Grimdark is a fantasy subgenre that is particularly dystopian, amoral, or violent. Its protagonists tend toward the conflicted antihero, and its worlds are often brutal and nihilistic. The writing also tends to be much grittier and realistic. A whimsical quest to get the magic doohickey this is not.
The slightly overwrought term is inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.”
Field Marshal Tamas’s coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.
Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.
Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Are they just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth? No modern, educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…
“McClellan’s debut packs some serious heat…A thoroughly satisfying yarn that should keep readers waiting impatiently for further installments.”
―Kirkus (Starred Review)
Pyrre Lakatur is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer. After all, she is a priestess, or will be once she passes her final trial.
The problem isn’t the killing. The problem, rather, is love. To complete her trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the seven people enumerated in an ancient song, including “the one who made your mind and body sing with love/who will not come again.”
Pyrre isn’t sure she’s ever been in love. And if she fails to find someone who can draw such passion from her, or fails to kill that someone, her order will give her to their god, the God of Death. Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to fail, and so, as her trial is set to begin, she returns to the city of her birth in the hope of finding love, and ending it on the edge of her sword.
Skullsworn takes place in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne universe, following a priestess attempting to join the ranks of the God of Death.
“Pleasantly grim and emotionally complex.”
Welcome to the Five Isles, where war has come in the name of the invading army of Sør Sevier, a merciless host driven by the prophetic fervor of the Angel Prince, Aeros, toward the last unconquered kingdom of Gul Kana. Yet Gault, one of the elite Knights Archaic of Sør Sevier, is growing disillusioned by the crusade he is at the vanguard of just as it embarks on his Lord Aeros’s greatest triumph.
While the eldest son of the fallen king of Gul Kana now reigns in ever increasing paranoid isolationism, his two sisters seek their own paths. Jondralyn, the older sister, renowned for her beauty, only desires to prove her worth as a warrior, while Tala, the younger sister, has uncovered a secret that may not only destroy her family but the entire kingdom. Then there’s Hawkwood, the assassin sent to kill Jondralyn who has instead fallen in love with her and trains her in his deadly art. All are led further into dangerous conspiracies within the court.
And hidden at the edge of Gul Kana is Nail, the orphan taken by the enigmatic Shawcroft to the remote whaling village of Gallows Haven. A young man who may hold the link to the salvation of the entire Five Isles.
“Durfee’s artist’s eye and fertile imagination populate this complex tale.”
Born into generations of prosperity, the four royal children of the Akaran dynasty know little of the world outside their opulent island paradise. But when an assassin strikes at the heart of their power, their lives are changed forever.
Forced to flee to distant corners and separated against their will, the children must navigate a web of hidden allegiances, ancient magic, foreign invaders, and illicit trade that will challenge their very notions of who they are. As they come to understand their true purpose in life, the fate of the world lies in their hands.
“Something genuinely new… Strong echoes of Homer and Virgil, Tolkien, Norse mythology’s Twilight of the Gods and America’s compromised history as a republic built on slavery fuse into an enthralling, literate and increasingly suspenseful narrative.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Written by a two-time Hugo award winner.
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. At the heart of this war lie the pacifistic Dhai people, once enslaved by the Saiduan and now courted by their former masters to provide aid against the encroaching enemy.
As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war; a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family to save his skin; and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
“This is a hugely ambitious work, bloody and violent, with interestingly gender-flipped politics and a host of factions to keep straight, as points of view switch often.”
Darkness wars with darkness as the hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must. They bury their doubts with their dead.
Then comes the prophecy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more…
“With the Black Company series Glen Cook single-handedly changed the face of fantasy–something a lot of people didn’t notice and maybe still don’t. He brought the story down to a human level, dispensing with the cliché archetypes of princes, kings, and evil sorcerers. Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote.”
―Steven Erikson, author of Gardens of the Moon
To the Danes, he is skraelingr; to the English, he is orcnéas; to the Irish, he is fomoraig. He is Corpse-maker and Life-quencher, the Bringer of Night, the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. He is Grimnir, and he is the last of his kind—the last in a long line of monsters who have plagued humanity since the Elder Days.
Drawn from his lair by a thirst for vengeance against the Dane who slew his brother, Grimnir emerges into a world that’s changed. A new faith has arisen. The Old Ways are dying, and their followers retreating into the shadows; even still, Grimnir’s vengeance cannot be denied.
Taking a young Christian hostage to be his guide, Grimnir embarks on a journey that takes him from the hinterlands of Denmark, where the wisdom of the ancient dwarves has given way to madness, to the war-torn heart of southern England, where the spirits of the land make violence on one another. And thence to the green shores of Ireland and the Viking stronghold of Dubhlinn, where his enemy awaits.
