Grimdark Fantasy: Where to start reading

Last Updated on February 11, 2024

Ask ten grimdark fantasy fans what their definition of grimdark is, and you’re likely to get ten marginally, if not wildly, different answers. However, ask them for a top ten list, and you can all but guarantee the same tall stack of male authors will dominate.

When I sat down (virtually) with the leaders of the Grimdark Magazine review team to build this list, we agreed upon a few things:

  1. Try as we might have over the last eight years, the “definitively defining the subgenre” horse has long bolted. We couldn’t control it. You can’t control it. We’re going to piss off somebody with this list–let’s just get on with it.
  2. Few publishers nowadays want the books they put out shoehorned into “grimdark fantasy”. They tried it in the 2010’s, it didn’t work out as a marketing term for too many authors, and it’s been popped back on the shelf at a Big 4 level. That’s okay, we can all still love books that meet our definitions of grimdark without the Hachette marketing department flying the grimdark flag and pinning an author’s career on it.
  3. The grimdark fantasy subgenre has changed from a standard list of blokes from the 80’s and 90’s and 2000’s, with new voices and new authors injecting perspectives and ideas more vicious and well written than their contemporaries, and those people need to make up a decent chunk of a list written in the 2020’s.

Having agreed upon that, Beth, James, Fabienne, David, and I entered into weeks of arguments over what would fit into our modern grimdark must read list. We have done our best to both keep it relatively short, and to both do justice to those that laid the path, and those who now walk it.

We give you, in no particular order of preference, Grimdark Magazine’s where to start reading grimdark list.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

This is a book that gets under your skin, and it left me equal parts haunted, transfixed, and overwhelmingly glad my standardized testing days are behind me.

Read the full review here.

About the book

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Buy this book on Amazon

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Cover for Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Thorns is one of the best and most influential books in grimdark fantasy, authored by one of the founding fathers of the genre.

Read the full review here.

About the book

Before the thorns taught me their sharp lessons and bled weakness from me I had but one brother, and I loved him well. But those days are gone and what is left of them lies in my mother’s tomb. Now I have many brothers, quick with knife and sword, and as evil as you please. We ride this broken empire and loot its corpse. They say these are violent times, the end of days when the dead roam and monsters haunt the night. All that’s true enough, but there’s something worse out there, in the dark. Much worse.

From being a privileged royal child, raised by a loving mother, Jorg Ancrath has become the Prince of Thorns, a charming, immoral boy leading a grim band of outlaws in a series of raids and atrocities. The world is in chaos: violence is rife, nightmares everywhere. Jorg has the ability to master the living and the dead, but there is still one thing that puts a chill in him. Returning to his father’s castle Jorg must confront horrors from his childhood and carve himself a future with all hands turned against him.

Mark Lawrence’s debut novel tells a tale of blood and treachery, magic and brotherhood and paints a compelling and brutal, and sometimes beautiful, picture of an exceptional boy on his journey toward manhood and the throne.

Read Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

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Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Cover for Remote Control by Nnedi OkoraforThe ending is like a warm, loving, grimdark slap in the face. It comes out of nowhere and it works brilliantly and everything leads to it and I loved it. It’s a brilliant twist where all the learning, the lack of control over her life and her power, all comes full circle in just a few brilliant paragraphs that had my jaw flopping on the floor.

Read the rest of the review here.

About the book

The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa—-a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.

Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks–alone, except for her fox companion–searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.

But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?

Read Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

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The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Cover for The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

A brilliant, complex world with morally grey characters and ever on going wars, The Blade Itself truly reminds me of what a joy it is to read a gritty, dark fantasy.

Read the rest of the review here.

About the book

Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled and bitter relic of the last war, former fencing champion turned torturer, is trapped in a twisted and broken body – not that he allows it to distract him from his daily routine of torturing smugglers.

Nobleman, dashing officer and would-be fencing champion Captain Jezal dan Luthar is living a life of ease by cheating his friends at cards. Vain and shallow, the biggest blot on his horizon is having to get out of bed in the morning to train with obsessive and boring old men. And Logen Ninefingers, an infamous warrior with a bloody past, is about to wake up with plans to settle a blood feud with Bethod, the new King of the Northmen, once and for all – ideally by running away from it.

