Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Wrap-Up

Banner Credit: Beth Tabler

This year, I want to talk about some of the many types of fantasy you can find (I have a post about fantasy subgenres which can be found here). I think when people hear “fantasy”, their mind immediately goes to serious epics with swords, magic, and dragons. While I happen to love all of those things, there are many ways to tell a story. This week’s focus has been on grimdark, that subgenre with morally complicated characters and often gritty worlds.

Below is a (far from complete) list of grimdark authors worth reading. I’ve also collected the guest posts from throughout the week, in case there are any that have been missed. I’m grateful to all the writers who were kind enough to share their opinions during this week!

Guest Posts:

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Holly Tinsley

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Rob J. Hayes

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Krystle Matar

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Luke Tarzian

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring M.L. Spencer

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Beth Tabler

Author suggestions:

Joe Abercrombie- First Law series

Alicia Wanstall Burke- Blood of Heirs

Sarah Chorn- Seraphina’s Lament

Glen Cook- Chronicles of the Black Company series

Steven Erikson- Gardens of the Moon

Michael R. Fletcher- Smoke and Stone

C.S. Friedman- The Coldfire trilogy

Ben Galley- Chasing Graves

Rob J. Hayes- The Ties that Bind series

R.F. Kuang- The Poppy War

Mark Lawrence- The Broken Empire series

Ulff Lehman- Light in the Dark series

Scott Lynch- Gentleman Bastard series

Devin Madson- The Reborn Empire series

George R.R. Martin- A Song of Ice and Fire

Krystle Matar- Legacy of the Brightwash

Alex Mead- Unstoppable Shadow

Richard Nell- Ash and Sand series

Mike Shel- Iconoclasts trilogy

Anna Smith Spark- Empires of Dust series

Clayton Snyder- River of Thieves

ML Spencer- The Chaos Cycle

Luke Tarzian- Adjacent Monsters series

Holly Tinsley- We Men of Ash and Shadow

Brent Weeks- The Way of Shadows

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Beth Tabler

Banner 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!

To wrap up the week, Beth Tabler, creator of Before We Go Blog, author for Grimdark Magazine, and grimdark expert gives her thoughts on this subgenre!

I read grimdark for the hope. What? Hope in grimdark? I know, I know… Hope and grimdark are not seen as exactly bosom buddies. But hear me out, grimdark is not nihilism, far from it. If nothing were worth it, none of these broken characters would give a damn, and there would be no story. 

In the beginning, we are talking Warhammer 40,000; grimdark was ultra-violent and nihilistic. Everything and everyone sucked and killed each other. Life had little meaning beyond the tip of a spear. But as the genre grew up and grew outwards, it changed. As a heavy reader of grimdark, I have observed that instead of violence for the sake of violence, grimdark has developed to mean grimness, agency, realism, and hope. This last one is essential as a story needs to have something to strive for. You see, you can’t have a story unless you have something for the reader to grab on to. It might be a bit of humor, a break in the gruff demeanor, something. But it is there. 

Instead of predestined Tolkienesque positivity, we have characters as flawed as you or I, thrust into a situation that they must battle their way out of. Instead of great monarchs, we have flawed rulers. Instead of great heroes, we have Geralt of Rivia or Arlen the Painted Man. While the protagonist is being put through the wringer, I am right there with them. I am living for those moments like it is the air I breathe. And the best part is I have no idea what will happen. Arlen can do anything because his journey is not predestined.

This is why I adore grimdark. Give me a single beam of light shining through a dirty window instead of a field of artificial flowers basking in sunlight. Maybe I am jaded, or perhaps as I get older, I search for something more authentic, but this is why I read the gruff, dirty and dire. I like my fantasy with a side of realism. And I think if readers can get past the reputation of violence-porn that grimdark has, they would feel that way also. 

About the author:

Elizabeth Tabler runs Beforewegoblog and is constantly immersed in fantasy stories. She was at one time an architect but divides her time now between her family in Portland, Oregon, and as many book worlds as she can get her hands on. She is also a huge fan of Self Published fantasy and is on Team Qwillery as a judge for SPFBO5. You will find her with a coffee in one hand and her iPad in the other. Find her on: instagram.com/elizabethtabler https://beforewegoblog.com/ https://www.pinterest.com/scottveg3/ https://www.goodreads.com/Scottveg3 https://twitter.com/BethTabler

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring M.L. Spencer

Banner 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 excited to be talking with M.L. Spencer, author of the Rhenwars Saga and the Chaos Saga. Thank you so much for chatting with me about grimdark and fantasy in general!

