It’s been really funny watching the grimdark categorization go from a pejorative to something actively embraced by a growing subgenre of fantasy literature. For those without an excessively nerdy or gaming background, the term comes from Warhammer 40K, a tabletop strategy game that has since blossomed into a massive interlinked series of novels, video games and more, which originally had the tagline “in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” WH40K started off as a parody game riffing on the appeal of fascism, much like Judge Dredd and other media of 80s Britain. It had orcs (sorry, orks) who were explicitly lower-class football hooligans, dwarves who were cantankerous Yorkshire miners, and good guys who were straight up human-supremacist space Nazis. Unleashing viral weaponry on civilian populations who may have been tainted by alien contact was par for course and only a few of the nobler chapters opposed it. Keeping in mind that the noblest of these chapters was a squadron of genetically enhanced space viking werewolves, which tells you the level of seriousness the original creators wanted to imbue the setting with.
As the years have worn on, WH40K came more and more into the hands of people who grew up taking it seriously and have turned it into an examination of what life in such a setting would be like, with the stories becomingly increasingly straight-faced and losing their satirical edge. In some cases this actually works well, the Gaunt’s Ghosts books are some of my favorite military SF this side of The Forever War and make it explicit that this future of perpetual warfare is a living hell where men are fed into the meat grinder at almost comical rates and the closest you get to uplifting is when you see them trick themselves into thinking their oncoming demise means something to humanity as a whole. In some cases it doesn’t work and comes off as an explicit promotion of fascism, or at least justification of xenophobia and militarism because it’s a setting where not adhering to the principle of murdering everything that looks a little different than you might lead to your planet being destroyed.
Grimdark is an evocative term for a brand of fantasy that has been classified as a backlash against Tolkien.
What I find really interesting is that it isn’t a backlash against Tolkien. At all. If you want a backlash against Tolkien, go back to the late 60s and early 70s and check out LeGuin, or Moorcock, Zelazny, and number of writers who were working in a framework very different from Tolkien’s sweeping epic. Almost the polar opposite of it in many cases. I would actually say that for all contemporary grimdark fantasy tries to distance itself from Tolkien, it’s actually channeling his work quite well. People forget how depressing the story of Lord of the Rings is. It’s about one young countryside dweller having his soul crushed by an artifact of unfathomable power in a world wracked by apocalyptic wars, a world that has seemingly always been wracked by apocalyptic wars if you go back to the history and prehistory with Melkor/Morgoth, elven civil war, cursed spider demigods, werewolves and more. When the fellowship sets off with the ring they consider it a suicide mission and one last slim hope in the face of utter annihilation, hoping that if they choke Sauron with their own corpses it will buy time for the men of the west to rally and the elves to escape the dying continent. It’s not a particularly happy story, even if the hobbits as characters are jovial in the face of adversity and don’t give up when things look worst.
Which is a shared trait in grimdark stories, whether people like to admit it or not. What makes a story grimdark is not necessarily graphic violence or sexual assault, those are trapping sometimes used to illustrate how cynical and uncaring the setting is. What makes a story grimdark – or, rather, makes a good grimdark story – is creating a tale where the world itself is something of an antagonist, represented in the cultural and even geological norms of the setting, and placing it in opposition to the protagonist. You can do a crushingly depressing and grim world without a single sword being drawn or a single person being raped, just by showing how utterly miserable it is to live there and how little the hero has a chance of changing any of it. But if the hero, or antihero, or antivillain has enough agency and drive to move forward it can make them all the more compelling. Look at the now archetypal grimdark fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Terrible things happen there, but we’re drawn to characters who do want to make the world better. Jon Snow, Tyrion, Jaime, Dany, these are characters who may use questionable means to achieve their goal, but that goal is to leave the world a better place than they found it, which is the same drive as many Tolkien heroes. They may be more okay with callous murder than Samwise or Frodo, sure, and they may not question the necessity of warfare like Faramir, but they fight against an elaborate machine of systemic injustice to try and prevent the world from ending or to install monarchs who may do a better job at lessening the misery of those under them.
This is not to say you don’t have bad grimdark out there. Good lord, no. There are plenty of writers out there who view it as an excuse to write torture porn and misogyny under the guise of cleaving to historic realism in spite of all evidence to the contrary that things actually weren’t as awful as they portray it. I don’t read that shit. I don’t have time for it. I can read incredibly depressing things and enjoy them, just like I can watch soulcrushing horror movies that make you empathize with characters you know are going to die horribly, but I need the story to actually mean something. The characters might not reach their goals but they need to strive toward them instead of taking a tour of awful things happening just for the sake of shock.
One of my favorite grimdark pieces of the last few years has been the Bloodsounder’s Arc trilogy by Jeff Salyards, starting with Scourge of the Betrayer. It is pretty much everything I like about the genre; the world has a weight of history to it and hints of massive conflict of which the contemporary is a pale echo, a band of rough mercs who aren’t all drooling rapemonsters and who actually maintain a degree of military discipline as you would have had to to survive in such a setting, and a protagonist who is absolutely shit in a combat situation. Arki is an archivist hired on to do the paperwork for a band of notorious swords for hire as they pull off jobs across the landscape, and as a result the narrative is something like an embedded reporter making updates from the field. The first book’s story is very personal in scope and I liked that a lot, it got me emotionally involved with the characters before books two and three pulled the camera back and showed off more and more of the world that they had to live in. And it’s a really damned cool world, too. The gods abandoned humanity ages ago and threw up a massive wall cutting the land in half, a wall that sends out a siren song to those who get close and which dissolves anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. The artifacts of these betrayer gods still dot the landscape and one of the most prominent of these is Bloodsounder, a flail that came into the possession of a hardbitten merc captain named Braylar many years ago. It gifts him with extrasensory perception at the cost of overloading his mind with the memories and feelings of the people he kills, which is slowly driving him mad even as he uses the weapon to further his surprisingly intricate machinations. The magic in the setting is all about feelings and memory in a way I haven’t seen written before. The closest thing you get to mages are memory-witches, women who can overwrite your old and immediate memories with fictional ones, either brainwashing you in the long term or blotting out an incoming spear you saw a split second ago and replacing it with a peaceful alleyway. The narrative and characters also have a great sardonic edge reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie, another personal favorite; it’s a very organic kind of black humor too, exactly the kind you’d expect people to develop in order to cope with living in a world where monstrous deathbirds can come screaming out of the grass and open your torso with a swipe, and where the nobility and priesthood seem in a competition to see who can be more openly corrupt and get away with it.