Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Exclusive interview with Paul Lavender, author of The Eighth God

1. So what is the premise of your book?

I’m going to try without giving to much away! Five thousand years before The Eighth God begins seven elven soldiers are given divine powers by the elven gods at the point where they are about to be annihilated, and call themselves Orcslayers. Cut to the present and we have the last of two Orcslayers, Saethryth, return home after being in the orc lands.

They find an half-orc spy in Ashen Falls and proceed to try and kill him. Meanwhile his half-brother, Melress, is promoted in the battle mages and sent to a fortress called Knight’s Perch, where there is a traitor. The book culminates at Knight’s Perch, with the defenders fighting off a lot of orcs, some ogres and a really upset giant...With the help of a large stone golem.

2. What separates your book from other fantasy novels?

The main difference is that I am telling the tale from both sides.

3. Who are the protagonists of The Eighth God?

The main ones are Saethryth (an Orcslayer), Melress (Saethryth’s half-brother and a battle mage), Bazak-Kul (a half-orc spy) and Grash-Kul (his father).

4. Why do you think orcs are such a popular monster race?

Because they’re ugly. I think people are pretty familiar with orcs because of Lord of the Rings, so in that respect they are an easy target!

5. What are your orcs like?

They are nasty fellows who think nothing of rape and torture, but they are also humorous. I think they get some of the funniest lines in the book.

6. What inspired you to write this?

I was made redundant several years ago, then my son was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. In our house my wife works, so as there is only so much housework you can do, I needed a job! I used to make up stories for my son, to get him to sleep and i decided to get all grimdark.

7. Can you describe the villain of your book?

It depends which side you’re rooting for!Saethryth is confident and quiet, acrobatic and strong, he hates orcs with a passion. Orcs killed his mother and younger sister. Melress is smart and wants to help people as much as he can. He's a little naive and wants people to like him. Bazak-Kul is a natural born spy. He's handsome (but don't tell his father), dangerous and sneaky.He's sent to Ashen Falls to spy on the battle mages. Grash-Kul is chief of the Kul tribe of orcs. He wants to take the lands south of the fortresses, so that he can have an endless supply of women. Unfortunately, he owes a debt to a shadowy group, and has to attack Knight's Perch before he's ready. And without his shamen to help

8. Who are your influences?

Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, Ben Kane. I read pretty much anything, except billionaire shapeshifter romance!

9. Do you gave a favorite character who isn't one of the mains?
There’s actually two. The bouncers from The Dove’s Head Inn, Pock and Cock. They are pretty funny, especially in Tales from Ashen Falls.

10. What can we expect from you next?

Currently writing the sequel to The Eighth God which is called The Sect of Seven. This deals with the second Orcslayer, Erekose. Erekose has serious mental health issues, and is also human (which you would think would be a problem when you’re an elven Orcslayer!). It’s a longer book than The Eighth God because we see more of the world that these heroes and villains inhabit.

I'm also working on something set in an alternate 1800’s which I’m currently calling Assassin, and of course there is book 3 of The Orcslayers, which involves all the survivors of the first two books meeting up and entering the orclands…where everything changes!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Grimdark Reading List by C.T. Phipps

    A lot of people want to know what grimdark is and I wrote an entire essay on the subject (What is Grimdark?) discussing the subject. However, grimdark is like Shakespeare in that it is something better experienced rather than described. As such, I've compiled a list of what I consider to be ten of the best grimdark novels for giving you a sense of what the genre is all about.

    I've left off some works which I felt were exceptionally good but were more part of an existing genre (Howard, Lovecraft) and others because they were by an author already mentioned. I also have simply left some off because I hadn't read them yet (Erikson). I've also excluded everything which isn't a book, which was hard in the case of Kentaro Miura's Berserk.

    There is also one more book series left off in A Game of Thrones. This isn't because A Game of Thrones doesn't qualify. I think of it as the Platonic ideal of grimdark as it's to fantasy what Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were to comics. However, I also think of it as cheating as basically everyone already knows A Song of Ice and Fire. If you want to read grimdark you should start there and then move on.

    So, without further ado...THE LIST! I chose to do thirteen because, really, why not?

