The Grim Company, by Luke Scull

Waste of money.

So… the title probably should have tipped me off that this was GRIMDARK GRIMDARK, but all the cover blurbs (from reputable sources!) raved about how it was “fun” and had a “great sense of humor,” so apparently I’d concluded that the title must be sort of ironic.

Yeah no. Clumsy prose, laden with telling-not-showing, punctuated by tedious infodumps; a monotonously grim and dark setting; every character going out of their way to be unlikeable; seasoned with a dash of sexism and homophobia. I’d pick out examples of what is evidently supposed to constitute a “great sense of humor” but it’s pretty cringe-worthy.

Apparently I have the same problem with grimdark that I have with urban fantasy — that I can’t stop myself from reading it, but never like it much when I do. And I haven’t worked out entirely why that is, though I’ve been circling that question for a while now. Cuz I like the Ye Olde Medieval Fantasylandia setting. I like magic and mayhem and plots with Epic Stakes, I like dystopias. I’m not a prude, about sex or violence, though I find them both pretty uninteresting without context. I don’t have the triggers that grimdark tries to set off about once per page. So why do they never deliver what I want?

I realized while I was writing this that I never got around to finishing up the post I’d started on Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which is not grimdark, but might be considered a foil to it. It sparked the beginnings of a revelation on what it is specifically about this modern crop of novels — the ones that inspired the coining of the term “grimdark” — that makes them different from earlier fantasy stories with a similar body count. Saving my thoughts on that for a longer, more organized post.

Anyway, at 20.6% of the way through Grim Company the plot was finally starting to become mildly interesting, but not enough to merit slogging through all that other bullshit, so I abandoned it.

11 thoughts on “The Grim Company, by Luke Scull

  1. Oh, I read that! Or at least a chunk of it. I can’t even remember if I read the entire thing or not. (Which is telling since I can recall the plots of entire Tom Swift series from elementary school.) I think part of the problem is the Extruded Genre Product Syndrome is definitely setting into the grimdark arena and without a talented writer and a good editor, a reader can start to see the checklist that was used to create the work.

    (And since when do I need to confirm I’m a human when I’m logged in?)

  2. (Since I’m not able to reply to comments on my own blog except through the gmail window? I dunno man, LJ’s gotten weird. I really need to port my ass over to WordPress, even if it means losing all past comments to my entries. =/)

    I’m actually working on a longer post about grimdark as we speak. :D “Extruded genre product” (lol) is definitely a thing, but there are genres whose extrusions I will still consume with gusto (“~More~ Inception fanfic? Don’t mind if I do!”), whereas grimdark has been problematic from the start, even in better examples like Game of Thrones.

  3. There are services that will port everything out, comments included. But yes, its gone weird.

    I’ve seen it happen in every genre, really. When I start nodding and going “And now s/he is going to, yup, there it is” is when I know I’ve hit something that the author extruded it from some kind of checklist, if only mentally. Tolerance of that varies by taste. Personally, I suspect grimdark just has a higher hurdle to jump for me to find it worthwhile as the material already has a number of things going against it as far as my personal preferences go. A crapsack world viewed through characters mired in unrelenting cynicism and pessimism is not something I generally find tolerable while I’m reading.

    In other news, I was reading the latest Melanie Rawn books (Touchstone, Elsewhen and the third I haven’t started yet) and I can’t tell if her two male, ostensibly straight, lead characters are supposed to read like a couple from a slash fic or what. I’m going to keep reading to see if it pans out. Although if it doesn’t, I’m going to be really pissed.

  4. Considering that I haven’t heard even a whisper of Melanie Rawn’s name in all the years I’ve spent trawling for gay fantasy fiction, methinks you are going to be pissed. Ditto for… fuck, what was her name…? Carol Berg. Amazon popped it up as a “You might also like __!” recommendation when I was looking at the Nightrunner series, and the premise sounded hella gay, so I bought the trilogy for my BFF for Christmas.

    …That was about ten years ago, and she has yet to let me live it down.

