I’ve been focusing on the idea of hope in science fiction and fantasy lately. It’s been a common theme over the years, appearing in many forms. I wondered what hope looks like in grimdark: is it an important theme? How is it portrayed? Why does it matter? Of course, I needed to talk with someone knowledgeable about this subgenre.
Today I’m lucky to be chatting with the incredibly awesome Beth Tabler, head honcho of Before We Go Blog, and an expert in fantasy, particularly grimdark. Thanks for talking with me!
WS: You read a lot of grimdark. I know that people tend to view grimdark as the opposite of hopeful, but you have a different viewpoint. What does hope look like in grimdark?
BT: Hope is a shining light in the darkness. It can be a small flickering ray you see once, but that one time can sustain you throughout the story. Or, it can be a bright light. People view grimdark as lacking anything good, nihilism, and death. While yes, there is nihilism and often death in grimdark, those things are a part of life. What characters do or say, often in the form of gallows humor, shines a small ray of light on things. It is where we get the right choice for the wrong reasons or the wrong choice for the right ones.
WS: Why is it important?
BT: I’ll give you an example of a remarkable grimdark book with hope—The Gray Bastards by the brilliant Johnathan French. The blurb reads, “Jackal and his fellow half-orcs patrol the barren wastes of the Lot Lands, spilling their own damned blood to keep civilized folk safe. A rabble of hard-talking, hog-riding, whore-mongering brawlers they may be, but the Grey Bastards are Jackal’s sworn brothers, fighting at his side in a land where there’s no room for softness.” Except the best part of this series is the brotherhood, that is light. These are not nice “men and women,” they can’t be, or their world would eat them alive. However, even in the face of everything, they form a bond with each other. That is genuinely exceptional grimdark to me. That is the light that shines in this world. It doesn’t take the reader on a journey through the muck and mire and leave them to rot. There is a small thing to latch on to so that when you get done reading this book, you do not hate the world. Instead, you are clamoring for the next book in the series.
What is also compelling about grimdark is to read about characters that have choices. Grimdark gives characters autonomy in their character arcs. They are not bogged down in “the hero’s journey” or “good versus evil.” Instead, we have no idea what the hell they are going to do. Evil is just a matter of perspective. No one thinks of themselves as the bad guy, as they are all just folks making choices.
WS: Where do you think the idea of grimdark being the opposite of hopeful comes from?
BT: Its origins. Grimdark became popular with Warhammer 40k. Warhammer is not known for its gentleness. It did not originate there; you can go back to the 80s and find books that fill the grimdark definition. But it became popular with Warhammer and widespread with GRRM, Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence.
WS: For me personally, the subgenre of fantasy I find myself reading kind of correlates with *gestures at everything*. I’ve been reading more cozy fantasy lately, and I think some of that comes from burnout with the negativity in the real world. Does your subgenre of choice ebb and flow with current events?
Absolutely. During the lockdown, I was surrounded by ARCs of plague and end-of-the-world novels and almost had a heart attack. I had to nope out for my mental well-being. I flow back and forth between how stressed I am. For instance:
Youtube videos = Someone pass me a medicinal kitten.
Romance = super stressed
urban fantasy = nail-biting
grimdark = Bring it
WS: Okay, when it comes to reading grimdark with themes of hope throughout, what are some books to pick up?
BT: OOhhh, I do love a good list.
The Gray Bastards by Johnathan French
The Maleficent Seven – Cameron Johnston
The Dark Tower – Stephen King (debatable if grimdark)
The Builders – Daniel Polanksy
The Silent Gods series by Justin Call
About Beth Tabler:
Elizabeth Tabler runs Beforewegoblog and is a lead on Grimdark Magazine. She was at one time an architect but now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, and as many book worlds as she can get her hands on. She is also a huge fan of Self Published fantasy and was on Team Qwillery as a judge for SPFBO5, and is a judge for SPFBO7.
You will find her with a coffee in one hand and her iPad in the other.
One thought on “Conversations on Hope in the Fantastical: An Interview with Beth Tabler”