Adorned with the trappings of German Expressionism, it is the story of an everyman caught up in the schemes of a terrifying totalitarian government, but its brand of horror has less to do with what those in power do to their people—and trust, they do some thoroughly twisted things—but how much control they are granted by the fear of the weak, who have become utterly numb the nightmare unfolding around them.
The lush, wild decadence of the city of Lower Proszawa (which draws from the excess of post-World War I Europe) and the insidious, creeping nature of the government’s nefarious plans for its citizens power a dark, richly atmospheric fantasy noir exploring—under the fantasy excess—the subtle ways totalitarianism can invade every aspect of a life.
After a brutal and violent war, and with another one looming on the horizon, the citizens of the city of Lower Proszawa party away the dark in a torrent of drinking, drugs, and decadence. A model of automata known as Mara walk the streets, nearly every home has its own genetically engineered chimera, and theaters stage plays featuring ripped-from-the-headlines murders that seem a little too accurate to serve as entertainment. In the midst of this madness, a drug-addicted bicycle courier named Largo Moorden receives an unexpected promotion following the mysterious arrest of the previous chief courier. No sooner does Largo get the job than his supervisor starts asking bizarre questions and sending him to ever more dangerous parts of the city. More troublingly, he starts attracting the interest of both the city’s underground resistance force and its largest arms manufacturer. Largo finds himself at the intersection of several seductive opportunities, and at risk of crossing some very dangerous people. He can’t help but feel he’s the only player in the game that hasn’t been given the rules.
The denizens of the fantasy city at the center of The Grand Dark have plenty of reason to fear drawing the attention of their insidious government, but the bleakness and brutality of Lower Proszawa’s militant police force and repressive government structure has paradoxically made the citizenry numb to their creeping oppression. Barely a mention is made of why Largo’s predecessor was taken away by the secret police, save for the fact that “he was apparently an anarchist” (uncertainty being no barrier to punishment). A contagious plague is claiming lives in gory fashion, but no one seems overly concerned by the rubber-suited men who show up to cart off the victims in body bags. People vanish into thin air with regularity, and everyone just assumes the missing are either on a bender or ran afoul of one of the criminal gangs vying for power. Even a visit by the city’s secret police barely registers—because taking notice might mean getting noticed, and if you don’t notice long enough, you stop seeing altogether. By the time the book’s interweaving plots and counterplots are laid bare, Largo’s desperation has as much to do with his efforts to navigate the forces arrayed against him and each other as it does the seeming indifference of his fellow citizens.
The novel’s atmosphere of existential dread couples nicely with flavors of French and German Expressionism. Largo is an everyman, more or less content with his life as it stands as long as he’s able to feed his addictions, but his resolute refusal to realize what’s going on around him and reluctance to get involved in larger matters routinely backfire, sending him smashing into immutable forces: the Kafkaesque Lower Proszawa police; the affable, terrible Baron Hellswarth, weapons manufacturer and creator of both the chimerae and the automata; the paranoia-infused network of spies and secret police. All have their own designs on the courier who knows the city well and can operate without suspicion.
Despite the title, there is no grand dark power at work in Lower Proszawa. This is evil with a human face—utterly banal—which makes the reckless abandon of Lower Proszawa seem all the sadder and more desperate, a toxic coping mechanism for past horrors, and yet more horrors to come. Yet it also makes Largo’s decision to finally do something about the state he’s in all the more inspiring. Anyone can choose to be a hero when faced with supreme villainy—much harder to be a hero in the face of apathy.
While perhaps not the most optimistic of books, The Grand Dark is fantastically entertaining in its consideration of the ways unchecked oppression can spread silently, unnoticed before it’s already too late. It’s a new high-water mark for Kadrey, who makes up for the loss of the gallows humor of the Sandman Slim and Peculiar Science novels with immersive worldbuilding and ambitious plotting. It’s a gripping and suspenseful work of inky black fantasy that will keep readers transfixed with each twist and turn of the darkly unfolding plot.