The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey is my first foray into the genre known as Dieselpunk, a style that combines diesel technology, retro-futuristic technology, and the feeling of uncertainty, paranoia, and hopelessness. This novel takes place in the fictional city of Lower Proszawa in a period of peace after their own Great War. Largo Moorden is a courier who knows the streets of Lower Proszawa like no one else. His wants are simple: he wants to make more money so that he can impress his much wealthier girlfriend Remy. However, things are not all they seem in Lower Proszawa with Masas (what they call automata) taking people’s jobs, Chimeras (genetically-engineered creatures) roaming the streets, and people going missing. Everything changes for Largo when he receives a promotion at his job to head courier. A trigger warning for this book, as it does involve heavy drug use, police brutality, and suicidal thoughts.
The main character of The Grand Dark is utterly unlikeable. Largo is a drug addict, a coward, and a vulnerable narcissist. Yet, he is the perfect character for the atmosphere of this setting. Technology is changing, new sciences are explored, and the thought of another war lingers on everyone’s mind. Largo’s life for the first third of the novel seems rather pedestrian. He does his job, goes to parties with his girlfriend, and tries not to be late for work. The author does a great job of never letting you feel entirely at ease, though. From the very beginning, there is a sense of discomfort running through the entire city. It’s a slow burn, and sometimes it can be frustrating as the book brings you to the edge of your seat then drives you back when Largo’s life returns to some status quo. The author does a splendid job of never letting Largo and vicariously, the reader, feel safe. The danger slowly heightens as the plot moves along as it if were on little hills.
Just when life is looking up for Largo, and you are beginning to believe the whole book is going to do nothing but travel along these little hills of danger, the story drops you down the side of a mountain. Everything you learns comes tumbling down so quickly you are left with whiplash. What Largo experiences is frightening and engaging. The pace at which tyou read will match the pace of everything that’s happening. Revelations occur that change Largo’s and the reader’s entire perception of the Lower Proszawa. What was once a slow-burning story shifts into breakneck speed to the finale.
What Largo experiences leaves his entire world changed. What seems certain to Largo and the reader at the beginning of the book is entirely different by the end. Generally, I do not subscribe to the notion of “sticking with it” when it comes to novels. If it doesn’t hook you in the beginning, then what is the point of beginnings? While this novel has a fantastic climax, the first half of The Grand Dark could have been cut shorter, and the second half made longer. Still, that second half left this reader shaken up with how engaging it was and how realistically panic-inducing Largo’s situation became. If you can stick with it past its long set-up, The Grand Dark is worth checking out.