Fantasy: Too Gritty?

Lots of fiction, especially fantasy fiction, seems to be quickly succumbing to all that is grimy, gritty, and grim. Game of Thrones, Prince of Thorns, The Night Angel Trilogy, The Blade Itself, The Song of the Beast, and many other titles besides take their readers into the darkest, roughest, sharpest, most cynical corners of the genre.

As far as I’m concerned, a little darkness and despair goes a long way in fiction in the same way a little spice adds to the flavor of a given food. But too much ruins the dish, and pretty soon you’re only eating that buffalo wing because one of your buddies promised you $20. (I might actually read The Blade Itself for $100; everything I’ve read about Joe Abercrombie indicates I wouldn’t touch his books otherwise)

Maybe it’s because I’m a big softy, and am immature or naive or expect too much fun in fiction. I don’t know. What I do know is that more books are coming out where the characters’ loved ones get mutilated, raped, and murdered. Literally no one cares about showing them kindness or understanding. It’s pretty much casual, sneering brutality and suffering all the time. And that’s just in the first chapter.

At what point did this start sounding realistic or reasonable? It’s a classic overcorrection against much of the fantasy of yesteryear. Adventures were treated like paintball matches in these books, and you never got the sense your heroes were in any danger. And of course lots of people got tired of the Disney movies that defanged the folktales of the Brothers Grimm.

Reasons abound for why that grit is there. It’s for the sake of honesty and realism, making people care about characters, flavoring the book, and many other reasons besides. Nevertheless, this isn’t really a trend I want to give in to. If possible, I’d rather show more restraint with darkness and make it count for the moments when it’s really needed. Little black needles jammed deep into the story’s nerves.

I got into fiction for adventure and discovery, not to watch the genuinely good guys get betrayed and beheaded, while everyone else gets into petty fights, then they drunkenly amble off to the local whorehouse. That’s all good and fine for a few chapters, but a book becomes manipulative and dishonest when that tone takes up almost every page in the book.

Understand, this grit isn’t the same thing as realism, despite many writers’ claims to the contrary. A cut getting infected if someone doesn’t tend to it? That’s realistic. Getting knocked unconscious causing lasting, even permanent damage (as opposed to all the characters who get knocked out and are perfectly fine afterwards)? That’s realistic, too.

No one at all showing your protagonist any kind of pity or compassion? That’s not so realistic. Everyone in their family being either depraved or a victim of moral degeneracy? Unlikely, albeit not impossible. Every event in someone’s life being meaningless, spent in squalor and sewage, and punctuated by failure, rape, and torture? Definitely not realistic.

Edit: It’s also not necessarily a sign that the genre as a whole is maturing. Grit isn’t the same thing as maturity, even if a story can use some as one ingredient among others (three-dimensional characters, consequences to their actions, etc.) to become more mature. Whatever the case, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of maturity in the “arms race” where the newest big name in fantasy tries to display more rapes, more severed limbs, more sociopathic protagonists, and more excrement than the last big name. One day this movement is going to run out of steam. It truly cannot go on forever, and fantasy will grow out of it.

It is so much easier to contemplate the terrors of Hell than the beauties of Heaven. Anyone can tell a story that basically says “Life sucks, and then you die.” It takes patience and care to see the light that shines through anyway. Sometimes you have to look hard to see something beautiful, like a character doing a noble act for the right reasons (and not losing his head afterwards), but that doesn’t imply the absence of good. I admire those stories that combine grit and smoothness, acting appropriately when one is needed more than the other. Show some kind of balance in your work, and you’ll make the light shine brighter even as the darkness is deepened. Plus, it will be a more convincing story.

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Book Review: “The Way of Shadows” by Brent Weeks

Overall rating: 8 out of 10

Ultra-assassins, corrupt kings, political intrigue, prostitutes and street urchins wishing side-by-side for a better life in a world that refuses to let them gain it…those are just a few of the better trappings of epic fantasy, and this first volume of the Night Angels trilogy is a book that uses them well. The tale of youngster Azoth and trained killer Durzo Blint proves a tantalizing twist on the “precocious youth is taught by a wise old man” trope, jolting it up with moral ambiguity and a tense, hostile relationship between the two of them.

Brent Weeks has begun a trilogy that I look forward to finishing. He had me hooked right from the opening scene. He did a terrific job of fleshing out his characters, and got me to care about them. More than a few scenes and character arcs were emotionally intense, and I appreciated how he gave his protagonists enough hell so their outcomes truly were in doubt. He doesn’t pull a lot of punches, develops this world adequately, and he makes sure we have an investment in the outcome. Even when he indulges in cliches of romance, royalty, prophecies, and mages, Weeks pulls it off so well that you don’t mind reading about the same thing one more time. It’s a gritty world, full of gritty characters, so if you’re tired of squeaky clean epic fantasy and have already devoured A Song of Ice and Fire, this might be a good book for you to grab.

Shadows is not without its weaknesses. Some truly intriguing characters are set up for their own great stories that could have been threaded through the next book, only to be killed in some arbitrary manner, a la George R.R. Martin. Not that that’s always a bad thing. It just made the experience of their deaths incredibly frustrating, rather than an intense part of the story. The quality of the writing itself is uneven. It normally doesn’t have standout description, and oscillates between pedestrian and wordy (something that isn’t as grating when you listen to an audiobook, which I did in this case). And there are one too many viewpoint characters, in my opinion, at least when it comes to the single-chapter minor viewpoints.

Another weakness here is that the villains are cackling cartoons who take delight in their overt wickedness. Even though I cheered whenever one of these evil creatures died, I wished they were characters who saw themselves as heroes and doing what was right or necessary, instead of R-rated versions of the mustache-twirling devils on a vaudeville stage.

My overall impression of this novel is that it gets its strength from the character development, which fortunately makes up for the elements that don’t shine quite as brilliantly. Still, it has to be said that Brent Weeks has kicked open the door and gotten us off to a great start. This is a series that I intend to finish. Thank you, Mr. Weeks. You have done well.