Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction that is particularly dystopian, amoral or violent. The word was inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: "In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war."
Several attempts to define "grimdark" have been made:
- Adam Roberts described it as fiction "where nobody is honourable and Might is Right", and as "the standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their backs on the more uplifting, Pre-Raphaelite visions of idealized medievaliana, and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and, er, dark life back then 'really' was". But he noted that grimdark has little to do with re-imagining an actual historic reality and more with conveying the sense that our own world is a "cynical, disillusioned, ultraviolent place".
- Genevieve Valentine called grimdark a "shorthand for a subgenre of fantasy fiction that claims to trade on the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics".
- In the view of Jared Shurin, grimdark fantasy has three key components: a grim and dark tone, a sense of realism (for example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and the agency of the protagonists: whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, grimdark is "fantasy protestantism": characters have to choose between good and evil, and are "just as lost as we are".
- Liz Bourke considered grimdark's defining characteristic to be "a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness's sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action ... as either impossible or futile". This, according to her, has the effect of absolving the protagonists as well as the reader from moral responsibility.
Whether grimdark is a genre in its own right or an unhelpful label has also been discussed. Valentine noted that while some writers have embraced the term, others see it as "a dismissive term for fantasy that's dismantling tropes, a stamp unfairly applied."
Use in fantasy fiction
According to Roberts, grimdark is a modern form of an "anti-Tolkien" approach to fantasy writing. The most successful and popular grimdark fantasy, George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, is, in Roberts' view, characterized by its reaction to Tolkien's idealism even though it owes a lot to Tolkien's work.
Writing for The Guardian in 2016, Damien Walter summarized what he considered grimdark's "domination" of the fantasy genre as "bigger swords, more fighting, bloodier blood, more fighting, axes, more fighting", and, he surmised, a "commercial imperative to win adolescent male readers". He saw this trend as being in opposition to "a truly epic and more emotionally nuanced kind of fantasy" that delivered storytelling instead of only fights.
Authors whose works have been described as grimdark tend to be people writing from the 1990s onward. They include – apart from Martin – Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, Richard K. Morgan, and Mark Lawrence.
Grimdark has drawn some controversy due to accusations about taking advantage of genre's attitude towards violence, racism and misogyny. Newer generations of grimdark authors have been accused of trying to outdo the previous generation in shock value. However, fans of the subgenre have defended grimdark with a notion that it is merely fantasy with heavy doses of reality mixed in.
Authors and works associated with the genre
Glen Cook's The Black Company and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire are among the most known examples of the subgenre. Other important authors include Michael Moorcock, Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson, Mark Lawrence and Scott Lynch. Marquis de Sade, Joss Whedon and children's fantasy author Lemony Snicket can be characterized as grimdark authors.
- Roberts, Adam (2014). Get Started in: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Hachette UK. p. 42. ISBN 9781444795660.
- Valentine, Genevieve (25 January 2015). "For A Taste Of Grimdark, Visit The 'Land Fit For Heroes'". NPR Books. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
- Shurin, Jared (28 January 2015). "NEW RELEASES: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR BY KATHERINE ADDISON". Pornokitsch. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
- Bourke, Liz (17 April 2015). "The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan". Strange Horizons. Retrieved 19 April 2015.
- Walter, Damien (1 January 2016). "Science fiction and fantasy look ahead to a diverse 2016". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
- Mike Gelprin; Mark Lawrence; Gerri Leen; Adrian Tchaikovsky; Nick Wisseman (1 October 2014). Grimdark Magazine Issue #1. Grimdark Magazine. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-9941659-1-6.
- "Noblebright Fantasy: An Overview - C. J. Brightley". C. J. Brightley. 16 August 2016. Retrieved 28 April 2018.
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