5 Grimdark Books that Won’t Suspend Your Idea of Truth, Reality, or Science

Last Updated on July 12, 2024

Scientists are human beings too, and like all humans we want to add narratives to our data and experiments. Despite the temptation to influence, such desires must be resisted. Even if the human condition pushes us to proselytize, good science cannot be simultaneously political. It is more natural to do these things than to stick to the bare, comfortless truth. No soundbite, story or narrative.

As a geophysicist, I eventually understood that scientific writing must not contain a narrative no matter how tempting it is to add one. For decades I denied myself the pleasure and manipulative power of telling a good story about the data I analyzed. Even as I worked as a scientist, I wanted to rebel and tell a story that was not fully constrained by the data alone. So once I retired, I became an author.

Being finally unleashed to make things up, I realized that I should not leave all my hard-earned scientific knowledge behind. While good science must avoid all narrative, good narrative must contain something true. Thematic truth is fundamental to any story, however, modern readers demand something more. Good fiction must feel real. The evolution of the fantasy genre is a good example of this.

Suspension of disbelief came easy in the early days when D&D playing readers were happy to finally have a few stories written for them. Wizards could just use “spells” and be called “mages” and that was enough. But readers are more sophisticated now. We live in grimmer, less naive times, and readers demand that their stories reflect it. Fantasy characters must show a grittier, truer, darker side of the human condition, and the magic system must feel real. The grimdark subgenre of fantasy epitomizes this evolution.

My favorite grimdark books have magic systems that tie into some other truth necessary to their stories. These magic systems are often subtle, devilishly original, minimalized, or so tied into the themes, character and conflict of the story that skeptical readers accept rather than reject them.

Here are My Top 5 Grimdark Books that Won’t Suspend Your Idea of Truth, Reality, or Science.

Magic, Science and Theme

Dynamicist, by Lee Hunt, is about a group of people who attend the New School, hoping to change the world. The magic system of Dynamicist is based on real-life signal and inverse theory. It is original, has tremendously fantastic elements and is also so self-consistent and grounded in science that readers won’t fight to suspend their disbelief. For those who struggled to believe that a twig and Latin could do much of anything, Dynamicist’s use of physics and mathematics will make a lot more sense. 

But even science has limitations. Dynamicist’s physical realism also contains a metaphor to the trilogy’s thematic issue, that change is difficult and unpredictable. We all want to change the world but what are the chances we won’t cock it up?

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Magic and Cosmologic Consistency

The Curse of Chalion (CoC), by Lois McMaster Bujold has probably never appeared in any other list of grimdark books. Ever. CoC is fantastically written and should not be missed by anyone who hates suspending their disbelief but loves a good story. The magic system in CoC at first appears non-existent, but as the story goes on the supernatural is revealed instead to be exceedingly subtle and entirely related to the cosmological system of Bujold’s world. No reader will question Bujold’s magic system, it is simply too natural to the ways in which her wonderful world works.

The plot involves politics, corruption and the forced marriage of a young princess to a manipulative and evil family. Bujold’s ending may be the best ending in all of fantasy, and it is entirely supported by her parsimonious magic system and the nature of her broken hero.

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Magic and Character

The First Law Trilogy, (FLT), by Joe Abercrombie set the standard for grimdark. His trilogy can boast of stunning violence, parsimonious magic and most of all, incredible characters. In Abercrombie’s FLT, the magic system conforms with the cynical characters who wield it. Abercrombie barely has to define a frightening magic system that is a product of bald political power and the sociopathic men who use it. The First of the Magi, Bayez, is a man of infinitesimal sympathies and limitless political cunning. FLT’s magic system is realistic not for what it is, but by how it is used and by the nature of its user.

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Magic and What Makes Us Human

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is about a little girl with magical claws who attends a convent and makes blood come out of people. Magic in Red Sister is primarily genetic, deriving from the differences in four different subspecies of the humans who landed on the cold, dying world of Abeth. Each of these tribes had a powerful genetic gift: speed, size, or two flavors of power derived from touching the underlying truth of the world. The last two talents are the most magical, but Lawrence weaves them seamlessly into his story, tieing them to his theme that despite the differences between his peoples, their connection to each other is the most important thing of all. The magic system at once highlights the genetic and religious differences in people and reinforces that they are all connected.

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Magic and Understanding

The Name of the Wind (NoW) by Patrick Rothfuss succeeds where many would have failed. NoW enjoys a pervasive use of magic, enough to threaten many modern readers’ suspension of disbelief, but Rothfuss avoids doing so. There is a grittiness to his telling of the story that helps, a sense that life in his world is anything but a fantasy. The most powerful magic in NoW has to do with knowing the “name” for a thing, which is another way of asserting a deep intuitive understanding for it. Rothfuss’s naming ties into an archetypical fantasy that we are actually capable of understanding a complex world and render it simple.

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