Game of Thrones creates ripple effect and rise of 'grimdark' fiction

Game of Thrones is back on TV next Sunday for Season 5 and it's paved the way for the success of a whole new genre of fantasy fiction, called 'grimdark.'

Successful TV series makes room for 'grimdark,' a whole new genre of fantasy fiction

Sophie Turner and Aidan Gillen appear in a scene from the series, Game of Thrones. Season 5 of the hit series premieres on Sunday April 12 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO Canada. (The Associated Press)

You've heard of Game of Thrones, of course. You may even be planning your appointment viewing for the launch of the fifth season of the fantastically popular fantasy TV series this weekend.

The show has a fan base of 20 million viewers, with over nine million people tuning in for the season finale last June.

As the audience for the HBO series has grown, book publishers are also enjoying a ripple effect.

In 2011 when the series began, Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin had sold nine million copies of his novels. Now that number has rocketed up to 25 million and counting. But sales aren't limited to Martin's books alone.

Grimdark: a new fantasy genre

The success of Game of Thrones has also helped foster an entirely new genre of writing, called "grimdark." 

The genre is in contrast to the moral certainty depicted in earlier fantasy novels, foremost of which is J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Canadian writer Scott Bakker is one of those grimdark novelists, and a very successful one. With total book sales of over a million copies, he's the author of seven books, including the Aspect-Emperor trilogy.

He defines the genre as having realistic characters who are forced to make difficult choices in a chaotic world. 

"First and foremost it has a certain degree of grittiness; a certain resistance to sentimentalization," Bakker said.

"You tend to find a lot more psychological realism in grimdark fiction than you do in its fantasy precursors," he says. "Then, without a doubt violence—a lot more violence."

George R. R. Martin paved the way

Bakker says he wouldn't have been able to publish his fantasy novels without the success George R. R. Martin achieved first.

Author and co-executive producer George R.R. Martin arrives for the season premiere of HBO's Game of Thrones in San Francisco, Calif. on March 23. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
"I really don't know if I would have been able to do this full time if it wasn't for George," Bakker says. "What George did was give everyone an audience."

In grimdark fantasy, heroes die early, and happy endings are never certain. And those worlds, filled with monsters, mayhem and difficult moral choices, are steadily growing in popularity. 

More realistic characters

Michael Johnstone, University of Toronto Lecturer in English Literature, says that's because the genre reflects our own chaotic world at the moment.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in a scene from Game of Thrones. (Keith Bernstein, Canadian Press, AP, HBO)
"We're much more comfortable with ambiguity right now," he says. "And I think that people trust that more than a neat happy ending."

So, is all this violence and darkness that's striking a chord now likely to have staying power after Game of Thrones goes off the air?

"Even though these stories are grim and dark and uncertain you still have that hope that the hero will win out in the end,' says Johnstone. "And we kind of get satisfaction from at least that hope."

Here's hoping that when Game of Thrones kicks off again, this Sunday, fans will get the satisfaction of seeing at least a few of their favourite heroes surviving to fight another day.

Season 5 of the hit series premieres on April 12 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO Canada.

With files from Eli Glasner


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