Life isn’t always black & white, and neither is fantasy. These are the best fantasy books with morally grey characters!
Characters in fantasy books tend to run the gambit when it comes to personality traits. Sometimes we get the good and pure hero or heroine. Other times we get the completely evil mustache-twirling villain. I tend to find these archetypes a little on the boring side though.
Characters that are all good or all bad, just don’t make sense to me. When I read something, I want complex characters. Morally grey characters in fantasy, to me, are the epitome of complexity. There is a balance between light and darkness within them. They can be villains, heroes, or anti-heroes. Some of my favorite books are filled with grey morality, and I am going to talk about some of those books today.
So if you are interested in morally grey fantasy characters, add these books to your TBR today!
Morally Grey Fantasy Characters
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Morally grey characters can be the hero or villain. Either hero with a dark side or a villain where you can see their reasoning. This list today leans more towards the morally grey hero. Don’t worry though, we will cover morally grey villains at a later date, I promise!
City of Brass
City of Brass is one of my favorite female-authored adult fantasy books. It is a story about an Egyptian orphan named Nari who is conning her way through life on the streets of Cairo.
One day during a con she accidentally calls a djinn named Dara which changes her life forever. She is swept away to the magical city of Devabad. There she learns about her past, and what will become of her future.
Nahri is mostly good but has her morally grey moments for sure, but she isn’t really who I am talking about here. The best depiction of grey morality in this whole series is Dara, the djinn with a violent past but a well-meaning heart. There were times I loved him and times I hated him. He is both a hero and a villain, sometimes simultaneously.
It is difficult to love him but hard to hate him. Making Dara a fantastic example of a morally grey fantasy character.
The Fifth Season
When you are looking for a book where pretty much everyone is morally grey, pick up The Fifth Season by NJ Jemisin. This book is dark but beautiful.
We are following a few female characters of different ages. One is a mother who has just discovered the murder of her son. The other is a twenty-something-year-old girl who is on a quest with her mentor. And the final is a very young girl who has just been taken from her family to live and train in a government facility. The only thing they have in common? They are orogenes. People with the power to control the earth, such as making earthquakes or quelling them.
The world of this book has what they call fifth seasons. These seasons are basically apocalyptic events, and this book takes place during one.
Every member of this cast of characters can be described as morally grey. They are neither good nor bad, but a mix of the two. This makes everyone feel very real and relatable while really pulling at your emotions.
She Who Became the Sun
While this wasn’t one of my personal favorite books, it does fulfill the morally grey aspect well. She Who Became the Sun by Shelly Parker Chan is a historical fantasy. Though it is light on the fantasy and more heavy on the historical fiction.
The book is set in a “fantasy” version of ancient China. Though fantasy is very loose and this is basically Chinese historical fiction.
All of the main characters are morally grey, leaning more towards the darker side of the spectrum. Zhu is a girl who takes on her dead brother’s name and destiny and she will do anything to achieve this destiny. We also follow a eunuch general who is both cruel and sympathetic at the same time.
This is a good book, especially if you enjoy historical fiction with unlikeable characters. As I said, this isn’t a favorite of mine but there were still a lot of things I did enjoy. You can check out my spoiler-free She Who Became the Sun review here if you want more information on it.
The Poppy War
So if you like the sound of She Who Became Sun but want more magic and fantastical elements, The Poppy War is my recommendation. The Poppy War is another Chinese-inspired historical fantasy, but this one is much more fantasy with just a little history. And of course, all of our characters are morally grey!
We mainly follow Rin, a war orphan who is determined to go to the top-tier military school in order to avoid an arranged marriage to a much older man. She gets in, but war is coming.
This book is brutal! We really see the atrocities of war and the lengths people will go to. There is also a magic system involving gods pretty much possessing the minds of humans. While they have great power, they also have a tendency to go mad.
Rin has to make some tough choices and do some pretty terrible things in order to do what she believes is best for her country and people. If you want to learn more, you can check out my spoiler-free Poppy War review video.
Winds of Strife
So this one is the only self-published fantasy book on this list. Winds of Strife by UG Gutman is a super dark adult fantasy book. Pretty much none of the characters are likable, and all of them are morally grey.
We follow a few different perspectives, but the main one we will discuss here is Nye. Nye is a pretty terrible human but has good motivations. He is a witch hunter, but when he was a child his family was murdered by witch hunters! So he has decided to join their ranks in order to take them down from the inside!
Our main character is violent, hears voices, is abusive, and all-around just isn’t a good person, but for some reason as a reader, we root for him because he wants to take down the slightly more evil King.
The Mistborn Series
I won’t talk about this one too long because I could go on and on about how much I love the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. Really, I love the entire cosmere and there are so many morally grey characters in the cosmere that I could have made this whole list with just books in this world.
I decided just to talk about Mistborn era 1 though, book one being the Final Empire. In this series, we are following a rag-tag group of the underclass with forbidden magic trying to take down the evil Lord Ruler.
Two of our main characters, Kelsier and Vin, can be seen as morally grey fantasy characters. They will do whatever it takes, and that doesn’t always correlate to what is right. As the series goes on, we see the repercussions of certain decisions and it really is such a fantastic series with complex characters.
I wouldn’t say that any of the characters are unlikeable like some of the other books on this list, but they definitely make some questionably dark decisions.
The final book on this list is one that probably won’t be a surprise to anyone. Vicious by VE Schwab is the epitome of morally grey characterization. This isn’t technically a fantasy book. It is more sci-fi “superhero” in style.
We follow two friends, Victor and Eli, through college where they are researching EOs (extraordinaries), people who have powers. They find out that in order to become an EO, you need to have a near-death experience. So they decide to do what they have to in order to get some power.
This book jumps timelines a lot. We will be in their college friend days in one chapter, then the next is 10 years later and they are mortal enemies. The way this is written will really keep you on your toes. The story slowly unravels and it is so entertaining.
No one is the hero though. Victor may be our main character, but he is no hero. And Eli may think he is a hero in his own mind, but he is far from it in reality.
This is one of my favorite books, and I think VE Schwab’s best work. Go check this one out if you want to just be immersed in a really engaging and fast-paced story.
There you have it! The best books with morally grey fantasy characters! I could probably go on and on about morally grey characters, but I will leave that for another time.
Let me know what your favorites are in the comments down below!