13. Godblind by Anna Stephens

    I'm afraid this one is a book you'll have to take the merits of on faith since Godblind is a story that only I and a few others have read. It is, however, coming out on July 11th, 2017, though and promises to be probably the best grimdark novel of the year. The fact there's so many other great novels which have been released says something about my faith in that that I think you should pre-order it despite its improbable $20 Kindle price tag. It is 500 pages of some of the scariest, bloodiest, and most fascinating fantasy you're likely to read. As for what it's about? Well, let's just say the Red Gods are thirsty and they're ready to be fed.

12. Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes

    Rob J. Hayes is actually the first grimdark author whose work I knowingly read. The Ties That Bind series started off as a gritty sort of Conan then seagues into something deeper as the story ends up becoming the basis for an entire world of tragic antihero-filled adventures. However, Where Loyalties Lie has a benefit the other books don't in that it's about pirates! While technically a sequel to The Ties That Bind, it can be read on its own. Roguish characters who actually do awful things, fascinating dynamics, and amazing world-building. Drake Morass wants to build a pirate kingdom and recruits gentleman bandit Keelin to help his dream become reality but there's just one small problem, two really: Drake Morass is a manipulative sociopath and there's already a pirate king.

11. The Dragon's Legacy by Deborah A. Wolf

    This is the newest work on my list embodies the other side of grimdark from the gore and antiheroes: the complex social politics as well as moral ambiguities. It's very much like George R.R. Martin's Essos in a way as no one's hands are clean but very few people can be said to be evil. It's just the world has shaped everyone into those who will do whatever it takes to survive and rationalize it later. The fact the entire planet is dying and there's seemingly nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening also adds a layer of grim to what is a complex political as well as social tale told from multiple perspectives.

10. First and Only by Dan Abnett

    This was a difficult one to do because I needed one and one Warhammer 40K novel here only. A novel which would stand-in for all of the entirety of a universe which gave us the word "grimdark" in the first place. It didn't take long to decide Dan Abnett would be the author who would stand-in for all of the 40th millennium but that, itself, was a massive pile of books to choose from. In the end, I think the Gaunt's Ghosts series was his best. It's the story of a military company which lost its world and are now fighting for a new homeland in an endless series of battles that will eventually exterminate them. In the end, for all their heroism, they are only meat for the Imperium's grinder.

9. Ghosts of Tomorrow by Michael R. Fletcher

    It was a toss-up between this and Beyond Redemption by the same author. Ghosts of Tomorrow is a science fiction grimdark novel set in the not-so-far-off future. In that future, there's a brisk trade in "scans" which are the personalities of human beings taken from organic brains in a process that destroys the latter. In what is largely a metaphor for the Third World, thousands of children are killed every year in order to satisfy the West's demands for such "product".  It is gritty, dark, and combines the best elements of cyberpunk with a gritty detective novel. Also, it has a adolescent cyborg ninja gunslinger that is somehow terrifying.

8. The Gunslinger by Stephen King

     Stephen King's sci-fi Western fantasy horror epic was another difficult choice because while it certainly influenced a lot of grimdark works (Cthulhu Armageddon by moi included), it was a work which preceded a lot of what people thought to be the beginnings of grimdark. Despite this, I think its genre-blending premise is what made me think it deserved to be on the list. Also, the fact Roland may appear to be the embodiment of good and justice but he's a man as insane and consumed with his cause as the Man in Black. I really hope they keep the ending to the first book in the movie--that is what will determine whether it's a good adaptation or not.

7. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

    I feel a bit guilty including two cyberpunk novels into this list despite the fact its own perfectly well-defined genre but Altered Carbon embodies a lot of what I love about sci-fi grimdark. I could have easily placed Richard K. Morgan's Land Fit for Heroes instead but I believe Altered Carbon works best here. Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-UN special operative who has been specially trained in psi-ops and murder. In the future, memories and personalities can be traded across bodies like clothes so death has become somewhat blase. Takeshi ends up getting taken to Earth against his will, put in a body he doesn't care for, and forced to help solve a rich trillionaire's suicide. Takeshi will kill anyone to get his way back home and ends up doing it.

6. Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

    Lord Foul's Bane is another work of proto-grimdark which helped create the genre as we know it today. Thomas Covenant was a direct challenge to the majority of heroes in fantasy. A self-hating leper with no combat skills and no desire to interact with the fantasy world he's found him in, he commits an unforgivable crime in the first part of the book. It is not traditional grimdark but it's work which challenges the structure of then-traditional fantasy and was all the better for it. The fact it one of the most controversial works of fantasy out there is also going for it.

