Fantasy: What’s Next?

Well, that’s the title done. Ten minutes to come up with that! Would you believe it? This is one of those posts where I know exactly what I want to say, but I struggle to find a title to do it justice.

Anyway, onto the topic at hand. I want to talk about the fantasy genre right now and look ahead at what I think we can expect from our fantastic fiction in the near future. It feels like the last decade has been a kind of “fantasy dark ages”. Not in the sense that we’ve had no innovation, but in the sense that I feel a great big grey cloud has been hanging over us, stifling our creativity. I speak, of course, about the phenomenon that was gritty/grimdark fantasy. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this. I’ve already done that elsewhere.

Now, I’m absolutely not saying I don’t like this kind of fantasy yarn. I was an Abercrombie fan right from the off. I love A Song of Ice and Fire (epic fantasy, but I consider it gritty nonetheless) And I’m a bit of a Warhammer Fantasy fan too. Basically, this type of fantasy was original when it started to rear its head. I’m not saying Joe Abercrombie and George R. R. Martin are the same, either, but they could be loosely categorised under a similar grouping.

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The problem, though, that I have with this sub-genre of fantasy is that it can all take quite the emotional toll. There are only so many times I can stomach reading a graphic torture scene or a battle where people are being eviscerated and dismembered all over the place. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I don’t really enjoy this sort of stuff. I read this type of fantasy for the flawed characters, for the disturbingly human conflicts and for the quality of the writing. I don’t enjoy gore for the sake of gore. I know that this is the reality of war and of violence, but it can be executed with a lightness that doesn’t turn the reader’s stomach. Continue reading

Gritty Is Good?

You only need to have heard of works like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Grim Company or Prince of Thorns to know that the current trend in fantasy is to practically brutalise your heroes before letting them win (or die). Perhaps influenced by Hollywood and the trend in society towards ‘gritty’ heroes and tales, the fantasy genre has more than followed this trend; it has shaped it.

If you had asked anyone if they had heard of Game of Thrones before the TV series made such a huge splash, they’d probably have just stared at you blankly. Nowadays, the series is everywhere and its followers encompass fantasy fans and ‘average joes’ alike. It seems people really love the brutal ‘fantasy realism’ (is that even a thing?) of the show and just can’t get enough bloodshed, betrayal and incest. Other TV shows hold a similar appeal (I’m looking at you, Breaking Bad).

Gritty, dark, grimdark, grim and err… horrible?

Fantasy likes to invent different names for things that are practically the same (in fact, all genres do). It seems that every day more and more authors are being included in the mentions when discussion about ‘grimdark’ takes place. Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan are two of the first to have been grouped under this banner. But just the other day I saw Scott Lynch referred to as ‘grimdark’. Hmm, I’m not so sure.

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Genres and sub-genres change all the time and gritty fantasy is no exception. For his time, Tolkien’s writing was just as gritty and complex as perhaps George R. R. Martin’s is now. Perspectives change over time and, the truth is, putting your characters through hell is an essential part of many stories, not just the ‘gritty’ ones.

Our heroes now are almost anti-hero in nature. We’re meant to root for the thief, the assassin and the mercenary. Where are our knights of justice, our superheroes? Well…

The ‘Dark Knight’ Problem

When Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot, Batman Begins, stormed onto the silver screen back in 2005, all the talk was on how superhero movies had been made relevant once again. But let’s not forget we had Spider-Man back in 2002; also successful, also with elements of darkness. For me, at least, it feels like Chris Nolan kicked off this ‘new’ idea of gritty, grounded superheroes and cemented it into the public’s subconscious. Now it’s led us down the road where Superman no longer has red briefs, Batman can fight no villain with supernatural abilities and Captain America’s mask must take on the design of a helmet, just so it’s all believable.

But they’re god-damn superheroes! Do they need to be believable?

Yes and no. Yes, the audience needs to be able to relate to them. No, every detail doesn’t need to be scientifically consistent. We don’t really care how Batman’s grapple-gun actually works, or how he has a powerful enough sonar in his suit to summon clouds of bats, so long as it looks cool and is at least consistent within the fictional world.

So… Fantasy?

OK, so we’ve established what gritty/grimdark is, but how does it fit into the world we’re concerned with: the world of fantasy fiction? Well, it turns out the fantasy genre is in the grip of the concept of ‘gritty’ right now. Namely, a drive for realism (and the occasional penchant for visceral gore). This trend has been intensifying for a long time now and I personally believe we’re reaching critical mass. Joe Abercrombie’s work was pretty violent and dour, giving you a sense of hopelessness as you read it. Following on from that was Mark Lawrence with Prince of Thorns and then the latest entry in the ‘grimdark’ arena is Luke Scull. With each new work, things get darker, more gory and far more grim. It’s only a matter of time before readers decide they want something fresh, something upbeat.

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I think a great way to wrap this article up is with a list of recommended reads, of what I consider to be some of the best gritty fantasy out there. What you need to understand is that I am a huge Abercrombie fan and I do enjoy the odd gritty tale or two. Lately, I’ve been exploring other works that you wouldn’t really classify as ‘gritty’, because I’m growing tired of the similar style and atmosphere in my fiction. I want to see a return to the great epics of old, but with a decidedly modern twist. It’s something I hope to at least try with my own writing.

The ‘Gritty Is Good?’ Reading List

  1. The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie)
  2. The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)
  3. Prince of Thorns (Mark Lawrence)
  4. Waylander (David Gemmell)
  5. A Song of Ice and Fire (George R. R. Martin)
  6. The Black Company (Glenn Cook)
  7. Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson)
  8. Acts of Caine (Matthew Stover)
  9. The Darkness That Comes Before (R. Scott Bakker)
  10. The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher)

Honourable Mention: The Engineer Trilogy (K. J. Parker)Can this be characterised as gritty? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but be sure to check this one out. K. J. Parker is somewhat under-appreciated and deserves a lot more attention.


Author Interview: Luke Scull

Luke Scull is a British designer of computer RPGs and writer of gritty fantasy. His debut novel, The Grim Company, was released last month and is set to become an exciting new fantasy series with enough teeth to take on the big players in the genre. We were lucky enough to put some questions to Mr. Scull – here’s what transpired…

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Luke, thanks for joining us today.

Your debut novel and first in a trilogy, The Grim Company, is available early 2013 from Head of Zeus. Could you introduce us to your world and the series overall?

The world of The Grim Company is that of the traditional fantasy setting fallen to a state of ruin and decay. The gods are long dead and immortal tyrants have divided the land between them. Continue reading