    I’ve tried porting my LJ to WordPress, but it screws up every time and multiplies all comments by a factor of about 800 — too much even to fix manually. ::sigh:: I’m on the verge of relocating anyway, but it’s frustrating.

  5. I think she had secondary characters or something in one of her series who were but that was . . . um, the 90’s? More than a decade ago anyway. But yes, I’m trying to brace myself for the “Psych!”. I enjoy Carol Berg’s books and they always read to me like they should have more gay/queer characters and themes in them to me, for some reason. I’ve no idea WHY that is but they do.

    Ah, friends. :)

    That I couldn’t speak to, but if you’re just looking to save them, I’ve used successfully.

  6. Yeah, it’s a shame, because Transformation was a cut above your average fantasy in terms of prose competence, and clearly I was invested in the characters enough to be angry at the PSYCH! moment. Worse than the queer-baiting, though, was what Berg pulled a the end of the book re: the protagonist’s magic.

    See, I’d found his arc fascinating, because prior to being enslaved, he’d defined himself by his magic, his whole sense of self was wrapped up in his identity as a mage… and when you lose that defining element of your identity, what the hell are you now? (Jaime Lannister’s arc in Game of Thrones appeals to me for the same reason.) The whole book is about the journey he makes in rediscovering and redefining himself in the absence of his magic. He finds a different kind of strength, and becomes a wiser and more self-aware person than he was before he lost it… and then at the end he magically gets it all back.

    I don’t have words for how disgusted I am by that.

    It cheapens his journey and his suffering, and undercuts the very thing that makes this kind of story so powerful, which is that it is, at heart, a disability narrative. It’s about recovering who you are when you lose an ability that you’d defined yourself by, but the people who actually live that struggle don’t get a magic cure at the end of the story just because they “deserve” it.

    A more honest message, and a far more powerful one, is that we have the ability and the choice to relearn ourselves after that sort of setback, to make something worthwhile from what’s left to us. Deus ex machinas for author’s darlings is cheap bullshit. And that, not the queer-baiting, is why I never read past the first book.

  7. Loved reading these last two posts, and the comments!

    “I can’t stop myself from reading it, but never like it much when I do.”

    Classic pulp genre problem. I’ve toyed with the idea of trying to read all the Hugo and Nebula award winners and branch out from there by following the authors I liked, and just ignore everything else. Other genres probably have similar awards. For that matter, literary fiction is sort of its own genre, and there one could use the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize, and so on.

  8. Yeah, but what about when Hugo and Nebula award winners aren’t delivering what I want either? You tend to get those for cleverness and novelty, not for being character-driven reading. And the more I analyze my own taste in literature, the more I can pinpoint exactly what it is I read for, which on a macro level is “emotion” and on a micro level is…. !!!

    Okay, so — I learned narrative theory, like, yesterday, and then woke up at 5 AM with a brilliant epiphany (if I do say so myself), and I wrote it up and emailed it to Kate (I don’t know if you ever met her? ABD at UC Santa Barbara, also brilliant) all like, omg omg kate, I think I’m onto something, read this, and she emailed me back and was like, !!! HOLY SHIT, YOU’RE RIGHT, YES !! And I am dying to write about it on this blog, but it’s something worth PUBLISHING, if I weren’t nailed to my thesis I would be pounding out an academic article on it RITE NAO, aaaagghh.

    The end. :D

  9. Good point– the award you seek may exist, but Hugo & Nebula aren’t it. You’ve mentioned Kate often but I don’t think I’ve met her. Very glad to hear about the epiphany, and I look forward to hearing more once you do publish it, after the thesis is all wrapped up!

  10. I think Lowachee won that year’s “best first novel” for Warchild, but I don’t know who administers that, or if they have such good taste every year. :P

    Otherwise, my favorites tend to get enthusiastic reviews but no awards. But then, who doesn’t get enthusiastic reviews these days? The Grim Company certainly had a passel — the real trick seems to be learning how to read between the lines, and figuring out whether they like books for the same reasons you do. Hence, the recent adjustment to my review policy.

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