I recommended a book to Mark Lawrence on twitter the other day, (Red Shift, in case you were wondering) commenting (in a positive sense) that it was quite bleak. A Facebook follower, alluding to the general darkness of Mark and my work, that if we think something as grim, it must truly be a nasty piece of business. I admit I was sort of taken aback – when I think of really bleak books, I'm thinking of Jim Thompson, or maybe the Gulag Archipelago, meditations on the nature of sin, which is to say the nature of man, not the sort of adventure novels for which I'm known. On the other hand, pretty much every review of my stuff that I've ever read, positive or negative, has commented on it being very dark, not-your-parents-sort-of-fantasy, that kind of thing.
So I got to thinking – just what kind of books do I write?
The Low Town stuff is, on the surface at least, quite grim. For those of you who haven't read it (and really, if you haven't, please do, the rent man has been banging loudly at my door these last days) the protagonist is a (nearly) amoral sociopath who makes his living selling drugs, conning the stupid, brutalizing the weak. He curses, he snarls, he snorts the secondary world equivalent of cocaine. He kills a lot of people with bladed weapons. What morals he holds are hidden so deep that even he seems barely aware of them. His past history, gradually revealed over the course of the trilogy, is filled with acts of betrayal, blasphemy and depredation. Compared to classic fantasy, with its paladins, white horses, shining swords and swooning maidens, it certainly has more of an edge to it. So far as I can tell, there's no sex to be found in Middle Earth, let alone people paying for it, and although the exact chemical composition of 'pipe weed' remains unclear, it presumably isn't what we would all hope it to be.
All that said, and for my money, Low Town isn't really dark, despite bad things happening to all of the characters pretty much all the time. The narrative is constructed in such a fashion that you can always be rooting for the Warden, even if it's just because his opponents are so much worse. And while he does terrible things, he's doing them for sympathetic reasons, and you sort of get the sense that he regrets it in some distant way. The Warden is, in short, something of a genre cliché, if, I hope, a well written one. This is not the Sheriff in The Killer Inside me – you are meant to root for the Warden, to hold out hope for his redemption.
But even if you didn't – if you found him to be irredeemable, or simply too unpleasant to want to spend an entire novel with (as some readers did) the book is all the same so clearly in the classic genre mode, that it seems sort of impossible to take it seriously. From the frequent scenes of physical violence, which are described in intimate detail, to the highly stylized dialogue, which is sharper then any normal conversation, it is clear that the narrative is taking place in a world which, beyond its obvious fictional characteristics, is not the same as our own. Too much happens too quickly, reality is made subject to the deadheads of a fast-moving plot. In short, even a largely unobservant reader will implicitly understand that they are consuming a story which has only a very loose connection to thei own lives. It is difficult for me to imagine there are many readers working their way through Low Town and grappling, with the moral struggles facing the Warden. The day to day concerns of modern existence – alienation, over-consumption, good old fashioned ennui – have little reflection in the Warden's own troubles. His misfortunes are entertaining, a happy distraction from our own, more complicated, less solvable, problems.
On another, deeper level, the fact that Low Town coheres to a traditional structure, however grim that might be, is in itself a source of comfort to the reader. Stories are attempts to force a narrative pattern on a world which steadfastly resists it. It is far easier to accept that we are the victim of tragedy, one of our own making or one decreed upon us by grim fate, than it is to admit that life essentially consists of random or seemingly random events, that boulders fall on us from the sky, that bullets catch heroes and cronies alike, that the only purpose or meaning is that which we create for ourselves, dependent and not external to us.
A book like Red Shift, by contrast, which is of genre but not within it, works deliberately to confuse and confound the reader. The perspective changes abruptly and with little warning, terrible violence is introduced without preamble or postscript, the dialogue is confusing and somewhat obtuse, and all of these work to unmoor the reader from their usual perspective. In its refusal to give clear answers, in its confusing and opaque structure, Red Shift mimics the nature of human existence in a more accurate and thus more discomfiting way then more conventional genre fiction.
In short, the the things I write are satisfying, even if they aren't happy. That's my feeling – what's yours?