Recently I said that dark fantasy is not the same thing as gritty or grimdark fantasy. Let me go on with that now, with an attempt to pull apart dark fantasy from gritty fantasy. I feel this is a useful distinction because if you just search for “dark fantasy,” a whoooolllle lot of the suggestions are either very gritty or grimdark, but are not by any stretch what I would prefer to call “dark fantasy.”
I said the other day that dark fantasy should have the following characteristics: It should have a high fantasy or mythopoeic tone, it should be atmospheric, the fantasy elements should remain largely or entirely unexplained, and the protagonist(s) should be heroic rather than helpless or ineffectual.
This is, of course, a personal type of definition. But if we follow it for a minute, then obviously gritty fantasy is completely different from dark fantasy. I like a certain amount of grit in fantasy — sometimes — if it’s well done, not overdone, and I’m in the mood — but gritty fantasy has almost nothing in common with horror and therefore is not very similar to dark fantasy either.
Let’s take a close look at gritty fantasy.
Gritty fantasy, in my opinion — and I think this fits everyone’s opinion — specifically does not have a high fantasy or mythopoeic tone. The worldbuilding instead emphasizes some or all of the following features of daily life: extreme poverty, filth, prevailing ignorance, selfishness, the misery and general ugliness of daily life. In gritty fantasy, streets are filthy, and we get a good look at the sewage. Beggars might have rotting fingers, and we get to smell the putrification. Poor families might sell a child to slavers, and they might not feel especially bad about the necessity, either.
All of these attributes were indeed typical of many (most) human societies, but I don’t personally want to read about a world where these features are brought front and center, even if the protagonists appeal to me and the writing is good and all of that. Some grittiness can be fine as long as the author also shows us the beauty in the world. The grittiness then becomes an additional layer added to the world, a layer that is more or less elided in high fantasy. I’m not always too keen on that layer, but it depends on the extent of the grittiness.
Here are some examples of gritty fantasy, lined up in descending order of grittiness:
Unendurably gritty: Dark Apostle series by EC Ambrose.
I tried to read this book. I like the idea of a surgeon in a fantasy novel; I’m fine with the historical surgeon-barber profession. Here is part of the back cover description of this book:
Elisha Barber is good at his work, but skill alone cannot protect him. In a single catastrophic day, Elisha’s attempt to deliver his brother’s child leaves his family ruined, and Elisha himself accused of murder. Then a haughty physician offers him a way out: serve as a battle surgeon in an unjust war.
The novel opens with that “single catastrophic day.” Not only is the day catastrophic, the setting also brings every gritty worldbuilding element into the forefront and dumps it all, like a bucket of rotting offal, over the reader’s head. I didn’t make it to the offer from the haughty physician.
Moving on to tolerable levels of grittiness:
Gritty: Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series; the Night Angel serieby Brent Weeks. I read these and like them, but I have not gone back to re-read them. The one by Weeks, I gave away.
Somewhat gritty: Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series. Now we’re at a level I can appreciate. I love this series and highly recommend it to anyone as an example of outstanding epic fantasy.
A bit gritty: Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series. Yes, really. This series is very different from Pierce’s middlegrade series. It’s much more sophisticated, much “bigger,” and much grittier — without being too much for (most of) Pierce’s young readers. But the focus on the street-level grime, poverty, crime, and daily life place this series firmly in the gritty category as opposed to the high fantasy side of the genre.
In this case, this is by far my favorite of Tamora Pierce’s series. Long and slow-paced at times, but I’ve re-read the whole thing a couple of times and will undoubtedly do so again in the future.
This all boils down to the essential difference between high fantasy and low fantasy, except it’s between a specific type of high fantasy (dark) and a specific type of low fantasy (gritty). I think this is actually a quite useful distinction, much more so than just lumping together everything with unpleasant or scary or grim aspects and calling it “dark fantasy.”
If you have a suggestion for a gritty fantasy — but not too gritty — drop it in the comments! Or if you’d like to redraw the lines of the definitions, then by all means, jump in and lay out where the lines should be between horror, dark, and gritty.
Next week sometime, I’ll try to separate grimdark from gritty. Fantasy can absolutely be extremely gritty, far too much so for my personal taste, without being grimdark.