Thoughts On: The Poppy War Trilogy and Grimdark

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

I have just finished The Burning God by R.F. Kuang. It’s the last book in The Poppy War trilogy. And I have thoughts.

Currently, my thoughts centre around grimdark not being a genre I enjoy. I didn’t know that’s what The Poppy War was going to be when I went in. I just knew that a lot people on BookTok love it. And I was curious enough to pick up the series*.

Don’t get me wrong the trilogy is outstanding, challenging, thought provoking, and emotive but it lives up to the definitions of Grimdark presented on Wikipedia

Dr. Liz Bourke in her review of THE DARK DEFILES BY RICHARD MORGAN is used here:

The Dragon Republic by R. F. Kuang

Liz Bourke considered grimdark’s defining characteristic to be grimdark’s defining characteristic to be “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action … as either impossible or futile”

Wikipedia’s Grimdark entry

And there is a quote from page 42 of Adam Roberts’s Get Started in: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy:

“where nobody is honourable and Might is Right” and as “the standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their backs on the more uplifting, Pre-Raphaelite visions of idealized medievaliana, and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and, er, dark life back then ‘really’ was”

Wikipedia’s Grimdark entry

I didn’t know that A Land Fit for Heroes was considered grimdark…at least when I read (OK…listened to the audiobook) it didn’t strike me as darkness for darkness sake.

The Burning God by R. F . Kuang

But The Poppy War is a brutal story. And I think it falls with the definition provided by Adam Roberts.

It’s relentless. The main character’s arc is extreme. She does terrible things and has terrible things done to her. And Kuang is great because when you reach the point that you can’t take any more, she shifts gears and the story moves along.

But I don’t think it’s a style of story I’d want to pick up regularly. I read to escape the darkness and find hope.

That’s not the point or aim of grimdark as I understand it. And The Poppy War is an exemplary example of the genre.

I don’t plan on going back to grimdark consciously, at least not for a while, unless I read a series that is grimdark but I don’t realise it is.

I’m though going to read Babel as I’m curious what Kuang will bring to dark academia… Maybe I’m a fool as I have a feeling it’ll be a dark tale…

*I read the first two books back in April and May of 2022 before picking up The Burning God in December.

2 replies on “Thoughts On: The Poppy War Trilogy and Grimdark”

This is exactly where I’ve been with grimdark for the best part of a decade. It’s just too much, especially given the state of the real world!

It’s not just unpleasant but dull. Without the hope of redemption, or even the slightest good, what’s the point? Whenever I’ve finished a book or series in this style I’m just left with a sense of futility and hopelessness – why did I just take my time reading about these horrible people doing horrible things?

Obviously, it’s massively subjective so I sometimes get caught out, but I too avoid grimdark wherever possible. Abercrombie was the final straw for me!

FWIW – without giving away spoilers – I wouldn’t personally put Babel in that category. It’s certainly dark, but there is balance.

Agreed! That’s mostly how I felt at the end too – that’s 1800 pages of self-torture…

Abercrombie gets so many good reviews but I thought he’d be gritty and if it was your final straw I shall continue to avoid.

And thank you for letting me know Babel is not as dark. I’ll push it up the list 🙂