Okay, three things we’re all going to have to agree on right here at the onset: 1) Led Zeppelin is the greatest rock band of all time, 2) Nickelback is the worst, and 3) All art is the reaction to what came before.
Now that we have that out of the way, I’ve always felt there’s a connection between the fantasy genre and music, which is probably why I host the Novel Playlists From Fantasy Novelists over at The Fantasy Hive. And I’m not alone, what with Nicholas Eames not only taking the world by storm by demonstrating the similarities between a band of musicians and heroes, but including a playlist of his own to accompany Kings of the Wyld.
What’s more, when a guest on The Grim Tidings Podcast, he maintained that Led Zeppelin would be the band able to take down a dragon. When it comes to the genres of fantasy and rock, Lord of the Rings and Led Zeppelin rule the roost with an iron fist. Subsequent authors and artists admired and aspired to emulate their heroes.
Which is why for decades mainstream rock and high fantasy kept kicking out the same sort of hits over and over again. They knew what audiences wanted and kept trying to perfect the formula rather than invent an entirely new equation. And this is what led to a lot of the sense of sameness that pervaded both genres up until the 90s. Hair metal in particular reveled in their rock excess, something Eames touches upon again in The Band series.
But, because all art is an evolutionary reaction to the status quo, some plucky bands out in Seattle rejected all the excess of hairspray and double-necked guitars by creating their own sort of sound. Lyrics took on a much darker tone, rejecting the odes to parties and girls, girls, girls. Gone were the clean guitar riffs in favor of a grittier, feedback-infused wail of despair that was quickly labeled “grunge.”
Also during this decade, a trio of authors decided to turn their backs upon traditional high fantasy tropes in favor of grittier tales with morally ambiguous heroes that did not necessarily win the day simply because they were the protagonists. You may have heard of them: George RR Martin, Steven Erikson, and Robin Hobb (and yes, before you object, I firmly categorize Hobb as grimdark and will fight you over it*).
Similar to grunge, grimdark was originally a pejorative term. And like those lads and ladies making music in Seattle, these authors and their fans bristled at this term being foisted upon them. Just like their musical counterparts, they did not seek to be pigeonholed by a subgenre they invented by accident. They just sought to do their own thing, to make art with their own unique voices. It was chance alone that those unique voices were clumped together because of a superficial similarity in their styles. They each aimed to be anti-Tolkien, a reaction to what came before, but the collective label stuck nonetheless.
But then an odd thing happened to both grunge and grimdark: They became popular. Immensely so. And in so doing became mainstream. The popularity and staying power of grunge can’t be overstated, and even 25+ years later, one can’t go into a sports bar or listen to “new rock, alternative” radio without being inundated by these enduring hits that rightfully qualify as classic rock. One also can’t hit up an online fantasy haunt (say /r/fantasy) and ask for a recommendation without Malazan or Realm of the Elderlings being suggested no matter how tenuously it actually fits the poster’s criteria (seriously, I dare you to test this theory of mine). And while neither Hobb or Erikson’s works may have reached the same name recognition as Martin outside the genre, the two could still sell-out a stadium of fantasy fans at a convention.
And anytime anything becomes mainstream, the imitators eventually arrive. In rock, these were the bands who were no longer doing their own thing, but who set out to play that same sort of grungy sound that was already popular. Most of them have (hopefully) disappeared into obscurity, but a few off the top of my head: Bush, Candlebox, Silverchair, Matchbox 20, Better than Ezra, Creed, and Puddle of Mudd. But by far—as I’m sure we can all agree—the biggest offender was Nickelback, which despite not possessing a single ounce of talent between them, inexplicably sold millions of records by emulating a specific sort of sound. Unlike their reluctant grunge predecessors, they weren’t reacting to the hair metal excess of the previous musical period, rather attempted to ape what was already popular.
Grimdark has also hit the fantasy mainstream, and one does not need to peruse the upcoming releases for long to see the exponential increase of both f-bombs and gritty antiheroes ever since the sudden popularity of Game of Thrones. In fact, a lot of fantasy book reviews now include trigger warnings for things like rape and excessive gore since those two components have inexplicably become defining elements of the grimdark subgenre.
But have these brutal scenes been included because this is the story the author needed to tell or because it’s what the mainstream now expects?
And herein lies the rub of this post, the moment I teeter on the edge of this trap I’ve dug for myself: I write grimdark but was not one of its originators. And I wholly embrace the term. Hell, I market my books as grimdark. Does this make me a sellout (the worst of all possible grunge insults)? Am I no better than Creed as I chase a trend, no more than a Nickelback?
I have concluded that no, I’m no Nickelback. Mind you, I had to jump through some pretty big mental hoops to come to that conclusion, one of which was not even knowing the term grimdark until I started marketing my first novel. I couldn’t be chasing a trend because I didn’t even know the trend existed. I simply set out to write a fantasy reimagining of the American Civil War, which meant all the ensuing grim darkness served the story rather than the current subgenre de jour. And even if you don’t agree, please give this to me: I don’t think I could live with myself if I put my own work on par with Puddle of Mudd.
But all kidding aside, this should be the question all authors ask themselves when they start a new book: Am I writing in this subgenre because it best serves the story I need to tell, or because this is the best subgenre with the chance to sell?
Being active in the grimdark community, I feel pretty safe to say most authors will answer the former. Despite our fascination on both the grim and the dark, this is honestly one of the most inclusive, thoughtful, and—dare I say it—funny communities I’ve ever run across. And a good portion of our indie author guild, Sigil Independent, is made up of grimdark authors like Rob Hayes, Ben Galley, ML Spencer, Timandra Whitecastle, and Dyrk Ashton, who are always up for a good laugh.
Which is also why I hope they won’t kick me out for the belabored grunge comparison.
And being mainstream has some odd side effects we don’t always notice right away. Since all art is the reaction to what came before, grimdark’s popularity has spawned hopebright, which we’ll just label as the twee musical movement, because I’m sure they’ll love that. And litRPG, that’s obviously EDM. And paranormal romance? I don’t know… Sade?
Finally, the success of Michael Sullivan, along with my other Sigil stablemates Alec Hutson, Phil Tucker, DE Olesen, and Benedict Patrick demonstrates that there’s always an audience for traditional fantasy that just plain rocks. Because, ultimately, isn’t that what all fantasy fans really want: To rock?
Also, to not be Nickelback.
*And before anyone asks, I didn’t include Glen Cook’s The Black Company in my trifecta despite it being the most grimdark of titles because it preceded the others by nearly a decade. But he’s certainly influential, so let’s just call him The Pixies.