Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Holly Tinsley

Image Credit: Beth Tabler

This year, I’m doing a new series: Fantasy Focus. Each month will have a week-long focus on a different fantasy subgenre- fantasy is as varied as its creators’ imaginations! If you’ve missed them, there have been fantasy focuses on comedic fantasy and romantic fantasy. This month, I’m taking a walk on the grittier, darker side of fantasy- grimdark! Today, I’m privileged to talk with Holly Tinsley, author of We Men of Ash and Shadow.

Thank you for joining me, Holly!

Will you talk a little about your work?

I’m a writer of grimdark, gas lamp low fantasy – so readers can expect plenty of shady, morally grey characters in my books. My first novel, We Men of Ash and Shadow, was released in 2020 and is now a SPFBO7 Finalist, something for which I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful. The follow-up, The Hand that Casts the Bone, is due out very soon, and the audiobook is currently in production, so I am very excited about that. Outside of grimdark, I write full time for a living and spend a lot of time blogging about popular culture and games. 

What were some of the obstacles to writing We Men of Ash and Shadow?

There were definitely aspects of the story and the characters that I wanted to make sure I got right. It felt crucial to understand who the characters were, as people, before I started thinking about their stories or their situations. When you write about trauma or pain, you have to be sure you are not using that as a vehicle to develop who the characters are. The character, in my opinion, has to come first. We Men of Ash and Shadow features people displaced by war, sex workers, a character suffering dementia, people who have been through trauma and grief. I reached out to some people and learnt what I could of their experiences in similar situations. Some of what I wrote comes from my experience of PTSD. I did a lot of learning and research. Obstacle is really the wrong word because that opportunity to hear other people’s perspectives was so meaningful, and it was a privilege to be allowed to hear and better understand their voices.

What were some victories?

I’ve probably answered this question with the last one! Every time someone identifies with a character or tells me I’ve done them justice, I feel like I’ve done what I wanted in terms of making sure they are as authentic as possible. I hadn’t set out to write a particular type of book, but I knew the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to explore the darker aspects of the world through the eyes of one person whose experiences have begun to wear on them and another in the early stages of setting their foundations in the world. I wanted to know where those two might find common ground and what their relationship might look like set against difficulty and struggle. I felt I achieved that with Vanguard and Carmen – so that was a victory for me.

We Men of Ash and Shadow has been described as “a Grimdark gas lamp novel”. Grimdark seems to be one of those subgenres that is surrounded by misconceptions. How would you explain or define it?

I think I’ve come to accept there isn’t one definition for what grimdark is. These days the crossover between grimdark, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, and other subgenres has become blurred, so one person’s idea of what fits into each category is different from another. If I had to explain it to someone, the best I could come up with is that grimdark is like shining an ultraviolet light on human nature. It brings what is hidden to view and forces us to recognize the parts of our world that are often darker, dirtier, and less palatable. It doesn’t mean the rest of the picture is suddenly somehow nullified or that it becomes any less important.

Why do you think there are so many misconceptions regarding grimdark?

This is a difficult question to answer because grimdark tends to poke a finger at particular subjects, which for some, are akin to real and painful wounds. There is a difference between what people think grimdark is and what are, or what should be, the intentions behind it. I don’t find any value in writing solely for shock or gore. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in writing about shocking things to be had. And therein, I think, is where a lot of the misconception lies. As writers, we tread a thin line between including particular subjects in a way that has a purpose and using them gratuitously. Writing about painful or darker themes doesn’t automatically make a book ‘torture porn’. But using those themes irresponsibly makes for poorer writing and a poorer perception of the genre. I don’t know any writer, grimdark or otherwise, whose intention is to damage – rather it is to evaluate and understand. Maybe that doesn’t explain why there are misconceptions so much as what they are. In truth, the why is far more complicated and not something I feel articulate or intelligent enough to define.

What draws you to grimdark as a writer?

