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Morally ambiguous fiction for the Age of Doubt – how far should we take it?
by Damien Black
Much gets made of grey areas nowadays, and not just in grimdark fantasy fiction. We live in a multipolar world: long gone are the days of the Cold War, a polarised set-up that pitted Them against Us. Back in the 1990s, I made a personal prediction that we were entering the Age of Doubt, and that appears to be the case – whether it’s politicians, experts, priests or doctors, we seldom trust anyone fully nowadays. Nobody it seems is free of moral taint; put simply, everyone’s a suspect.
From this cynical mindset emerges grimdark, a sub-genre of fantasy that posits grey areas in abundance: flawed characters, with no true heroes or absolute villains, and world-building usually marked by an absence of religion and any overarching morality. This mode of storytelling represents the modern existential dilemma writ large: a freedom of thought rooted in humanism that brings its own brand of confusion, anguish and disharmony to the psyche. Welcome to the Age of Doubt, folks.
That said, I’m not entirely sure my own story quite fits the times. The Broken Stone Chronicle certainly isn’t noblebright: the medieval setting is appropriately gritty, with capital punishment, torture and disease punctuating a climate of endemic violence. But amidst the grimness there are flashes of decency and idealism.
The continent of Urovia is ruled – often misruled – by flawed governments, feudal-style monarchies with authoritarian kings and barons. However, they are not necessarily universally corrupt or morally bankrupt; some of the high-born characters, such as King Freidheim of Northalde and Sir Torgun of Vandheim, his greatest knight, are idealists who take their responsibilities seriously, despite also being highly trained killers who can be ruthless in war. In choosing a quasi-medieval setting, I wanted to evoke a parallel universe true to its own inner laws: so while Freidheim and Torgun might be capable of committing shocking acts of violence, according to their own world view they are nevertheless honourable men.
History is always made by the victors, but it does inevitably shape the narratives by which we tell the stories of our lives; for this reason I didn’t want the sceptical voice of our Age of Doubt to permeate too strongly through my own narrative. Moreover, I believe readers can judge for themselves whether actions are good, evil, or somewhere in between, and in this respect I am very much a writer of the Age of Doubt – I present scenarios, actions and outcomes, and leave it to the private individual to draw his or her own conclusions.
One trope I’ve adopted that is perhaps out of kilter with the grimdark vibe is a fully functioning religion, loosely based on Christianity and therefore essentially monotheistic. The protagonists, monastic witch hunter Horskram and his apprentice Adelko, are deeply religious, and therefore obliged to grapple with their consciences as they become embroiled in a civil war that forces them to make choices which influence whether people live or die. But despite this inner turmoil, I believe both monks come across as well-intentioned characters trying to do the right thing, although Horskram’s chequered past as a bloodthirsty crusader occasionally catches up with him.
Then we have out-and-out villains like Andragorix, the mad warlock whose plans to bring about hell on earth pit him against his old foe Horskram. This is a character clearly bent on doing evil, perhaps even for its own sake, and I certainly didn’t intend him to be a ‘grey area’ character – but if you can find any decency in a sworn demonolator, child rapist and megalomaniac, good luck to you!
In between these two poles, I have my ‘typically grimdark’ morally ambiguous characters: Sir Braxus, a womanizing knight who is outwardly confident but struggles inwardly with his father’s low opinion of him; Sir Wolmar, an arrogant and cruel princeling who finds himself the lesser of evils when he gets embroiled in court intrigue at Rima; and Anupe, an enigmatic warrior-woman fiercely proud of her gender and ethnicity but not above converting violence into cold hard coin.
Some might ask why I would choose this smorgasbord of moral compasses, when everything about our Age of Doubt screams ‘there is no moral compass!!’ The answer is simple: I don’t quite believe it (in other words, I have my doubts as to the total absence of morality…).