5. Elric: The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock

    This one, honestly, feels like cheating since Elric is a character so firmly part of the Sword and Sorcery tradition. However, I felt the need to put him here because he's a character who embodies the anti-establishment and deconstructive nature of grimdark heroes. Basically, Elric is a crappy hero. He's always using evil sorcery and a murderous soul-stealing sword to do "good" and wonders why it ends up with his loved ones killed as well as the situation getting worse. He was created as a cunning, sickly wizard compared to Conan's archetype and the original White Wolf remains a character everyone should check out the original novellas of.

4. The Black Company by Glen Cook

    If you don't think Elric should be included then allow me to present an alternative in The Black Company. It is a novel and series with a simple premise: follow the perspective of those soldiers who would be mooks of the main villain in any other series. They're not orcs but the titular company might as well be so under any circumstances. The Black Company aren't, particularly, awful people but they serve a sorceress overlord who looks better by comparison to the chaos a typical fantasy world lives under.

3. The Last Wish by Andrjez Sapkowski

    The Witcher series is one which the majority of geeks probably know from the games by CD_Projekt Red. Following the adventures of mutant monster hunter, Geralt of Rivia, they are notable for how utterly craptastic the world is. Monsters have almost been exterminated on the planet but the evil that men do far eclipses what a creature that eats people might accomplish. Geralt remains one of the few individuals with a consistent moral compass but cannot do anything but kill the occasional rapist and try to collect his fees.

    The series also contains the tragic anti-heroes' journey of Ciri, a young destined Chosen One who ends up broken, battered, morally compromised, and shell-shocked rather than ennobled by her destiny. The Last Wish is only the beginning of the Witcher Saga but nicely shows Geralt in his element--before everything completely goes to hell.

2. Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

     No grimdark list would be complete with Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns, which proves children can be crueler than adults. After all, what other series opens up with a fourteen-year-old leading the charge to slaughter as well as pillage a bunch of innocents then culminates in the "hero" engaging in the same offense as Thomas Covenant? If you can get past this horrifying beginning, things are much more interesting than merely a case of teenage sociopathy but it is a story about someone who is monstrous in their behavior as well as the environment that made him.  I will say I actually prefer Red Queen's War and Book of the Ancestor in terms of reading merit. As dark as they can get, though, they never plum the depths which Prince of Thorns shines.

1. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercombie

     This one will probably come as no surprise to anyone since, after Martin, it is the series which pretty much codified the grimdark genre. Want an unromantic story about a bunch of very unpleasant people who end up killing a lot of other people in what makes the world worse? Well, this isn't the book but it's close. There's many likable characters in this story but they are all heavily flawed and realistic.

    Glokta the torturer has no skills but his ability to inflict pain so that's what he does, even though he was once a great hero. Colm West dreams of ascending the ranks of the military despite his peasant upbringing and abuses his sister into not hurting his career. Logen Nine-fingers is fleeing a horrific past even as he's now wrapped in the machinations of a wizard. Where it will go is a journey that is horrifying, surprising, twisted, and enjoyable. A series I actually wrote an essay on, called, "Is The First Law Trilogy the Anti-Tolkien?"

Some honorary mentions: The Heresy Within by Rob Hayes, Darkstorm by M.L. Spencer, Cthulhu Armageddon by C.T. Phipps, Lucifer's Star by C.T. Phipps, Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French, Horus Rising by Dan Abnett, The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark, Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher, Damoren by Seth Skorkowsky, Galefire by Kenny Soward, Dawn of War by Tim Marquitz, Paternus by Dyrk Ashton, Shattered Dreams by Ulff Lehman, The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

If you want some alternate opinions, checkout Grimdark Magazine's picks.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Oncoming Storm by Christopher G. Nutall review

    THE ONCOMING STORM is the first book of the ANGEL IN THE WHIRLWIND series, which I admit seems to be a little wordy for a series title. Especially since there's nothing wrong with calling the series the KAT FALCONE series or even C.S.S. LIghtning series. It's a space opera series with obvious roots in the HONOR HARRINGTON series by David Weber but I don't think that's a bad thing as I cut my teeth on those books. I've also felt that series has gotten away from its central concept of a kickass female naval commander IN SPACE.

