The denizens of my fantasy realm are essentially color and genderblind. I don’t think having a society where this is possible is a further stretch than magic. Nor is having a diverse cast.
Think about this: the potato was introduced to Europe in the Age of Exploration, about a century or two after the Middle Ages ended. Spuds are indigenous to the Andes in South America. More fun facts: they were originally used as pig feed, and in some places in Europe, they weren’t eaten by humans until the late 1700s. However, they appear more in medieval-inspired fantasy than diverse casts do, and Medieval Europe was more diverse than most fantasy literature gives it credit for.
People do horrible things to other people regardless, but powerful villains don’t need the crutch of racism or sexism to give them an excuse. Granted, having a bigoted antagonist and a marginalized protagonist can help emphasize who you’re supposed to root for, but on its own, it’s lazy writing IMHO.
I never thought heroes needed to be “woke” and villains needed to be bigoted to tell a compelling story. However, prejudice and discrimination can be part of a compelling grimdark fantasy story. Like rape, murder, poverty, etc., it’s part of the grisly human landscape that grounds grimdark into that cynical realness we all love about it.
That said, I’m hardly an expert in race, colonial, or other schools of thought on how diversity is supposed to be handled in literature. I’m just a guy writing entertaining nightmares. All of this is just my humble opinion as a writer, not “gospel” from some scholarly “expert”. But I’ve observed a few things, and I hope you can come along for the ride as I dive into diversity in the grimdark.
When I was looking for more diverse writers to point you to, the pickings are slim. Until recently, fantasy had a bad rap for lacking representation, and as I’m diving into below, had some pretty problematic tropes.
This lack of representation comes in two flavors: authors, and worldbuilding. A lot of authors representing “diverse” landscapes and characters, a.k.a. not European, not predominantly white, are crafted by an overwhelming majority of white, male authors. (Yes, just like me.)
I don’t have a problem with white, male authors creating diverse landscapes and building worlds that don’t reflect their culture. And we can go on and on about cultural appropriation, privilege, “default vs. other”, etc. But this isn’t a scholarly paper. This is just me, spouting my observations and opinions.
Basically, medieval Europe is boring. It’s stale. Again, we can get into default vs. other and orientalism and exoticization all we want, but in my opinion, medieval fantasy has gone stale … at least, on its own.
Some worlds like Westeros incorporate other cultures into its landscape and blend them into one another. Some POV characters traverse the East, or Essos, like Daenerys Targaryen. We get treated to a broader world full of cultures expanding beyond European feudalism.
Other worlds take place completely in African or Asian-inspired fantasy worlds. The Nickelodeon TV shows Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra come to mind—I love them, even though they’re not grimdark.
As far as fantasy books go, the pickings can be a little slim when it comes to grimdark worldbuilding that takes place outside of Europe. The Poppy War is a good example that spurns both European and Medieval settings to tell a kickass story. I went into detail about that book earlier, but here are a few others. Word of warning: this can be a stretch since as I said, diverse authors and worldbuilding in grimdark are sparse, but here are some works you should check out.
Orcs and Unfortunate Implications
First off, getting the elephant in the room out of the way: Orcs in fantasy have had some… unfortunate implications that have been pointed out in academia and online. It’s my own personal belief as a lifelong tabletop RPG gamer that “races” exist in Dungeons & Dragons and other games to make it “safe” to be racist against imaginary species—whether you’re a gnome supremacist or an elitist Silvan elf.
Maybe people “need” groups of others to hate on or just to define “us vs. them” but… I dunno. It feels lazy to me. (Of course, this is the place where the demons’ rights advocates will pipe up and call me a hypocrite for casting demons in an evil light in my own books. 🤪)
As I’ve I said before, I enjoy tropes turned on their heads. I’m all for people writing the stories they want to read instead of just complaining. Both Lot Lands Trilogy by Jonathan French and Orcs by Stan Nicholls address this by making orcs the protagonists. They’re not the only fantasy authors to do this.
Orcs follows a warband caught between two factions who need to gain the upper hand to survive. The Lot Lands casts orcs and half-orcs as grueling soldiers who are trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of their homeland, dealing with conspiracies and dark magic along the way.
Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
This is hands down one of my favorite dark fantasy novels. And I cringe to think that I almost DNF’d this book at the first POV shift! I had recently read a bunch of ensemble cast books that had not done multi-POV well, and I almost didn’t keep reading. But I’m so glad I did.
The cultures and races she creates feel fresh and inspired, and yet all-to-human in their oppression of one another for very believable reasons.
No spoilers. The scale and creativity of what she accomplished is breathtaking. I will always be in awe of the skill it took to pull that off. I bought the sequels, but I haven’t had the time to get to them yet. I’m really looking forward to the rest!
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
This amazing African-inspired YA novel is much darker than I expected when I began listening to the audio book. I was pleased to find that Tomi did not shy away from the grimdark in the slightest.
While I was a expecting magic and a typical coming-of-age plot that is obligatory in YA, I was not expecting a beautiful blend of rebellion, war, and torture. Adult fantasy writers can learn a lot from Tomi.
And the narrator! Bahni Turpin is so fabulous. Her characterizations and voice acting are wonderful. I would listen to her read me the phonebook. (Do kids these days still have phonebooks?)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
I came across this series by Jamaican author Marlon James, whose main bread and butter is historical fiction. However, from the first line, “The child is dead. There is nothing left to know,” you’re hooked.
The story follows Tracker, a hunter with a super-sniffer who hunts alone. He’s renown far and wide for his hunting skill. He breaks his rule of working alone to join a fellowship of other hunters to track down a boy for a slaver.
If you’re into postmodern works of literature, non-linear storytelling, themes of Machiavellianism, and an unreliable narrator, this one’s for you.
The Nsibidi Script Series by Nnedi Okorafor
This series is a stretch, but these books have one thing going for them in the grimdark fantasy category: a terrifying villain and unbeatable odds. A great page-turner for me is always when the antagonists are ready to run a marathon and the heroes haven’t even put on their shoes yet.
This book follows Sunny, a Nigerian teenager who doesn’t feel like she belongs anywhere. Partly due to her albinism, she feels different from her peers. Then, she discovers she has magic powers and she’s off to magic school. Although she’s barely into her studies, she’s asked to track down a dangerous criminal. If you like Harry Potter and are looking for a similar page-turner, or want to read lighter fare for once, this is one to check out.
Acacia by David Anthony Durham
This book got high praise from George R.R. Martin himself. Durham weaves a rich landscape and an intricate world set in an African-inspired world. Leodan Akaran has inherited a land full of riches and prosperity, only his world is built on a foundation of trafficking, suffering, and other injustices. However, when invaders from the frozen North come calling, it will be up to Akaran’s children to restore the world based on better values.
Raven Queen, Arise by Dave Reed
As I said at the beginning, one of the conceits of my fantasy world is race and gender are omnipresent, but they are never the crutch an oppressor uses to choose their victims. My titular, olive-skinned heroine hails from a cultural fusion of Rome, Greece, and the Scottish Highlands. The three gods of death, magic, and crime are black and all three from distinctive cultures of their own. The god of creation is nonbinary and multi gendered, father to some of the gods and mother to others. And the variations go on…
If that sounds like a fascinating world to explore, give it a read or a listen.