A few days ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who consumes fantasy novels at a rate I would not have guessed was possible had I not been witnessing it for twenty-one years.
“I want to write a story about Elves,” I said.
She was shocked. “You can’t do that,” she said. When I asked why, she began a lecture on how such concepts are outdated and that fantasy has “evolved” past that. She took it so seriously, that I felt I had to address it.
The subtitle of this article is an inversion of this, which is that prompted me to throw my hat in the ring regarding Grimdark Fantasy—the idea that realism in fantasy is better—an inherently ridiculous statement.
Grimdark fantasy authors are seen as the evolution of modern fantasy writing. They boast characters of gray morality and ambiguous sides. But what I have read seems little better than something in the vein of The Sword of Shannara or The Iron Tower trilogy. Except now, up-and-coming writers are using George R. R. Martin as their springboard instead of J.R.R Tolkien.
What separates Mark Lawrence from the often-maligned Terry Brooks and his Lord of the Rings ripoff, The Sword of Shannara?
Lawrence used George R. R. Martin as his jumping off point as much as Brooks used Tolkien. Both Lawrence and Brooks took the basic plot of the bestselling fantasy saga of their, both both simplified the core elements of the respective books and both of them used a post-apocalyptic setting to make it sufficiently different.
I am being tongue-in-cheek, here. Brooks infamously copied scenes wholesale for The Sword of Shannara and changed the mildest of details. Lawrence only borrows from Martin in broad swaths. I draw these comparisons only to further a point which will be illuminated below.
Ultimately, them being better at hiding the fact that they are taking as much influence from Martin as they are that does not change the fact that these books are as much Martin Clones as any given book with Elves is a Tolkien Clone.
But the reason Martin Clones are taken so seriously while Tolkien Clones are not is because they write a much more serious form of fantasy. Grimdark is grown-up fiction. Serious fiction. Yet even the concept of grey morality is laughable in many of these ripoffs. There is no black-and-white morality. Only black-and-blacker.
Many people praise Martin Clones because of their how seriously they take themselves. No fun allowed, this is serious fantasy. It’s like in the early 2000s when every superhero film had to be extra dark because people still saw comic books as kids’ stuff.
But Tolkien never attempted to be realistic. Tolkien approached his works with an aim to mythify a history for England. Read The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and come back to me about how seriously it takes its battle tactics.
Does realism make a story inherently better? You can find the answer to that in the follow up: The Problem with Serious Fiction