But unless Grimnir can set aside his hatreds, his dream of retribution will come to nothing. For Dubhlinn is set to be the site of a reckoning—the Old Ways versus the New—and Grimnir, the last of his kind left to plague mankind, must choose: stand with the Christian King of Ireland and see his vengeance done or stand against him and see it slip away?
“This fast-paced thrill ride might have been bleak or unsettling, but it’s rendered so lovingly that it reveals new layers of familiar territory. The fresh viewpoint is steeped in an appreciation for the terrifying and powerful characters of high fantasy, and Oden does them justice.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Jackal and his fellow half-orcs patrol the barren wastes of the Lot Lands, spilling their own damned blood to keep civilized folk safe. A rabble of hard-talking, hog-riding, whore-mongering brawlers they may be, but the Grey Bastards are Jackal’s sworn brothers, fighting at his side in a land where there’s no room for softness.
And once Jackal’s in charge—as soon as he can unseat the Bastards’ tyrannical, seemingly unkillable founder—there’s a few things they’ll do different. Better.
Or at least, that’s the plan. Until the fallout from a deadly showdown makes Jackal start investigating the Lot Lands for himself. Soon, he’s wondering if his feelings have blinded him to ugly truths about this world, and the Bastards’ place in it.
In a quest for answers that takes him from decaying dungeons to the frontlines of an ancient feud, Jackal finds himself battling invading orcs, rampaging centaurs, and grubby human conspiracies alike—along with a host of dark magics so terrifying they’d give even the heartiest Bastard pause.
Finally, Jackal must ride to confront a threat that’s lain in wait for generations, even as he wonders whether the Bastards can—or should—survive.
“[A] fantasy masterwork… a dirty, blood-soaked gem of a novel [that reads] like Mad Max set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to study at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power: an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods, long thought dead, are very much alive—and that mastering control over her powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily-advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away…
“The best fantasy debut of 2018…This year’s Potter.”
It is the richest empire the world has ever known. But it is also doomed, and only one man can see it.
Haunted by prophetic dreams, Orhan has hired a company of soldiers to cross the desert to reach the capital city. Once they enter the palace, they have one mission: kill the emperor, then all those who remain. Only from the ashes can a new empire be built.
The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Though he is young, ambitious, and impossibly charming, something dark hides in Marith’s past—and in his blood.
“Should appeal to grim dark fans looking for the extreme edge.”
Conan the Cimmerian is better-known today as Conan the Barbarian.
In a meteoric career that spanned a mere twelve years before his tragic suicide, Robert E. Howard single-handedly invented the genre that came to be called “sword and sorcery.” Collected in this volume are Howard’s first thirteen Conan stories, appearing in their original versions and in the order Howard wrote them. Along with classics of dark fantasy like “The Tower of the Elephant” and swashbuckling adventure like “Queen of the Black Coast,” The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian contains a wealth of material never before published in the United States, including the first submitted draft of Conan’s debut, “Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard’s synopses for “The Scarlet Citadel” and “Black Colossus,” and a map of Conan’s world drawn by the author himself.
Here are tales featuring Conan the raw and dangerous youth, Conan the daring thief, Conan the swashbuckling pirate, and Conan the commander of armies.
“Howard’s writing seems so highly charged that it nearly gives off sparks.”
They are the “Others,” an ancient race of supernatural beings—magicians, shape-shifters, vampires, and healers—who live among us. Human born, they must choose a side to swear allegiance to—the Dark or the Light—when they come of age.
For a millennium, these opponents have coexisted in an uneasy peace, enforced by defenders like the Night Watch, forces of the Light who guard against the Dark. But prophecy decrees that one supreme “Other” will rise to spark a cataclysmic war.
Anton Gorodetsky, an untested mid-level Light magician with the Night Watch, discovers a cursed young woman—an Other of tremendous potential unallied with either side—who can shift the balance of power. With the battle lines drawn between Light and Dark, the magician must move carefully, for one wrong step could mean the beginning of annihilation.
Faith shapes the landscape, defines the laws of physics, and makes a mockery of truth. Common knowledge isn’t an axiom: it’s a force of nature. What the masses believe, is. But insanity is a weapon, conviction a shield. Delusions give birth to foul new gods.
Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geisteskranken—men and women whose delusions manifest, twisting reality. High Priest Konig seeks to create order from chaos. He defines the beliefs of his followers, leading their faith to one end: a young boy, Morgen, must Ascend to become a god. A god they can control.
