Katherine Addison on Grimdark

Over at The Booksmugglers, a guest post by Sarah Monette / Katherine Addison about THE GOBLIN EMPEROR and grimdark.

Sarah Monette likes way darker fantasy than me, but about her recent title, she says: “I wanted to write a story (reflecting my own ethical beliefs, which I get more fierce about as I grow older) in which compassion was a strength instead of a weakness. Grimdark is, in some ways, another iteration of Byronism, and it has the same potential flaw of becoming self-congratulatory about its darkness, pessimism, and cynicism.”

I would say, by the way, that her MELUSINE is not grimdark. Dark, yes. But, though Monette herself thinks the Doctrine of Labyrinths may count as grimdark, for me to count a work as grimdark, it must have at least one of the following characteristics:

a) Important characters, perhaps even the protagonists, who start off as decent people or who are striving to become decent people, but who become corrupted during the course of the book and wind up being worse human beings at the end than they were at the beginning.

b) The world is objectively worse off at the end of the book than it was at the beginning.

c) The bad guy wins, good guys either lose or die or become corrupted.

I am going to hate a book if it possesses any of these characteristics, even if it is not the self-parodying exaggerated how-much-awful-can-one-book-contain thing that some writers are apparently striving for today.

At least some of Joe Abercrombe’s books have all three characteristics. They are grimdark.

While Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths quadrilogy was awfully dark for me and I didn’t read past the first book, I will say that MELUSINE definitely did not suffer from these issues. At the end of MELUSINE, both protagonists had become better people than they were to start with — they had met and overcome huge obstacles, and were still engaged in striving to defeat the bad guys and make the world a better place. Dark, yes. Grimdark, no.

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9 thoughts on “Katherine Addison on Grimdark”

  1. I like Kameron Hurley’s take on grimdark, a “defense of unlikeable women.” Her books definitely qualify, as the main character is emphatically not a good guy. She’s violent and mean–a mercenary. But she does grow as a character. And even Abercrombie’s scariest character, the woman in _Best Served Cold_, grows a little as a character. She eventually just gets sick of killing people.

  2. The problem is the guy protagonist in BEST SERVED COLD, who is the quintessential “guy trying to become a decent person who instead becomes evil” — to the point where it horrifies even the woman who hired him to help her with her vengeance quest. That character – Logen, isn’t that his name? — is not flawed. He is ruined.

    I don’t need characters to be “likeable” and I certainly don’t need them to be flawless, but I need them to be trying to be better people, rather than giving in to weakness, despair, and, yes, actual evil. Hurley’s perception that “we” allow men to be unlikable and don’t allow this to women may be true to some extent for some people, I guess, but it definitely is not true for me. I don’t care one bit about gender in this regard, in fiction or in the real world.

  3. OK, I see that. To me he came off as “quintessential guy trying to make excuses for himself.”

  4. Thanks for the pointer! Monette/Addison’s post convinced me to buy THE GOBLIN EMPEROR right away, instead of waiting for the ebook price to come down a little, and I’m really enjoying it. Maia is an engaging protagonist, and there are lots of interesting secondary characters as well. I’m about 3/4 of the way through the book, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Monette deals with all the balls that are in the air so far.

    I’m with you completely on the grimdark thing; except in very exceptional cases, I don’t want to read stories where the bad guys win. I’m probably more tolerant of weak characters than you are (I had a lot of sympathy for Quyen the station master in “On a Red Station, Drifting,” for example), but I want them to learn better over the course of the story. It’s been a long time since I read Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, but I seem to recall that Mildmay was basically a decent guy all the way through, which helped a lot.

    I’m also with you on Hurley’s post. I think she’s describing a real phenomenon (I think Seanan McGuire made a similar point about some readers’ reactions to Toby Daye and Harry Dresden), but I personally find thoughtless, arrogant jerks annoying no matter what gender they are.

    By the way, Mike asked me to mention that your RSS feed seems to be messed up again.

  5. Um. I don’t read much grimdark, but it’s usually the not-so-bad guy wins out over the really bad guy. That was certainly true in BEST SERVED COLD. The characters may not be sympathetic, but as Hurley says, they can be interesting.

  6. Thanks for mentioning the RSS feed, Linda. I think it fixed itself before Darren got to it last time, so maybe it will do that again. Computers are a mystery to me.

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying The Goblin Emperor! I agree with you about Mildmay. He was the character who made me assign Melusine to ‘dark fantasy’ rather than ‘grimdark.’

  7. I never finished the first book in _First Law_–the plotting was way too involved for me to follow. I suppose I should give it another try.

  8. It was pretty involved. Toward the end, I had picked out the minor character who was going to unexpectedly kill the Big Bad Guy and save the day, but … didn’t happen. He just won, and the minor character went off to have a terrible life somewhere else.

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