Light and Shade in Epic Fantasy Fiction versus Grimdark

The ebook of The Assassin’s Edge sees The Tales of Einarinn series finally completed for e-readers. Preparing these editions has been interesting for many reasons. It’s been fascinating to revisit what I was writing a decade and more ago. I honestly had forgotten quite how gruesome, violent and downright spine-chilling some of the events in Assassin are. But even then, and even though the term wasn’t in general usage in those days, I don’t think the book can ever be labelled Grimdark. That’s true of the other epic fantasies I was reading at the time. Because there’s so much else in the Tales and other such series.

More than that, when I compare Assassin and its contemporaries to the epic fantasy novels I’ve been reading recently for review, the more convinced I’m becoming that Grimdark is devolving into a narrowing focus that’s stifling creativity in our genre. The more the current visibility bias in bookshops drives sales towards downbeat stories dominated by moody blokes in cloaks, the worse this will get.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating fluffy feel-good tales where everyone gets a happy ending and even the villains are redeemed with hugs and kisses. I’m all for hard edges in epic fantasy. Those were definitely a feature of books such as Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane and The Darwath Trilogy, Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksennarion and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Dragon Star trilogies, all of which enthralled me as I turned to writing seriously myself. I vividly recall the visceral impact of reading David Gemmell’s Legend for the first time, swiftly followed by The King Beyond the Gate and Waylander.

These writers were absolutely what epic fantasy needed to stop the genre trundling down an equally stultifying path towards naive, consolatory fiction. I can assuredly see the value and appeal of tales where characters learn in the hardest possible way that life isn’t fair, virtue isn’t necessarily rewarded and you just have to get through hard luck as best you can. These are all aspects of real life and as I’ve said so often, realism is essential to give fantasy fiction a solid foundation.

That’s my first problem with Grimdark. Unrelenting and universal misery in a story is so often as unrealistic as non-stop rainbows and kittens. Unless there’s sufficient context within the world-building to explain why brutes behave as they do, all this violence becomes merely nasty set-dressing. Without some degree of exploration of what underpins it, Grimdark slides far too easily into tacky exploitation.

Yes, we can readily point to historical and contemporary real-world examples of innocent people living utterly wretched lives, but whole societies based on such brutality have always been an exception and rarely endure. More than that, even amid such horrors, individuals emerge time and again in whom the human spirit strives towards hope, altruism and defiance.

There will always be those who fight to light a candle instead of yielding to curse the darkness. It’s exactly that light and shade which makes for a far more realistic reading experience as far as I am concerned. Take a look at the works of Robin Hobb or Kate Elliott, among many others. They don’t shy away from the worst that humanity can do but they aren’t labelled Grimdark, even when their work includes toe-curlingly shocking events. Indeed, the impact of such brutality is heightened by the contrast of such darkness with the glimmers of hope and warm light of happiness elsewhere in their characters’ lives.

Which brings me to my next problem when books have an endless supply of shit, literal and metaphorical, for everyone to wade through. Pain and poo have their place among trials and tribulations which test and reveal character but the story overall must sustain and justify that. If there’s no narrative progression – and I don’t just mean some simplistic triumph over adversity, but some sense that events shape and drive the story – what’s the point? Grimdark too easily becomes a series of increasing misfortunes bombarding passive or at best reactive individuals who never take any initiative to change their own fate.

Why should a reader bother engaging with such a character or investing emotion in their fate when the unfolding narrative so clearly indicates that everything is going to go horribly wrong time and again? If any hint of light at the end of the tunnel is only ever an oncoming train, I find myself progressively distanced from the characters and their predicaments. This becomes even more pronounced when the central characters themselves are grim and brutal. When a reader can’t identify with, or simply doesn’t much care about, such people, the impact of their suffering is drastically reduced, further lessening engagement.

And incidentally, just in case anyone thinks I’m making a gendered argument here, the most recent striking example for me of all that I personally dislike in Grimdark is Rebecca Levene’s Smiler’s Fair. But this debate really isn’t about any one book or any single writer.

Epic fantasy needs light and shade to give it three dimensions. Detail and colour get lost in unremitting gloom. Thankfully there are plenty of current epic fantasy writers who understand this; Sam Sykes, Helen Lowe, Aidan Harte and Elspeth Cooper are just a few such authors whose books I can see on my shelves as I write this. Please feel free to flag up more in comments.

And equally, do feel free to speak up in favour of those authors who are most often labelled Grimdark; to explore different perspectives on such reading. I’m curious to know if, how and why you’re getting something rewarding that I’m missing.

But I’m still concerned about the artificial skewing of the market towards the Grimdark tendency, when a narrowing selection of books increasingly gets the bulk of promotion and front-of-bookstore presence. Not bad books by any means; I have found undoubted merits in novels that have exemplified the worst of Grimdark for me personally, yes, including Smiler’s Fair where I see plenty that’s positive in the book with regard to diversity, inclusivity and pacing. Even when the grimdarkery still kills that particular title for me. Though I have no problem with other folk reading and enjoying such books if they wish. Tastes vary after all.

