SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
We continue our ongoing new series of posts called “SFF in Conversation” with a guest post from Mark Charan Newton, author of the Legends of the Red Sun series as well as the upcoming Drakenfeld, the first in a series of pseudo-classical crime fiction set in a secondary world.
Please give it up for Mark, everyone!
First of all, thanks to the Book Smugglers for letting me rant on their website. I’ve been checking back here since the site first went online, believe it or not, and it’s one of the few I make sure to check in with – because I’m a fan of properly progressive bloggery!
So. Novel inspiration. What kicks it all off for me? Usually, when I’m at the start of writing a book, I find it’s helpful to be angry about something. I don’t recommend it for every writer, but for me I’m driven when I’ve got something to prove or say or show. But for Drakenfeld, I was in a weird position. I was angry with anger itself.
I’d noticed a trend in fantasy genre discussions. The trend has been accidentally given the name ‘grimdark’ to represent a certain kind of grittiness. Violence. Bloodshed, killings, psychopaths. It’s all fair game in these books. ‘Grimdark’ is a (accidental?) corruption of the Warhammer 40,000 slogan, ‘In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war’. 40k is deliberately and delightfully over the top. It’s intentional and controlled, full of irony. But I got the idea that it wasn’t so much the case for the fantasy fiction that was described as – and described itself as – grimdark. It was over the top, perhaps, without knowing about it.
So let’s call it gritty fantasy for now, because that’s a more reliable word. Gritty has almost become a sub-genre. Isn’t that weird, when you think about it? That readers, publishers and authors have started talking about violence (and other Bad Things) as a definable, marketable sub-genre? In fiction, here was a kind of unconscious creep. Readers and reviewers started to equate the level of grittiness – and by that, it was obvious we’re talking about the number of throats being cut – with their enjoyment of a book. They seemed to suggest that increasing violence had become a symbol of good writing in fantasy fiction, that any fantasy books that didn’t feature high kill-counts, shades of grey (i.e. murderers who kiss well) and high testosterone were old-fashioned or dull.
Which is crap, obviously.
But it didn’t seem that way. Every time I read a forum or blog review that seemed to delight in gritty fantasy, consciously or unconsciously celebrating violence because that’s what they thought made a good book, I thought I was going mad. What was wrong with people? I had two ways to respond. Carry on as normal, muttering at my computer screen and slowly going insane:
Or take my fight outside.
Which is – kind of – where I started with Drakenfeld. Let me explain. None of this is to say that killings and so forth are inherently bad things in a book – and skilled writers can weave great fantastical narratives out of murder and mayhem, and make powerful points with their prose. And it’s not to say that I didn’t want to include violence in anything I wrote.
I wanted to respond to the changing sentiment in genre discussion that I was observing a couple of years back, the sentiment that violence equated to a good book. I thought to myself that we can do better than that. It was also a bit of a challenge to myself as a writer. Could I get that same rush of adrenaline without stooping to violent pyrotechnics – which, potentially, possibly, I may have been guilty of in the past?
So that’s how the character Lucan Drakenfeld was born.
Lucan Drakenfeld is someone who, at heart, abhors violence. He is cerebral. He’s polite. He doesn’t have a fascination with heaving bosoms. He’s nowhere near as tough as his female bodyguard. But most importantly, he will always think before hitting someone with a sword. That’s not to say that he doesn’t hit anyone with a sword at all, but I wanted a character for whom violence always had to be significantly justified. Because killing someone in real life means that a daughter could go without a mother, son could go without a father, that a family’s income could be cut off (hey, not many worlds have social security nets). A child might well go down a dark path. To me, good writing would understand that sentiment, and a well-written character would have to understand what that meant within the novel.
All of this helped out naturally with the crime aspect of the novel. I was establishing an analogue of the classical world, since that was my geek penchant at the time, and still is (There’s a side topic about the Classical world being amazing to use as building blocks for a fantasy world, since it’s so sophisticated.) So, when setting up a crime novel, a reader needs to believe that the core crime is meaningful, and that it threatens the fabric of society in which said crime is set. That’s what makes it interesting, right? Why else would we care? Having Drakenfeld be of high standards – in a similar kind of way to how Hercule Poirot always had his Catholicism as moral compass – and actively care about, you know, people not dying, would really help cement the importance of establishing a meaningful crime in a secondary world. Going back to Poirot briefly – with him not being shorthand shades of grey and still complex – with him having absolutes that established a morality for society – it seemed to matter so much more when he had to question his own decisions.