I am, and always have been, fascinated by history, society, people, and psychology. Good grimdark allows for the raw and unapologetic examination and analysis of these subjects. Whether pure fiction or derived from actual events grimdark dissects and explores causation, effect and consequence. I’m not someone who looks to books for escapism, more catharsis, and for me, grimdark provides that. How we process emotion – grief, loneliness, anger, etc. is deeply personal. For me, I need to be able to lay those things out as raw and naked as I possibly can, so that I can stand back and look them in the eye because that has become my way of better understanding them. Grimdark allows me to do that through fiction. The funny thing is, I had no idea what grimdark was when I wrote the book. I just wrote the story I wanted to tell, so there was never any intention to specifically create something grimdark.

Do real world events ever affect your writing?

In a sense, yes, they do, but I think it’s vital to be careful to distinguish between how real-world events affect your writing and how they affect you as a person. I think it’s only natural that the world around us affects how we tell stories, both on a local and a global level. For me, the important thing is to allow time and distance from whatever is happening so that if I do want to use it in my writing, I’ve had the opportunity to understand and process those feelings. We all go through times when we are angry, sad, or frustrated with the world and how it is. If I were to allow my feelings to affect how I write as I felt them at the time, my writing would be reactive rather than reflective, and that isn’t what I want. I think there is a dangerous misconception that hard times breed better writers. What they do is give us new layers and perspectives, whether for good or bad. So later, as we become better able to carry those experiences, we can bring that understanding to our writing in a more valuable way.

Would you say that fantasy (and grimdark in particular) is particularly well situated to examining some of the harder things in life?

I think grimdark brings opportunity to explore the harder things in life, which both works against and in favour for the genre. There are certain expectations of the sorts of subjects grimdark addresses, whether or not they are well suited to a particular book depends on the strength of the writing and the justification for it. The ‘harder things in life’ covers a very broad spectrum – it goes beyond just throwing in a bunch of battle scenes or bloody violence. I think fantasy lends itself well to examining consequences and hard questions.

Who are some of your go-to authors?

Mark Lawrence is my go-to recommendation for anyone who wants to dive straight into grimdark. In my opinion, he’s the master of the genre, and I’ve found very few writers who can even come close to what he achieves with a single sentence. “I’ll tell you now. That silence almost beat me. It’s the silence that scares me. It’s the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.” – Prince of Thorns. The first time I read those words, they burnt themselves onto my brain, and I’ve yet to find anything to which I’ve had such an emotional reaction. 

I like to read as many independent authors as I can. There’s a wealth of talent out there, and one I’m reading at the moment is PL Stuart. His second book, the follow-up to A Drowned Kingdom, is out soon, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get a preview copy. What I enjoy about PL’s work is the ambition in it. I don’t know any other current author with the capacity to imagine worlds on such a massive scale. There is so much detail, so much thought saturating every single page. You’re not just getting a book – you’re getting an epic.

Do you have anything upcoming that you’d like to talk about?

The second book in my series is coming out soon; I’ll be updating any information on my Twitter. As I mentioned earlier, the audiobook is currently in production. I’m really happy to be working with RJ Bayley again, who did the narration for We Men of Ash and Shadow. He did a fantastic job of bringing the first part of the story to life.  I’m hoping to collaborate on a horror project over the next twelve months as well, though that is very much in the earliest stages of planning at the moment.

About the Author:

HL Tinsley is the pen name of professional blogger and creative writer Holly Tinsley.

Based in the UK, she is a published author of Fantasy, Gothic Horror and Grimdark fiction as well as a regular contributor to gaming, TTRPG and pop culture websites and blogs. Her debut novel, We Men of Ash and Shadow, was published in 2020 and is an SPFBO7 finalist. The follow up, The Hand That Casts The Bone is due for release on April 21st 2022. 

To purchase We Men of Ash and Shadow: Amazon

3 thoughts on “Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Holly Tinsley

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