Fantasy as a genre is full of various different subsets. From epics to low fantasy, you’ll find numerous terms thrown around to describe the subtleties and nuances that separate the best fantasy books from one another.
In recent years, one such term that has come to the forefront of the genre is the term grimdark fantasy. Used to reference authors ranging from Joe Abercrombie to G.R.R Martin, there are definite clues to what is encompassed within this brand of fiction in its very name, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
What is Grimdark Fantasy?
Grimdark fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that revolves around stories that are thematically both grim (in terms of setting and worldbuilding) and dark (in terms of style and characterisation). There tends to be an emphasis on realism in the grimdark genre; even when set in a fantastical world. Life in these narratives is often cruel and unforgiving, the world is harsh and unfair, and plots rarely unfold without tragedy, bloodshed or disaster.
Consider a comparison between the lavish and beautiful landscapes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The vibrant Shire and the stunning woods of Lothlorien. Kindly Hobbits and elegant elves. Then, think about Game of Thrones. The brutal and harsh landscapes of the frozen north. Starvation, famine and sickness. Societies of disgusting wealth that look down upon the poverty stricken. These aren’t tales of knights of honour but instead blunderous mistakes, mental instability, betrayal, murder, heartbreak and greed. The grim lives of grimmer folk being beheaded for treachery or getting themselves flayed alive.
Grimdark fantasy is fixed firmly in the latter. The concept of unpleasant cultures. Unpleasant places. Unpleasant characters. An unpleasant world. A grimdark novel is not a place you want to visit.
The term grimdark itself is actually derived from the popular tabletop game Warhammer 40,000 and it’s tagline: In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war. Basically, grimdark is a projection of the idea of almost abject hopelessness. That the world is an impossibly harsh and unforgiving place that exists only to beat you down. My favourite ever description of the subgenre was a comment on a blog that asked the very question I’m answering today, what is grimdark fantasy? I can’t remember word for word, but it was something like: “Grimdark fiction is the result of a writer who has taken love and compassion behind the shed and shot them between the eyes.”
You’ll find no mercy in grimdark, only slowly growing pain.
Why Read Grimdark Fantasy?
So, it might not sound like I’m selling the idea of grimdark very well, but truth be told it is my favourite subgenre of fantasy. Most of my fantasy short stories range somewhere the grimdark genre. Why?
It is often extreme, sure, but grimdark does also offer a bit more realism than your traditional epic or high fantasy. The harsh realities of life; the death and destruction and the cruel turns that follow. It speaks more to the world we live in than many other stories within the fantasy umbrella. We all know life is unexpected, brutal at times and, especially in feudal times where many fantasy fiction is set, was far, far more challenging than it is today.
And that realism translates into character development as well. Grimdark fiction allows authors to develop real and usually deeply flawed characters that are a result of their unforgiving world. This produces some really exciting arcs and narrative, and casts asides some restrictions placed in other areas of fantasy. It’s not purely a case of good vs evil. It’s a case of real people vs real people. Some motives may be more justified than others, but there is usually more subtly to them.
In grimdark, 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. We all knew Sauron would be vanquished, but what state will Westeros be in when G.R.R finally finishes his Song of Ice and Fire series?
Grimdark presents opportunities for real surprises; for authors to play with fantasy tropes and lead their readers down paths of almost self-indulgent despair, desperately clinging on to the fate of beloved characters and worlds.
Want to discover what grimdark fantasy is for yourself? On The Azrian Portal, you’ll find examples of grimdark fiction in the free fantasy ebook collection.
Sacrifice follows the tale of a young girl forced to endure a nightmarish, cult-like village society
Save Her sees an old soldier forced to choose between his own life and saving a child lost into slavery
Wraith centres around a harsh tale of survival and one man seeks vengeance in the frozen wastes.