A minor tangent. Stay with me. You remember Due South?
If you do, you’re showing your age… It’s one of the greatest TV shows on the planet (the double episode Victoria’s Secret always leaves me breathless) and anyone who says otherwise is objectively wrong. When I started to plan Drakenfeld, I had this show in the back of my mind. Why? It’s a very good example of how a character could be good and polite and honest, yet still complex and full of charisma, and make for a gripping story. More importantly, it was a great contrast to the gritty writing that you normally associated with police drama at the time. The show was incredibly sophisticated. It also proved that you don’t have to have lots of violence to make something mature.
With all of this bubbling away in my head, something clicked. I kind of had a plan for a book. I was really excited about it.
That really was platform from which I started the novel, but at the heart of things, I still hope wanted to create a cool mystery, an exciting fantasy adventure, with some progressive things going on in the background. All of that stuff was par for the course in whatever book I wanted to write, but I had things to say. So I got on my high horse and rode into, uh, Author Town in Ego Country. Or something.
I think it’s well trodden territory these days that authors shouldn’t really meddle in fan discussion online, and rightly so. Because if we’ve got something important to say, we can put it in a book – and Drakenfeld was my opportunity to do so. Whether it worked or not, well, it’s probably too late for me to worry about that now.
(I’m done with the ranting and the Bill Murray now.)
About the author: Even though I’ve a degree in Environmental Science, a life of books appealed. After working in bookstores, I moved into an editorial position at the Black Flame imprint, which published media tie-in fiction for the franchises New Line Cinema and 2000 AD. Later, I worked as a Science Fiction and Fantasy editor for Solaris, publishing novels into the British and American mass markets, before the publisher was sold on. My day job now is creating narrative background within a team for a Very Big, iconic game company based in Nottingham, UK. I don’t write the rules (or indeed novels), but help expand the world. It’s actually pretty difficult to explain, since the job is unique, but it’s a huge amount of fun. Not everyone gets to blow up planets for a living.
My own first mass market novels, the Legends of the Red Sun series, were published by Pan Macmillan (Tor UK), and iterations have appeared in the US, Germany and Italy. My new series is a pseudo-classical crime fiction set in a secondary world, and will be released in October 2013. The first novel is called Drakenfeld.
Read more HERE .
de PizanOctober 11, 2013 at 2:22 am
Well, I’ll be looking for this one, if only because Due South was indeed one of the greatest shows ever. 🙂 No, actually I love the idea of a character in a crime novel who abhors violence and agree that violence is dealt with much too lightly in our entertainment.
Anne LyleOctober 11, 2013 at 4:48 am
I very much agree with your sentiments, Mark. I’m outlining a new project at the moment, and trying to get away from the ubiquitous “epic fantasy = war” trope. So I came up with an Evil Plot for the villain which, if not thwarted, would result in the deaths of a handful of people. I then worried that the stakes weren’t high enough, and came up with an alternative that would have killed hundreds, maybe thousands.
A while later I took a step back and said to myself: Hang on, if I can’t make the reader care desperately about a handful of people, why should they care about thousands? I’m all for excitement and plot twists in fiction, but as you say, there’s more to fantasy (even “gritty” fantasy) than body count.
Also, I’m now going to have to get some boxed sets of “Due South” 🙂
The Perks of Being a LibrarianOctober 11, 2013 at 4:54 am
I want to present you a new project: http://www.theperks0fbeingalibrarian.blogspot.com
Here you can find some book review and we hope you like it! However, even if you don’t like, we will ask you to leave a comment. Your opinion it’s important! Of course: if you like it, you can start follow us 🙂
Thank you! <3
JaredOctober 11, 2013 at 5:24 am
“if we’ve got something important to say, we can put it in a book – and Drakenfeld was my opportunity to do so”
That’s a really good point, and not something that I recall ever being made during the recent hootenanny… (runs off to ponder)
MatthewOctober 11, 2013 at 7:26 am
I love your post and I agree with you about the grittiness. The people who really love the grit always tell me that I just “don’t like reality” or some bunk like that. All I can say is that I’d hate to live in their reality… It goes way beyond a glass half full…
MarkOctober 11, 2013 at 7:31 am
Thanks, de Pizan! Glad I’m not alone in my love of Due South. And Anne – you should totally buy that box-set!