But as he’s discovering, old habits die hard….especially when Bayaz gets involved. An old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Glokta, Jezal, and Logen a whole lot more difficult….

Read The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Buy this book on Amazon

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

Cover for The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith SparkCover to cover The Court of Broken Knives isn’t just a good read, it’s an experience. For me, it was pretty much un-put-downable. It was lightning-paced, beautiful, deep, haunted, violent, gripping, gritty AF, and exactly what what I wanted.

Read the full review here.

About this book

They’ve finally looked at the graveyard of our empire with open eyes. They’re fools and madmen and like the art of war. And their children go hungry while we piss gold and jewels into the dust.

In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous emperor, decadence has become the true ruler and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.

Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the palace, they have one mission: kill the emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.

The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.

Read The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

Buy this book on Amazon

Blackwing by Ed McDonald

Cover for Blackwing by Ed McDonaldBlackwing was one of the best grimdark debuts of 2017.

Read our full review here.

About this book

The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long-dead sorcerer’s legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel: traitors, flesh eaters and the ghosts of the wastelands seek to destroy them, but if they cannot solve the ancient wizard’s paradox, the Deep Kings will walk the earth again, and all will be lost.

The war with the Eastern Empire ended in stalemate some 80 years ago thanks to Nall’s Engine, a wizard-crafted weapon so powerful even the Deep Kings feared it. The strike of the engine created the Misery – a wasteland full of ghosts and corrupted magic that now forms a no-man’s-land along the frontier. But when Galharrow investigates a frontier fortress, he discovers complacency bordering on treason: then the walls are stormed, and the engine fails to launch.

Galharrow escapes only because of the preternatural magical power of the noblewoman he was supposed to be protecting. Together they race to the capital to unmask the traitors and restore the republic’s defences. Far across the Misery, a vast army is on the move, as the empire prepares to call the republic’s bluff.

Read Blackwing by Ed McDonald

Buy this book on Amazon

Godblind by Anna Stephens

Cover for Godblind by Anna StephensGodblind is a fast-paced and merciless tale. If you like multiple POV characters and good fight scenes, and you have a solid constitution, you’ll enjoy this book.

Read the rest of this review here.

About this book

There was a time when the Red Gods ruled the land. The Dark Lady and her horde dealt in death and blood and fire.

That time has long since passed, and the neighbouring kingdoms of Mireces and Rilpor hold an uneasy truce. The only blood spilled is confined to the border, where vigilantes known as Wolves protect their kin and territory at any cost.

But after the death of his wife, King Rastoth is plagued by grief, leaving the kingdom of Rilpor vulnerable. Vulnerable to the bloodthirsty greed of the Warrior-King Liris and the Mireces army waiting in the mountains…

Read Godblind by Anna Stephens

Buy this book on Amazon

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

Cover for Priest of Bones by Peter McLeanWith its fast-moving plot, intense conflicts, interesting characters, and compelling narrative, Priest of Bones is sure to be among the favourite reads for grimdark fantasy fans this year.

Read the rest of the review here.

About this book

‘Sixty-five thousand battle-shocked, trained killers came home to no jobs, no food and the plague. What did Her Majesty think was going to happen?’

Tomas Piety takes his duties seriously: as a soldier, as a priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows and as a leader of men. He has come home from the war to reclaim his family business, to provide for his men and to ensure the horrors of Abingon can never happen in Ellinburg.

But things have changed: his crime empire has been stolen, and the people of Ellinburg – his people – have run out of food and hope and places to hide. With his best friend, Bloody Anne, his war-damaged brother, Jochan, and his new gang, the Pious Men, Tomas sets out to reclaim what was his.

And as Tomas is dragged into a web of political intrigue by the sinister Queen’s Men, forced to work against the foreign infiltrators lurking in the backstreet taverns, brothels and gambling dens of the Stink, one thing becomes clear.

The war has just begun.

Read Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

Buy this book on Amazon

Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Cover for The Mirror Empire by Kameron HurleyAbout as grimdark as fantasy literature can get.

About this book

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past – while a world goes to war with itself. In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.

As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself. In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.

Read Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

Buy this book on Amazon

The Builders by Daniel Polansky

Read The Builders by Daniel PolanskyIn Daniel Polansky‘s The Builders, the Captain is getting his crew back together for another tilt at the job they failed to complete ten years ago during the war of two brothers. The last time they were betrayed. This time, he’s going to find out who did it, and finish the job. In this magnificent Tor.com novella, Polansky delivers an almost perfectly paced and weighted story that every grimdark and dark fantasy fan needs to pick up.

About this book

A missing eye. A broken wing. A stolen country. The last job didn’t end well. Years go by, and scars fade, but memories only fester. For the animals of the Captain’s company, survival has meant keeping a low profile, building a new life, and trying to forget the war they lost. But now the Captain’s whiskers are twitching at the idea of evening the score.

Read The Builders by Daniel Polansky

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Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Cover for Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn MuirIn a world of necromancers, animated skeletons and wide-ranging bone magic, a cynical lesbian with a sword, a strong arm and a sharp wit just makes so much sense. This might not be for everyone, and certainly rewards a little patience, but for those willing to relax into it, there’s a lot to enjoy.

Read the rest of the review here.

About this book

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead nonsense.

Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as arcane revenants. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

Read Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Buy this book on Amazon

Chasing Graves by Ben Galley

Read Chasing Graves by Ben GalleyQuintessential grimdark fantasy.

Read the rest of the review here.

About this book

Meet Caltro Basalt. He’s a master locksmith, a selfish bastard, and as of his first night in Araxes, stone-cold dead.

They call it the City of Countless Souls, the colossal jewel of the Arctian Empire, and all it takes to be its ruler is to own more ghosts than any other. For in Araxes, the dead do not rest in peace in the afterlife, but live on as slaves for the rich.

While Caltro struggles to survive, those around him strive for the emperor’s throne in Araxes’ cutthroat game of power. The dead gods whisper from corpses, a soulstealer seeks to make a name for himself with the help of an ancient cult, a princess plots to purge the emperor from his armoured Sanctuary, and a murderer drags a body across the desert, intent on reaching Araxes no matter the cost.

Only one thing is certain in Araxes: death is just the beginning.

Read Chasing Graves by Ben Galley

Buy this book on Amazon

We ride the storm by Devin Madson

Cover for We ride the storm by Devin MadsonWhen We Ride the Storm by Devin Madison opened with the line, “It’s harder to sever a head than people think. Perhaps if one were skilled with an axe it could be done in a single blow—so long as the body was not trying to run away at the time” I knew I’d found something truly special.

Read the rest of the review here.

About this book

AS AN EMPIRE DIES, THREE WARRIORS WILL RISE. THEY MUST RIDE THE STORM OR DROWN IN ITS BLOOD.

The kingdom of Kisia is divided, held together only by the will of the god-emperor. When an act of betrayal shatters an alliance with the neighbouring land of Chiltae, all that has been won comes crashing down.

Now, as the fires of war spread, a warrior, an assassin and a princess must chase their ambitions, no matter the cost.

War built the Kisian Empire. And now war will tear it down.

Read We ride the storm by Devin Madson

Buy this book on Amazon

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

Read A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex MarshallA tale so full of grit, dark humour, drugs, fuck-ups, and excellent writing that straight off the bat I’m not afraid to say it was one of my favourite reads for 2015.

Read the rest of the review here.

About this book

Cold Cobalt, the Banshee with a Blade, First Among Villains . . . Queen Zosia

When there were no more titles to win and no more worlds to conquer, the warrior queen Zosia faked her demise and gave up her legend to history. But when violence finds its way to her door years later, she must round up her adventuring companions – each surprised to see her alive – and set out for revenge.

Time has not been kind to her old comrades, and some have only their own goals in mind. Not only that, but there’s a young, beautiful and skilled general out there, gathering soldiers to her banner for a war against the deadliest of enemies. The girl is using a legend she did not earn, and calling herself by a name that was never hers – that of Zosia herself.

Read A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

Buy this book on Amazon

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

Read Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

Many of the elements in the story are those we’ve seen before: an aged barbarian at the end of his stamina, a cocky swordsman, a religious nut greedy for power and self preservation. But Fletcher has taken these classic tropes and given them new, psychotic life.

Read the rest of the review here.

About this book

Faith shapes the landscape, defines the laws of physics, and makes a mockery of truth. Common knowledge isn’t an axiom, it’s a force of nature. What the masses believe is. But insanity is a weapon, conviction a shield. Delusions give birth to foul new gods.

Violent and dark, the world is filled with the Geisteskranken–men and women whose delusions manifest, twisting reality. High Priest Konig seeks to create order from chaos. He defines the beliefs of his followers, leading their faith to one end: a young boy, Morgen, must Ascend to become a god. A god they can control.

But there are many who would see this would-be-god in their thrall, including the High Priest’s own Doppels, and a Slaver no one can resist. Three reprobates–The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a murderous Kleptic, and possibly the only sane man left–have their own nefarious plans for the young god.

As these forces converge on the boy, there’s one more obstacle: time is running out. When one’s delusions become more powerful, they become harder to control. The fate of the Geisteskranken is to inevitably find oneself in the Afterdeath. The question, then, is:

Who will rule there?

Read Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

Buy this book on Amazon

The Grim Company by Luke Scull

Cover for The Grim Company by Luke ScullA classic of the genre that every budding grimdark fantasy fan should read.

Read the rest of the review here.

About this book

The difference between a hero and a killer lies in the ability to justify dark deeds. But this is the Age of Ruin. And there are no heroes…

Five hundred years ago, the world was destroyed in the celestial Godswar. Seeking to throw off the shackles of the deities who created them, a cabal of mages rose up and made war upon the Gods. Though they won out, it was at a great cost: the ensuing cataclysm brought forth the Age of Ruin to the world.

Five hundred years later, the world limps on, seemingly winding down to an inevitable end. Dystopian city states have arisen, each presided over by one of the Magelords who first made war.

Corrupted, near-immortal, and far too powerful, those wizards who once sought to free the world now make war upon each other, while the helpless populace limp on from day to day.

Into this blighted world, steps Davarus Cole, a boy obsessed with notions of heroism and adventuring, who burns to do great deeds. One night, in a reckless act, Cole gets himself into a brawl with the authories. He quickly finds himself sent away from the city, where the world still groans from the ancient cataclysm, and the corpses of Gods lie deep beneath the bedrock, leaking wild, uncontrolled magic into the world.

Read The Grim Company by Luke Scull

Buy this book on Amazon

The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

Cover for The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott BakkerLodged under the grimdark label, The Darkness That Comes Before is not for the faint of heart. Bakker’s setup warns this is only the beginning of a full descent into darkness. His exploration of choice and the fallout from those decisions adds a relevant and meaningful layer into his intentions with the novel: “It’s the concert of knowledge and ignorance that underwrites our decisions”

Read the rest of the review here.

About this book

A score of centuries has passed since the First Apocalypse and the thoughts of men have turned, inevitably, to more worldly concerns…A veteran sorcerer and spy seeks news of an ancient enemy. A military genius plots to conquer the known world for his Emperor but dreams of the throne for himself. The spiritual leader of the Thousand Temples seeks a Holy War to cleanse the land of the infidel. An exiled barbarian chieftain seeks vengeance against the man who disgraced him. And into this world steps a man like no other, seeking to bind all – man and woman, emperor and slave – to his own mysterious ends. But the fate of men – even great men – means little when the world itself may soon be torn asunder. Behind the politics, beneath the religious fervour, a dark and ancient evil is reawakening. After two thousand years, the No-God is returning. The Second Apocalypse is nigh. And one cannot raise walls against what has been forgotten…

Read The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

Buy this book on Amazon

A note on Game of Thrones

I think it needs to be acknowledged that Game of Thrones  by George R.R. Martin is not on this list. Martin has led the charge with grimdark fantasy for a long, long time. His books being turned into a a TV series has drawn in so many new readers, viewers, and just generally interested people, that his impact can likely not be accurately measured–beyond it being fucking massive. However, it has been a good while since we’ve seen new black and white pages from the godfather of grimdark, and therefore, we’ve opted to go with newer (in some cases “ish”) authors. From an author who creates so many anthologies and the like to promote other people, I think he’d be alright with that decision.

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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.

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