Gritty fantasy versus grimdark

Continuing my recent effort to pull apart horror, dark fantasy, gritty fantasy, and grimdark — which means it’s time to define grimdark! Which, of course, I’ve done before.

My opinions about grimdark haven’t changed. As far as I’m concerned, grimdark = unrealistically grim and dark. This is a form that elides beauty, honor, love, and any sense of the ineffable. An important criterion is that both the protagonist(s) and the world wind up worse off at the end. A grimdark novel is probably also gritty because grimdark usually (always?) draws on the ugliness of the world to fit its themes about how awful everything is.

For me, the quintessential grimdark novel is Joe Abercrombe’s Best Served Cold. In this novel, we see:

a) A protagonist who is betrayed by her employer and left for dead, who sets out for revenge, but later starts to have doubts about the whole revenge thing, except she is pulled along despite herself. She is not permitted to reconsider in any real way, but she does find out she was actually betrayed much more deeply than she had at first thought, by someone she really trusted. Themes: trust is for fools, you are helpless clay in the hands of vicious fate.

b) A second protagonist who has resolved to be a decent person, but who is pulled along by the story in such a way that he cannot keep to this resolution and fails completely. Instead, he becomes embittered and a much worse person. Themes: It’s impossible for decency to survive contact with the world; sure enough, you’re helpless putty in the hands of vicious fate.

Reading this novel created my complete and apparently permanent distaste for grimdark. There were things I liked about The First Law trilogy, even though the bad guys win, and a character who is trying to become a better person completely fails and becomes a much worse person, and the character who was being set up to defeat the ultimate bad guy fails, and so on. The First Law trilogy is very definitely grimdark, but I did like two of the characters. Sort of. Even though they were awful people in nearly every way. I did finish the trilogy. But after Best Served Cold, I will never again read anything that seems like it’s heading in a grimdark direction.

In contrast to grimdark, gritty fantasy is not unrealistically grim; gritty can and does includes the beautiful as well as the horrible — see Locke Lamora’s relationship with Jean, for example. In dark or gritty fantasy, if the protagonist is worse off at the end, it’s because there’s a cliffhanger and another book is expected, because in the end the story will reach a satisfying (or no worse than ambiguous) conclusion. Of course, if the first book looks too much like grimdark, I won’t personally go on to the second; every now and then I encounter a book like that. Karen Lowachee’s Gaslight Dogs was like a book of that kind. One of the characters started off weak and ended up a monster. Was this supposed to be resolved in a second book? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter; I couldn’t bear to go on with this story even if a second book appeared.

So, to sum up:

In grimdark, if something is beautiful, it’s likely to be ruined, corrupted, or crushed.

Character arcs point downward. A weak character is probably going to be corrupted or ruined by the end. If he chooses to strive to overcome his flaws and tries to become a better person, he fails.

If the world (or some part of it) was ruled by a tyrant at the beginning, it’ll probably be ruled by a worse or more terrifying tyrant at the end. If people were oppressed at the beginning, they’re still oppressed at the end, though details may have changed around the edges. If they’re fool enough to celebrate, the reader can see how deluded they are.

In grimdark, the world is ugly. It’s not just uglier than the reader first expects. It’s ugly right to its core. In the spectrum that encompasses horror, dark fantasy, gritty fantasy, and grimdark, this is true only of grimdark.

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2 thoughts on “Gritty fantasy versus grimdark”

  1. I think The First Law isn’t as grim as you describe it. Bad guys win, but the other guys were just differently bad, and there are reasons to think the winning bad guys doomed themselves in the process. Glokta grows, shows mercy to Carlot, gets a full on as-happy-as-possible ending (as does Ardee). Jezal gets crushed but he has still grown into a hero. and even at the end is trying to do some good – and Glokta is actively working on that. It’s grim, but not unrelievedly dark.

  2. It’s GRIM GRIM GRIM. I did find Glotka’s relationship with Carlot a bright note, but for me it just drowned in the surrounding darkness.

    Worse, to me it seemed that Jezal has absolutely failed to grow into a hero. That was what he was trying to do. Then, yes, he gets crushed. His character arc was the one I found unendurable. Perceiving that arc in a more positive way would have made the story seem different to me, but nope, the way I perceived it, that is what drops the series into the grimdark camp.

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