    The premise is Kat Falcone is the youngest daughter of an extraordinarily rich megacorporation dynasty who tried to get away from her family's patronage, only to be unwillingly promoted to Captain at 29 due to those very connections. Now doubly determined to prove her worth when everyone knows she's benefited from nepotism, she gets her chance with the assignment of her superdreadnought to the planet Cadiz. Cadiz is a conservative world which basically amounts to being Iraq in SPACE and it's being incompetantly run by a decadent Admiral who wants to avoid war at all costs. War is going to happen no matter what, though, because of the sinister Theocracy.

    I must admit the politics of this book left me a bit cold. As the left-leaning anarchist that I am, using the War on Terror as a basis for a conflict between Good and Evil is something I have more than a few issues with. The Theocracy is composed of a bunch of boo-hiss villains who are just this side of ISIS and the Commonwealth is a heroic band of do-gooders out to defend their way of life. It leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth as I've lost friends in the war and had others traumatized. Nevertheless, I'm not a person to get bogged down in the politics behind a work unless it's morally repugnant. Besides, given the premise of "Cadiz was a *********** from beginning to end", I can't really can't say I disagree with said message.

    Kat Falcone is a tremendously fun protagonist and easily the kind I could see being played by someone like Emilia Clarke as an action movie. She's supremely dedicated to her job but not the point of seeming inhuman. Kat is also someone who occasionally makes mistakes, though she succeeds more often than not. Accusations of her being a Mary Sue would fail, too, as she has a limited area of expertise. When she gets caught in a ground-side terrorist attack, she's able to handle herself but not to the point of somehow becoming a Marine.

    I also appreciate how the book handles class as Kat comes from an incredibly privileged position but that causes as many problems as it solves. Her commanding officer, William, was passed up for a command position because of Kat's father pulling strings and justifiably resents her for it. He's a character she manages to win over, eventually, but someone who remains nicely prickly as a result. I also liked his relationship with his smuggler brother, even though I tend to side with Scott more than I do William. His brother left his homeworld because the town gave his girlfriend up to slavers in exchange for safety. I'd want to burn down my hometown and everyone in it for that.

    The Oncoming Storm is full of action, suspense, and even more than a little intrigue. It has a great protagonist and decent supporting cast too. Not all of it makes sense from a naval perspective like Kat's not-so-hidden relationship with her Marine captain but I'm willing to make some accommodations for acceptable breaks from reality. I just wish the Theocracy wasn't such a collection of cardboard cutout villains.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

LUCIFER'S WORLD cover completed

I've got great news, folks! Alex Raspad, who is an amazing artist, has done a third cover for my LUCIFER'S STAR series. Here's a depiction of the third book in the series that I've already got plotted out and hope to finish soon for release in early 2018.

JUNE 2017 update on my writing

A heads' up on where I'm related to on my various projects:

THE KINGDOM OF SUPERVILLAINY: I am at 22K writing this, which is a lot more impressive than it sounds as I haven't "officially" started writing it. I planned to start writing it after I finished Lucifer's Nebula but I keep writing a little bit more here and there as the jokes and plot come to me. It's poor Gary enjoying the height of his success as a supervillain only to discover that comes with the cost of the heroes in retreat. Can he live in a world dominated by evil or will he decide he has to give the heroes a little push? I expect it to finish around 70K.


LUCIFER'S NEBULA: The sequel to Lucifer's Star is 55K now and should be about 90K when done. The story will pick up a year after the events of the first book as Cassius finds its impossible to escape his past, no matter how far he runs. He must confront his doppelganger and wayward family, who are presently the heads of the galaxy's ever-successful rebellion. But there's a darker hand behind the Spiral's civil war and if humanity doesn't unite then it may simply join the legion of other extinct races across the universe. Cassius woudl rather just engage in some not-so-good-natured smuggling.


100 MILES AND VAMPIN': The sequel Peter Stone's original adventure. 100 Miles and Vampin' picks up with him being in a slightly-better but still pretty poor place in the vampire hierarchy. In this case, he's assigned to look after the equivalent of Stephanie Meyers and immediately botches the job when she's killed by an unknown assailant. Forced to solve the murder before he's thrown up as a sacrifice to the masses, Peter needs to decide if success among the undead is worth it. I'm about 50K into this out of 70K so another almost done volume.


