Grimdark Fantasy: Where to start reading

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