Dark Fantasy is an elusive genre, both to define (it’s like fantasy, but darker) and often to find, particularly as bookshops seem to use it to describe their sexy werewolves section. Not to be confused with the very popular Grimdark Fantasy genre, which is just regular fantasy except with swearing and tits, the dark fantasy I am interested is an amalgamation of apocalyptic or dystopian themes, gothic and Lovecraftian horror and y’know, people with swords. Above all, it’s got to be dark.
Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman is a great example of dark fantasy, although, like most books, it crosses into some other genres as well, as it is also somewhat historical, pretty horror-y and occasionally biblical. Set in 14th century France during the Hundred Years War, with the Black Death killing two-thirds of the population there is a real post-apocalypse vibe. There are comets in the night sky and talk of another – final, apocalyptic – crusade to retake Jerusalem. And alongside this are very real demons, angels and monsters, some of which have a Berserk or Kingdom Death feel to them.
There is a distinctly Mordheim feel to the book, particularly in plague-stricken, demon-haunted Paris, or with the groups of insane flagellants. It’s reminiscent of the Carnival of Chaos, always my favourite part of Mordheim, where demons masquerade and walk among the desperate and the diseased. The religious undertones sometimes give a similar feel to classic horror/apocalypse novels like Swan Song or The Stand, with demons plotting to create a new Hell while God is absent.
The hero is a French knight that survived the battle of Crecy, took an arrow in the face and witnessed the beginning of the end of chivalry. He’s leading a child across the wreckage of France, and there are encounters with demons, Lovecraftian sea monsters and (personal favourite) living statues that wield dead plague babies as clubs.
Something I didn’t especially like about the Old World was that a lot of the time it was just medieval Europe and it just felt too familiar. Indeed I still confuse what came from Warhammer and what came from actual history (the word Norscan for example, is that another word for Vikings or what?). But that does work the other way too, and Between Two Fires feels like a Warhammer novel a lot of the time, albeit darker and more mature. It’s like a Mordheim novel should be, and although I personally enjoy the Age of Sigmar, but for someone mourning the Old World this could be a welcome chance to get in a bit more inspiration.
Which isn’t to say it is perfect, the writing at its very best reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but generally it is not quite up to Steven Erickson or R. Scott Bakker’s standard, as far as fantasy authors go. The pacing is a bit weird too and the ending doesn’t have enough impact, it would have worked better as the first part of some bookshelf-hogging epic. But it is still a great read especially compared to recent Warhammer books which have really dropped the darkness altogether, even if they do have great ideas – I am quite in to the Age of Sigmar setting: cosmic wyrms, living avalanches, land leviathans and all. Now I just need to find books with a similar tone but that incorporate some of the weirder ideas of Age of Sigmar, if anyone has any recommendations!