WRAITH LORD: It's taken just about forever to get my books right back for both Wraith Knight and the Red Room series. However, I have successfully done so. If you were interested in the my take on Tolkien-esque fiction then you might enjoy the fact I have a second volume coming out as soon as the cover is finished. Alex Raspad is working on it now. Jacob has consolidated his rule over the Formori and other "evil" races but does he really want to begin war with the "light" species? It turns out he doesn't have much of a choice as they have begun their own invasion.


AGENT G: SABOTEUR: The sequel to Agent G: Infiltrator, we pick up with G now working for the United States government to hunt down his former comrades. Kept on a leash by the fact they have an offer to fix his condition before he dies in a few years (if he has that long), he's less than happy with being one of the "good" guys. It gets worse when he realizes what he found out was true of his past was just the tip of the ice berg. It'll be released as soon as I can get approval for it from Amber Cove.


ELDRITCH OPS: The sequel to ESOTERRORISM is ready to go and should be coming out in a few months. I just want to get the book in a place where I'm not competing with myself. In this case, Derek is bored out of his skull as a member of the Committee and wishes he hadn't given up his field agent status. Stupidly agreeing to investigate a diplomatic incident between the Red Room and the Vampire Nation, he ends up getting himself in the crosshairs of forces which want a war between the two powers. Oh and Dracula, himself, has decided to become involved.


As for upcoming projects? I have plans on continuing the SUPERVILLAINY SAGA with not only Kingdom but an upcoming crossover book called WORLDS OF SUPERVILLAINY which will visit the universe of LUCIFER'S STAR and CTHULHU ARMAGEDDON. I also intend to continue both the LUCIFER'S STAR universe as a series while the majority of the others listed here will be capped off as trilogies. CTHULHU ARMAGEDDON is a special case as it was meant to be a stand-alone but I'm working on a third book and may have more as ideas come to me.

I'm also sketching out a collaboration with DAWN CHAPMAN for a Lit-RPG science fiction novel.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The (Sort of) Dark Mage by

    THE (SORT OF) DARK MAGE is a fantasy parody about an evil wizard (not really) who is the last remaining member of the Corpselover lineage. Basically like the Malfoys back in a time when magic meant something more than going to a posh school, all the elder siblings to Walder Corpselover have gotten themselves killed trying to prove themselves worthy. Waldo is more Neville Longbottom than Draco, though, and is thoroughly unqualified for the position as heir to the most prestigious of all evil wizarding families. Sensing this, his mother Lilith has become even more overprotective so her rivals demand he be sent on a suicidal quest to prove himself.

    Waldo must tame three Great Monsters, steal a dragon age, and kill a knight when even one of these tasks would get him killed. Thankfully, Waldo's gentle nature (as much as he denies it) is it's own kind of defense and he ends up getting his first Great Monster, a chaste succubus named Alice, by accidentally marrying her in the first town he visits.

    It's all downhill from there.

    I absolutely love this book and give it extremely high marks. This is pretty much the same feeling people have described reading my Supervillainy Saga or how I felt with the Hard Luck Hank series. Its basically a nonstop series of laughs stemming from Waldo's failed attempts at being a bad person and Alice's equally unsuccessful attempts to make Waldo a good person. It's a joke which sometimes wears a bit thin but, mostly, holds up throughout the book.

    If I were to make a comparison, it's pretty much the Addam's Family or Munsters with the fact Waldo is a liberal Goth kid who is mostly harmless despite being arrogant and snooty. Mind you, all the other Dark Wizards in the world really are evil but he's just a liberal open-minded oddball who happens to live in a world which consists of either Mordor or oppressive theocratic religious states. It's a bit of a cheat that the White Mages are all racist bigots but "killing all monsters for God" is hardly a new idea in a Dungeons and Dragons-themed world. It is D&D themed too since the magic functions on Vancian principles of memorization, cast, forget.

    That's not a bad thing.

    My favorite character of the book happens to be Lilith, Waldo's mother. Maybe I'm a sucker for beautiful dark-haired older women necromancers but I had an image in my head of her as Monica Belluci and that was a very nice image. I love how she's perfectly suited to be the kind of evil wizardess villain in another fantasy setting but works here as Waldo's dotting mother. Other supporting characters work well like Elsa and the Archlich but a lot of Waldo's quest remains unfinished at the end of the book. This is clearly a story which will take at least a trilogy to complete.