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

Hi my name is ML Spencer, and I am the author of the Rhenwars Saga, The Chaos Cycle, and the Rivenworld series, which so far consists of my best-selling novel Dragon Mage. Of those series only Chaos and Rhenwars could be considered grimdark, although there are some seriously grim and dark moments in Dragon Mage.

What were some obstacles to writing?

Wow. Right now I’m experiencing a ton. My biggest obstacle to writing is my own brain, which gets in the way often. If I grease the wheels it runs smoothly, like a pampered machine. Ungreased, however, and that machine breaks down and starts to falter. Eventually, with enough neglect, it stops working entirely. That’s the slump I’m currently in. After I finished Dragon Mage I entered a period of writers block that was the most excruciating of my life. On top of that, I was also dealing with some physical and mental issues that made writing impossible at the time. Eventually, I fell out of the habit of writing, and now here I am, struggling to pick it back up again, which is not an easy thing.

What are some victories?

I think my biggest victory was the success of Dragon Mage. I had hoped it would be well received, but I had no idea it would achieve the success in accolades it did. I think a lot of that was due to Petrik Leo, a book blogger who gave the novel so much airtime. Because of Petrik’s recommendations, word spread to Reddit, Instagram, and Twitter, I’m pretty soon the sill started coming. I still stand in awe of Petrik’s reach, and to this day I am so incredibly thankful for him.

Grimdark seems to be one of those subgenres that is a little difficult to define. How would you explain grimdark?

For me, the definition of grimdark is easy. In fact, I’m a little confused that there is any debate about it. Grimdark is the opposite of Noble Bright, which is to say the mood is grim and the stakes seem hopeless and probably are. There are no knights in shining armor, but rather ragged or broken main characters with few positive traits that we can cling to. Instead of a happily ever after, all we are promised is a train wreck. It’s like gazing at an auto accident as you drive by. You dread what you’re going to see, but you can’t stop looking. That is the essence of grimdark.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to really “define” grimdark?

I have no idea. I think because there are some high fantasy novels that can include very dark moments and gnarled characters. But to me there still is a difference. There is still hope at the end of the day. We have some security that her favorite characters are not going to be killed off. The world is wholesome and worth saving, and we know that somehow, our characters are going to pull off this elevation.

Not so with grimdark. In grimdark, there is no safety net.

What draws you to grimdark as an author?

I was drawn to grimdark initially because it is a better vehicle for injecting realism into fantasy. It’s hard to truly explore human character and a high fantasy setting, because there are some boundaries where you just can’t go. A great example is swearwords. Readers typically don’t expect them in some won’t stand for them in their high fantasy. And god help the author who kills off a favorite side character, even though that character’s death precipitates a cataclysmic shift in the main characters worldview that is worth exploring.

Which authors are on your must-read list?

There are so many.

Mark Lawrence

Joe Abercrombie

CS Friedman

Andy Peloquin

Ed McDonald

Rob Hayes

Jesse Teller

Ben Galley

Do you have anything on the horizon that you’d like to talk about?

I wish I did.  Just plodding along writing Dragon Mage 2, which is utterly and hopelessly non-grimdark. Perhaps that is why I can’t seem to tame this beast 😊

About the author:

ML Spencer lives in Southern California with her three children and two cats. She has been obsessed with fantasy ever since the days of childhood bedtime stories. She grew up reading and writing fantasy fiction, playing MMORPG games, and living, as mom put it, “in her own worlds.” ML now spends each day working to bring those worlds into reality.

Purchase links:

The Rhenwars Saga

The Chaos Cycle

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Luke Tarzian

Banner 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!

I’m so happy to have somehow coerced Luke Tarzian into joining me for another talk. This time, he tackles grimdark.

Hi, Luke. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat a little bit about the grittier side of fantasy!

Hi Jodie. Thank you for having me!

First, would you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about your work?

Sure. During the day I work full time as a paralegal for a special education law firm. At night, I moonlight as a long-suffering New York Knicks fan, an annoyingly thrilled Phoenix Suns fan, a freelance cover artist, and book designer. I guess I also write too. That seems pretty relevant. 

As far as my work is concerned, I write dark psychological fantasy with enough twists and turns to make your head spin. A lot of what I write deals pretty heavily with mental illness, grief, loss, death, and the like.

You’ve described your books as “grimdark adjacent”. Can you expand a little on that?

