5.0 out of 5 stars
Villains get the chance to tell their stories
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on May 26, 2017
Evil is a matter of perspective. This is a quality which is extremely relevant to grimdark as it involves making sure even the most reprehensible characters have a point. Jaime Lannister is the Kingslayer but he did so because he wanted to save King's Landing and protect his father. Cersei Lannister has many defenders because her marriage to Robert Baratheon was such a nightmare. Glokta tortures people because it's the only thing left to him by a society which functions on corruption and patronage. Jorg Ancrath is a murderer and a rapist but he doesn't have control over his own mind when he's not struggling to survive the war between the thousand kingdoms.
The anthology of the same title is as grimdark as you're going to get, pedigree-wise, since it is the personal project of Grimdark Magazine's editor Adrian Collins. It exists for the explicit purpose of crafting a collection of stories about rotten [expletive] so we can walk a mile in their shoes. It also has a wonderful collection of authors who are some of the most notable names in the genre of "gritty, realistic fantasy." These include R. Scott Bakker (who provides the introduction), Alex Marshall, Peter Orullian, Jeff Salyards, Deborah A. Wolf, Matthew Ward, Michael R. Fletcher, and more.
A disclaimer for people who are reading this but I have some ties to the anthology's publisher. I've published a number of articles with Grimdark Magazine (all pro-bono) as well as written reviews for their website. This isn't going to affect my opinion of the works within and hasn't but consider yourself warned. The grimdark community is not so large as you can be an expert and not bump into the people involved. A similar random fact is actress Ashley Judd used to be my babysitter and will prove as relevant to my reviews.
So, short version, is it any good? Yes, yes it is. Some stories are more awesome than others and a couple just didn't work for me at all but I could say that about any anthology. For the most part, this is a solid piece of fiction from start to finish and anyone who likes villain protagonists as well as horror with their fantasy will love this. Certainly, grimdark exists in large part due to the fact too much fantasy ends with the universe bending over backward for the "good guys" to have their violence justified as moral.
Is there any flaws with the book as a whole? Eh, a minor one in the fact it's not quite true to its title. There's not really much moral ambiguity to the protagonists. While a few of the leads in the short stories are misunderstood or operating from a different code than regular society, most of the time their evil is a matter of being a complete [expletive]. Only a few short stories any sort of Miltonian (or Rolling Stones) sympathy for the devil and they're really just about [expletive]. I also wish I could swear but I want to share this on Amazon. Still, it's still a great piece of dark fantasy throughout.
Now for the individual stories:
"On the Goodness of Evil" by R. Scott Bakker
A foreword which turns into a full-blown essay about how humanity divides people into tribes with "evil" being the Other. It's a great little academic work and while I don't actually agree with it all that much, it's still fascinating reading. It also really does reflect the "good and evil are merely sides" view which I would have been interested in reading stories about.
"A Lifetime of Inspiration" by Adrian Collins
A more personal foreword which talks about Adrian's life-long obsession with seeing things from the perspective of the bad guys. I, personally, liked his statement a lot and think it definitely applies to things like war as well as the making of good antagonists. We are all villains indeed, at least in someone's story. Just like they are the heroes in theirs and we in ours. Because, someone, somewhere, doesn't like us.
"The Broken Dead" by Michael R. Fletcher
One of the strongest short stories in the novel, right out of the gate. This is a tale of a broken and misused young woman who ends up as a murderous revenant in the service of evil necromancer priests. The fact I can use that sentence and still say it's a touching story about dignity and self-worth shows Fletcher is a delightfully depraved new talent.
"Every Hair Casts a Shadow" by Teresa Frohick
I like this story and am interested in exploring its universe a bit more since it's not just a story in this novel. Angels and demons are fighting it out during the Spanish Civil War with one child being a demon who has sworn allegiance to the angels and his grandfather wanting to corrupt him back. I actually felt the morality of the protagonists were pretty clear but checked myself it was always about the "side" I picked more than anything they did.
"The Divine Death of Jirella Martigore" by Alex Marshall
A fascinating story about the ascension of a young woman to the office of Pontifex. Except, in this universe, the Pope is determined by magical ritual that turns you into a human wasteland and a major part of church doctrine is the extermination of animal-featured humans. This is a good example of the "Evil is a matter of perspective" theme as the young woman wants to do good but her church is royally [expletive]-up.
"A Royal Gift" by Mark Alder
An alternate history short story where the famous Black Prince of England was actually a half-human/half-demon hybrid in the service to Satan (God's jailer versus Lucifer in this universe). This is one of the short stories I think which really encapsulates the theme and shows a genuinely alien mindset which some would call evil but is just operating to its own interior values.
