fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGrimdark Magazine seeks to fill a gap in the niche market for those who enjoy “grim stories told in a dark world by morally ambiguous protagonists,” according to the editorial in the first quarterly issue. The first issue is promising, if somewhat opaque to one who is not already immersed in this relatively new subgenre.

The first story is “Shadow Hunter: A Shadows of the Apt Story” by Adrian Tchaikovsky, set in his universe in which humanoids take on the characteristics of insects. The Wasp-kinden, for example, are described as savage and angry, and have the ability to deliver a sting that emanates from the palms of their hands. One leader successfully corralled the Wasps into a mighty army and became emperor, but what happens to a Wasp who no longer interested in being a foot soldier? Gaved undertakes a mission to find a Moth in a thick and frightening forest. I’ve read several of the novels Tchaikovsky has written that are set in this universe, so I found the story comprehensible, but I suspect anyone not familiar with this world would be lost.

“The Neutral” by Mike Gelpin, translated from the Russian by Anatoly Belilovsky, is the strongest story in the book. It posits a world in which there exists a Brotherhood of Neutrals, individuals who negotiate with criminals and terrorists in hostage situations. These Neutrals give the criminals what they request in return for the safe release of the hostages, and collect 10% of the “settlement package,” as it were, at the other end. This only works because the Brotherhood will kill anyone who harms a Neutral; this guarantee, enforced ruthlessly, means that criminals virtually always cooperate. The story is narrated by one Neutral who is sickened at the thought of letting criminals go free, but endures in his work in order to save the lives of the hostages. That works right up until the day he decides to retire. This story is dark, sad and compelling. I’d love to read more of this writer’s work.

Susanna is out of place in “The Woman I Used To Be” by Gerri Leen. She remembers nothing about the life she is now living, after a shuttle accident in which she was severely injured. She doesn’t remember how to knit, though she was accomplished at the craft before; she hates the perfume that is the only one that sits on her vanity. She doesn’t recognize her children, her mother. She dreams of a man who is very different from the one they tell her is her husband. The only entity she can be fully honest with is her home’s artificial intelligence. But nothing is as it seems. It’s a nice puzzle story that twists into a tale of perverse, horrible revenge.

“The Red Wraith” by Nicholas Wisseman is a piece of flash fiction that carries a nice sting. I’m not persuaded that flash really works for SF and fantasy, though; too much is lost to brevity.

The final tale is “Bad Seed: A Broken Empire Story” by Mark Lawrence. I’ve not yet read any of Lawrence’s novels, so I did not have the familiarity with Lawrence’s characters that I suspect would have leant greater weight to this story. Still, the story stands alone as that of a farmer who always should have been a warrior. The story makes me curious about Lawrence’s trilogy.

“Grimdark: It’s Here To Stay” is an essay by Layla Cummins that attempts to define the grimdark subgenre. I was surprised to read that the term has its origin in a table top game and the fan fiction it spawned, and that it was originally meant as an insult. Joe Abercrombie, the author of the FIRST LAW trilogy, adopted the term as his own, bringing it into more common usage and away from its undignified origins. The characters are generally drawn in shades of grey, with skewed moral compasses. Cummins has done her homework, and her piece sets the grimdark genre firmly in its place in history and in contemporary genre fiction.

An interview with Joe Abercrombie reveals him to be an irreverent subject who refers to his writing as “stuff that I made up in the middle of the night for my own amusement.” He emphasizes the role humor plays in grimdark fantasy — appropriately, it’s usually black humor. He credits George R.R. Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE as a big influence. It’s a by-the-numbers interview that does not depart from expected questions and answers, and gives little insight into the writer. Similarly, the review of Abercrombie’s latest novel, Half a King, gives little insight into the book.

The interview with Graham McNeill was almost incomprehensible to one who has not been immersed in grimdark fiction from its origins. The interview opens: “You’ve been an integral part of Black Library and the lives of so many 40K, WHFB and 30K fans for a long time.” I’m sure dedicated fans know what is being referenced in that sentence, but I didn’t. A little googling took me deep into the weeds pretty quickly. The interviewer could have made this a more accessible interviewer by having McNeill explain what he’s been up to for the past few decades. If he explained it as well as he explained what “grimdark” means to him, I would have been well-informed.

Perhaps Grimdark sees itself as catering to an already-dedicated audience, rather than to one who has read a novel by Abercrombie, Lawrence or Richard Morgan and found herself intrigued enough to seek out a magazine that promises to give her more of a genre that is new to her. This means that Grimdark is going to lose a substantial part of its possible audience, as it offers stories in already-existing fictional universes and interviews that assume readers already know a good deal about those being interviewed. Despite my misgivings, however, I found the Gelpin and Leen stories sufficiently satisfying that I’ll be reading the next issue.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.