Richard Kadreys’ The Grand Dark is an interesting combination of alternate history and the strange genre that is often called steampunk but more suitably termed “gaslamp fantasy”. There are giant mechanical spiders, drugs which enable learning things almost instantly, a recent crisis which has scarred society, and bicycle messengers. Indeed, this last one helps to make the writer feel that the whole narrative is somewhere in the equivalent of the real world’s 1920s, with newspapers and bike-messengers and drug parties.
Through a surviving weapon here and a continued loss of benefits there, the reader is given tantalizing hints within the narrative that serve both to illuminate and add mystery. These elements, such as a bayonet of sorts, given as a weapon of defense to a messenger, or a well-known plague that is fought off by narcotics, there is much to read into the story.
Further fleshing out the narrative are a series of fiction excerpts, a tested device in speculative storytelling. In this case, rather than quick blurbs, they comprise complete chapters of their own, with multiple pages and detailed information.
That said, the characters do not stand out as particularly engaging. The lead character, Largo, is a long-time messenger from a rough part of town, a backstory that has potential. In spite of his background, he still seems shocked one of his people would get in trouble (in this case political trouble with the authorities) while making deliveries, in spite of the dangers of the area. Largo then, immediately on his first delivery at a new job, takes a bribe. It is hard to see any consideration and logic between those episodes, and the seeming contradiction can keep a reader detached throughout. The attempt to pull the reader into a rather complex spy plot depends on Kadrey’s ability to make the reader care about the characters in this tale, and while there is an almost noir sensibility, the sympathy a reader gets for the lead is blurred slightly by the nature of the character as either badly defined or hypocritical. On the other hand it could be argued that the story, and the title, being the name of a theatre, serve well to suggest melodrama is appropriate. And plot is quite often the king of melodrama over character. Indeed at a certain point a play is performed and, obviously based upon the characters, causes some interesting questions in Largo’s mind relating to his own situation and actions. This could be seen as either metafictional justification or lampshade hanging of a sort, but in either event helps justify the lack of character depth.
This volume is listed as a stand alone, which is comparatively rare in the current book market. Kadrey is primarily known for the Sandman Slim series, making this an interesting experience. Themes of class and love play the more obvious roles in this story, bit the interplay between,the news and fiction take interesting aspects later on in the text. They do not necessarily relate to the “Fake News” phenomena of today, save in ways that such themes might always parallel. A man’s desire to be more than he is sets off the volume, amd similar desires permeate.
Overall Kadrey’s skill with world building is on full effect however his characters are very much not his best work, it’s a little muddled rather than complex, and somewhat interesting world of shifting alliances and collapsing societies that reminds one of the Gilded Age. Sandman Slim fans may indeed like this book, but it is anything but more of the same. The Grand Dark is easily recommended.