To be absolutely clear about this, I consider myself to be part of the grey area: like most people, I have a moral compass that expands and contracts according to time, place and circumstances. But in a world replete with human beings, there will inevitably be those who sit at either end of the spectrum. Think about it: we all know at least one or two people who are ridiculously (perhaps even sickeningly) good and nice. And we’ve all been unfortunate enough to cross paths with a few odious little shits about whom very few good things can be said. These extremes may both be rare, but they do exist.
In evoking the world of the Broken Stone Chronicle, I wanted to try and encompass this rich variety of personalities, sometimes with a dash of humour. Sir Torgun embodies the medieval archetype of the perfect gentle knight: slow to anger, devoted to justice, but ferocious when roused. A stand-out hero according to the reckoning of his era… but put him next to a cynic like Braxus or Wolmar and he suddenly becomes quite amusing. I enjoyed exploring this interplay of character personalities and seeing where it took my story.
There are those who might argue I’m being a soft touch, that my characters are not obviously ‘grimdark enough’. But to that I would counter: do we always need to spell it out for the reader? Isn’t it more subtle, more unsettling even, to occasionally present characters who kill in an ‘honourable’ fashion by the standards of their time, rather than always choosing to portray them as out-and-out cynics or sadists (‘he enjoys it for the sake of cruelty’, ‘he does it for the money’ etc)?
I’ve explored this idea in the character of Vaskrian, a low-born squire who knows all too well that for him the consequences of killing can be quite different. He longs to be a knight – so he can kill with impunity, just like his mentor Sir Branas. To Vaskrian, honour and glory pivot off the right to get into a fight whenever one damn well pleases. Some modern readers may find his aspirations downright appalling, but to someone of Vaskrian’s time and place they could very well appear heroic.
So whilst the Broken Stone Chronicle might not be entirely grimdark in tone or style, I’d say it’s still very much redolent of the Age of Doubt – it even casts doubt on doubt itself, by asking if we should be so quick to be so cynical all the time. Is there in fact a place for idealism or altruism in society, even though as mere mortals we’re likely to fall short?
As always I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide…
For as long as he can remember, Damien Black has been blessed and cursed with a hallucinogenic imagination. His sleep is disturbed by strange dreams that he struggles to remember upon waking, glimpses of worlds where superstitions are reality and prayers might actually work.
The only cure he knows for this malady is writing, an auto-exorcism he performs on himself daily. Over the years, these scribblings have evolved into horror-strewn tales that plot a winding course through the tropes of fantasy fiction.
In 2012 Damien debuted with An Urban Pentagram, a collection of short horror fiction set in his home city of London. Four years on, his first full-length novel has taken him far beyond the mortal plane, as he plots a course through the dark realms of his subconscious. Devil’s Night Dawning is the inaugural chapter of the Broken Stone Series, and even now he is moving beyond it to the next stage of his remarkable voyage. He hopes you will enjoy the journey with him!
When he can drag himself away from recording his otherworldly experiences, Damien is liable to pick up a guitar and belt out a clutch of Old Nick’s tunes, singing like a fallen angel waiting for a stranger at a crossroads. Writing and music aside, he also finds time to share his views on many other diverse subjects at the Devil’s Letters.
Warlock’s Sun Rising, the second book in the Broken Stone Chronicle, is out now on Amazon.
The mad warlock Andragorix and his arcane allies have spun a web of deceit across the Free Kingdoms. As the conflict builds, he raises an army of horrors to ensure his domination. Witch hunters Horskram and Adelko desperately race to find him, but can they stop him in time? Tensions rise and the rent between worlds grows wider in this epic clash of magic and mayhem.
For centuries, the sacred Argolian Order has protected the mortal vale from the dark forces of the Other Side. Now the barrier between worlds is breaking down, and two of its monks must survive an erupting civil war before they can stop the demonologist responsible. Experience the thrill of this gothic fantasy epic, a tale of war, quest, magic and horror that will captivate and terrify you in equal measures!