Grimdark fantasy books aren’t for the faint of heart. They’re gritty. They’re raw. And they’re incredibly compelling. If you love your fantasy with a side of moral ambiguity, complex characters, and worlds that aren’t afraid to show their dark sides, then this is a genre you need to explore.
What is Grimdark Fantasy?
Grimdark fantasy is a wild ride. It’s a subgenre of fantasy that takes you into the darkest corners of the human experience. Think morally grey characters, complex and twisted plots, and worlds where hope is often rare. Unlike your typical heroic tales, grimdark delves into the shadowy areas where right and wrong aren’t always clear.
In grimdark fantasy books, expect to find antiheroes rather than shining knights. Themes like war, political intrigue, and personal struggle are often at the core. It’s not about sugar-coating reality; it’s about embracing the chaos, the brutal, and the real.
If you’re tired of the same old good vs. evil battles and want to explore stories that challenge, provoke, and sometimes even disturb, grimdark is where it’s at. It’s the raw, unfiltered side of fantasy waiting for you to take the plunge.
16 Best Grimdark Fantasy Books
Ready to embrace the darkness? Buckle up. Here’s a list of the best grimdark fantasy books you can’t afford to miss. Whether you’re new to the genre or a seasoned veteran, there’s something here to thrill, chill, and captivate your imagination.
The Malevolent Seven by Sebastian De Castell
In “The Malevolent Seven,” grimdark meets dark humor in a wickedly inventive 2023 new fantasy release that’s bound to captivate fans of edge and wit. Think “Terry Pratchett meets Deadpool,” and you’re on the right track.
Cade Ombra, a mercenary wonderist and our guide into this darkly twisted world was once part of something he believed to be noble. But no more. Now, with a homicidal thunder mage as his ally, he’s up against the seven deadliest mages on the continent.
But here’s the kicker: these powerful mages want to make the world better, and Cade’s mission is to kill them first.
The journey unfolding with violence, anger, and a delightful layer of dark humor, makes this more than just another fantasy tale. It’s a world where conventional wizarding tropes are turned on their heads, and moral ambiguities are part of the game.
“The Malevolent Seven” is not just a book; it’s an experience that challenges conventional fantasy norms. It’s about unexpected friendships, confronting ethics, and a wild ride with some very bad people who might end up doing something good.
Seeds of War by João F. Silva
Dive into the grim world of “Seeds of War,” a self-published fantasy that stands out. This first entry in The Smokesmiths series is a gritty epic fantasy, but don’t let that fool you – while the world is harsh and filled with dangerous monsters and devastating smoke magic, this isn’t a tale soaked in violence like some of the other books on this list.
In a world teetering on the brink of war, alliances are precious, and enemies must be defeated. The seeds of conflict are sown, and the characters are caught in a web of smoke magic, alien creatures, and ancient secrets.
I’ve delved deep into this world with a full “Seeds of War” review, exploring its nuanced approach to a grim setting. What sets this novel apart is its emphasis on character-driven storytelling, where the stakes are personal, and peace is a fleeting luxury.
João F. Silva has crafted a self-published gem that offers a different flavor of grimness.”Seeds of War” promises a thrilling journey, rich in imagination, that challenges the traditional boundaries of fantasy.
Winds of Strife by U.G. Gutman
In “Winds of Strife,” a self-published grimdark fantasy, no character is without sin, and no deed is without consequence. Welcome to the kingdom of Olyanath, where witch-hunts and brutality reign supreme. And women who practice Senspiritic magic live in perpetual fear.
The story follows Nye, a witch-hunter driven by vengeance. Fifteen years of deception and bloodshed have molded him into a man whose hands are stained and whose heart is scorched by grief.
However, nothing is simple. The path to vengeance is littered with violence and villainy. Nye’s sanity dangles by a fragile thread. As he struggles to see his revolution through, the voices in his head remind him that victory may never silence his torment.
U. G. Gutman masterfully crafts a tale where morality is shifting sand and the line between hero and villain blurs.
The Poppy War by RF Kuang
“The Poppy War” by RF Kuang is one of my favorite completed fantasy series, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Inspired by China’s brutal history, this story is dark, very dark.
Rin, a war orphan, shocks everyone by acing an Empire-wide test. It leads her to Sinegard, an elite military school, where she discovers a lethal power within her. But her challenges at school are just the beginning.
