The Great War is over, and that’s cause for celebration in Lower Proszawa. Alcohol, sex and drugs flow freely at opulent parties where artists and their friends and benefactors try to ignore the threat of a new war just around the corner. Automatons, disfigured war veterans in iron masks, deadly plagues and the invisible presence of the secret police are ever-present but best ignored. In the center of it all is the Grand Dark, a theater where actors in puppet suits reenact grisly stories of murder and lust. To Largo Moorden, recently promoted to head courier of the city’s bike messenger service, everything is perfect. His new position comes with more money and possibly even a chance to move out of the messenger service entirely. His girlfriend is an actress at the Grand Dark, and there are enough drugs and parties to keep them both happy. But perfection comes with a price, and as Largo learns more about his new job, he begins to learn just how fragile Lower Proszawa’s peaceful façade really is.
Richard Kadrey’s The Grand Dark takes its time. Indeed, for the first third of the book it is unclear exactly what plot Largo Moorden is blindly walking into. Kadrey reveals Lower Proszawa almost as though by candlelight, showing readers just enough at any one time for them to see a few vibrant figures of a city under immense strain. Beyond that, the dark outlines of the threatening world are present but obscured and muted. Despite its lack of cliffhangers and action scenes, the subtle but constant pressure from that insidious outside world makes The Grand Dark an unexpected page-turner. With secret police and anarchist groups seemingly everywhere, it feels like a conspiracy in book form. Around every corner is a potential mystery, although it is sometimes unclear which mysteries are important and which aren’t. But when the central conflict of the book is finally revealed, it is both wholly unexpected in the moment and perfectly obvious in retrospect.
Kadrey’s characters are clueless, idealistic youths who could have stepped out of the bohemian dreams of a 19th-century opera composer. They dream of a better (or at least a drug-filled) life but are forced to live their lives within a dark, Kafka-esque state in which people disappear for seemingly no reason. Between these characters’ struggles and Lower Proszawa’s strange yet familiar technologies and magics, Kadrey successfully weaves the ultra-realistic with the nearly possible into a beautiful and morbid tapestry that fascinates as much as it entertains. The result is a fantastically written book for suspense or fantasy fans looking for a bit of gloom to fight the summer heat.