In an episode of Family Guy, Peter is listening to the police scanner. Brian walks in and remarks, upon hearing a crime being reported, by saying, “Is it just me, or is rap music just getting lazier?”
Well, I have come to believe something similar when it comes to what is popularly known as “dark fantasy”. Dark fantasy is that sort of fantasy where you have an anti-hero with morally questionable motives. Decades ago, I read The Black Company by Glen Cook. It’s a great piece of dark fantasy, following a band of anti-heroes (The Black Company) and narrated by an analyst (named Croaker) who has a knack for coming up with really fun, yet bizarre, ways of describing common occurrences and The Company’s exploits.
It’s fast paced and clocks in at just around 320 pages, so it’s not incredibly long. But, from start to finish, it tells a complete story. There’s grit, but it’s not all about bashing heads and killing people. Though, I’d say it is 80% that. Not only is Croaker a deeply fleshed out character at the end of the story, but so too are many other the others who we see only through his eyes. You relate to them.
I’ve read other dark fantasy stories since, but to me it seems that in the years since The Black Company dark fantasy has “just gotten lazier.” Gone are stories where characters are characters and not caricatures. Everything just seems like it is trying to out grit the last “gritty” dark fantasy novel at the expense of either plot or character development or, sigh, both.
The only dark fantasy that I can even remember recently feeling satisfied by when the final page was turned is Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself.
A prime example of this “laziness” in the dark fantasy genre, I think, was Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. It’s all grit. The plot is shallow. The character development is basically non-existent. It’s all about Prince Jorg, the super unstoppable anti-hero, on his quest for vengeance against those who killed his mother and brother.
The story is hack and slash from get go to conclusion with plot points that seem like random, contrived quests in any MMORPG. For example, the necromancers that just happen to stand between our anti-hero prince and his goal of the Castle Red. The book was just one long excuse to get gory. Compound that with the feeling that Jorg and his merry band of thugs never seem real and relatable.
Of course, Mr. Lawrence’s ability to write action is awesome and ultimately saved the book from being something that I wouldn’t recommend. Many of the actual battle scenes are incredible. I actually do recommend it, because I think that those aspects of the story are pretty well done. The flow of the writing carries the tale despite gaping faults elsewhere.
But, still, in the end, it was just another dark fantasy that made me feel like so many writing in this genre are giving up on actual story in exchange for sweeping prose highlighting gore and as much “grit” as you can pack in between a set of covers.