Some Spoilers Ahead
For those of you who are tired of ordinary fantasy, fed up with the same spry elves with gorgeous hair, and bored with the same old, tired, almost-always male protagonists and below-average intelligence bestiaries:
Welcome to Grimdark
Grimdark is that section of speculative fantasy and science fiction that just doesn’t go anywhere. Cross-platform plots, mixed bestiaries, unicorns in space, and a host of morally bankrupt protagonists make it difficult for Barnes and Noble to parse it by shelf section, so the readers and writers of Grimdark have created a class all their own.
Arguably, it was Michael Moorcock’s harsh criticism of his predecessor, Tolkien, that may have sparked the movement, but it is also found as far back as Mervyn Peake (Moorcock’s own inspiration) where we first begin to see the signs of decadence in a setting ruled by a monarchy no one would be sad to see die off in a genre traditionally ruled by monarchies whose protagonists are sworn to uphold them. In Peake we see the rise of the kitchen boy destined to be greater than he is, no matter who he has to drown, starve, maim, or humiliate to realize his endgame. Peake and Moorcock gave us the beautiful people we can’t love and villains we don’t hate.
Grimdark is defined by protagonists who are morally ambiguous. Sex is in your face, and not everyone enjoys it. Damsels save themselves. Elves are perhaps perverse and decadent while Orcs are the only beings you can trust. Anything Warhammer.
Leading the way in the pop culture front, often characterized as “Low Fantasy” is George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Baker, and the traditional Grimdark go-to’s: Glen Cook, Richard A. Knaak, and of course Michael Moorcock. Down here among the plebeians, we’re happy to promote the-up-and-comers: Michael Fletcher, Dyrk Ashton, and the inimitable Scott Oden. In fact that’s why I’ve gathered you all here today.
Let’s talk Grimdark: A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden
If you were looking for a historical Grimdark fantasy tale that is one half-shaved head away from Ragnor Lothbrok, look no further than A Gathering of Ravens, set for publication June 20, 2017 from Thomas Dunne Books. Scott Oden is no self-published novice. He’s a veteran author known for his previous works, Memnon and The Lion of Cairo, which I hope to pick up before the year is out. Scott Oden returns to his place among the scholars with A Gathering of Ravens, a novel set in medieval Scandinavia, England, and Ireland that tells a fast-paced, epic story of vengeance, oath breaking, kin slaying, and unshakeable faith. Fans of the History Channel television show Vikings will find a lot to love in this novel, especially if you have made it to any of the later seasons.
I was fortunate to be among the few who were given an ARC of AGoR, and let me tell you, my friends, you are in for a treat. Oden does not handle this novel like a traditional fantasy or traditional history novel. He blends the singular combination of a race of mythical people that spans three separate historical civilizations with a creature from the beastiaries we love to hate: orcs. Oden’s main character, Grimnir, is the last of a cursed race called the kaunr, so hated by the Norse that they are called skrailinger, and that wrecked such havoc during the Norse and Danish invasions that they are even known in England as the orcneas, and in Ireland as the fomorach. Mythically, they were the children of Ymir. According to Oden’s notes at the end of the novel, traces of the kaunr could be glimpsed in Grendel from Beowulf, and among the Fomorian of Irish legend, from which Oden takes their Irish name. Oden cleverly weaves these scraps of legend into a race of creatures bred for war and destruction, but with a keen sense of clannishness and bonds of blood that cannot be forgotten no matter how poisonous that particular blood relation might be. Hated and marginalized, the kaunr are wiped out, leaving only Grimnir Baelegyr’s Son and one other hated half-blood relative, Bjarki Half Dane.
Caught up in Grimnir’s quest for weregild (blood for blood) is Etain, a woman hiding as a Christian priest to escape a vengeful husband and devote her life to God. She has a role to play in Grimnir’s fate that she cannot escape, and must use her faith in God to hold onto her humanity as the last of her innocence is stripped from her.
As a story, Oden’s pacing for this novel is unmatched. In only 319 pages, Oden’s characters cross three countries and two timelines. The novel is episodic yet never strays from its original story arch. Oden’s characters are infuriatingly bull-headed (both of them) yet where Grimnir’s stalwart refusal to give up is unhealthy, Etain’s steadfast faith is a testament to her character as a human being. Her refusal to give up that faith against the onslaught of pagan magic surrounding her seems naive at first, and one expects her to break eventually from it. However, Etain soon learns that her faith is a shield and her greatest weapon. Etain is literally the embodiment of, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not falter.”
As a member of a race nearly forgotten by man, Grimnir’s own faith infuriates Etain, who is convinced that even Grimnir can be saved if he finds God. Grimnir does not compromise. He is everything you could possibly hope for in a strong protagonist, except for the part where he literally does not care about anyone but himself, not even Etain really.
The battle between the two faiths has no clear-cut good or evil, one true God or Allfather. No matter who is worshiped, everyone is going to Hell. Every character in the novel is the protagonist of his or her own story. For those who are looking for morals and happy endings, you’ll find it here but juuuuust barely. Characteristic of true Grimdark, no one is truly good or truly evil in this novel, which will draw many in the current market that made a hero out of Walter White and never got past the second book of Paradise Lost, but it may repulse traditional fantasy readers who are looking for Aragorn and Frodo. Grimnir killed them and he is not sorry.
As the fantasy market continues to prove itself as glutted and pretentious as all pop culture markets, Grimdark is a genre of fiction by the people for the people. When the industry stopped giving us what we needed from fiction, Grimdark authors wrote it themselves. You will be able to find A Gathering of Ravens on sale on Amazon in June. As a belated birthday present to me, please do yourself a favor and pre-order this novel. Scott Oden is proving that the independent publication industry is here to stay while deserving a wide readership among those who frequent the New York Times bestseller lists for their nightstand book pile.
Once again, thank you for this book, Scott. It took me forever to finish it because I did not want it to end.