    Are there flaws? A few. The book doesn't indent its paragraphs and basically reads more like a blog than a more traditional novel. This kind of thing doesn't bother me as independent publication comes with these sorts of things and Lord knows I've made a few errors in my time. Likewise, the joke of "Waldo says something horrible about his homeland like it's perfectly normal and Alice is appalled" wears a bit thin at times. Finally, the book ends in what feels like the middle of the book rather than a proper climax.

    Still, I found The (Sort-Of) Dark Mage to be incredibly fun book and I immediately bought the second one. I debated between giving this book four stars or five but decided to ere on the side of how much entertainment I got out of this book, which was considerable.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Is Starcraft grimdark?: Darker than expected RTS storytelling

This essay will contain spoilers for Starcraft, Brood War, and Starcraft II.

    Already, I can hear some of you sniggering in the background. Starcraft? Grimdark? We're talking about Blizzard's other successful real-time strategy series, right? The one with the little cartoon space marines, aliens, and space elves, right? The one that isn't Warhammer 40K but is similar enough that at least one of the designers played it before the franchise moved in a different direction. Why yes, yes I am. I actually think Starcraft is a grimdark series even if it isn't as grim or as dark as the aforementioned series set in the 40th millennium.

    Why do I think that? Well, that's a complicated question but it boils down to the fact if you scrape away the fact it's a bright colorful world of cartoon aliens then you'll find it's a monstrously corrupt and horrifying universe. Aside from Jim Raynor, a drunken washed-out criminal turned revolutionary, there's no real heroes in the universe and it's a place where the savior of the galaxy is someone entirely capable of murdering whole planets of innocents in order to get revenge on one man. Good and evil are subjective in the Starcraft universe and antiheroes are the franchise's lead characters.

Yes, I can feel the grimdark!
    I first started realizing Starcraft was something different from regular science fiction when I played the original game in 1998 when I was eighteen. I was already familiar with the Aliens franchise and mostly assumed this game would be about heroic power-armored marines vs. xenomorphs stand-ins called Zerg.

    I also heard there would be a resistance against an evil empire so I assumed it would be Aliens meets Star Wars--a cool combination but nothing to get excited over. No one was expecting all that much from the campaign so, like Warcraft III turned out to be, the in-depth writing surprised people who payed attention during the game's three single-player campaigns.

Such a trustworthy guy.
    The Terran campaign turned to be about you joining a revolutionary group called the Sons of Korhal to fight an oppressive Deep South-themed government appropriately named the Confederacy. The Confederacy had made your character an outlaw for destroying Zerg-infested buildings they were implied to be studying. Your boss, Arcturus Mengsk, was an idealistic rebel who said the Confederacy had created the Zerg as a weapon to solidify their control over humanity's colonies. This would turn out to be a lie but the player had no reason to doubt the revolutionary leader at this time.

     I should mention in 1998, player characters were a lot more inclined to view heroic resistance groups favorably. In Final Fantasy 7, you could blow up a power plant and no one would call your group "terrorists" because such conflicts were still largely across the world. Indeed, Major Kira Nerys on Deep Space Nine was a self-admitted terrorist as if it was a neutral word.  Thus, no player expected the Sons of Korhal to be anything more than the good guys you were joining versus a faction with its own moral ambiguities and sordid history. This, despite the fact the game says Mengsk was someone the Confederacy said had committed atrocities in the past. Why not believe Mengsk when he says the Confederacy is lying? I mean, they've certainly given you no reason to trust them.

     As your new boss, Mengsk justified increasingly extreme methods against the Confederacy until he ordered you, Jim Raynor (A Malcolm Reynolds-esque sheriff before Malcolm existed), and psychic Special Forces agent Sarah Kerrigan to lure the Zerg to the Confederacy's capital. This abominable war crime is something you assist on until Mengsk abandons Sarah Kerrigan to her death (and possibly you) so he can save his own skin. Mengsk proceeds to use the crisis to propel himself into power, showing his revolution was nothing like the Rebel Alliance but more like the countless ones across history where the new boss is as bad as the old boss.

