I have received a review copy of the book, but I am not done reading it yet and therefore cannot review it. BUT I will tell you this: it is gooooooood so far! I can’t wait to post the review.
In the meantime, here is a post submitted by Freya herself. Because many of my topics deal with horror, I asked her to discuss how horror can integrate with fantasy and then offer up some suggestions for potential reads. She went above and beyond with this post, and even mentioned a couple of tidbits I didn’t know about. Enjoy!!
A discussion of horror in fantasy.
by Freya Robertson
The word “Grimdark” has risen in popularity this year when it comes to discussing fantasy sub-genres. For example, see here for Joe Abercrombie’s article on the value of grit, and here for Damien Walters’ discussion of epic fantasy and writers like Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence and Brent Weeks.
Grimdark seems to define books that are “gritty”, meaning they tend towards being cynical, hard, and realistic in the sense that they approach the genre through a study of life at the time without any sign of romanticism or beautification of the period. They challenge the traditional view that good will always defeat evil, and often contain anti-heroes. I’ve also seen other articles recently on reality in fantasy, for example see here for Helen Lowe’s discussion on when characters you love die. The argument appears to be that traditional epic fantasy doesn’t represent reality because in reality people get injured, fall sick and die. George R.R. Martin is highly criticized for his high body count, and yet it’s probably more reflective of the “real” world than a story in which the hero makes it to the finale without a scar. As writers, we’re encouraged to create characters that readers can associate with, that readers can grow to love, and it seems kind of weird to then be told we should be killing them off and denying them their heroic ending. But the rise of grimdark fantasy suggests that’s what (some) readers are looking for.
I, of course, can only talk about my own novels and my own view on the grimdark sub-genre. I don’t think I write grimdark fantasy because I’m not a grimdark kind of person. Does Heartwood have gritty elements? Sure. Characters are tortured. Several die. The medieval world was a harsh place with its high infant mortality rate, its lack of understanding about bacteria and infection, and its reliance on face-to-face combat. You had to be tough to survive in that world and I hope I reflect that a little in my fantasy work.
But equally, the people living at that time would not have been constantly thinking about how tough their lives were. They would not have been comparing their daily lives to ours—they would have had no comprehension of what they were missing, as we have no concept of what the world is going to be like in five hundred years’ time. They would have filled their lives with colour and song and food and other basic pleasures, and on the most part would not have considered themselves hard done by.
I like my fantasy to have some darkness to it, to challenge the definitions of good and evil. Very few people are entirely one or the other, and it’s good to show a hero’s weaknesses and a bad guy’s good points—it makes them a more rounded person. But equally, I suppose my general opinion is that I read fantasy and play fantasy games to escape from the harsh reality of the real world. When I play D&D, I don’t want my character to die in every adventure; I want him or her to be challenged, but I want to play the hero, to save the day. And it’s the same in my fiction. I like my characters to be taken to dark places, to have their resolve tested, sometimes to get injured, and to lose those close to them. I like to take them to the pits of despair because it makes them stronger as a person. And then I like to open the windows and let the sun eliminate the darkness.
As a side point, talking about D&D, we introduce the element of horror into our RPG games by having our characters test for fear when they encounter a new frightening event or creature. The Warhammer RP game handled this very well, where characters could become withdrawn if they encountered too many horrific things, and where it affected their ability to interact with others. Introducing horror into a story isn’t just about creating scary creatures and scenes. It’s about exploring how your characters deal with fear, and what effect horrific events would have on them. And that is certainly an aspect I like to explore in my fiction.
Heartwood is an adventure story. It’s a traditional epic fantasy in that it has a quasi-medieval European setting, high stakes involving saving the world, and a large cast of characters that have to band together to save the Arbor from destruction. But it’s different too—it challenges gender roles and the leader of Heartwood’s army is a woman. There are no elves, dwarves or orcs and the Darkwater Lords rise from the ocean to try and defeat the element of earth. It’s epic in scale—over five hundred pages, the longest book Angry Robot have published. It’s heroic and classic and hopefully the ending will knock your socks off. But is grimdark? Probably not. Still, don’t let that put you off giving it a try!