Sure. There are varying definitions of grimdark, but the most general I’ve seen involve some combination of amoral, nihilistic, cynical, gritty, and/or bleak settings and characters. Depending on who you ask, it’s also hyper violent, blood and gore to the absolute max. In that case, maybe that’s a commentary on real life. I’m not sure. 

As far my own work is concerned, I feel like I utilize a lot of similar tropes—grey characters, bleak settings, “fuck” as the wonderful multipurpose tool it is, death—with the caveat being I do so in order to highly the possibility of hope, however slim it may be. I think that latter part ties into a lot of what my books are influenced by, chiefly my own battles with mental illness, grief, and the like and that struggle to hold onto whatever ray of light I can. I wouldn’t call my protagonists heroes in any sense, nor would I refer to the antagonists as villains. Rather, they’re all people with their own scars, virtues, and moral faults trying to do what they think is right or good, even if that tends to make things worse. 

There are many misconceptions about grimdark out there, and even some disagreement on what grimdark is. How would you describe grimdark?

At this point, I’m really not sure. Like I said previously, there are so many different definitions that I don’t think you can simply limit it to one. To me, personally, the best representation of grimdark is the Gears of War games. War, hopelessness, ultra-violence, and characters fighting to survive, some of who eventually lose to the will to carry on. It still has tinges of hope, but it’s a dying world. Ultimately, I think that’s what grimdark examines—dying hope in a dying world and how that affects the characters.

What draws you to the darker side of fantasy (I feel like I’m talking about The Force and definitely need better wording)?

I’ve always liked darker things, for lack of a better phrase. I think with dark fantasy in particular it’s always been a more “accepted” approach to examining the human condition in extremes that other genres might shy from. As someone fascinated by psychology and who deals with a lot internally, it obviously appeals.

Is your writing ever influenced by things that are happening in the “real world”?

Not so much the real world as my own personal experiences. Vultures is a very grief-tinged book, the rough draft of which I finished shortly after my mother died. The World Breaker Requiem takes that to the extreme. I’ve mentioned several times, but I refer to it as my catharsis novel even though it put me on the edge of a mental breakdown and almost sent me back to therapy.

I know we’ve discussed your writing in terms of being a way to talk about grief and mental illness. It makes your writing both raw and very, very powerful. Do you think fantasy is uniquely capable of creating a safe platform for dealing with some of the more difficult things that life chucks at us?

This ties into a lot of what I’ve said already, so obviously my answer is yes. And I think the darker the fantasy, the more one can explore. I think dark fantasy is uniquely equipped to tackle mental health, especially when you factor in overcoming challenges. In the darkest night, the faintest light is blinding.

If someone asked you to build them a “to be read” list, what are some books that would have to be on it?

I’m going to do this on the assumption this is for general recommendations, but I’ll start with some grimdark fantasy to keep with the theme:

  • Legacy of the Brightwash by Krystle Matar
  • The Obsidian Psalm by Clayton Snyder
  • The Empires of Dust trilogy by Anna Smith Spark
  • Norylska Groans by Clayton Snyder and Michael Fletcher 
  • The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
  • Seraphina’s Lament by Sarah Chorn
  • Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn
  • The Boy Who Walked Too Far by Dom Watson
  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss 
  • The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
  • The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
  • The View From the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman 
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  • The Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin
  • The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

I could add so much more to this list, but I wanted to recommend books that have been formative to the way I write, whether fiction or nonfiction. 

Thank you so much for having me!

About the author:

Fantasy Author. Long Doggo Enthusiast. Snoot Booper. Shouter of F**ks. Drinker of Whiskey. These are all titles. I’m the Khaleesi nobody wanted and the one they certainly didn’t deserve, but here we are, friendos…

Purchase links:

The World Maker Parable

The World Breaker Requiem

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark Featuring Krystle Matar

Banner 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 excited to be joined by Krystle Matar, author of the grimdark triumph, Legacy of the Brightwash!

Will you talk a little bit about your work?

Legacy of the Brightwash is romantic grimdark; it straddles the line between both worlds. The society the characters exist in is bleak and difficult (to say the least) but through bonds of love and family, they are able to stand against the oppression they face in their society. I’m not sure I set out with the intention to mash those two genres together, but maybe that’s just me. Dark, and struggling—but with a deep well of love for my family and community that sees me through it all. I suppose it was inevitable that those things would bleed into my writing.

What were some obstacles to writing Legacy of the Brightwash?

