Richard Kadrey’s The Grand Dark

In the past I’ve enjoyed Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series for its supernatural noir flavor, featuring engaging characters, taut plotting, touches of arcane lore, and an underlying cosmology that shows in glints beneath the thriller stories, like a knifeblade’s flash within the shadows.

The Grand Dark is entirely different. And I like it even more.

The Grand Dark might be called dieselpunk, but it’s dieselpunk set against a backdrop reminiscent of Germany between World Wars, devastated and despairing and decadent, full of grime and despoiled glory. It is at times Kafka-esque, filled with a malignant bureaucracy whose tendrils unknowingly, constantly interfere with each other. Both bio-engineered and mechanical creatures are part of a society who uses them for work and entertainment.

The protagonist is a drug addict and bicycle messenger, his liveihoood on the brink of being made obsolete by those mechanical creatures, trying to escape his lower class status and please his girlfriend. But the antagonist is not the bureaucratic post-War system, but true villains, the ones who use the uncaring war machines for profits, viewing humans as interchangeable mechanisms for creating money. At first there’s an absurd quality to the errands he’s sent on, but as the book progresses, surreal fragments tumble together to create a chilling pattern woven of corruption and greed.

This is a pessimistic book, whose tone and texture are well-wrought, like turning the pages of the portfolio of a photographer who’s caught in black and white and endless shades of grey the decay of a city, perhaps a civilization. Here’s an early moment as the protagonist sets out one morning:

Near dawn, Largo Moorden pedaled his bicycle through the nearly deserted streets of Lower Proszawa. It was exactly one week since his twenty-first birthday. Fog from the nearby bay and smoke from the armaments factory left the center of the city looking like a flat, ashen mirage. As Largo sped over the Ore Bridge, the edges of Gothic office buildings, dwellings, and cafes coalesced into view. Streetcars gliding atop silent magnetic tracks in the street and above, old church spires — shadowy outlines a second before — solidified and were gone.

Most of the city through which Largo moves is similarly moribund and in a state of decay:

The derelict homes that lined the broad streets had once sported gold-leaf roofs and sunny tower rooms that gave the inhabitants views of both the High and Lower cities. Now the buildings were rotting hulks, the gold leaf long gone and the roofs crudely patched with wood from even more run-down habitations. Most of the lower windows were blocked with yellow sheets and covered with metal bars from fallen fences. Few had any glass to speak of. This was by design rather than neglect, though. Only those acquainted with the district could find any specific dwelling. Fortunately, Largo knew the Green well.

While the level of detail, including interstitial notes and documents between chapters, does mean the book does not move at the rapid pace of Kadrey’s other work, The Grand Dark is a lovely piece of world-building, and Kadrey has the plotting chops to pull his hapless protagonist through this painstakingly rendered world, stippled with corruption and malice, shadowing with lurking plots and a hidden hierarchy of spies. A satisfyingly complex and beautifully made read.

(Harper Voyager, 2019)

About Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches near a tiny creek in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the first two books of the Tabat Quartet, Beasts of Tabat and Hearts of Tabat. She is an Endeavour, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominee. Among her nonfiction works are a travel guide to Baltimore, a cookbook, highly opinionated essays, and the book Creating an Online Presence for Writers. She once won a hula contest judged by Neil Gaiman. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, see here.