If the whole spate of highly popular TV fantasy series like Game of Thrones and The Witcher weren’t a big enough clue, grimdark fantasy is quite the rage these days. It’s been going on even longer in the literary world, with authors like Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence embracing anti-heroes, bleak scenarios, bleaker endings, and all the wince-inducing violence that you cannot stomach.
And there is an understandable appeal for grimdark in that it upends the traditional rules of “Tolkien fantasy” and creates an anything-goes, more-realistic-while-still-having-blood-magic setting. There’s a whole lot of imagination that goes on in these books and shows, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t enjoyed some of them.
Yet I’ve also come to really dislike marinating in these settings. One memorable example was the Poppy War, which everyone was raving about as one of the best new fantasy books of recent years. Initially I liked the coming-of-age Asian fantasy set in a school, but soon enough the book started dipping further and further into increasingly violent and macabre situations to the point that when I finished the book, I had zero interest in reading the sequels.
It’s disturbed me how much grimdark has started to infiltrate other genres and IPs, too. When Star Trek Discovery decided to eschew the upbeat, optimistic tone of Trek for a dour Battlestar Galactica-like angle, I noped out of that show.
In fact, I’ve started to hop on board a more recent movement that can be seen as a backlash to this grimdark approach, which is to gravitate more toward titles that embrace cheery and so-called “cozy” tones. You look around, and you’ll see this cozy fantasy trend picking up steam as people are looking for stories that aren’t unrelentingly dark but instead feature likable characters on fun adventures and living out in worlds that aren’t always obsessed with snorting smallpox and dishing out torture.
I guess for me it comes down to this: Grimdark can be interesting but it doesn’t help me unwind or foster daydreams of living in these worlds. Cozy and optimistic stories are the opposite of that, the kind of stories in books and movies that I loved growing up. I like heroes who are actually heroic and fast friends, settings that excite the imagination, and books I can’t wait to return to because they feel comfortable and welcoming. It’s definitely the type of stuff I’m seeking out more and more in my entertainment these days.