Tolkien, Brooks, and even Jordan, all write or wrote heroic fantasy that features a naive and innocent protagonist who becomes a great hero and defeats a dark evil lord. That’s pretty standard heroic fantasy. But I look at some of the more modern fantasy series, and I see a move toward a darker and grittier tone.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is probably the best example of this. It began in the 1990s with A Game of Thrones and has yet to be finished. He takes a long time to write. Well, this series has nothing of the heroic fantasy series, except maybe dragons. There seems to be no innocence. Everyone has a dark side. There’s a lot of violence, sex, and an incredible amount of very graphic death. Martin kills so many characters, no one is safe. Major characters die! Even the good people aren’t entirely good. And the antagonists seem to have some humanity.
Another series is The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. In the first novel, Gardens of the Moon, also written in the 1990s, we get another vast cast of characters that has the reader briefly confused. They are also all varying shades of grey, though there is a bit of an evil in this one. Any innocence is shattered completely, as this is a brutally violent series with many deaths. And this world has non-human races that are completely unique. It’s an original world that doesn’t seem to borrow from the old heroic fantasy. What I liked is that you never really knew who was good and who was bad. Like in war, it’s a lot of people on both sides just following orders.
I’m including Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth in this for one reason only, the evil antagonist is unlike any I’ve seen in heroic fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, this is actually quite typical heroic fantasy, and our bad guy is truly evil, but this crosses a line that you rarely ever see crossed in heroic fantasy. Let’s just say that the rapes are rather disgusting. While the heroes are on a typical heroic quest, the villain is doing unspeakable things that felt so out of place.
What do you think? Is there a trend toward the dark and gritty in fantasy?