“Grimdark” is a label applied to fantasy that is, shall we say, both grim and dark. Some call it tongue-in-cheek. Others anti-Tolkien. No heroes. No clearly defined right and wrong. Realism. Nihilism. All that matters is power, the good guys don’t always win, and more often than not they lose. With blood, and a healthy dose of sadism.
Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic. The word was inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”
Think George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Who is the hero in that series? The exemplar? The aspirational figure? People will do something heroic and good one moment, and then rape or murder a child the next.
Which is why I find David J. West‘s Brutal a little bit confusing. It’s bloody, sure. We meet a lot of characters who exemplify the very worst of human nature. But there is a hero. And while he kind of questions things, he ultimately does the right thing.
Labels don’t matter all that much. I just find it interesting that a book with a clear hero who has a clearly defined moral code is branded as “grimdark.”
Brutal tells the story of a nameless sellsword who comes to the crumbling city of Aldreth with the intention of cleaning house, and heaven help whoever gets in his way. Brutal is a fantasy, but this set-up is straight out of a Western, which was fine by me. It just so happens that West also writes Westerns. The sellsword himself is definitely a fighter in the Conan vein, and as a fan of Conan, this was also fine by me.
Nicknamed All-Death, Aldreth is a northern mining town, blighted because the mines are no longer yielding iron. There’s also the small matter of the war between two wizards, Varlak and Anaias and the resulting instability. The Marquis of Aldreth, sick with plague, had left control of the city to his son, the Duke Owain. The Duke, however, is an ineffective leader. Having to deal with a promiscuous wife in addition to Aldreth’s economic downturn, he hires Varlak to come to the city and use his powers of alchemy to revitalize the mines. It worked for a time, until Varlak’s apprentice Anaias betrayed him and staked out his own part of the city. And then the Duke is murdered. Now crime and vice reign, the innocent are playthings of the powerful, the rival wizards are always threatening all-out war, and the specter of the dark goddess Boha-Annu looms over all.
It is into this mess the sellsword walks, seeing an opportunity to do some damage.
It’s a great set up, and starts strong. So why did Brutal leave me unimpressed?
I’ll tell you why–the villains were so stupid. Varlak and Anaias were some of the absolute biggest morons I have ever encountered in fiction. They fell for each and every one of the sellsword’s tricks, believing him even though he had double- and triple-crossed them before. I enjoy seeing a clever hero play two bad guys against each other, but I think it would have been stronger had the evil wizards had some semblance of strategic ability between them. Or brain cells.
I get that Varlak and Anaias were venal, vain, and obnoxiously overconfident. Maybe these character flaws blinded them to the sellsword’s machinations. Maybe they were so impressed by the sellsword’s prodigious fighting ability that they were willing to overlook the destruction he left in his wake to try and win him over to their side. But man, I was disappointed by the villains. A war between two wizards sounds incredibly bad-ass, but ultimately didn’t do it for me. I was far more engaged in the subplot featuring the cult of Boha-Annu, and wish there had been more of that throughout.
On the writing front, the action was snappy, bloody, and quick. There were some great set-pieces–my favorite was the urban warfare against a runaway basilisk. And Brutal is funny, too. The dialogue is akin to an 80s action movie, and the way Varlak met his end was particularly well set-up.
Minor nitpicks: The language veered from quasi-medieval to quasi-modern, which was slightly jarring. Also, bring an independently published book, I expected some typos and grammatical errors, but there were enough for me to notice. This didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book, but it was distracting.
Brutal was fun, though the villains hardly provided a worthy challenge for our nameless sellsword. I plan on checking out the sequel, Fierce, and hope that it provides more of a challenge for our hero.
Because the sellsword is a hero, grimdark appellation be damned.