NOTE: This post is a rewrite of an assignment I wrote for a graduate school course. If you would like to read the original essay, then click here. Also, this is written in APA Format.
Speculative fiction is the general term used when describing books which fall under the genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror, but contain elements of one or more of the genres, and/or contain elements from any of the subgenres. Speculative fiction can be described as: “fantasy, science fiction, and horror to their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres, including the gothic, dystopia, zombie, vampire and post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, weird fiction, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, retold or fractured fairy tales, and many more,” (Oziewicz, 2017). Nowadays, it’s common to see more genre-blending books (i.e. historical fantasy, fairy tale retellings, romantic thriller, etc.), but defining the subgenres these books fall under is essential because readers need to know what they are reading. Just because a book is popular does not mean the reader(s) will enjoy other books from the same genre or subgenre.
One of the more recent examples of this is the subgenre grimdark. This subgenre emerged during the 1990s thanks to both George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb, who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire and The Farseer Trilogy, respectively. Both authors “removed the idealism, cut out the pastoral myth and infallible heroes, and replaced them with mud, blood, shit, and a focus on the darker aspects of human nature,” (Fultz, 2018). The difference between Martin and Hobb is while Hobb used these elements during various points throughout her series in order to enhance her world-building and her characters, Martin used the same elements in order to drive everything within his series. Characters who are “good” die, “villains” continue to succeed, and everyone dies. When the adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire—Game of Thrones—ended in 2019, many viewers were angry with how the series ended. However, what they didn’t understand was the subgenre of the books the TV show were adapted from wasn’t based on “traditional” fantasy tropes. “Grimdark does offer a bit more realism than your traditional epic or high fantasy,” (Speyer, 2019).
There are several definitions of grimdark and it’s difficult to select one definition. In fact, there is confusion between the subgenres grimdark and dark fantasy, and with the genre horror. In order to distinguish the three, indie author T. Frohock provides her definitions. “Horror is a story where the protagonist is helpless in the face of a supernatural threat. The protagonist seeks to destroy the supernatural threat in order to save themselves or others, but only when they are forced into a confrontation,” (Frohock, 2018). Authors of the horror genre include: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, T. Kingfisher, Stephen Graham Jones and Tananarive Due.
“Dark fantasy is similar to horror in that it is a story where the protagonist is helpless in the face of a supernatural threat. Unlike horror, dark fantasy tends to have a thread of hope running through the story. While at times being helpless, the protagonist generally wins in the end; although the cost (loss of friends/family or even their own innocence) will be great,” (Frohock, 2018). In other words, dark fantasy is a combination of the genres fantasy and horror. Authors of the dark fantasy subgenre include: Seanan McGuire, Jay Kristoff, V.E. Schwab, Leigh Bardugo, Evan Winter and Alexis Henderson.
“Grimdark is a story where the protagonist faces a supernatural threat, but s/he isn’t helpless against their adversary. Rather than run from the supernatural threat, the grimdark protagonist actively seeks to subvert or control it,” (Frohock, 2018). One reason grimdark stands out from other subgenres in speculative fiction because, “the antagonist can be as relatable, or if not more so, than the protagonists. And, you never know if the villain is going to be defeated or the book will end with the world in a worse shape than when it first started,” (Speyer, 2019). In other words, grimdark is the opposite of fantasy books written by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling. Authors such as George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Glen Cook, Anna Stephens, Gareth Hanrahan, Michael R. Fletcher and Rob J. Hayes write, “a more relatable form of fantasy. Psychology replaced ideology. Brutality replaced honour,” (Fultz, 2018). In all, grimdark can be summarized as: “a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style, or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly graphic in its depiction of violence. In most grimdark literature the supernatural is a passive force, controlled by humans—unlike supernatural horror where the preternatural forces are most often an active entity with agency,” (Frohock, 2015). It should be mentioned that the violence depicted in grimdark include: rape, dismemberment, death, torture, all types of abuse, sacrifice, regicide, dark magic, vengeance, etc. This subgenre is not meant for everyone. If you cannot handle more than a few scenes of this sort of violence, then grimdark is NOT for you.
If anyone is interested in this subgenre of literature (especially after learning about the sort of stories they’ll be reading), then the following books and/or series should be read:
- A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-Present) by George R.R. Martin
Dubbed as the series that began the subgenre, George R.R. Martin presents his story in a world where the landscape can kill you, where heroes don’t wear white (and villains don’t wear black), and multiple viewpoints which allows readers to comprehend where all of the characters are coming from, allowing for morally grey plotlines to present itself as the series continues. Fans continue to wait for the next book—The Winds of Winter—to be released.
