Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Rob J. Hayes

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!

I’m excited to talk a little bit with prolific author Rob J. Hayes.

Will you talk a little bit about yourself and your work?

Hi! My name is Rob. I’m a British fantasy and science fiction author. I’m self published. I’ve been in the game for about 9 years now and have released over 15 books so far, which continues to surprise me because I can never name them all without cheating and looking them up.

My debut trilogy, The Ties that Bind, is largely considered quite firmly in the Grimdark category. Which checks out given it largely focuses around witch hunters, one of who burns a family alive in the very first chapter.

And my The War Eternal series is kind of a weird mash-up between Grimdark and YA, with a protagonist who was pretty much conditioned to be a ruthless magic wielding soldier for an empire. She also starts the first book as a prisoner of war in an underground Pit where the inmates are running the show. It’s pretty grim.

The fourth book in The War Eternal series is soon to be released. What were some struggles with writing this series?

This series has been a massive struggle throughout. The main character, Eska, is an angry, vengeful young woman who is stubborn to a fault. She regularly makes bad choices, and especially in the first book she’s very much an impetuous teenager. She also suffers from depression and anxiety and has suicidal thoughts. To say she’s been tough at times is an understatement.

It’s also been a big struggle to fall back into her voice when beginning each book. She’s got such a big personality and a distinctive voice that getting it right, and also changing it slightly from book to book has been hard. I’ve never had quite so many false starts and big deletions of entire sections.

In fact, when I first wrote book 2, The Lessons Never Learned, it was an absolute mess. I was in a bad place in my own life, and a lot of the listlessness I was feeling bled out into Eska. It resulted in a book where a previously headstrong character full of agency, kinda milled around and let herself be dragged along by the plot for a whole book. It was crap. I knew it was crap and my early readers confirmed it. So I scrapped the whole thing and rewrote it. Ironically, I learned a lot of lessons from writing that book twice.

What were some victories?

Getting book 2 right the second time round for sure. I think one of the biggest victories for me is just creating something I am really very proud of. Eska is a very tough character, and a lot of the things I’ve put her through over the course of the series have been demanding. But I feel I’ve created a character who is, while maybe not the most likable, quite compelling and a bit of a force of nature. The fact that so many readers have said they resonated with her has really been a big victory in that sense. I hope I continue that sense of resonance in Sins of the Mother. Eska is a bit (a lot) older with even more hangups and issues, so finding the right voice for grumpy old woman Eska was both fun and another little victory.

There are many misconceptions and disagreements regarding the definition of grimdark. How would you define grimdark?

I think Grimdark is mostly about contrast. When the whole world is covered in shit, it makes the gems sparkle that much brighter. It’s about hope and love and loyalty, and how they are found in humanity even when the whole world says they shouldn’t be. It’s that contrast between the very worst and the very best that allows good Grimdark to shine a spotlight on relevant issues and the way people overcome them.

Lawrence’s Broken Empire is about how even the most evil of men can make sacrifices to save and protect others. Fletcher’s Beyond Redemption is about the loyalty of comrades even when they occasionally (often) hate each other. Abercrombie’s First Law is about bad people fighting their inner demons and doing the right thing even when there’s no hope of winning.

I know a lot of people will happily tell me I’m wrong, but I think Grimdark has got to the point where it means something different to everyone. It’s existed for too long without a set definition so everyone takes their own version of it, just like everyone takes their own messages from the books they read.

Why do you think there are so many misconceptions?

Mostly because of the popular ones. It’s all about blood and hyper violence and sexual assault. I think Grimdark often contains those things because one of the hallmarks of the genre is that the books don’t shy away from subjects that are often seen as controversial. They shine a light on them and usually in a way that doesn’t praise or fetishise them but reveals them for the horrific truths they are. When you look at Grimdark on the surface level it can certainly seem that those controversial topics are what the genre is about. But often if you think about why those things are being used the way they are instead of just how they are being used, it often leads to a whole different level of interpretation.

What draws you to writing darker, grittier books?

I like characters who feel real. I hate to use the word realism or realistic in discussions about Grimdark because I feel the words have been overused to the point where most people just roll their eyes at them. But I’m not talking about ‘realistic’ settings or actions. I like characters to feel like real people. And I personally find that a lot easier to do in darker settings. My characters swear, drink, fuck, fuck up. To me that’s more real. I guess I just feel that when you can utilize the full scope of humanity without watering down any of it, it gives you more options and variety.

Also, I grew up watching 80s films and some of that shit was DARK!

Do real-world events ever find their way into your books in some form?

Definitely, though usually in a more abstract form, I guess. During the early stages of the pandemic when we were all locked in our homes and it felt like the world was going to end by deadly disease, I wrote a novel called Guns of the Twelfth (currently unpublished). It’s a book where humanity is living on the edge, all but wiped out by hostile forest. People live in locked down cities where most never venture past the walls. And there are things living in the forest that ‘take’ people and turn them into monsters. I was a bit too close to it when writing it, but I look at Guns of the Twelfth now and it was definitely influenced by the pandemic.

Would you say that writing darker, grittier fantasy is uniquely situated to exploring difficult themes?

No. I think the majority of themes, difficult or not, can be explored regardless of setting. It can sometimes make it easier, and it often makes more sense to explore some difficult themes via darker settings, but we are limited only by our imaginations. People don’t often see X-men as a dark, gritty setting, but it has been used to explore segregation, genocide, assault, suicide, and so many more I can’t begin to name them all. And this is all in the 90’s era kids cartoon version of X-men. I’ve never even read the comics.

Which authors are on your must-read list?

Ahhh! So many. 

I always start with Robin Hobb because her Fitz books are some of the most influential to me as an author. 

Mark Lawrence because of the kernels of philosophy he includes and somehow manages to make sound so quotable. 

Fonda Lee has rocketed up on my list because her vision for the Greenbone saga is so unique, and, like Hobb, she is a master at making characters feel like real people. 

Chris Wooding because his writing style is that perfect blend of humour and action and emotion that just hits me.

Dyrk Ashton because he just breaks rules and somehow makes it work, and I still don’t know how he does it.

ML Wang because… well, just read Sword of Kaigen and tell me it’s not a modern day fantasy masterpiece. 

I could go on. I have a lot of must read authors. Which is probably why my tbr shelf is an entire bookcase these days.

Is there anything exciting on the horizon that you’d like to mention?

I have quite a few exciting things on the horizon. It’s a busy year for me. To start with Sins of the Mother (Book 4 of The War Eternal is coming May 3rd!). And book 5 (Death’s Beating Heart) is coming December of this year. There’s also hardback versions of all The War Eternal books. I’m also planning a special edition hardcover of Never Die along with some very fancy interior art by Felix Ortiz himself.

What else? I have a sci-fantasy progression novel releasing this year probably around the summer months. It’s called Titan Hoppers and early readers have said it’s like SpaceHulk (Warhammer 40k) meets Cradle. Which I consider a very favourable comparison.

About the Author:

Rob J. Hayes has been a student, a banker, a marine research assistant, a chef, and a keyboard monkey more times than he cares to count. But eventually his love of fantasy and reading drew him to the life of a writer. He’s the author of the Amazon Best Selling The Heresy Within, the SPFBO-winning piratical swashbuckler Where Loyalties Lie, and the critically acclaimed Never Die.

Where to purchase:

The Heresy Within

Where Loyalties Lie

Never Die

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