Best dark SFF books of 2021

Well, 2021 was pretty much another bag of sweaty dicks of a year with lockdowns, deaths, separation, isolation, bloody zoom meetings, and dead arms. However, the publishing industry great and small, despite paper shortages, shipping madness, and an industry full of people trying to juggle home schooling and the mental pressure of delivering books despite *waves arms* everything have delivered some epic adventures.

The GdM reviewer team gives you our favourite books of 2021.

Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff

Picked by Fiona Denton

Empire of the Vampire starts with a simple premise, what happens when the sun stops shining? The world is plunged into near constant darkness, crops fail, and creatures of myth turn out to be real and no longer have the constraints of daylight to hold them back. The vampires in Kristoff’s gothic grimdark masterpiece are terrifying predators with preternatural strength and speed. The religious order of the Silversaints make it their lives’ work to keep humanity safe and the novel opens with our morally ambivalent protagonist, Gabriel de Lioncourt, the last Silversaint, recounting the story of his life. The dual narratives following the story of Gabriel’s life from childhood and the catastrophic events of adult hood slowly converging. Empire of the Vampire is a gorgeous book, black edged pages, an embossed cover, and at just shy of a thousand pages it is a very worthwhile long read. If you can imagine the love child of Interview with the Vampire and The Name of the Wind, you’re close to Empire of the Vampire. Gabriel’s coarse dark humour appealed to me and the split narratives were equally as engrossing. Some parts of this novel made me laugh, other parts made me cry. It’s been my favourite read of 2021 and I’m so excited for the second installment.

Read our review of this book, here.

About the book:  For nearly three decades, vampires have waged war against humanity; building their eternal empire even as they tear down our own. Now, only a few tiny sparks of light endure in a sea of darkness.

Gabriel de León, half man, half monster and last remaining silversaint – a sworn brother of the holy Silver Order dedicated to defending the realm from the creatures of the night – is all that stands between the world and its end.

Now imprisoned by the very monsters he vowed to destroy, the last silversaint is forced to tell his story. A story of legendary battles and forbidden love, of faith lost and friendships won, of the Wars of the Blood and the Forever King and the quest for humanity’s last remaining hope:

The Holy Grail.

Read Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff

The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Picked by Eugene Vassilev

This book knocked my socks off. For the first time in many years, I truly had no idea what was about to happen next as the layers were pulled back, with each revelation further misdirecting my assumptions. It’s safe to say I’ve never read anything like The Last House On Needless Street. Ward has truly achieved something special with this novel and I can’t wait to see what she has in store in the future.

Check out Eugene’s review here.

About the book: This is the story of a murderer. A stolen child. Revenge. This is the story of Ted, who lives with his daughter, Lauren, and his cat, Olivia, in an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street.

All these things are true. And yet some of them are lies.

You think you know what’s inside the last house on Needless Street. You think you’ve come across this story before. In the dark forest at the end of Needless Street, something lies buried. But it’s not what you think….

Read The Last House On Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Dark Sea’s End by Richard Nell

Picked by Tom Smith

This book opened a new chapter in the world of Ash and Sand bringing back someone I think is one of the most compelling and iconic dark fantasy protagonists in recent years – Ruka. This time you see him through the eyes of others who see him as a living legend. I could barely put this one down and hope to see more set in this world.

About the book: Feared pirate and scoundrel ‘Lucky’ Chang has a dirty secret: he loves his crew, and would die to protect them. As he’s dragged from prison to face the dark sea and a dangerous new world, he just might have to.

Zaya, warrior and skald from the land of ash, knows she has a destiny. Having left her homeland with only a knife and a dream of adventure, she finds herself captured by pirates. To discover her fate, and become a hero from the book of legends, she must first survive the sea.

With a monstrous pilot as guide, and an ex-assassin as captain, Chang, Zaya, and the crew of the mighty Prince sail into uncharted waters. There they may find new lands and wealth, as well as glory beyond their dreams, or nothing but their doom.

Read Dark Sea’s End by Richard Nell

Behind Blue Eyes: Fallen Angels by Anna Mocikat

Picked by Charles Phipps

The exciting sequel to Behind Blue Eyes. A serial killer is targeting the hyper-powerful assassins of the Olympias Corporation and taking them down with no effort. I absolutely loved its action, twists, turns, and allusions to classic literary dystopias.

Read Charles’ review, here.

