Film Noir, Dark Fantasy
Harper Voyager; June 11, 2019
2 / 5 ✪
The Grand Dark is a roaring-20’s dark, film noir set in a fictional world with robots, chimeras and more drugs than an entire nation must know what to do with. This vibrant, dark world brings us to the banks of Lower Proszawa, a city at the end of the world. Its populace now revel, having survived the Great War which stole away their sister city, High Proszawa, formerly set across the bay. Though the city can be incredibly vivid and detailed, the lore surrounding it is anything but. The lead POV, Largo, though possessed of visions for his future, is happy now just living for tomorrow. His lover, Remy, stars at the Grand Darkness Theatre itself, and shortly into the tale, Largo lands himself a new gig, complete with higher pay and all the advantages it brings him. Unfortunately, he is soon confronted with a mystery the likes of which he doesn’t even seem to pick up on for over half the book.
The Grand Dark is a perfect example of a good idea let down by its own lofty expectations. Its blurb describes the book as “a subversive tale that immerses us in a world where the extremes of bleakness and beauty exist together in dangerous harmony in a city on the edge of civility and chaos”. Indeed, it is the world itself that makes The Grand Dark a triumph, if for but a moment. Kadrey does well to paint an alluring picture of a nation ravaged by war, on the brink of chaos, its hedonistic populace living for the day rather than saving for the ‘morrow. Except for a few key details.
Despite the mention of the Great War haunting near each and every page in the book, we really never find out anything about it. High Proszawa was reduced to rubble; the Lower city survived; veterans of the war—known as ‘Iron Dandies’—skulk about, their mutilated faces hidden beneath iron masks; and… that’s about it. The enemy is just referred to as “the enemy”, if at all. The cause of the war is never mentioned, or questioned.
In the prompt, and indeed later on in the text, it states the city is on the brink of chaos. Except it doesn’t really feel as though it is. Largo sure as hell never notices it. Or, at least, never points it out. Until one day it pops up and he doesn’t question it. Sure, there is dissenting literature, and a police force attempting to clamp down on it. But Largo isn’t really a political sort, so he pays it no mind. And when the chaos begins, it was as if he knew it would happen eventually.
The hedonism is definitely shown. For roughly 70% of the book, if you’d have told me this was a story of a guy who would alternating riding around on a bike with having sex, only to fill the other 90% in with drugs and booze, I wouldn’t’ve questioned it. Thing is, while there was a bit of mystery lurking around, to that two-thirds mark, no clear plot had emerged.
I have to give the drugs their own mention. From what I’ve read in a number of other reviews, I was not alone in feeling put off by the sheer amount of narcotic paraphernalia. But Largo is obviously an addict, and addicts often do devote an awful lot of time to whatever they’re addicted to. The thing is, for the amount of time Kadrey dwelt on this, I left the book feeling like he didn’t actually know what he was talking about. Later in the story, Largo gives up morphia—it’s not really a plot point, so I don’t feel bad spoiling it. He’s pretty much hopelessly addicted by this point, having been on it pretty much since the war ended. He kicks it, cold-turkey and in a couple days, is feeling no adverse side-effects. I mean… none. It doesn’t seem like the author understands how addiction and withdrawal work. Which is impressive from the sheer amount of cocaine, morphia, hashish and whatnot that is present in the text.
One thing Richard Kadrey has always done well is his dialogue. The Sandman Slim books championed the foul, sarcastic asshole that was James Stark. At first, Largo is a sweet talking, playful scamp, and the entire world around him bends to his will. Despite having so many issues, The Grand Dark benefits from generally interesting conversations—even if the mostly revolve around hallucinogens. Towards the end, this all changes. No spoilers; it just devolves to a quick, dirty way to relay information. It seems that, after the three-quarters mark, the author was just as impatient to get it over with as I was.
Even the positive points I listed for the novel soon fell through. While initially I was entertained by the detailed city, the snippets of lore introduced between chapters, and Largo himself—the appeal of these quickly faded. The further I got in, the more cramped the world felt; nothing outside Lower (and High) Proszawa is even mentioned. The flashes of randomness between chapters became just that—introducing nothing new, just more sex, drugs and more drugs. As for Largo himself… he’s not right for this tale. It just doesn’t work well as told through him. He’s too naïve, too slow on the uptake; it’s almost as if he’s fighting the story that tries to take hold of him.
The bottomline: The Grand Dark is a highly ambitious project—one that just didn’t work out. The author spends overly long developing a story that seems amateurish when it finally comes together. The abundance of narcotics (half the damn book was a constant cocktail of morphia and cocaine), detracted from rather than added to the story. Little to no character development, a city surrounded by fog, references to things that are never revealed, a story that couldn’t wait to finish—are all reasons to skip this book. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read, but far, faaar from the best.