Jared – yeah, it’s definitely something authors can do, but I guess it’s not an easy tool to use in most discussions. And it’s a pretty slow method of responding!
MarkOctober 11, 2013 at 7:34 am
Matthew – thanks! I think with the reality thing, I’m of the belief that it’s pretty unrealistic to go around carving people up with glee and not examine the proper consequences of such actions…
TanyaOctober 11, 2013 at 9:29 am
I really liked the description of your book and I will certainly try it.
But I think I need more clarification on the following: “But I got the idea that it wasn’t so much the case for the fantasy fiction that was described as – and described itself as – grimdark. It was over the top, perhaps, without knowing about it.”
It is hard for me to understand what you mean without examples. Is it possible to give one or two fiction “grimdark” works that “It was over the top, perhaps, without knowing about it.”
Thank you so much!
MarkOctober 11, 2013 at 9:33 am
I guess what I meant was that such fiction was being hyper-real, whilst maybe believing it was being sincere. It was being all Tarantino, but believing it was a docudrama.
TanyaOctober 11, 2013 at 9:37 am
My apologies for asking again, but I am still not quite sure what specific fiction works you mean. Can you give me an example of a book (or TV show or film ) that you mean “being all Tarantino, but believing it was a docudrama”?
MarkOctober 11, 2013 at 10:03 am
Well, other than the fact that I deliberately wanted to focus on the debate in fandom of the trend in literature, there is another issue in shifting the original debate into naming specific authors – other than that it will definitely get me into trouble – as my perception of an over-the-top book might be perfectly fine for another.
However, as a general overview, TV tropes outlines the sentiment excellently.
As that might not clarify the concept, do let me have a think on TV shows and films, and get back to you. As it’s another medium, I’ll need a while to dwell on it properly!
MarkOctober 11, 2013 at 10:08 am
The Dark Knight Rises – an effort to be modern and realist, but ended up being so over the top and ridiculous in its violence and depiction of politics so as to be hyper-real.
Contrast this with a silly film such as White House Down, which was self-consciously over-the-top and hyper-real that it worked.
For me, gritty fiction doesn’t seem to realise the difference between realism and hyper-realism.
TanyaOctober 11, 2013 at 10:23 am
I appreciate that you can have reservations but I need specifics to be able to discuss something, otherwise it turns into a discussion where you say “All grimdark books I know of do so and so” and I say “No! All grimdark books I know of do other things!” and we could be talking about two different subsets of grimdark books. I propose to leave the discussion about books if you are not prepared to digress details.
I lost you comment about the specific film! Oh yes! I agree! That film takes itself way too seriously. I see what you mean in this case. I would take a Poirot-like character instead of the film’s character any day.
Mark Charan Newton » Guest BlogsOctober 11, 2013 at 12:44 pm
[…] a book out, I am in your internets. Firstly, I’m at the Book Smugglers, talking about the need to move on from violence and gritty fantasy, which was part of the reason I wrote Drakenfeld in the first […]
DominishOctober 11, 2013 at 2:48 pm
Due South was a great show, and if I remember correctly, there was some truly beautiful piano music for that episode (Victoria’s Secret). Now if there’s inspiration from there, does that mean we get a deaf wolfhound of some description as an additional sidekick in Drakenfeld II? 😉
BDGOctober 11, 2013 at 8:11 pm
When a certain group of fans and writers that compare ‘gritty’ and ‘reality’ I feel they have only come to violence through fiction or recreation, or look at history and see the numbers but not the action that created that number. I find it hard to believe they would make light of something that has such a negative effect on millions of people if they actually experienced it first hand or talked to someone who has. Because of my surroundings growing up I knew kids and adults who had violence acted upon and acted violence upon others and none of them remind me of the characters you usually see in ‘gritty’ fantasy. Some are hard folks for sure but do they constantly get bloody knuckles and broken faces without reflecting on it or somehow not affected by it?