About the book: Olympias City is shaken by a series of unspeakably brutal murders. No one is allowed to know the shocking truth about who the victims are: Guardian Angels.

Someone is hunting the almost invincible cyborgs with the neon-blue eyes. Someone who knows their secrets and who uses a formerly unknown technology.

Promoted to Archangel, Nephilim is in charge of the investigation. It leads her into the underbelly of Olympias’ most notorious district, Oldtown, and also into the Inner Circle, where the elites reside.

Struggling with memory loss, Nephilim barely survives an attempt on her life.

It seems that the Guardian Angels have some very powerful enemies. If this wasn’t dangerous enough, the two other corporate global players, Rosprom and TogbuaXiang, scheme in the shadows to not only bring down the Angels but the entire city of Olympias.

Everything changes when Nephilim accompanies Metatron on a trip to Olympias City III, formerly Rio de Janeiro. There she discovers that nothing is what it seems and that Metatron is much more cunning and dangerous than anyone suspects.

Things get even more complicated when old friends from Nephilim’s past appear. Nephilim will have to decide on what side she wants to stand …

Read Behind Blue Eyes: Fallen Angels by Anna Mocikat

Legacy of the Brightwash by Krystle Matar

Picked by Angela Gualtieri

Krystle Matar’s debut, Legacy of the Brightwash, introduces readers to a well-fleshed out, grim, and bleak world. Her prose interweaves realistic human emotion into her character motivations. Pairing her mastery of tension with a slow build, Matar balances the brutality of the story with quiet moments of hope and love.

Read our review, here.

About the book: Follow the law and you’ll stay safe. But what if the law is wrong?Tashué’s faith in the law is beginning to crack. Three years ago, he stood by when the Authority condemned Jason to the brutality of the Rift for non-compliance. When Tashué’s son refused to register as tainted, the laws had to be upheld. He’d never doubted his job as a Regulation Officer before, but three years of watching your son wither away can break down even the strongest convictions.

Then a dead girl washed up on the bank of the Brightwash, tattooed and mutilated. Where had she come from? Who would tattoo a child? Was it the same person who killed her? Why was he the only one who cared?

Will Tashué be able to stand against everything he thought he believed in to get the answers he’s looking for?

Read Legacy of the Brightwash by Krystle Matar

Master Artificer by Justin Travis Call

Picked by Beth Tabler

The first book of the series was outstanding, however the second novel really allowed Call to dive into the darker parts of the characters psyches. By the end you have no idea who is good or bad. It’s outstanding.

Read our review, here.

About the book: Annev has avoided one fate. But a darker path may still claim him . . .

After surviving the destruction of Chaenbalu, new mysteries and greater threats await Annev and his friends in the capital city of Luqura. As they navigate the city’s perilous streets, Annev searches for a way to control his nascent magic and remove the cursed artifact now fused to his body.

But what might removing it cost him?

As Annev grapples with his magic, Fyn joins forces with old enemies and new allies, waging a secret war against Luqura’s corrupt guilds in the hopes of forging his own criminal empire. Deep in the Brakewood, Myjun is learning new skills of her own as apprentice to Oyru, the shadow assassin who attacked the village of Chaenbalu – but the power of revenge comes at a daunting price. And back in Chaenbalu itself, left for dead in the Academy’s ruins, Kenton seeks salvation in the only place he can: the power hoarded in the Vault of Damnation . . .

Read Master Artificer by Justin Travis Call

Spirits of Vengeance by Rob Hayes

Picked by Mike Myers

Amazing adventure, incredible action, great characters, but the thing Hayes does like the very best of traditionally published fantasy novelists is develop not only the characters but their relationships to one another, which makes this great read emotionally gripping like the best fiction of any genre.

About the book: He’ll die as many times as it takes.

The Ipian Empire was once a land that welcomed dragons and spirits alike, but a century of war and bloodshed saw them all but vanish. Now, the lost things are returning and the Onryo have gathered. Five legendary spirits with mysterious powers, bent on freeing an ancient evil that would wreak havoc on humanity.

Haruto swore his soul to the God of Death for the chance to hunt down the vengeful ghost of his wife. Now an onmyoji, he’s tasked by the Imperial Throne to hunt down monsters and malicious spirits. But he knows not all spirits are evil and not all deserve the peace of the sword.

