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Dear Grimdark… Guest Post by Sam Sykes

As most of you know, Sam Sykes has a new book out this week, The City Stained Red. We’ve been lucky enough to get our hands on a copy and can tell you that it is by far the best thing Sam has written (and that’s saying something). A full review is forthcoming, but we wanted to bring you something more.

We asked Sam to write us a guest blog. He told us that he’d love to, but was washing his hair. It’s not that we didn’t believe him…but we felt obliged to check. So, we booked a flight to Sam’s neighbourhood and peered through his office window. And, guess what: there he was, sat right at his desk – not washing his hair at all – writing a letter to someone. We couldn’t see from where we were what the contents of the letter were or who it was to, so we did the only logical thing when faced with such a situation: we waited until he’d finished writing it and followed him to the postbox. Once he’d dropped it in and disappeared we crowbarred it open and retrieved the letter.

Here’s a picture of what we took and below it we’ve typed up the letter Sam had written – some kind of explanation as to what this ‘Grimdark’ may find in his new book.

Dear Grimdark

Grimdark, listen. We need to talk.

I’ve done a lot of thinking lately: about fantasy novels, about subgenres, about us. We’ve had some good times, you and I. From the time we first started getting to know each other, when I picked up a Joe Abercrombie book, you’ve had a lot of charm and appeal. You’re the rebel, the one who was different than all the sanitized, stark-morality, heroes-never-swear, villains-never-have-a-point fantasy of yesteryear.

I didn’t regret hooking up with you. Like I said, we had some good times. I was there for you when you first started having heroes lose, villains win, good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things. I was there for you when you started catching flak for that and people started complaining that you were too bleak or too cruel or a “smear on the edifice that Tolkien built” (I still laugh thinking of that one). I was there for you when people first started calling you that name and you had trouble accepting it.

Grimdark.

Yeah, we had some good times. So good that this is a little hard to write, but…

We need to break up.

Now, you can put your blood-encrusted broadsword down; this ends happily for both of us. And while it may seem like a cliché to say it, it’s absolutely true when I tell you that it’s not you, it’s me.

You’re still a great genre! I saw a lot of things in you that I wanted to take into my own books.
Your morally ambiguous portrayal of heroes and villains? That’s depth you didn’t see before. The way you demonstrate a harder, more visceral sense of consequence? It’s a beautiful way to make conflicts feel all the more intense and high-stakes. The low points you end on? Well, those are the endings that stick with you, aren’t they?

You’re a great genre.

But fuck, you’re cynical.

To you, the world’s a shitty place that gets shittier with every shitty person introducing their shitty principles. No one’s ever happy to see anyone else. The only professions seem to be corrupt noble, disgraced warrior, drug dealer or whore. Food tastes like shit, drink tastes like shit, sex is full of words like “squelch.”

Look…don’t be mad. But sometimes, when I was in bed reading you, I started thinking about other genres. Genres I had read before.

Like I said, they had their downsides—their predictable plots, rigid morality, turgid tropes, the questionable way they always justified the mass murder of orcs—but they had some good points. I started thinking about them and the things I missed about them. The excitement of their action, the struggle of their heroes trying to do better, the daunting task of their quest, the way things were sometimes haunting, beautiful, epic. I missed their magic, their wonder, their exciting sword battles. I missed romance and jokes and heroes. I missed the way they did stuff sometimes because it was just fun.

I’ve written this new book: The City Stained Red. I think you’d like it.

It’s got what I missed about those old genres before: the witty dialogue that happens just before a fight scene, the magic that’s flashy and full of wonder, the monsters so big they take up the page and the battles that rage with all the flair and fury of what I loved about them.

But it’s also got some things I loved about you: the thin philosophical line that can separate a man with good intentions from a man with bad actions, the grit and savagery of a pitched struggle, the looming specter of hopelessness and despair and the blood.

It’s a story about adventurers and what it means to be someone who kills for a living. It’s a story about demons and monsters and what makes them worth listening to. It’s a story about romance and how hard it is to be a person who can trust someone else enough to put everything about yourself in their hands.

It’s my best work yet. I love it.

And I love you, grimdark.

I’m glad you exist, in all your blood-hungry, craptastic glory. I’m glad that I can look on my bookshelf and see you there rubbing elbows with Brandon Sanderson and Terry Pratchett. I’m glad that Joe Abercrombie came along and made something cool. I’m glad that people enjoy you.
We’ll always be friends.