Life in general was definitely a big obstacle! We are a family of 6 and life is very busy; we also moved out into the country in the midst of my revisions, and our way of life shifted dramatically. 

I’m still not entirely sure how we pulled it off, but here we are, and I’ve got this shiny new writing career on top of it! 

Other than that, I think a big obstacle was deciding how much of myself I wanted to commit to the story. It’s scary, bearing your soul to a broad audience. It’s vulnerable and it’s counter-intuitive. But ultimately, I had to decide what I wanted to write about if indeed I made this into a career… and it turns out that I can’t write anything except my own honesty. I think I made the right choices.

What were some victories?

Community was the biggest victory. I stumbled into the indie community by accident, and my life has been forever enriched by the amazing, generous, supportive, kind-hearted people I’ve met. I can only imagine how many more fantastic people I’ll encounter on my journey, and I love this community with my whole heart and soul. Beyond that, Brightwash is a victory in and of itself; I’ve never written anything so bold, so big, so totally and utterly me. I used to pull a lot of punches when I was writing because I thought that’s how you got to sell and that’s how you got taken seriously, but I was so wrong. It turns out that you can throw down your whole, messy, complex self and people will engage with you and your story much deeper.

Legacy of the Brightwash is seen as grimdark. Would you agree with the classification and why?

You know, when I was getting ready to market Brightwash, I thought to myself “It isn’t that dark, is it?” I thought for sure the grimdark crowd would be disappointed. Earlier drafts were much darker before I added the core theme of love, and I thought I was straying too far away from what they like to see. 

Fortunately, I have some wonderful friends in the grimdark genre, and through reading their work and conversing with them, I learned that grimdark is more of a spectrum than a hard line. The tone is bleakness and violence, sure, but the expressions of that tone can be varied from story to story in absolutely stunning ways. So, if a bleak society and setting is what it takes to be grimdark, I’m there for sure. Energy units, ya know? (If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it, but trust me.)

There are many misconceptions about grimdark out there, (I’ve heard the term “torture porn”, which irritates me to no end). Can you talk about what grimdark is?

Grimdark is a conversation with the fantasy genre, I think. Grimdark acknowledges that we as humans are deeply imperfect. Grimdark forces people to consider the weight of all those heroic battles. Grimdark builds a world where none of the choices are good and asks the reader how on earth they would choose if they were in the same situation. Grimdark examines lines that people shouldn’t cross, and then forces their characters across it, because none of us are impervious to temptation and mistakes. 

Grimdark, paradoxically, is also a genre that is stubbornly hopeful. If victory is assured, if the hero is truly good and right and virtuous, was anything really risked? Was anything really in doubt, was their stand ever all that brave? That’s not to say that ALL of fantasy is about perfect shining heroes; it’s not, and I know it, and I’m not slinging shade at those hears. I don’t know… but I find, personally, I can’t relate to heroes who always make the right choices. That’s how I ended up here in grimdark, I think. Tashué has fucked up, and he knows it. And together with the people he loves most in the world, he can try to do something about it. 

Which brings me to my next point; if the hero is deeply flawed, and the act of standing shreds their lives to pieces, if they are pushed so hard that they almost break… or they do break and they continue on in spite of it, it feels like they’ve truly, deeply overcome something. Grimdark can be about standing for something even if there’s no hope. About slogging through the shit that the world dumps on us, and finding something worth fighting for. And maybe the choices our heroes make aren’t good exactly, but who among us can relate to that? A lot of us, I think. 

The side effect of that does often mean that grimdark is a genre where protagonists are tested, and fail. They collapse beneath the pressure, they cave, they slide so deep into the darkness that they might be irredeemable. And that’s the beauty of the genre. There is so much room for examining the depths of the human condition in ways that are messy and uncomfortable… and also honest.

Why do you think there are so many misconceptions?

You know, I’m really not sure. Certainly there is some wild stuff out there in the grimdark playground, but the same can be said about any genre. I think grimdark tends to make people uncomfortable, and thus it gets a bad rap. But for whatever it’s worth, romance also tends to make people uncomfortable, and also gets a bad rap. There seems to be a pushback against genres that ask for self-reflection, you know? Grimdark and romance both ask people to face the taboos of their society head-on, and they both ask people to see themselves in situations that might be uncomfortable. So maybe it’s no wonder that they both get a lot of flak. 

So then I combined them both, lol. I guess I like a challenge.

What draws you to grimdark as a writer?