But if disproportionate visibility means Grimdark increasingly dominates sales then retailers and publishers alike will look first and foremost for more of the same. That’s how the book business works. Then those of us with other tastes in reading will lose out if the authors we enjoy simply can’t sustain a writing career. If competition for that remaining market then sees Grimdark authors striving to outdo each other with ever increasing nastiness, ultimately those fans will lose out too, as epic fantasy hurtles towards that creative dead end. Just look at the way the serial killer narrative has devolved so far towards unredeemed ghastliness in a lot of recent crime fiction.

Thankfully we’re not there yet. So let’s do all we can to avoid taking that particular path by celebrating and promoting the full breadth and depth of epic fantasy fiction, past and present.

Mr Smith went to Washington. Ms McKenna’s been to 10 Downing Street.

For a SF and Fantasy novelist, I’m spending a remarkable amount of time being an activist at the moment. Well, it needs doing.

You’ll recall I met David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister to discuss the problems for small businesses created by the new EU digital VAT regulations on cross border sales? As a direct result of that meeting, the PM’s office set up a meeting for Clare Josa and me, on behalf of the EU VAT Action Team, with his special adviser Daniel Korski of the No.10 Policy Unit.

The full report – and guidance on useful actions for everyone affected – is here.

To summarise, the UK Government now realises just what horrendous difficulties these new regulations have created. Countries creating wonderful systems to handle collecting the new taxes and paying them to each other is not the slightest use to the digital sellers whose businesses are now so horribly complicated by the need to locate and appropriately tax their customers at the initial point of sale.

They’ve also acknowledged how vital it will be to have end-user input into any discussions about any proposed technical or other implementation solutions. We’re already following up on that.

The people we need to convince now are the EU Commission and national finance ministries across Europe. Okay then…

EU VAT Action will be rolling out assorted calls to action with a particular focus on Europe. I’ve also met with Catherine Bearder MEP this week, and spent an extremely productive hour and a half going over all the key issues with her and getting her invaluable input on how best to get our voices heard in Europe. Subject to final confirmation, key EU VAT Action team players will be heading for Brussels in the week commencing 16th March.

So we’re definitely making progress.

And what’s No.10 Downing Street really like? Well, I’d say it’s a stately home devoted to the day to day business of government, if that makes any sense at all. Lots of people coming and going, all very focused, in elegant and historic surroundings.

There’s a really interesting history available here, including photos. Yes, I did get to meet Larry the cat – who is the most aloof feline I have ever encountered, and for those of us who know cats, that’s really saying something.

There was a fox as well, trotting about and sniffing at doors first thing. I saw him when I glanced out of the window, when we’d just arrived and were going through the security check. Oh yes, says the friendly copper, he often comes over from the park for a look around…

Talking of coppers, the constables who guard the famous door are clearly a dab hand at taking good photos with any sort of camera or phone they are handed. So that’s quite a snap for the family album.

jules-No.10

And here’s a picture of the cat.

cat

The EU VAT Action Campaign – recent and upcoming events

Last Monday saw the EU VAT Action team represented for the first time at the HMRC Working Group meeting to discuss implementation of the new VATMOSS system. You may rest assured that we highlighted the ongoing problems which microbusinesses are having with compliance, 3rd party platforms and the VATMOSS system itself, not to mention the widespread failures in European implementation.

Since he’s my constituency MP, I was also able to meet David Cameron last Friday, aiming to make sure he realises what the current problems are as well as their wider and longer term implications. It was a positive and constructive meeting, with every indication that the PM understands the seriousness and complexity of this issue.

While we are definitely making headway convincing the UK government, we still need to convince the finance ministers and key officials in other EU member states that this same trouble is heading their way. They just don’t know it yet because their own digital businesses don’t even know about the new regulations, still less about how impossible the law is to work with!

We need as many non-UK responses to the EU VAT Action survey as possible, as soon as possible.

Please spread the word. We’re already compiling country-specific reports from the data we do have – and the picture in the Netherlands for instance, is horrifying.

We want as many people as possible to contact the EU Commission’s Taxation Department with a personal complaint and also to submit comments to the OECD’s current consultation on implementing this sort of taxation.

Sounds daunting? We’re putting together clear guidance on how to go about it and on Thursday 12th February, we’ll be having a major online push to inspire as many people to act as possible.

On Wednesday 11th February I’ll be part of a Google Hangouts live online event at 7pm GMT organised by the The Alliance of Independent Authors to discuss the new regulations, VATMOSS and associated issues.

I’ll be particularly focusing on the campaign and the actions everyone can take to help. The more voices raised, the better the chances of being heard!

If you can’t make that particular time, you’ll be able to access a recording afterwards – check back for linkage in due course.

And I am really, really truly planning to post something NOT about bloody VAT here soon!