But for now, I’m walking down a road equal parts blood and sunshine and I’m really happy about that.

– Sam Sykes

– – –

The City Stained Red (cover)The City Stained Red

The heart of civilization is stained black.

The city of Cier’Djaal, made wealthy by the silk of its monstrous spiders, has become a rich man’s battleground. Thieves wage a war in the shadows of its alleys. The banners of foreign armies are raised behind its walls. Savage tribes seethe on its borders. And things ancient enough to be a god’s bad dream lurk beneath its streets.

Lenk came to put the violence of his adventurer’s past behind him and lay down his sword. But as ready as he is to let go of his blade, his blade’s not ready to let go of him. And with it, he’ll either save Cier’Djaal or destroy it.

Swords will be sharpened. Demons will rise. Cier’Djaal will bleed.

– – –

Groot reading The City Stained RedFantasy-Faction has been a fan of Sam Sykes since we first lay our hands on his debut novel, Tome of the Undergates, way back in 2011. Sam writes as a true fan of the fantasy genre – truly one of us. I remember upon finishing that first book I was left feeling that if I could write (well) this is exactly the kind of book I’d like to write. It was familiar in many ways and yet unique in even more. Most important for me was that rarely did I come across a page that didn’t leave a smile upon my face. It remains one of the few books that drew a legitimate ‘laugh out loud’ from me (and more than once too!).

As I said above, I’ve been reading and enjoying The City Stained Red and can confirm that it deserves a place on your bookshelf. And, if you don’t trust my judgement, the guy to your right seems to be enjoying it and recommends you check out this prologue, which sells itself.

We would like to thank Sam for not calling the cops on us after we stole his mail. 😉 You can learn more about The City Stained Red, and the rest of Sam’s novels on his blog, or you can follow him on Twitter. The City Stained Red is available now as an ebook (Amazon UK, Amazon US) and will be available in print on January 27, 2015 (US) and September 10, 2015 (UK).

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17 Comments

  1. Gabriel says:

    I haven’t ever read Sykes before because I honestly lumped him in with the Martin school of writing. But this article has warmed my judgmental heart. Look forward to reading this! 🙂
    On a different note, why do people divide the fantasy genre between Tolkien and Martin? It kind of overlooks other writers who stayed true to the genre without the typical conventions. Like Glen Cook…..

    • Overlord says:

      Gabriel, you’re in for a treat! 🙂

      I’m not sure – I see them both as landmarks. I guess that is more to do with what they done to the industry – i.e. encouraged publishers to invest in fantasy and publish more books. Authors such as Glen Cook and Joe Abercrombie inspired authors and readers, but I’m not so sure they opened publishers’ eyes to such an extent the aforementioned did.

  2. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) says:

    Grimdark is dead, long live grimdark? 🙂

  3. Ben says:

    I haven’t read Sykes, but The City Stained Red is in my “to read list”. I might have just climbed a few spots into being something I pick up sooner than later.

  4. Alister Davison says:

    I’m almost half-way through The City Stained Red and I’m loving it.
    One thing I would like to know, is if Lenk and the others have appeared in Sam’s other books before this one?
    Hard to explain, but they feel both fresh and well-established at the same time.

  5. AshKB says:

    *applauds*

    I kind of want to take this letter and frame it. Like Sykes, I adore so much the depth and complexity that the grimdark genre has brought into the consciousness of writers and readers (even if I don’t read any now, because the level of cynicism is quite literally depressing), but:

    “I started thinking about them and the things I missed about them. The excitement of their action, the struggle of their heroes trying to do better, the daunting task of their quest, the way things were sometimes haunting, beautiful, epic. I missed their magic, their wonder, their exciting sword battles. I missed romance and jokes and heroes. I missed the way they did stuff sometimes because it was just fun.”

    This. This. So, so much this.

  6. xiagan says:

    Awesome letter. Will certainly pick up this book. 🙂

  7. Terry says:

    I read Sykes first novel and liked it. I began reading a City Stained Red yesterday and have been completely blown away by the difference in work, the writing, the story. It’s good. Really, really good.

  8. Jon_Anon says:

    At this point I can ONLY read Grimdark books. I want grimdark noir, grimdark sci fi and grimdark fantasy. Anything that’s light and\or fun I don’t actually find interesting or fun.

