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

Self-published Fantasy Authors: an interview with Luke Tarzian

I’m fortunate to be able to hear from Luke Tarzian, author of dark fantasy. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Vultures? 

VULTURES is…dark. Some people have said it’s the darkest fantasy they’ve ever read (I’m especially chuffed to have been told by one reviewer that it was more brutal than Joe Abercrombie). VULTURES is very much a story about love, loss, grief, and mental illness through the eyes of reluctant heroes. It takes place in a very phantasmagoric landscape full of demons, in a land where dreams are sometimes more than dreams and everyone—I mean everyone—is broken. Think some amalgamation of Edgar Allan Poe, The Licanius Trilogy, and a David Lynch film.”


What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy? 

“Reading Harry Potter and wanting to create my own worlds. I’ve been in love with the fantastic since I was a child and Harry Potter was kind of the final push I need to say “Hey—I’m gonna write my own stuff.” I write fantasy for escapism and the ability to self-examine through a fictional lens. I deal with a lot of depression and anxiety, and being able to filter that into my characters and take them on a journey helps me figure out my own issues.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot? 

“Characters one-hundred percent.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way? 

“Oh god, only way too much. A lot of the grief and loss and depression and anxiety and anger issues yada yada yada that the characters in VULTURES are subjected to are very much manifestations of my own struggles. For me, writing those into my characters a) helps make my characters that much more relatable and b) is stupidly and completely cathartic.”

What was the hardest character or part to write? 

“There is a moment in a scene very late in the book, probably in the third to last chapter, that was, in a sense, very real to write as it was heavily, heavily influenced by my mother’s death and her state in the final days before she passed. It was extremely cathartic to write, but it also fucked me up for a few days.”

I see your book is described as featuring anxiety and depression. I am always appreciative of any author who includes mental health representation in their work. Was it difficult to write about those things? 

“Yes and no. Yes because it’s always scary examining yourself, especially to that degree. But no, for the exact same reason, if that makes sense. Once you take a hard look at yourself and realize you have some issues you need to deal with (at least in my case), it becomes that much easier to address your issues through a fictional lens. A lot of the stuff I write I do so because I have a story to tell, but the way it comes out is absolutely related to what’s going on in my head.”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“Honestly, it really depends on the character. I consider myself an exceptionally strong character writer so, at the very least, any character I write is going to be fun. I think the bigger question is what character is the hardest to write, and, for me, it’s any character who is on the precipice of absolute good or absolute evil—because most people are somewhere in between (I think).”

Would you consider yourself more of a “pantser” or a plotter?

“I’d say I’m somewhere in between. I like to have a brief idea of where I’m going—the simplest of roadmaps. But, for the most part, my writing is very exploratory, very instinctive.”

How do you get “in the zone” when writing?

“Coffee and white noise, preferably rain. I don’t really write chronologically either, so I like to pick something I’m especially excited about to start with when I sit down to write as it helps build momentum.”


Luke Tarzian is…
Fantasy Author. Long Doggo Enthusiast. Snoot Booper. Shouter of Profanities. 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.