By day, the bleak city of Lower Proszawa exists in shades of gray and black. Smoke from the many factories cloak the sky. Robotic vehicles roll along the streets, and robot devices and genetically-altered chimera share the sidewalks with the residents, including the wounded war veterans called Iron Dandies because many wear masks to hide burned and disfigured faces. By night, decadent theaters, bars, and mansions glow like moons as people party with a desperate glee — trying to hold at bay their fear of the plague, the new war, the Nachtvogel (secret police), the brutal city police, and each other.
Largo Moorden is a bike courier, a young man of simple needs. He just wants to make love to his girlfriend, party, and ensure that he has his next hit of morphia. An unexpected and undeserved promotion pushes Largo into a labyrinthine warren of discoveries about his city, the last war, and the coming one.
Reading Richard Kadrey’s 2019 novel The Grand Dark, I wondered if Kadrey wrote it picturing himself cosplaying as China Miéville rewriting Cabaret. Kadrey’s war-ravaged city with its lurid and sexually explicit stage shows evoke 1930s Berlin, as do the political and societal changes as a fascist regime tightens its fist around the city. Largo is young and seems like a realistic dystopian citizen at first — he imagines his life with his actress lover Remy and doesn’t think much beyond that, until he is suddenly promoted to chief courier at the messenger company. The new job pays more and the tips are better, although some of the deliveries are more dangerous. Largo spends the first quarter of this book resolutely ignoring the strangeness of his new job and the obvious clues that he is no longer merely a courier. To be fair, he is distracted by other issues: the envy and enmity of other bike messengers, the steady disappearances of people, and a terrifying seizure episode that strikes Remy during one of her theater parties. Kadrey intersperses the daily routine of Largo’s life with ephemera like text of brochures, articles and official reports. These round out the picture of a country that claims victory but lost the war… and hints even more strongly that things really aren’t right.
The Grand Dark is a very slow build. I read it primarily as a character study until I reached the passage where Largo visits his Iron Dandy friend Rainer. Rainer uses telescopes to obsessively monitor the city across the bay, High Proszawa, which was leveled in the war, and reaches out to his dead army comrades through spirit boards. When he tells Largo that his last message from the dead was, “They’re burning us,” I felt a cold thread of fear wind around my heart.
The book’s pace is deliberate and episodic, and it does take a while to see how the elements coalesce. I will now join the ranks of reviewers comparing this book to other books; I’ve already said it has a Mieville-sensibility; it also reminded me a bit of some of Jeff VanderMeer’s work, where the strangeness layers itself around you like blanket after blanket of humidity. I’d also point to THE AMBERLOUGH DOSSIER by Lara Elena Donnelly for a similar setting. Kadrey does not try to mimic anyone here; his story and his prose are his own, and the images run from mundane and bleak to hallucinatory. His imagining of a fascistic, controlling regime is all too believable.
Because of the pace, the nature of Largo’s character and his growth arc, those of us who came to Kadrey through the SANDMAN SLIM books will need to adjust our expectations. One of the bigger adjustments is following a main character who is realistic, which means at times he’s craven and doesn’t stand up for himself or others the way he wishes he would, at least at first.
This is a book about surfaces, masks and lies. It’s a book about the secrets that lie below the surface, whether that’s the surface of a mined harbor or the eye of a mechanical bird. I think Kadrey undertook it in some ways as an experiment, and I think the experiment was a success. This doesn’t mean I think the story is perfect. It is marketed as a standalone, and it certainly can be in the sense that Largo’s issues are resolved at the end, but there are unanswered questions that another book could address. And to believe Largo’s motivation for everything he does in the last third of the book, you must believe in the depth of his love for Remy, which we never see develop, although we hear a lot about it.
No book is for everybody; I’d say if you like stories with a slow burn, the type of plot where seeming random insignificant things suddenly accrete to carry great import, and you tolerate or even like a lot of psychological interiority, The Grand Dark is for you. Especially if you are a fan of the very strange.