Knee-Deep In Grit by Adrian Collins

(9.0/10)

Grimdark Magazine is an excellent digital publication chock-full of articles, reviews, discussion and short stories all focused on the darker and grittier side of fantasy and science fiction. This collection of 25 stories has been collated from tales that have appeared in the magazine over the past two years. And WOW, there’s been some good’uns!

As with most short story anthologies I read, there are some stories that grab me immediately and I absolutely love, there are others that take a while to get going but then I end up enjoying and there are others that just do not click with me. Knee-Deep in Grit was the same, however out of 25 there was only two or three that didn’t appeal to me.

So, here are my top six stories and a mini review for each…

1.    The King Beneath the Waves – Peter Fugazzotto

This is the first story in the anthology and also my absolute favourite! The young, lame, slave boy Werting survives a shipwreck with six other male warriors from two different clans plus another older slave.

They are washed up on a deserted beach and as they are bedding down for the night, Werting is sent to collect food and discovers another wrecked ship in the low tide and the valuable treasure that it was carrying. Amongst all the gold and coin there’s a wooden chest carrying a strange corpse.

The older slave and the warriors soon relieve Werting of his find, but not for long as an unexpected turn of events sees Werting left with a couple of tough choices.

This fantasy story had it all for me. It was darkly atmospheric and played on my emotions at just the right level. There are vivid characters and excellent descriptions. I really felt for Werting and his hard life. I understood the decisions he made at the end and was completely rooting for him.

2.    Shadow Hunter – Adrian Tchaikovsky

I found this fantasy tale to be really imaginative with a perfect amount of worldbuilding, action and intrigue that really pulled me in.

In a world divided by the different insect-kinden, each clan has unique abilities and some are more powerful than others. The savage and angry wasp-kinden has swept across the land enslaving the weaker peoples and creating an empire.

Gaven, a wasp and ex-soldier, is now a freelance mercenary. He’s finding it hard to find work as he’s hated by his people for no longer serving in the army and hated by those peoples he’s helped to invade. So, when he’s approached by a moth to hunt down another moth in the woods he takes the job.

Whilst in the woods he meets two Dragonflies, also hunting the Moth. And when they find the man, all is not what it seems.

3.    Bad Seed – Mark Lawrence

In short: man embraces his true nature after a horrific event. This is a fine story, excellently written with deep emotion and tension. At eight years old Alann Oak fights back against his bullies and accidentally kills one of the children. He’s labeled as a killer or ‘kennt’ and the death haunts him throughout his life.

For years he attempts to forget the incident, growing up, marrying, having children and working hard on his farm. But it niggles at him and he never feels truly happy or content in his life.

When a distant war comes close to his village and brings with it a number of undesirables including scoundrel soldiers and bandits, Alann’s true self materialises.

4.    Viva Longevicus – Brandon Daubs

This was a fun sci-fi read. An intelligent rat species has taken over a planet. A father goes to rescue his son, Nat, who is stuck there with his team after a mission to eliminate the rats has stalled. The arrogant, brutal, hard-man father Colonel Vilhaus takes his other son, Kev.

The story opens with an enticing line that immediately drew me into the story and set the tone. Colonel Vilhaus muses that, ‘Parents are supposed to say they love all their kids the same but that’s a fuckin’ like, isn’t it?’

Cue lots of rat killing and the rescue of Nat not quite going as planned. I enjoyed this one, but have to admit, I didn’t quite ‘get’ the ending?! (If you read it, let me know what you think!)

5.    Ashes – Tara Calaby

This is a dark and sinister retelling of the classic fairytale Cinderella. This story had the most interesting use of chapters, the passing of time and a change in narrative voice as we hear from Cinderella, the fairy godmother and the Prince.

It starts with Chapter 1: ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ It tells of Cinderella’s life after she gets married to Prince Charming. Her days are hollow, her life is empty. She becomes more and more withdrawn as she realises that her marriage is not what she was expecting. She sinks into a restless depression.

Her fairy godmother attempts to help, as does her husband, but Cinderella knows what she needs to do, and it’s not what you’d imagine a ‘happily ever after’ to look like.  

6.    Drone Strikes for Fun and Profit – Aaron Fox-Learner

Set in the not-too-distant future, this science fiction story tells of a lonely, awkward teen whose class psychiatrist and parents encourage him to get a job flying drones for the US Government into war zones from the comfort of his own home.

He joins The Order of the Red Condor and starts flying missions over Ecuador. His job is to cleanly ‘bug-splat’ tagged targets or ‘baddies’. But he starts to notice messages scrawled in paint on rooftops that are clearly directed at him.

He discovers it’s a boy, of a similar age to him, who is writing the messages. He does something pretty evil, but then everyone at home thinks the experience has been good for him… A thought-provoking story with an engaging first-person narrative.

I also particularly enjoyed All the Lovely Brides by Kelly Sandoval, The Line by T.R. Napper, A Fair Man by Peter Orullian, Boomer Hunter by Sean Patrick Hazlett and Redemption Waits by Mike Brooks.

This is a great collection of stories if you love grimdark SFF and enjoy acts of violence precisely for the shock value, morally grey characters and no 'happily ever after.' As the author Mark Lawrence says in his foreword, “Knee-Deep in Grit is a curry house of stories, they’re all going to be spicy and if you like your reading bland… you’ve come to the wrong place.” Amen to that.

 I received an ARC in return for an honest review. Huge thanks to James at Fantasy Book Review and Adrian at Grimdark Magazine for giving me the chance to read and review this anthology early!

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