NPR Review: 'The Grand Dark,' By Richard KadreyRichard Kadrey — known for his Sandman Slim series of supernatural noirs — reinvents himself in grand fashion with The Grand Dark, a diesel-punk fantasy set in a simulacrum of Weimar Germany.
Richard Kadrey has never faced a deficiency of darkness. From his early cyberpunk novel Metrophage to his bestselling fantasy-noir series Sandman Slim to his stint on DC Comics' Hellblazer, the author's work has steeped itself in the murkier extremes of morality, technology, and the supernatural. At the same time, there's a pulp sensibility to Kadrey's fiction that's become almost a brand — a brand that he's rebelling violently against in The Grand Dark. Rather than lean, mean, and hardboiled, Kadrey's new standalone novel is a sprawl of ornately arranged speculative fiction that ups the ante for urban-set fantasy. And yes, as its title loudly advertises, the book retains every inky ounce of Kadrey's trademark darkness.
Where stereotypical secondary-world fantasy novels routinely take place in a fictionalized version of Medieval Europe, The Grand Dark takes place in a simulacrum of Eastern Europe between the World Wars. But being a secondary world, it is not the place we know. Kadrey has created the city of Lower Proszawa, a metropolis that's as grim as it is decadent. Its citizens, after having weathered a horrific, industrialized war, now spend their days pursuing the pleasures of the flesh, from sex and drugs to appetites far more grotesque. Largo is a young bicycle courier, addicted to the drug morphia, who lives with his lover, Remy, an actress in a lurid, Grand Guignol-like theater called the Grand Dark.
Life is hard but not bad, although they each harbor an ambitious streak — and Largo's propels them into an adventure that stretches from the city's sordid underbelly to the heights of power, from androids and anarchists to U-boats and secret police, and of course, weaving in and out of the theater that Remy calls home. Looming in the background is Una Herzog, the mystique-shrouded proprietor and auteur of the Grand Dark, whose work is beginning to take an even more sinister turn as the threat of war begins to rise rise once more. Largo is a streetwise gutternsnipe who's valiantly managed to cling to a smidgeon of innocence and decency, and it's his persistent humanity in the face of Lower Proszawa's overripe immorality that makes the setting's murkiness not only bearable, but downright immersive.
The Grand Dark's plot is sturdy, but it mostly serves as a solid framework on which Kadrey drapes his sumptuous setting. Lower Proszawa is basically Weimar Germany viewed through a cracked lens, a place where the style of Brecht and Bauhaus coexist with genetically engineered creatures and dieselpunk robots that are upending the tenuous postwar economic balance. Largo finds himself in a world of secrets, intrigue, and brewing revolution, but he's hardly surprised at the corruption beneath the city's scratched surface.
Kadrey's triumph is keeping The Grand Dark's bleakness in check, channeling it into wondrous forms instead of letting it overwhelm the story. Lower Proszawa may be a gray place, but it's brightened by Largo's and Remy's mutual devotion, a lower-class romance right out of The Threepenny Opera. As with most of his books, Kadrey uses a street-level perspective — but here, those streets are places of perverse beauty, from the architecture to the thespian scene to the Dada-esque art movement known as Xuxu that's overtaken the town.
Pop-culture references abound in Kadrey's work, and they do so again in The Grand Dark. If Iggy Pop and Martin Denny comprise an appropriate playlist for the Sandman Slim books, Kurt Weill and Nico could be the soundtrack for The Grand Dark. Likewise, his literary touchstones are obvious: China Miéville's Besźel, M. John Harrison's Viriconium, and Michael Moorcock's Mirenberg are all invented, pseudo-European fantasy cities that paved the way for Lower Proszawa. Kadrey seems to revel in adding to this tradition; similarly, he revels in the sheer strength of his worldbuilding. He sprinkles copious interstitial bits throughout the book, in the form of diaries, histories, treatises, manifestos, and even travel brochures. The result is a fractured, phantasmagoric kaleidoscope.
The Grand Dark is more than just another reliably strong outing from a veteran writer. It's the work of a major science fiction/fantasy creator going way out in a limb in the effort to wholly redefine himself, all while crystallizing what's made him great. Like Largo, Kadrey clearly has blazing ambition and something to prove. And in The Grand Dark, he proves it. "For the patrons," writes Kadrey, speaking of the book's eponymous theater, "entering the Grand Dark was a gleeful surrender, a leap down the gullet of an alluring monster." The same can be said of the novel itself.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller