Dark Fantasy: Where to Start Reading

Last Updated on May 30, 2023

If you think it’s difficult getting grimdark fantasy fans to agree on a definition or where to start reading, then you’re going to be blown away by how difficult it is to do the same for dark fantasy. Add a century more of fiction and discussion to try and find out what dark fantasy is and what needs to be on a reading guide for it and you can find yourself in a nightmare pretty quickly. So, we can all argue until we’re blue in the face about the exact definition, who invented it, which of the people who coined the term was correct, and all that jam. Or I can tell you that we’ve built this list based on what we think a new dark fantasy fan in 2023 needs to read to get themselves rolling in this wildly popular sub genre, and just bloody well get on with it.

Once again, the GdM team and I sat down and had a chin wag about how we could create this list and agreed that we would try to give a nod to both those who laid the path, and the newer authors who walk and further develop it.

We give you, in no particular order of preference, and in full knowledge this is going to kick off some really good discussions and arguments, Grimdark Magazine’s where to start reading dark fantasy list.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Cover for the Fifth Season

The Fifth Season starts with the end of the world, and things only get worse from there. Brutal, bleak and beautifully written, this is the first book in N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo Award winning The Broken Earth trilogy. A biting examination of societal and structural oppression, The Fifth Season is a must-read for any fantasy fan wishing to explore the darker side of the genre.

About the book

This is the way the world ends. . .for the last time.

It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun. It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter. It starts with betrayal, and long dormant wounds rising up to fester.

This is the Stillness, a land long familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.

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The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan

Cover for The Justice of KingsIn Richard Swan’s new fantasy trilogy, starting with The Justice of Kings, a rich low magic world is brought to life through brilliant characters and their arcs. A mixture of detective work, dark fantasy, and low fantasy, I’ll be really surprised if this book isn’t on a few best of 2022 lists this year.

Read the rest of our review here.

About the book

The Empire of the Wolf simmers with unrest. Rebels, heretics, and powerful patricians all challenge the power of the Imperial throne.

Only the Order of Justices stands in the way of chaos. Sir Konrad Vonvalt is the most feared Justice of all, upholding the law by way of his sharp mind, arcane powers, and skill as a swordsman. At his side stands Helena Sedanka, his talented protégé, orphaned by the wars that forged the Empire.

When the pair investigates the murder of a provincial aristocrat, they unearth a conspiracy that stretches to the very top of Imperial society. As the stakes rise and become ever more personal, Vonvalt and Helena must make a choice: Will they abandon the laws they’ve sworn to uphold, in order to protect the Empire?

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The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

As winner of the 2020 British Fantasy award, The Bone Ships charts the course as captain of modern-day seafaring warfare. This first installment of the Tide Child trilogy starts within an endless war, fought with boneships built from ancient dragons. Rumors of dragon sightings spin the nations of the Hundred Isles into turmoil. A new dragon hunt begins. R.J. Baker makes waves with his richly detailed world in The Bone Ships.

Read the rest of the review here

About the book

Two nations at war. One prize beyond compare. 

For generations, the Hundred Isles have built their ships from the bones of ancient dragons to fight an endless war. The dragons disappeared, but the battles for supremacy persisted.

Now, the first dragon in centuries has been spotted in far-off waters, and both sides see a chance to shift the balance of power in their favor. Because whoever catches it will win not only glory but the war.

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Daughter of the Empire by Janny Wurts and Raymond E. Feist

Cover for Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny WurtsDaughter of the Empire, and by extension The Empire Trilogy, is the brainchild of two of fantasy’s living legends, Raymond E. Feist, and Janny Wurts. It is a high fantasy with a dark edge, political machinations, and the heroic struggles of Mara. Often topping many “best of” lists since its first publishing in 1987, it has become a foundational fantasy for many of today’s dark fantasy readers.

About the book

Magic and murder engulf the realm of Kelewan.  Fierce warlords ignite a bitter blood feud to enslave the empire of Tsuranuanni.  While in the opulent Imperial courts, assassins and spy-master plot cunning and devious intrigues against the rightful heir.  Now Mara, a young, untested Ruling lady, is called upon to lead her people in a heroic struggle for survival.  But first she must rally an army of rebel warriors, form a pact with the alien cho-ja, and marry the son of a hated enemy.  Only then can Mara face her most dangerous foe of all—in his own impregnable stronghold.

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Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Cover for Kushiel's Dart By Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart series is genre defining in many ways – and a book that is as timely now as it was when it was first published. Set in a world inspired by the Renaissance, the story centres around Phèdre, a courtesan who experiences pain and pleasure as one. But she is as clever as she is skilled, and soon finds herself in the midst of a conspiracy that threatens her homeland. Carey masterfully writes a nuanced protagonist, a brilliant villainess to fall for and a story to be utterly seduced by – all the while making a stand for free love and reproductive rights. As the motto of Terre d’Ange says: Love as thou wilt.

About the book

The first book in the Kushiel’s Legacy series is a novel of grandeur, luxuriance, sacrifice, betrayal, and deeply laid conspiracies. A world of cunning poets, deadly courtiers, deposed rulers and a besieged Queen, a warrior-priest, the Prince of Travelers, barbarian warlords, heroic traitors, and a truly Machiavellian villainess…all seen through the unflinching eyes of an unforgettable heroine.

A nation born of angels, vast and intricate and surrounded by danger… a woman born to servitude, unknowingly given access to the secrets of the realm…

Born with a scarlet mote in her left eye, Phédre nó Delaunay is sold into indentured servitude as a child. When her bond is purchased by an enigmatic nobleman, she is trained in history, theology, politics, foreign languages, the arts of pleasure. And above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Exquisite courtesan, talented spy…and unlikely heroine. But when Phédre stumbles upon a plot that threatens her homeland, Terre d’Ange, she has no choice.

Betrayed into captivity in the barbarous northland of Skaldia and accompanied only by a disdainful young warrior-priest, Phédre makes a harrowing escape and an even more harrowing journey to return to her people and deliver a warning of the impending invasion. And that proves only the first step in a quest that will take her to the edge of despair and beyond.

Phédre nó Delaunay is the woman who holds the keys to her realm’s deadly secrets, and whose courage will decide the very future of her world.

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Cover for American Gods by Neil GaimanAncient mythology collides with the deities of modern culture in American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s Hugo- and Nebula-award winning dark fantasy classic. First published in 2001, American Gods was later adapted into a three-season TV series by Starz. The novel centers on ex-convict Shadow, who is caught in an epic battle between the Old Gods of classic mythology and the New Gods of modern technology, pop culture, and conspiracy theories. American Gods is a sinister treat from one of the all-time masters of dark fantasy.

About the book

Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a stranger offers him a job and Shadow, with nothing to lose, accepts. But a storm is coming. Beneath the placid surface of everyday life, a war is being fought – and the prize is the very soul of America.

An inspired combination of mythology, adventure, and illusion, American Gods is a dark and kaleidoscopic journey deep into myth and across an America at once eerily familiar and utterly alien. It is, quite simply, a contemporary masterpiece.

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The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Cover for The Gunslinger by Stephen KingAll told, it was a joy to revisit The Gunslinger, which is, to me at least, one of the key progenitors of the modern grimdark genre.

Read our full review here.

About the book

In the first book of this series, Stephen King introduces readers to one of his most enigmatic heroes, Roland of Gilead, The Last Gunslinger.

He is a haunting figure, a loner on a spellbinding journey into good and evil. In his desolate world, which frighteningly mirrors our own, Roland pursues The Man in Black, encounters an alluring woman named Alice, and begins a friendship with the Kid from Earth called Jake. Both grippingly realistic and eerily dreamlike, The Gunslinger leaves readers eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

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The Deathless by Peter Newman

Cover for The Deathless by Peter NewmanNewman’s first entry into a new fantasy series presents a world with floating castles that are connected by roads of crystal alongside which human settlements are erected. These Godsroads are safe passages between the floating fortresses of the great houses. Covering most of the created environment is The Wilds – a macabre and terrifying forested area full of unspeakable horrors, extreme darkness, shifting trees, and creatures such as the infamous Scurrying Corpseman and Whispercages. Certain segments of the narrative that were set in The Wilds were truly intense and felt like a nightmare right out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

Read the rest of James’ review on Fantasy Book Review.

About the book

The demons…

In the endless forests of the Wild, humanity scratches a living by the side of the great Godroads, paths of crystal that provide safe passage and hold back the infernal tide. Creatures lurk within the trees, watching, and plucking those who stray too far from safety.

The Deathless…

In crystal castles held aloft on magical currents, seven timeless royal families reign, protecting humanity from the spread of the Wild and its demons. Born and reborn into flawless bodies, the Deathless are as immortal as the precious stones from which they take their names. For generations a fragile balance has held.

And the damned…

House Sapphire, one of the ancient Deathless families, is riven by suspicion and madness. Whole villages are disappearing as the hunting expeditions holding the Wild at bay begin to fail.

Then, when assassins strike, House Sapphire shatters.

Nothing lasts forever.

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Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokski

Cover of The Last Tale of the Flower Bride by Roshani Chokshi

Chokshi has a magical way with words, able to turn a simple sentence into something that draws you into her world and doesn’t let you escape again. And this writing is really where The Last Tale of the Flower Bride excels. A mythical, haunting story told in lyrical prose that almost manages to hide how dark it truly is.

Read our review of Last Tale of the Flower Bride.

About the book

Once upon a time, a man who believed in fairy tales married a beautiful, mysterious woman named Indigo Maxwell-Casteñada. He was a scholar of myths. She was heiress to a fortune. They exchanged gifts and stories and believed they would live happily ever after – and in exchange for her love, Indigo extracted a promise: that her bridegroom would never pry into her past.

But when Indigo learns that her estranged aunt is dying and the couple is forced to return to her childhood home, the House of Dreams, the bridegroom soon finds himself unable to resist. For within the crumbling manor’s extravagant rooms and musty halls, there lurks the shadow of another girl: Azure, Indigo’s dearest childhood friend, who disappeared without a trace.

As the house slowly reveals his wife’s secrets, the bridegroom will be forced to choose between reality and fantasy, even if doing so threatens to destroy their marriage . . . or their lives.

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The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

Cover for The Dragonbone Chair by Tad WilliamsThe first novel in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, one of the greatest epic fantasy series of the modern era, The Dragonbone Chair placed Tad Williams at the pinnacle of the genre when it was released in 1988. Its a slow-burn tale set in a rich and detailed world under threat from dark sorcery and banished terrors. An acknowledged influence on A Song of Ice and Fire, The Dragonbone Chair is an essential read.

Read our series review here.

About the book

A war fueled by the powers of dark sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard—for Prester John, the High King, lies dying. And with his death, the Storm King, the undead ruler of the elf-like Sithi, seizes the chance to regain his lost realm through a pact with the newly ascended king. Knowing the consequences of this bargain, the king’s younger brother joins with a small, scattered group of scholars, the League of the Scroll, to confront the true danger threatening Osten Ard.

Simon, a kitchen boy from the royal castle unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League, will be sent on a quest that offers the only hope of salvation, a deadly riddle concerning long-lost swords of power. Compelled by fate and perilous magics, he must leave the only home he’s ever known and face enemies more terrifying than Osten Ard has ever seen, even as the land itself begins to die.

After the landmark Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, the epic saga of Osten Ard continues with The Heart of What Was Lost. Then don’t miss the sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard, beginning with The Witchwood Crown!

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Adrian Collins

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.