The Nikara Empire may be at peace, but the Federation of Mugen still threatens. A Third Poppy War looms, and Rin’s newfound abilities may be the only hope. The cost, however, might be her humanity.
Engaging and terrifying, this series isn’t gentle. It’s a must-read, reflecting real-world horrors and lessons we must all heed.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is a game-changer in the fantasy genre. One of my favorite completed series, and it features one of my most adored depictions of a mom in fantasy.
In a single, terrifying day, three catastrophes strike. Essun’s life shatters when she finds her son murdered by her husband, who’s also kidnapped their daughter. Concurrently, the mighty empire of Sanze collapses, and a great red rift tears the earth’s heart. The sky darkens, and the world as we know it threatens to end. Again.
Essun’s journey is heart-wrenching. She pursues her family through a dying land, where war rages over the basic necessities. She’s unapologetically fierce, a mother who would break the world to save her daughter.
Grim, thrilling, and unforgettable, this book is a must-read. Its poignant storytelling and deep emotional resonance will stay with you long after the last page. If you’re looking for a unique fantasy that doesn’t shy away from hard truths, The Fifth Season is your next read.
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie is one wild ride, and here’s why:
Meet Logen Ninefingers, an infamous barbarian running out of luck and fast. He’s got enemies aplenty, and his survival is a toss-up. Then there’s Jezal, a nobleman with dreams of glory but a penchant for cards and selfishness. And don’t forget Inquisitor Glokta, a cripple-turned-torturer whose loathing knows no bounds. Oh, and the wizard Bayaz? You’ll have to meet him yourself.
These diverse characters find themselves in a world on the brink of war. The frozen North harbors battles with bloodier rules, while at home, treacherous conspiracies brew. The line between heroes and villains? Razor-thin and ready to slice.
Abercrombie delivers a punch with this book. The characters are flawed, the plot twists are killer, and the action never stops. If you’re looking for a gritty fantasy that will keep you guessing, give this one a go. But be warned, once you dive into the world of The First Law, there’s no turning back!
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
You can’t talk about grimdark fantasy without mentioning “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin. This book kicked off the monumental series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and let me tell you; it’s a game-changer.
The story is vast, weaving the fate of several families vying for the Iron Throne. There’s treachery, power plays, and, let’s not forget, dragons! From the honorable Starks to the cunning Lannisters, each character is richly drawn and morally complex. You’ll find yourself rooting for them one moment and cursing them the next.
Now, here’s the thing: while the series may never actually be complete (I know, right?), it’s still a worthy read. The depth of the world-building, the twists in the plot, and the sheer unpredictability of it all make it unputdownable.
So, grab this book if you’re up for a rollercoaster of emotions, battles, politics, and some good old-fashioned fantasy intrigue. Don’t get too attached to anyone – in the game of thrones, you win or die.
Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Oh boy, “Prince of Thorns” from the Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence – now, this tale is not for the faint of heart! If Grimdark fantasy is your jam, buckle up for a ride as twisted as they come.
Meet Jorg Ancrath, once a royal child, now the Prince of Thorns. He’s charismatic, utterly immoral, and leads a band of outlaws in committing some pretty dark deeds. You’d think he’d seen it all, but something out there still chills him to the bone.
The world’s in chaos, and let’s say it’s not a happy place. Violence, nightmares, monsters – it’s all there. But Jorg’s got a way of mastering both the living and the dead. He’s on a brutal journey toward manhood, the throne, and goodness, the things he must confront!
I love how this book doesn’t pull any punches. It’s raw, visceral, and paints a picture that’s horrifying and strangely beautiful. While not for everyone, if you’re up for a fantasy that’s as sharp as a thorn, give this one a read. Just be ready for some sleepless nights – this one sticks with you!
The Black Company by Glen Cook
When you’re talking about the core of grimdark fantasy, Glen Cook’s “The Black Company” is a must-mention. It’s dark, it’s gritty, and it’s packed with moral ambiguity. Just the way I like my fantasy!
Meet the Black Company, a band of hard-bitten mercenaries who do what they must. Some think the Lady they serve is a barrier against evil. Others think she’s evil incarnate. You know it’s serious when even the most seasoned warriors start burying their doubts with their dead.
But then comes the prophecy: The White Rose, the embodiment of good, has been reborn. Suddenly, the Black Company’s mission isn’t so clear-cut. How do you find a symbol of hope in a world steeped in shadow?