Kerrigan's loss wasn't quite Aerith's death was but it was close.
    The game then shifted over to the Zerg and you got the chance to play as the surprisingly-intelligent but still-malevolent abominations you'd been fighting up to this point. The Zerg, it turned out, were a race which simply wished to advance itself biologically as well as technologically.

    They were a hive-race with no free will despite distinct personalities and the Overmind had a love for his species even though he was willing to sacrifice millions in the name of perfection. They were hostile but not necessarily evil as they bore the races they conquered no malice and only wished to bring themselves closer to (their version of) perfection.

    I always liked the Zerg because they were monsters who managed to avoid "villain decay" by virtue of being one of the protagonists. Under you, the Zerg destroy whole worlds and laid waste to countless armies as well as fleets. This nicely avoids the typical scenario where aggressive alien invaders come in all threatening but get stomped on by the heroes. Even when the heroes "win" against the Zerg, they usually suffered some sort of catastrophic loss in the process and that helped keep them threatening.

A face only a hive mind could love.
    Sadly, the Protoss campaign undermined my point as it was built around the renegade Tassadar trying to save his home world from a hostile Zerg invasion. There's not much more ambiguity in this section and the closest thing to moral ambiguity is the fact the Protoss council opposes you at every turn (which just means they're idiots). Tassadar ends up sacrificing himself to kill the Zerg Overmind and save his race even if his home world of Aiur is ruined beyond repair.

    Even so, the series took a turn back to grimdark with the Brood War expansion. Taking service under the Queen of Blades (the Zerg-transformed Sarah Kerrigan), the fascist Admiral DuGaulle, and the sinister Dark Templars--you got to fight a much more ambiguous conflict. In the end, the Queen of Blades annihilated all of her equally-vile rivals and established herself as "The Queen Bitch of the Universe." It was an unambiguous victory for the villain but was she the villain? Her opponents included individuals who wanted to exterminate the Protoss and the self-styled Emperor Mengsk who was enjoying the fruits of your labors.

Earth's forces, here to enslave and destroy!
    Part of what made Brood War so effective was they subverted many of the traditional tropes you'd expect from a game like this. The Queen of Blades was a popular character both before as well as after her transformation.

    When her character claims she's reformed and is now a "good" Zerg again, you're inclined to believe her. After all, Darth Vader was redeemed and many other villainous characters in space opera. She was also brainwashed into her evil so the player is even more inclined to cut her slack. So when she turns out to have been evil all along, you the player are shocked and even more so when she wins the game and becomes the most powerful person in the galaxy despite being a genocidal swarm queen. Best of all, she did it with your help.

Is it better to be a heroine or a tyrant? You decide.
    The Starcraft Expanded Universe illustrated just how dark the setting could get. The novel, Nova, for example had the story of psychics regularly kidnapped from their parents before being brainwashed into the common Ghosts units which our protagonists use. Other stories, like manga tale "Why We Fight", showed the soldiers of the setting aren't much better as they're often brainwashed prisoners put into metal armor to serve as suicide squads. Almost no one's hands are clean in the setting and every leader has to do something terrible in order to win over their enemies.

    The three campaigns of Starcraft II were an interesting mix of moral ambiguity and more heroic stories. However, the second campaign, Heart of the Swarm, was all about just how far a person was willing to go for revenge. In the case of Kerrigan, she was willing to go pretty damn far even when supposedly cured of her evil impulses. Ultimately, the story ended on a too-bright note of evil defeated and good redeemed. Still, it was a trio of campaigns with some interesting notes and refreshingly three-dimensional characters. For a game about war, it was full of betrayals, casualties, atrocities, and loss.

Sacrifice millions, murder your friend, and betray everyone.
    So, is Starcraft grimdark? Not...really. There's a lot darker and more three-dimensional writing than might readily be apparent but the sequel chooses to go with a somewhat more traditional good vs. evil story. Even so, I have to say I like the setting a lot more than I thought I would and think grimdark fans should give it a try if they're fond of real-time strategy games.

    There's also a few genuinely dark and interesting stories in the spin-off stories. Not even diamonds in the rough. More like diamonds among quartz and the occasional ruby. That's more than I can say for a lot of video game franchises where the game bends over backward to make the players feel like heroes. In Starcraft, at the very least, the hero was simply whoever you were commanding at the time--even when she's destroying worlds.