoking, and there definitely a space for novels that use bleak settings for their dramatic effect, edginess as means for entertrainment. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying grimdark – and while I am personally a bit fed up with the First Law specifically, I am still interested in other works in the same genre. What I am saying is just, stop claiming it’s oh so realistic and mature, thus demeaning any remotely good intention as childish or fake, any attempt at positive societal change as delusional and doomed to fail; enjoy it for what it is, a blatantly over-the-top form of entertainment that is precisely as mature as a teenager who calls themselves the Dark Lord.