- The First Law Trilogy (2006-8) by Joe Abercrombie
This trilogy is the first series set in a world the author created using series of narratives, bleak and unforgiving plots, and the most relatable characters readers will come across throughout the series. Abercrombie is known as “the go-go author” (known as “Lord Grimdark” by fans) in grimdark. Not only are his books popular with grimdark fans, but also have crossed over into mainstream fantasy where readers of the genre can get an understanding of what grimdark continues to offer to the fantasy genre.
- Empires of Dust (2017-19) by Anna Smith Spark
What starts off as a story following a band of mercenaries sent on a mission to kill a ruler of a wealthy, yet unconquered empire becomes a story about the harsh reality and the bleakness that comes with performing such a task. This series contains the same amount of political intrigue and maneuvering found in A Song of Ice and Fire, but matches the brutality found in Abercrombie’s books, which led to fans dubbing Spark the “Queen of Grimdark.”
- Raven’s Mark Trilogy (2017-19) by Ed McDonald
This series follows a hired killer who is sent to investigate the work left behind by a dead sorcerer, and protect a noblewoman. As they make their way across a wasteland containing ghosts, flesh-eaters and traitors, the duo attempts to learn more about the weapon the dead sorcerer left behind. Unfortunately, by the time the two arrive at the location where the weapon is kept, war breaks out, and the mercenary and the noblewoman must uncover who the traitors are before the war and/or the weapon destroys the world they live in.
- The Poppy War Trilogy (2018-20) by R.F. Kuang
This trilogy is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), and while it starts off with the protagonist attending an elite school where she learns shamanism, which will remind readers of Harry Potter, the war brings a change in the narration, which presents war as violent and brutal. Not to mention, war can lead to the extinction of a race of individuals. And, this series provides an expansion of the grimdark subgenre in that the setting is based on Chinese history (during the 20th century). And, the recent announcement of a TV adaptation to the series will attract fans of Game of Thrones as well as fans of the books. This time, all of the books have been written and released before the media adaptation.
- The Godblind Trilogy (2017-19) by Anna Stephens
When an uneasy truce comes to an end, the followers of a banished god seek to send the world into bloodthirsty chaos so that the veil which keeps the Gods exiled from the physical world can render and return the Gods in their carnal forms. The beginning of the series lets readers know what to expect throughout it: rape, sacrifice, regicide, cheating and more violence. The female characters are just as violent as the males. This series is NOT for everyone, but it is one to be read by fans of the subgenre.
- War for the Rose Throne series (2018-Present) by Peter McLean
Can a priest be a gangster as well? Well, the protagonist in this series is; and, after serving in the war, he learns that his crime empire has been stolen and his people are suffering the consequences of it. Filled with political intrigue from the viewpoint of urban society, the protagonist learns that the war isn’t over yet.
- Best Laid Plans series (2017) by Rob J. Hayes
The first book in this series, Where Loyalties Lie, was the Winner SPFBO 2017. Fans of pirate fantasies such as The Tide Child Trilogy and One Piece should give this series a read. However, these pirates are actual pirates and many of them don’t have any redeeming qualities. Not to mention, these pirates are fighting to survive in a world where other societies seek to destroy them once and for all.
- City of Sacrifice series (2019-Present) by Michael R. Fletcher
This trilogy follows 2 protagonists who represent the opposite ends of a brutal caste system. The female protagonist is a street sorcerer who uses her magic to make life better for herself and her companions. The male protagonist is a priest who grew up in luxury and who is tasked with keeping the peace in the outer ring of the city. Both have been selected by vengeful, bloodthirsty gods to fight for them in an upcoming war amongst the immortals.
- Malazan Book of the Fallen series (1999-2011) by Steven Erikson
The easiest way to describe this series is the density of Robert Jordan combined with a higher death count than George R.R. Martin. Filled with maps and a lengthy Dramatis Personae, readers learn quickly of the level of magic, world-building, battle sequences and narration to expect in this series, within the first few chapters of the first book. There are 10 books in the main series—all completed—and, everyone who has read this series claims that it is worth it.
Please know that this is a short list of recommendations. There are several more authors who write grimdark fantasy whose works you should consider reading as well. And yes, that includes indie authors.