No, I think would be the answer from most of them. It just annoys me because a lot of the characters in the pieces of fiction reflect a sociopathic viewpoint, and then glorifies it. It scares me that people actually think this is ‘realistic’. It’s not. Violence sucks (an understatement if there was any) for both the victim and aggressor. It ruins lives (and their bodies), it ruins families, it ruins entire generations and peoples. Not giving it proper consideration, I think, is one of laziest ways of having spectacle without forethought. It’s the equivalent of ‘building’ a culture that is not functioning but is instead full of rituals without any real reason.
MarkOctober 12, 2013 at 3:04 am
Dominish – I’m on the case!
BDG – “I feel they have only come to violence through fiction or recreation, or look at history and see the numbers but not the action that created that number.” That’s a very good point, and thanks for sharing those thoughts. I think you’re right – it seems as though people’s expectations of “realism” are quite different from reality…
NickOctober 12, 2013 at 4:24 am
Maybe partly the televisation of Game of Thrones is one influence and in the past few years a wave of TV dramas that have pushed the boundaries in terms of ‘gritty’ and violence therein. I’m assuming that proper writers – at least the same in that as wannabes like me – don’t function in a creative and cultural vacuum. You can now watch something like The Walking Dead on terrestrial TV. About 20 years ago something like that would have been in danger of being banned in the cinema, never mind never getting on TV! We have become culturally desensitised and writers it appears to me (the evidence is on the page and on the screen) are often thinking of the nastiest character and their deeds they can come up with to top the last one that impacted on them.
There is also an unspoken demand (often spoken) that unless your characters are all shades of grey/amoral they aren’t realistic. There’s another challenge for a contemporary writer in fantasy – of the male persuasion I have to say: write intrinsically good characters which can compel the reader! Or: a good person forced by circumstance to do bad things (Breaking Bad!).
These are interesting times, Mark, interesting times in which to write. As with horror, there is a new wave of literate fantasy (of course it was always there but pushed to the margins by stuff that sells, the good and the bad because publishers want a ‘like that’ success, currently that is of the ‘gritty’ or ‘grimdark’ kind) but now it is the literate stuff. The literate writers labelled with ‘grimdark’ are still at the top and likely to stay there when the wave following them has gone because they are good writers first and foiremost and their fiction is made up of much more than that which they have become known and imitated for. The more literate fiction is selling now (it can of course still contain action of dark stuff etc and be literate because they are not mutually exclusive) and that can only be good news for the field. Readers are demanding not more eyeball melting in hot metal but more sophisticated prose and characterisation.
For me there is this erroneous unthinking assumption by some readers and writers: that just be the fact of making your character(s) amoral they are default sophisticated and complex, when they can be anything but. The seeming need for them to be like that (I’ve done it myself in drafting my own unfinished novel(s)) has become so mannered that sophisticated and complex is the last thing they can lay claim to on a ‘writerly’ level because you are barely thinking for yourself as a writer. You are putting in components that because of current trends you think had better be there or you are just not ‘with it’. The irony is that by the time you have got round to finishing that draft and trying to be ‘with it’ that wave will probably be over!
R.J. AndersonOctober 14, 2013 at 8:46 am
Fantastic piece, and now I really want to read this book! One of the things that has occurred to me about the current wave of popular “grimdark” fantasy writers is that unlike Lewis and Tolkien, who managed to reflect the bleakness and horror of war in their books without falling headlong into the Pit of Despair, these writers have never actually been soldiers in a war. They know all the academic details of the gore and misery and unfairness of it all, but they have completely missed the cameraderie and heroism and “whistling in the dark” humor that were part of the experience too. It’s all Dunkirk and no Christmas Truce. Give me Frodo and Sam slogging through Mordor any day over the kind of vicious back-stabbing, face-shooting and nihilistic cynicism that reigns in modern grimdark fantasy.