But there are many who would see this would-be-god in their thrall, including the High Priest’s own Doppels, and a Slaver no one can resist. Three reprobates—The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and possibly the only sane man left—have their own nefarious plans for the young god.
As these forces converge on the boy, there’s one more obstacle: time is running out. When one’s delusions become more powerful, they become harder to control. The fate of the Geisteskranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath.
The question, then, is: Who will rule there?
“The journey is dark and emotionally taxing, but therearen’t many fantasy novels as smart, ambitious, and excellently written as this one.”
Over a millennium ago, Erna, a seismically active yet beautiful world was settled by colonists from far-distant Earth. But the seemingly habitable planet was fraught with perils no one could have foretold. The colonists found themselves caught in a desperate battle for survival against the fae, a terrifying natural force with the power to prey upon the human mind itself, drawing forth a person’s worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life.
Twelve centuries after fate first stranded the colonists on Erna, mankind has achieved an uneasy stalemate, and human sorcerers manipulate the fae for their own profit, little realizing that demonic forces, which feed upon such efforts, are rapidly gaining in strength.
Now, as the hordes of the dark fae multiply, four people—Priest, Adept, Apprentice, and Sorcerer—are about to be drawn inexorably together for a mission that will force them to confront an evil beyond their imagining, in a conflict which will put not only their own lives but the very fate of humankind in jeopardy.
“Stunning…. A feast for those who like their fantasies dark, and as emotionally heady as a rich, red wine.”
For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf.
Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as the Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world, for good, or for evil.
As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt’s responsibility to protect them all. And the Witcher never accepts defeat.
“Like a complicated magic spell, a Sapkowski novel is a hodgepodge of fantasy, intellectual discourse, and dry humor. Recommended.”
This book is third in a series, so if this description sounds interesting, you might want to start with the first book, When the Heavens Fall.
The Rubyholt Isles are a shattered nation of pirate-infested islands and treacherous waterways shielding the seaboards of Erin Elal and the Sabian League, a region even dragons fear to trespass.
The Augerans beseech the Warlord of the Isles, seeking passage for their invasion fleet through Rubyholt territory. But they are sailing into troubled waters. Their enemies have sent agents to sabotage the negotiations, and to destroy the Augeran fleet by any means necessary.
The emperor of Erin Elal seeks to forge an alliance with the Storm Lords, hoping to repulse the Augerans with a united front. But the battle lines for the struggle are not as clearly drawn as it first appears, for the Emira of the Storm Isles mistrusts the Erin Elalese as much as she does their common enemy. And the Augerans might just be planning a little sabotage of their own.
But nothing in the realm of mortals escapes the notice of their meddling gods; every step they take is shadowed, and every choice they make ensnared in a web so subtle and vast, its true shape may be fathomed only when it is far, far too late.
Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated as an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill—and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.
As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
“A gleaming debut in the crowded field of epic fantasies… a delightful take on the powers and politics behind the throne.”
In the forgotten back alleys and flophouses that lie in the shadows of Rigus, the finest city of the Thirteen Lands, you will find Low Town. It is an ugly place, and its champion is an ugly man. Disgraced intelligence agent, forgotten war hero, and independent drug dealer. After a fall from grace five years ago, a man known as the Warden leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs. Every day is a constant hustle to find new customers and protect his turf from low-life competition like Tancred the Harelip and Ling Chi, the enigmatic crime lord of the heathens.
The Warden’s life of drugged iniquity is shaken by his discovery of a murdered child down a dead-end street, setting him on a collision course with the life he left behind. As a former agent with Black House—the secret police—he knows better than anyone that murder in Low Town is an everyday thing, the kind of crime that doesn’t get investigated. To protect his home, he will take part in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psychotic head of Black House, but the truth is far darker than he imagines. In Low Town, no one can be trusted.
“[A]n assured, roaring, and rollicking hybrid, a cross-genre free-for-all that relishes its tropes while spitting out their bones… Much like its grim, perversely charismatic antihero, Low Town stakes a narrow turf—then completely owns every inch of it.”
—The A.V. Club (The Onion)
An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying.
“Remarkable… exports the suspense and wit of a cleverly constructed crime caper into an exotic realm of fantasy, and the result is engagingly entertaining.”
—The Times (London)
The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting, and bloody confrontations with the formidable Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii, ancient and implacable sorcerers. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen’s rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.
For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, the surviving mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze.
However, it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand…
“Erikson is an extraordinary writer.”
―Stephen R. Donaldson
He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in this strange alternate world on which he suddenly found himself.