I’ve got to tell you; this book is a journey. It’s not always easy to navigate, but it’s worth the trek. The characters are complex, the plot’s as thick as a battlefield’s mud, and the themes? They’ll make you think long after you turn the last page.
In Grimdark fantasy, “The Black Company” is a heavy hitter. If you’re in the mood for a challenging read that doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of humanity, this one’s for you. And trust me, once you dive into the Chronicles of the Black Company, you’ll find it hard to surface again. It’s that gripping!
The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
The grimdark genre wouldn’t be complete without mentioning R. Scott Bakker’s “The Darkness That Comes Before.” This is a tale where nothing is simple, and the darkness isn’t just in the title – it’s in every line, every character, every twist of the plot.
In a world scarred by the apocalypse, thousands gather for a crusade. A world so richly crafted feels like a blend of the ancient past and distant future. Enter Anasûrimbor Kellhus, a figure part warrior, philosopher, and sorcerer. Mysterious and charismatic, he ensnares two men and two women, and the story takes off from there.
What’s most striking here? The depth. The complexity. The relentless questioning of what’s right, what’s real, and what’s human.
While this isn’t a light read by any means, it’s rewarding for those who love their fantasy dark and dense. It’s a book that haunts you, makes you ponder, pulls you into its shadow, and doesn’t let go. If you’re up for the challenge, dive into “The Darkness That Comes Before.” It’s a journey you won’t forget.
Blood Scion by Deborah Falaye
When exploring the realm of grimdark fantasy books, “Blood Scion” by Deborah Falaye deserves a spot on the list. Though labeled as YA, this book doesn’t shy away from adult themes; the violence, the war, and the intense focus on child soldiers push it to the borders of adult fantasy.
Fifteen-year-old Sloane is a Scion, able to incinerate enemies with her innate powers, a legacy from ancient gods. Under the oppressive rule of the Lucis, she must hide her abilities or face certain death. But her conscription into the Lucis army offers a new path: a chance to become the monster they feared and destroy them from within.
With heart-pounding action and a story soaked in vengeance and power, “Blood Scion” is a triumph in dark storytelling. It’s a tale that speaks to injustice and the strength to rise against it, capturing the brutal reality of war and the determination of a young girl. It’s a gripping addition to the list of must-read grimdark fantasy books, especially if you’re in the mood for something that challenges the lines between YA and adult fiction.
The Maleficent Seven by Cameron Johnston
In the world of grimdark fantasy books, “The Maleficent Seven” by Cameron Johnston offers a fresh perspective by following the villains instead of the heroes. Who do you turn to when you’re all out of heroes? The answer is as intriguing as it is unsettling.
Black Herran was once Essoran’s most ruthless general and dread demonologist. At her command, a fearsome team: a necromancer, a vampire lord, a demigod, an orcish war leader, a pirate queen, and a twisted alchemist. Together, they nearly conquered the entire continent. But then, on the brink of triumph, Black Herran abandoned her army.
This isn’t your typical tale of heroism and courage; it’s a dark and twisted ride through a world where evil takes center stage. “The Maleficent Seven” flips the script, focusing on the strength and ambition of the villains, their complex relationships, and the mystery of why Black Herran would walk away from victory.
It’s a novel that invites readers to embrace the darkness and find fascination in the very characters we’re often taught to despise. It’s a rich addition to the grimdark genre and a must-read for those who dare to see the story from the other side.
Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
In “Promise of Blood,” the first book of the Powder Mage series by Brian McClellan, the citizens of Adro are grappling with the aftermath of a revolution led by Field Marshal Tamas. The bloody coup ousted the corrupt monarchy, but the cost of freedom is high, with war, internal strife, and power struggles threatening the fragile new order.
Tamas relies on his remaining powder mages, including his estranged son Taniel, a skilled marksman, and Adamat, a loyal but blackmailed retired police inspector. As the unrest grows, whispers of ancient legends and awakened gods add a mystical layer to the chaos.
“Just plain awesome,” says Brandon Sanderson, and it’s easy to see why. This book blends political intrigue, magic, and mythology into a gripping tale of revolution and its complex consequences. If you enjoy a gritty, action-packed story that pushes the boundaries of traditional fantasy, “Promise of Blood” should not be missed.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker Chan
“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan is a tale of identity, ambition, and destiny set in 1345, under Mongol-ruled China. In a starving village, a girl is fated for nothingness, while her brother is destined for greatness. But when bandits leave them orphaned, she seizes her brother’s identity, entering a monastery disguised as a male novice.