"Old Blood" by Adrian Tchaikovsky
A lot of animal motifs, sacrifice, and vengeance themes in this book but I can't say I actually understood much of it. It makes me want to read Shadows of the Apt, though, so I can know what was going on here.
"Black Bargain" by Janny Wurts
A human waste of space named Toler gets enslaved by a wizard who is engaged in a convoluted plot to prevent the end of the world by dragon due to the fact humanity has done some horrible stuff which would compel dragons to eliminate them. I didn't always understand the politics but enjoyed the premise.
"The Syldoon Sun" by Jeff Salyards
Remember that deformed guy in 300? The one who ended up betraying the Spartans because they wouldn't let him fight the Persians? This is basically a version of his story with a new army and a less awful set of circumstances. His story also ends in a way which is dark and tragic whereas most of the protagonists in this book get away with their actions.
"The Darkness within the Light" by Shawn Speakman
A wizard murders, kidnaps, blackmails, and extorts his way to finding the Holy Grail. Why? So he can get revenge on God.The question of evil and suffering in the world is a constant one for the faithful and one which I have often struggled myself with. In the case of the wizard here, it is doubly so because he has proof God exists but still doesn't act. He's certainly a monster but his actions are driven by a very cosmic anger in the Miltonian sense.
"The Greater of Two Evils" by Marc Turner
A tyrannical group of sea wizards fighting against pirates with delusions of being revolutionaries.I love stories where both sides in a war are just dirty with people caught in-between. It inspired my novel Lucifer's Star and Marc Turner does a great job of depicting a conflict where idealistic heroism is grossly misplaced. The ending is also esoterically happy in a way.
"Exceeding Bitter" by Kaaron Warren
An exceedingly (no pun intended) weird little horror story with a lot of creep factor.
"A Game of Mages" by Courtney Schafer
One of my two favorite stories in the book, this is about a completely awful person who is about as moral as your typical Chaotic Evil D&D villainess but is still capable of loving her spouse/partner/lover. Her partner is capable of loving other people, though, and we see how that affects their relationship. The ending also foretells that their evil will destroy itself because, well, traces of goodness is a poison in the well of a truly evil person's happiness.
"The Tattered Prince and the Demon Unveiled" by Bradley P. Beaulieu
The best short story in the anthology, this story feels not-to-dissimilar to a retelling of Aladdin. Except Aladdin's genie is a demon, may want to possess him, and he's protecting his erstwhile princess from a bunch of drug-dealers. Brama is a pretty decent fellow, actually, but evil is a word thrown around a lot against people who don't deserve it.
"A Storm Unbound" by E.V. Morrigan
This is a great story that I hesitate to reveal the twists of but amounts to it being a fantasy version of John Wick with a female protagonist. The ending is also one I found to be touching as humans in peril are an overused motivation versus poochies.
"The Game" by Matthew Ward
This is a story which stars a genuine irredeemable [expletive] and one which I sincerely hope gets eaten by wolverines in his trousers. Nevertheless, I will say the protagonist is an amazingly capable character who you have to marvel at the manipulations of.
"Blood Penny" by Deborah A Wolf.
A runner up for the best story in the anthology, the story of a demon-tainted waif who is desperate to survive and turns to some poorly understood black magic for revenge. The ending is more hopeful than I expected but it's a dark ride throughout.
"Better than Breath" by Brian Steveley
I may have misunderstood this one but I think it's probably the best vampire story I've read in a very long time. Even monsters have mothers....or are them.
"A Foundation of Bones" by Mazarkis Williams
A story about a messiah being raised by a man who wants dearly to make him a hero but may accidentally damn him down a different path. I felt it was a good story but more in the middle than my favorite of this work.
"The Aging of a Kill" by Peter Orullian
I gave Peter Orullian a bad review for "A Length of Cherrywood" in Blackguards but he's won my respect for this little work. It's a story about revenge in the Count of Mote Cristo sense of ruining people utterly rather than simply murdering them. It's also about a very alien mindset where retribution for every slight can make a truly horrifying pile of seemingly justified actions.
"The Carathayan" by R. Scott Bakker
I'm going to grimdark hell for this but I actually had no idea what the hell was going on in this story from beginning to end. There's a lot of murder, mayhem, shouting, and accusations but I felt like I was going "Whose on First" the entire time.
In short, great book. Solid 4.5 bloody axes out of 5.
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