Yet the Land tempted him. He had been sick; now he seemed better than ever before. Through no fault of his own, he had been outcast, unclean, a pariah. Now he was regarded as a reincarnation of the Land’s greatest hero—Berek Halfhand—armed with the mystic power of White Gold. That power alone could protect the Lords of the Land from the ancient evil of the Despiser, Lord Foul. Except that Covenant had no idea how to use that power…
A dark lord will rise. Such is the prophecy that dogs Ringil Eskiath—Gil, for short—a washed-up mercenary and onetime war hero whose cynicism is surpassed only by the speed of his sword. Gil is estranged from his aristocratic family, but when his mother enlists his help in freeing a cousin sold into slavery, Gil sets out to track her down. But it soon becomes apparent that more is at stake than the fate of one young woman. Grim sorceries are awakening in the land. Some speak in whispers of the return of the Aldrain, a race of widely feared, cruel yet beautiful demons. Now Gil and two old comrades are all that stand in the way of a prophecy whose fulfillment will drown an entire world in blood. But with heroes like these, the cure is likely to be worse than the disease.
“[T]he well-developed characters and realistic battle scenes ring true, as do some gruesomely explicit sex scenes. The intriguing conclusion to the dark, gritty tale will have readers hoping for a more plot-heavy and less visceral sequel.”
“It was all going so nicely, right up until the massacre.”
Twenty years ago, feared general Cobalt Zosia led her five villainous captains and mercenary army into battle, wrestling monsters and toppling an empire. When there were no more titles to win and no more worlds to conquer, she retired and gave up her legend to history.
Now the peace she carved for herself has been shattered by the unprovoked slaughter of her village. Seeking bloody vengeance, Zosia heads for battle once more, but to find justice she must confront grudge-bearing enemies, once-loyal allies, and an unknown army that marches under a familiar banner.
“This brawny revenge fantasy feels like a Tarantino movie: a hugely entertaining mix of adventure and comedy, punctuated by moments of darkness, with clever dialogue and explosive set-pieces… A pure joy to read.”
―Booklist (starred review)
Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught in one feud too many, he’s on the verge of becoming a dead barbarian—leaving nothing behind him but bad songs, dead friends, and a lot of happy enemies.
Nobleman, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, Captain Jezal dan Luthar has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules.
Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone: cutting treason out of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendship. His latest trail of corpses may lead him right to the rotten heart of government, if he can stay alive long enough to follow it.
Enter the wizard, Bayaz. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Logen, Jezal, and Glokta a whole lot more difficult.
“There is a gritty edge to his world and an awareness of the human cost of violence that is very contemporary.”
Winter is coming. Such is the stern motto of House Stark, the northernmost of the fiefdoms that owe allegiance to King Robert Baratheon in far-off King’s Landing. There, Eddard Stark of Winterfell rules in Robert’s name. There his family dwells in peace and comfort: his proud wife, Catelyn; his sons Robb, Brandon, and Rickon; his daughters Sansa and Arya; and his bastard son, Jon Snow. Far to the north, behind the towering Wall, lie savage Wildings and worse—unnatural things relegated to myth during the centuries-long summer, but proving all too real and all too deadly in the turning of the season.
Yet a more immediate threat lurks to the south, where Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, has died under mysterious circumstances. Now Robert is riding north to Winterfell, bringing his queen, the lovely but cold Cersei, his son, the cruel, vainglorious Prince Joffrey, and the queen’s brothers Jaime and Tyrion of the powerful and wealthy House Lannister—the first a swordsman without equal, the second a dwarf whose stunted stature belies a brilliant mind. All are heading for Winterfell and a fateful encounter that will change the course of kingdoms.
Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Prince Viserys, heir of the fallen House Targaryen, which once ruled all of Westeros, schemes to reclaim the throne with an army of barbarian Dothraki—whose loyalty he will purchase in the only coin left to him: his beautiful yet innocent sister, Daenerys.
“A Best Book of 1996: Martin makes a triumphant return to high fantasy… [with] superbly developed characters, accomplished prose, and sheer bloodymindedness.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. By the time he was thirteen, he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…
It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him—and he has nothing left to lose.
But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?
“[A] morbidly gripping, gritty fantasy tale.”
3 thoughts on “26 Best Grimdark Books”
Nice, broad list with some things it seems I need to read. But how can Elric of Melniboné be absent? Since Moorcock’s Elric tales started appearing in 1961, they sit at the root of modern dark fantasy. Is it personal taste, then?
I have only read “Lord Foul’s Bane” of the 26 books.
“Elric of Melniboné” does belong on this list.
and “Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunters International Book 1)”