Driven by an intense refusal to be nothing, Zhu is steadfast in her pursuit of survival. Her cleverness and determination lead her to embrace her brother’s forsaken destiny of greatness after the monastery that provided her refuge supports a rebellion and is subsequently destroyed.
Parker-Chan’s novel is a remarkable exploration of gender, power, and the lengths one will go to escape a preordained fate. With its rich historical setting and complex characters, “She Who Became the Sun” is a compelling read that offers a fresh perspective on heroism and identity in a harsh and unforgiving world.
The Forgetting Moon by Brian Lee Durfee
Welcome to the complex and entrancing world of the Five Isles in “The Forgetting Moon” by Brian Lee Durfee. War is raging, driven by the Angel Prince, Aeros, and his merciless army, Sør Sevier. At the forefront of this crusade is Gault, an elite Knight Archaic, whose growing disillusionment with the conquest contrasts sharply with his lord’s relentless ambition.
In the kingdom of Gul Kana, a fallen king’s children take different paths. Jondralyn, renowned for beauty, seeks to prove her mettle as a warrior. Tala, her younger sister, unravels a secret with the potential to shatter the kingdom. As for Hawkwood, the assassin turned lover and trainer, his relationship with Jondralyn takes the plot in unexpected directions.
And then there’s Nail, an orphan who may hold the key to salvation, hidden in the remote village of Gallows Haven.
Durfee’s masterfully crafted epic is full of surprises and intricate characters, none of whom fit traditional roles. With a tantalizing blend of political intrigue, romance, and betrayal, “The Forgetting Moon” offers a fresh and gripping addition to the world of fantasy. It’s a tale that keeps you guessing, with twists that turn expected narratives on their heads, revealing a world based on deception but teeming with hope.
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
You can’t explore the realm of grimdark fantasy books without stumbling upon “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch. In the dangerous and vibrant city of Camorr, resembling Venice with its intricate canals and treacherous politics resides the enigmatic and daring thief Locke Lamora.
Locke is the leader of the Gentlemen Bastards, a group of con artists who pull off elaborate heists against the corrupt nobility. Trained from a young age in the arts of deception, Locke’s life is one of carefully woven lies and audacious schemes. But when a shadowy figure known only as the Grey King enters the picture, Locke’s carefully constructed life begins to unravel.
Suddenly, Locke finds himself caught in a deadly game, far more dangerous than any heist. The stakes are higher, the enemies more formidable, and for the first time, he’s not in control of the game. As secrets emerge and betrayals unfold, the line between friend and foe blurs.
Scott Lynch crafts a tale filled with humor, wit, and dark intrigue. It’s a rollercoaster of unexpected twists and thrilling escapades, where friendships are tested, and survival is never guaranteed. Engaging, brutal, and relentlessly entertaining, “The Lies of Locke Lamora” takes you on a wild ride through a world of deception, loyalty, and the gray areas between right and wrong. It’s a must-read for fans of grimdark fantasy, and once you dive in, you’ll be hooked!
The Grim Triumph of Grimdark Fantasy
Grimdark fantasy books have carved an indelible mark in the landscape of modern literature. From the morally complex world of “The Lies of Locke Lamora” to the devastating journeys in “Blood Scion,” these novels immerse readers in worlds filled with intrigue, betrayal, and ruthless ambition. They dare to explore the darker aspects of human nature, offering both catharsis and reflection.
While grimdark fantasy might be known for its unflinching violence and thematic heaviness, it’s this very raw and unfiltered portrayal of life that makes it resonate with readers. Whether you’re new to the genre or a seasoned veteran, these grimdark novels are more than mere escapism; they challenge, provoke, and inspire.
For those seeking tales that stray from the conventional paths of heroes and happily-ever-afters, this list of grimdark fantasy books is your guide to the shadows. These stories illuminate the blurred lines between good and evil, showing that even in the darkest of times, there’s complexity and beauty to be found.
Remember, while some series like “A Game of Thrones” may never actually be complete, they are still worthy reads. Dive into these realms of darkness and discover why grimdark fantasy continues to captivate readers worldwide. Happy reading!