Kira is a student at Heiwa, an academy for children with dangerous techniques. But she has a secret, she’s not like the other students. When the school is attacked, she flees with one of the tutors, determined to hide both from those who would kill her, and those who would use her.

As a plague of spirits sweeps across the land, the Onryo leave a bloody trail for Haruto to follow. But who’s hunting who?

Read Spirits of Vengeance by Rob Hayes

Seven Deaths of an Empire by G. R. Matthews

Picked by Aaron Jones

The Emperor is dead. Long live the Empire.

General Bordan has a lifetime of duty and sacrifice behind him in the service of the Empire. But with rebellion brewing in the countryside, and assassins, thieves and politicians vying for power in the city, it is all Bordan can do to protect the heir to the throne.

The perfect blend of classical fiction and grimdark. Can’t wait for the sequel!

Check out our review, here.

About the book: When the Emperor dies on campaign, destinies clash. Magician Kyron must escort the Emperor’s body back to the Capital through enemy territory; and General Bordan, veteran of many wars, must fight in the political arena for the security of the throne – and the Empire.

Read Seven Deaths of an Empire by G. R. Matthews

Norylska Groans by Michael R. Fletcher and Clayton W. Snyder

Picked by Chris Haught

Grimdark steampunk Russian influenced fantasy set within an industrial city in Russian flavored fantasy world with mob families competing over magical memory stones…

About the book: Norylska Groans…

with the weight of her crimes. In a city where winter reigns amid the fires of industry and war, soot and snow conspire to conceal centuries of death and deception.

Norylska Groans…

and the weight of a leaden sky threatens to crush her people. Katyusha Leonova, desperate to restore her family name, takes a job with Norylska’s brutal police force. To support his family, Genndy Antonov finds bloody work with a local crime syndicate.

Norylska Groans…

with the weight of her dead. As bodies fall, the two discover a foul truth hidden beneath layers of deception and violence: Come the thaw, what was buried will be revealed.

Read Norylska Groans by Michael R. Fletcher and Clayton W. Snyder

The Past is Red by Catherynne Valente

Picked by Ryan Howse-Meister

A post-apocalyptic slice of life novel about people living on the remains of what we left behind when we destroyed our planet, with a compelling protagonist who loves her world even as she hates what we did to it. The Past is Red is furious and delightful, bursting with life and voice and setting.

Read our review, here.

About the book: Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past Is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.

The future is blue. Endless blue…except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.

Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.

But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.

Read The Past is Red by Catherynne Valente

Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Cristina Henry

Picked by Steve Green

A thrilling tale which takes a well loved classic and “makes it new.” This is an evocative, rich piece which I particularly enjoyed thanks to the relevance and crisp, fresh voices given to the original characters as their lives and dynamics are reworked. Dark and oozing with menace, I shall certainly look for the next offering from this excellent writer.

Read our review, here.

About the book: Everyone in Sleepy Hollow knows about the Horseman, but no one really believes in him. Not even Ben Van Brunt’s grandfather, Brom Bones, who was there when it was said the Horseman chased the upstart Crane out of town. Brom says that’s just legend, the village gossips talking.

More than thirty years after those storied events, the village is a quiet place. Fourteen-year-old Ben loves to play Sleepy Hollow boys, reenacting the events Brom once lived through. But then Ben and a friend stumble across the headless body of a child in the woods near the village, and the discovery makes Ben question everything the adults in Sleepy Hollow have ever said. Could the Horseman be real after all? Or does something even more sinister stalk the woods?

Read Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Cristina Henry

Idols Fall by Mike Shel

Picked by Nate Aubin

Note: Spoilers for Iconoclasts 1 and 2 ahead!

The epic conclusion to the horror/fantasy Iconoclasts series, Idols Fall follows adventurer Agnes Manteo as she takes up her father’s sentient blade and quests to slay a pantheon of cruel pretender gods. Meanwhile, Countess Ilanda Pavidale struggles to hold the kingdom of Hanifax together with the recent passing of its twisted immortal monarch, a court full of treacherous nobles, and barbarian horde on its borders. Authored by a psychotherapist/tabletop RPG writer, this series is the perfect blend of narrative dread, realistic trauma, and dungeon delving. Idols Fall is everything I hoped for and more in a conclusion to one of my favorite series with a masterfully woven plot and the single most brutal dungeon since Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors.