Legacy of the Brightwash started out as a thought experiment about how we value convenience and the stability of our economy, and asked a question about what it would take to shock an entire society out of status quo to really change things. My hero is a man who is trapped in the very system that is oppressing him and people like him. He’s made mistakes, and he’s going to have to make difficult choices in order to make any change. 

I don’t know that Tashué’s story could have fit in any other subgenre, really. 

Do you find writing to be cathartic? If so, would you say that fantasy (and grimdark in particular) is particularly well suited to examining some of the harder things in life?

I do find writing cathartic; it’s a safe space to examine my own personal baggage, as well as the broad emotions that come with living in this world on a day-to-day basis. Fantasy is doubly a safe space. I have the room to adjust society so that I can filter out things I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with, but then I can also put human nature under a microscope and process those feelings in a way that connects me to other people (ie, the readers who come to my world and understand the questions I’m trying to examine.) Grimdark is a place where we can be uncomfortably honest about flaws. And in being honest about them, hopefully we can find ways to hold ourselves accountable for them. 

Which authors are on your must-read list?

Clayton Snyder is absolutely pushing the limits of grimdark, and his stories are incredible. Michael Fletcher, of course. A grimdark list isn’t complete without him. Does Brian Staveley count as grimdark? I suspect he does, and his first trilogy is absolutely incredible. I haven’t yet read his new novel, but I’m salivating over it. 

I recently read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Neither of them are fantasy; both authors are Vietnam veterans who wrote about their experiences in war, though Matterhorn is a fictionalized story. I’m not sure if Tim O’Brien wrote his experiences, or if he filtered them through some fictionalization, but either way, the work is absolutely stunning. I highly, highly recommend them both for readers and writers of grimdark. We touch on war a lot in the genre of fantasy; we should engage with the veterans who lived through it. 

 Do you have anything on the horizon that you would like to mention?

I’ve been working diligently on Brightwash’s sequel, LEGACY OF BRICK & BONE. But I’m also very, very proud of the anthology that I’ve been a part of, titled THE ALCHEMY OF SORROW. The theme of the anthology has been grief, and it’s been absolutely moving to watch so many writers come together and address the heaviest of emotions in that safe space that fantasy is. The support for the anthology has been incredible, proving that fantasy has the space, and the NEED, to get real about emotion. 

About the author:

“Krystle Matar has been writing for a long time, but things got serious when Tashué Blackwood walked into her life, an amber-eyed whirlwind.
When she isn’t arguing with him or any of his friends, she parents and farms. She has a lot of children and even more animals and one very excellent husband.
She is currently working on lots of stories set in the Dominion. She expects to exist in this universe for a while.”

I have my website https://www.krystlematar.com

Twitter https://twitter.com/KrystleMatar

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/krystlematar/

My GR page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/20047399.Krystle_Matar

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

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

Fantasy Focus: Grimdark

Banner credit: Beth Tabler

This year, I want to talk about some of the many types of fantasy you can find (I have a post about fantasy subgenres which can be found here). I think when people hear “fantasy”, their mind immediately goes to serious epics with swords, magic, and dragons. While I happen to love all of those things, there are many ways to tell a story. This week’s focus is on grimdark that subgenre with morally complicated characters and often gritty worlds.

To get started, here’s a far from complete list of grimdark authors. Let me know of any I miss!

Joe Abercrombie- First Law series

Alicia Wanstall Burke- Blood of Heirs

Sarah Chorn- Seraphina’s Lament

Glen Cook- Chronicles of the Black Company series

Steven Erikson- Gardens of the Moon

Michael R. Fletcher- Smoke and Stone

C.S. Friedman- The Coldfire trilogy

Ben Galley- Chasing Graves

Rob J. Hayes- The Ties that Bind series

R.F. Kuang- The Poppy War

Mark Lawrence- The Broken Empire series

Ulff Lehman- Light in the Dark series

Scott Lynch- Gentleman Bastard series

Devin Madson- The Reborn Empire series

George R.R. Martin- A Song of Ice and Fire

Krystle Matar- Legacy of the Brightwash

Alex Mead- Unstoppable Shadow

Richard Nell- Ash and Sand series

Mike Shel- Iconoclasts trilogy

Anna Smith Spark- Empires of Dust series

Clayton Snyder- River of Thieves

ML Spencer- Dragon Mage

Luke Tarzian- Adjacent Monsters series

Holly Tinsley- We Men of Ash and Shadow

Brent Weeks- The Way of Shadows