  9. Simon Ellberger says:

    But wait a minute. Since when can’t a “grimdark” story contain exciting action and sword battles, heroes and their struggles in trying to do better, the daunting task of a quest, magic that’s flashy and full of wonder, witty dialogue just before a fight scene, monsters so big they take up a page, battles that rage with flair and fury, jokes and romance, or stuff being done just because it is fun to do it? And why can’t “grimdark” tales be haunting, beautiful and epic? Look, there is no commonly agreed upon definition of “grimdark.” As I type the word, I get red underlining. It’s an amorphous, malleable and protean term. Nowhere is there a dictum that prohibits any of the things Sam “misses” in grimdark from being written into a grimdark story. I would argue, for instance, that George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” and Brent Weeks’ “Lightbringer” series are “grimdark” and include most if not all of these elements.

    • AshKB says:

      As Skyes said:

      “But fuck, you’re cynical.

      To you, the world’s a shitty place that gets shittier with every shitty person introducing their shitty principles. No one’s ever happy to see anyone else. The only professions seem to be corrupt noble, disgraced warrior, drug dealer or whore. Food tastes like shit, drink tastes like shit, sex is full of words like “squelch.” ”

      Grimdark stories may contain people trying to do better (although very few), but it’s never, ever going to end well. I’d argue if a story regularly had beauty, hope, and good triumphing without the cost being higher than the payoff, than it’s not actually grimdark. It might be complicated, but it’s not dark fantasy.

      • Simon Ellberger says:

        AshKB: You missed my main point: Until there is a commonly accepted definition of grimdark, Sam’s argument is a strawman. He is basically addressing his version of what constitutes grimdark. This leads him to make some extravagant claims that are not factually based. For instance, it’s simply false that the only professions that seem to be in grimdark stories are “corrupt noble, disgraced warrior, drug dealer or whore.” I gave “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the “Lightbringer” series as counterexamples to his claims. That includes this one. There are lots of other professions in both of these series other than the ones he listed (and you repeated). As examples, there are clergy, Blackguards, the White, princesses that are not corrupt, noble knights, etc. There are other grimdark stories for which similar claims can be made. Heck, mages/wizards abound in grimdark. “The Heresy Within” has a female warrior as a main protagonist who is not a “disgraced warrior.” Etc. You say: “Grimdark stories may contain people trying to do better (although very few), but it’s never, ever going to end well.” Why not? Even the most depressing story can turn the corner and end well. And let’s see how “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the “Lightbringer” series end. I could even say that in some sense, Abercrombie’s “First Law” series ends well. The comments about food, wine, and sex are wrong too. Food and wine do not taste like excrement in these stories (quite the opposite—Martin in particular is noted for his descriptions of good tasting meals), and there is romantic sex as well (e.g., Karris and Dazen in “The Broken Eye). You also say: “I’d argue if a story regularly had beauty, hope, and good triumphing without the cost being higher than the payoff, than it’s not actually grimdark.” Well, you can say that, but it’s another strawman, since that isn’t what Sam was saying is missing. He more simply says: “the way things were sometimes haunting, beautiful, epic.” Notice the word “sometimes” as opposed to “regularly,” and notice there is no mention of “good triumphing without the cost being higher than the payoff.” That’s just additional stuff you’ve added. I was addressing his points, not yours. Anyway, enjoy “The City Stained Red.” It’s a good book.

  10. Erica says:

    Looks like it could be interesting. I enjoy GRRM and Abercrombie, and I also enjoy some of the older style of “high” fantasy, ala Tolkien and LeGuin’s Earthsea. But my normal taste falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. My favorite stories are the ones where things aren’t sanitized, and where good people sometimes do bad things (and even say bad words, gasp) and bad people sometimes do good things, but where the sympathetic characters are at least trying to do the right thing, even if they fail sometimes. And geez, not every good deed ends up being punished in real life, and some relationships actually work out too. So saying that grimdark is better because it’s realistic is somewhat disingenuous.

    For me, dark fantasy can become just as stale and predictable as ye olde high fantasy. When I’m reading about a relationship, friendship or good deed that seems to be going well, and I’m asking myself when (and not just whether) the characters are going to screw things up, then maybe the pendulum’s swung too far. I hope that fantasy written to a range of tastes will continue to be marketable in the future.

  11. […] a wonderful letter from Sam Sykes to GrimDark fantasy you definitely need to […]

  12. […] Dear Grimdark… — Sam Sykes writes a letter to Grimdark fantasy. […]

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