About this book: “AT LONG LAST, EVEN GODS WILL KNOW REGRET…”Agnes Manteo now bears her father’s sentient Djao sword, along with a terrible revelation—the gods are charlatans, ancient sorcerers who draw their strength from the suffering of humanity. She and her Syraeic companions have but a single duty: to track down those pretenders and end their reign of cruelty and lies. To that end, the magical blade—mighty, single-minded Szaa’da’shaela—won’t allow the slightest waver of their commitment.But the empire is a bubbling cauldron of turmoil with the sudden passing of its undying queen. Nobles clash and threaten civil war, murderous barbarians mass on the frontier in preparation for a bloody invasion, and all feel the aching void left by the clergy, whose temples were consumed by a great fire. How can the empire survive should Agnes succeed in tearing away its very foundations? And if she fails? What might sorcerers with nearly godlike powers do to exact their revenge?

Read Idols Fall by Mike Shel

Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Picked by James Tivendale

I have spent the last month residing in Lee’s spectacularly detailed and wonderfully crafted fantasy world. I’m certain that re-reading Jade City and Jade War prior to starting the mammoth-sized yet never dull Jade Legacy heightened my enjoyment of this entry greatly. In Jade Legacy, Lee has perfectly honed her fantasy and gangster thriller experience with more drama, bloodshed, showdowns, political intrigue, and higher costs.

Lee is a fantastic writer and The Green Bone Saga has cemented itself in the top five series that I will recommend when people ask me for the best that I think the fantasy scene has to offer.

Read our review, here.

About the book: The Kaul siblings battle their rival clans for honour and control over an East Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis in Jade Legacy, the page-turning conclusion to the Green Bone Saga.

Read Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Picked by Fabienne Schwizer

I chose this for our first roundup in the middle of the year and my love for it still runs strong. Sistersong is one of those special books that doesn’t come along all too often, and I adore it. Retelling the English folk ballad “The Twa Sisters”, it is both rooted in folklore and mythology, but also in medieval history and culture. The book combines my passions for diverse and queer stories and all things medieval, and introduces the reader to a wonderful cast of characters. I am particularly taken by Lucy Holland’s take on Merlin – without spoiling anything more – and loved Keyne most out of the siblings. At once haunting and lyrical, Sistersong is nevertheless dark and macabre (just go and check out the bone harp from the story that Lucy crafted with artist Becky Pepperdine).Read The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie.

About the book: My sister’s heart broke on the river—and the river took it and bore it away.

In the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, there is old magic to be found in the whisper of the wind, the roots of the trees, and the curl of the grass. King Cador knew this once, but now the land has turned from him, calling instead to his three children. Riva can cure others, but can’t seem to heal her own deep scars. Keyne battles to be accepted for who he truly is—the king’s son. And Sinne dreams of seeing the world, of finding adventure.

All three fear a life of confinement within the walls of the hold, their people’s last bastion of strength against the invading Saxons. However, change comes on the day ash falls from the sky. It brings with it Myrdhin, meddler and magician. And Tristan, a warrior whose secrets will tear them apart.

Riva, Keyne and Sinne—three siblings entangled in a web of treachery and heartbreak, who must fight to forge their own paths.

Their story will shape the destiny of Britain.

Read Sistersong by Lucy Holland

The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

Picked by Adrian Collins

Having absolutely loved A Little Hatred and The Trouble with Peace, my expectations for The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie were absolutely sky high. With this gritty and fun book full of civil unrest, backstabbing, butchery, and even a little bit of love, Joe Abercrombie did not disappoint.

Read our review, here.

About the book: Some say that to change the world you must first burn it down. Now that belief will be tested in the crucible of revolution: the Breakers and Burners have seized the levers of power, the smoke of riots has replaced the smog of industry, and all must submit to the wisdom of crowds.

With nothing left to lose, Citizen Brock is determined to become a new hero for the new age, while Citizeness Savine must turn her talents from profit to survival before she can claw her way to redemption. Orso will find that when the world is turned upside down, no one is lower than a monarch. And in the bloody North, Rikke and her fragile Protectorate are running out of allies . . . while Black Calder gathers his forces and plots his vengeance.

The banks have fallen, the sun of the Union has been torn down, and in the darkness behind the scenes, the threads of the Weaver’s ruthless plan are slowly being drawn together . . .

Read The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie

TBR pile still looking a little light?

Then check out our previous best of lists for:

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.