Not only has grimdark been presented in novels, but also in other forms of media. Similar to all genres and subgenres in speculative fiction, grimdark “operates across the spectrum of narrative media, from print to drama, radio, film, television, computer games, and their many hybrids,” (Oziewicz, 2017). For decades, fantasy, science fiction and horror stories have been adapted for movies, television shows, graphic novels and video games. Grimdark is no different, yet before Game of Thrones, the subgenre had more of a cult following than mainstream attention. For example, The Walking Dead is a postapocalyptic graphic novel series steeped in elements of grimdark; but how many of those fans have heard of Claymore by Norihiro Yagi? This manga series is about “half-demon warrior women who are charged with defending the general populace from a demonic threat, but at the cost of their humanity,” (Vergara, 2018). While these warrior women are the strongest, they are under the control of the organization which ordains how they fight the demons. If any of them “go astray,” then they are executed by the organization. The question throughout the series is whether or not the actions of these half-demon warrior women should be determined by the organization.
Video games are just as eclectic as literature with numerous genres to choose from. However, during the last ten years or so, some of the more popular video games revolved around gameplay narratives in which, “some kind of built-in morality system that allows players to perform actions and make decisions that ultimately determine their character’s future in the game world. Many of these choices are difficult, influencing…These allow the player to perform actions and make decisions that manipulate the system one way or another,” (Szal & Cummins, 2019). Critically acclaimed games such as Fallout 3 (2008), The Witcher 2 (2011), The Wolf Among Us (2013) and any game developed by Telltale Games focus on the decisions players had to make during the early parts of the game, which would influence what happened to their characters later on. There were no right or wrong answers; players had to make a decision and watch how it influenced the rest of the game. “Morally grey characters are the quintessential core of grimdark,” (Szal & Cummins, 2019).
Unfortunately, just like how the series finale of Game of Thrones did not end the way many fans expected it to, the same can be said about the narrative in The Last of Us 2, which was released in 2020. This game is a direct continuation—not a sequel—to the first game. Meaning you must play the first game in order to understand the story within the second one. The Last of Us (2013) is an action-adventure game which occurs 5-10 years after an apocalyptic event, which is the opening cutscene of the game. The gameplay reflects a narration of a dystopian novel. However, given the ending of The Last of Us, the themes, the ideals and the narrative within The Last of Us 2 reflect a grimdark story. Many critics and players noted the game was “darker and more violent” than its predecessor. One of the reasons for this is because unlike the first game which was about surviving a worldwide disaster, The Last of Us 2 was about protagonists “murdering the people who ruined their families, only to bring holy hell down on each other’s lives as more people get involved in their vendetta,” (Phipps, 2020). The video game focused on characters who were performing acts of violence against those who’ve wronged them. The dilemma becomes who is right and who is wrong, and does the ends justify the means. Both protagonists are right in their beliefs and it’s hard to choose sides because the audience comprehends where they are coming from. This makes it difficult to determine the fate of these characters, which is the sort of story grimdark presents to the audience.
Within a short time, grimdark has emerged into an established subgenre within the fantasy genre. Due to the success of recent TV shows and video games, grimdark has become more ubiquitous amongst readers, players and others. This doesn’t mean everyone is going to enjoy or to appreciate the themes, the tone, the style, etc. found within these stories, but they will admit grimdark is the bleakest subgenre in a genre where good defeating evil and happy endings have become the norm.
What are your thoughts about grimdark? Which books have you read from this subgenre? What are your thoughts about the comparison to both horror and dark fantasy?
Frohock, T. (2015, Nov 2). Is it grimdark, or is it horror? Tor.com.
Frohock, T. (2018, Aug 2). Random notes: The differences between horror, dark fantasy, and the grimdark. T. Frohock. https://www.tfrohock.com/blog/2018/8/2/random-notes-grimdark-darkfantasy-horror
Fultz, J.R. (2018, Apr 20). The mud, the blood and the years: why “grimdark” is the new “sword and sorcery.” Grimdark Magazine. https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/grimdark-is-the-new-sword-and-sorcery
Oziewicz, M. (2017). Speculative fiction. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.
Phipps, C.T. (2020, June 20). Review: The last of us 2. Grimdark Magazine.
Speyer, J. (2019, Oct 10). What is grimdark fantasy? What to know and where to start. The Azrian Portal. https://www.theazrianportal.com/blog/what-is-grimdark
Szal, J. and Cummins, L. (2019, Nov 5). Grit in your controller: grimdark and gaming. Grimdark Magazine. https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/discussion-grit-controller-grimdark-gaming
Vergara, V. (2018, Jul 3). 20 grimdark books to put some grit into your fantasy reading pile. Book Riot. https://bookriot.com/grimdark-books