Grimdark top 15: James picks his favourites

This isn’t a post for people to say, “Well, that isn’t Grimdark in my opinion”. Everything here, I think a Grimdark fan could enjoy. Unlike a lot of these sort of features, I will present my favourite book in the series, not just the first. This is in no particular order. Thanks for reading.

Andrzej Sapkowksi – Baptism of Fire (The Witcher Saga #5)

Baptism of Fire cover

A deadly coup within the Wizard’s Guild leaves the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, gravely injured, and his ward Ciri missing in the third book of the NYT bestselling series that inspired the blockbuster video games.

The Wizards Guild has been shattered by a coup and, in the uproar, Geralt was seriously injured. The Witcher is supposed to be a guardian of the innocent, a protector of those in need, a defender against powerful and dangerous monsters that prey on men in dark times.

But now that dark times have fallen upon the world, Geralt is helpless until he has recovered from his injuries.

While war rages across all of the lands, the future of magic is under threat and those sorcerers who survive are determined to protect it. It’s an impossible situation in which to find one girl — Ciri, the heiress to the throne of Cintra — until a rumor places her in the Niflgaard court, preparing to marry the Emperor.

Injured or not, Geralt has a rescue mission on his hands.

My favourite line: “What a company I ended up with,’ Geralt continued, shaking his head. ‘Brothers in arms! A team of heroes! What have I done to deserve it? A poetaster with a lute. A wild and lippy half-dryad, half-woman. A vampire, who’s about to notch up his fifth century. And a bloody Nilfgaardian who insists he isn’t a Nilfgaardian.”

My quote: This series is finally reaching the lofty heights that it has always hinted at.”



Joe Abercrombie – Before They Are Hanged (The First Law #2)

Before they are Hanged cover

Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want to run — if he could even walk without a stick.

Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem — he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world.

And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving mankind from the Eaters — if they didn’t hate each other quite so much.

Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven — but not before they are hanged.

“We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged” – Heinrich Heine

My quote: This trilogy is a character-driven fantasy adventure that is close to unequalled in the genre. Gripping, thrilling, gritty and pretty damn awesome.

Peter Newman – The Ruthless (Deathless #2)


For years, Vasin Sapphire has been waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Now, as other Deathless families come under constant assault from the monsters that roam the Wild, that time has come.

In the floating castle of Rochant Sapphire, loyal subjects await the ceremony to return their rule to his rightful place. But the child raised to give up his body to Lord Rochant is no ordinary servant. Strange ad savage, he will stop at nothing to escape his gilded prison.

Far below, another child yearns to see the human world. Raised by a creature of the Wild, he knows its secrets better than any other. As he enters into the struggle between the Deathless houses, he may be the key to protecting their power or destroying it completely.


My quote: “One of the most developed, unique, and thrilling fantasy series currently being written.”



Steven Erikson – Midnight Tides (Malazan: Book of the Fallen #5)

After decades of internecine warfare, the tribes of the Tiste Edur have at last united under the Warlock King of the Hiroth, There is peace–but it has been exacted at a terrible price: a pact made with a hidden power whose motives are at best suspect, at worst deadly.

To the south, the expansionist kingdom of Lether, eager to fulfill its long-prophesized renaissance as an Empire reborn, has enslaved all its less-civilized neighbors with rapacious hunger. All, that is, save one–the Tiste Edur. And it must be only a matter of time before they too fall–either beneath the suffocating weight of gold, or by slaughter at the edge of a sword. Or so destiny has decreed.

Yet as the two sides gather for a pivotal treaty neither truly wants, ancient forces are awakening. For the impending struggle between these two peoples is but a pale reflection of a far more profound, primal battle–a confrontation with the still-raw wound of an old betrayal and the craving for revenge at its seething heart.

Note: I don’t have a quote about this one as I read this before I started reviewing. 10/10. By far, by so much distance far, it’s the best book I have ever read and I don’t think I’ll ever read one better. The big reveal. Just, wow. Don’t want to Bugg anyone with it so let’s just carry on.

R.F. Kuang – The Poppy War (The Poppy War #1)

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.

Note:- I’ve just finished the sequel and it is arguably even better somehow, but this is the one that I’m including on my list.

My quote: “A masterpiece by grimdark’s newest and perhaps darkest daughter.


Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson – Shadows of the Short Days

A strikingly original Icelandic debut set in a strangely familiar alternate Reykjavik where wild and industrialised magic meet.

Perfect for fans of contemporary fantasy in the style of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians or China Mieville’s The City & The City

Sæmundur the Mad, addict and sorcerer, has been expelled from the magical university, Svartiskóli, and can no longer study galdur, an esoteric source of magic. Obsessed with proving his peers wrong, he will stop at nothing to gain absolute power and knowledge, especially of that which is long forbidden.

Garún is an outcast: half-human, half-huldufólk, her very existence is a violation of dimensional boundaries, the ultimate taboo. A militant revolutionary and graffiti artist, recklessly dismissive of the status quo, she will do anything to achieve a just society, including spark a revolution. Even if she has to do it alone.

This is a tale of revolution set in a twisted version of Reykjavik fuelled by industrialised magic and populated by humans, interdimensional exiles, otherworldly creatures, psychoactive graffiti and demonic familiars.

My quote: “A masterfully crafted dark tale . . . one of the most ambitious, intense, original and thrilling debuts I’ve read in a long time”

RJ Barker – Blood of Assassins

Girton Club-foot, apprentice to the land’s best assassin, still has much to learn about the art of taking lives. But his latest mission tasks him and his master with a far more difficult challenge: to save a life. Someone, or many someones, is trying to kill the heir to the throne, and it is up to Girton and his master to uncover the traitor and prevent the prince’s murder.

In a kingdom on the brink of civil war and a castle thick with lies Girton finds friends he never expected, responsibilities he never wanted, and a conspiracy that could destroy an entire kingdom.

My quote: “Simply unputdownable . . . the perfect mix of fantasy and mystery”



Anna Smith-Spark – The Court of Broken Knives (Empires of Dust #1)

The court of broken knives coverThey’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.

“Not sure I really feel like fucking someone who’s part god and part suicidal drunk, you know”

My quote: “Grimdark of the highest order with one of the most complex, beautiful and destructive characters ever written”



Mark Lawrence – Prince of Fools (Red Queen’s War #1)

“I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play or bravery.”

Note: I’ve read every single series Mark Lawrence has written and have rated all his works highly. Prince of Thorns is the natural choice to be here. However, this is my personal list and I enjoyed this series more. For new readers to Grimdark, however, Prince of Thorns is a great place to start, but you can start here too in The Broken Empire world.

My quote: “Stunning… Jalan and Snorri are one of the finest duos I have had the pleasure of reading about.”



Ed McDonald – Blackwing (The Raven’s Mark #1)

I was very lucky. I was the first reviewer to read and then review Blackwing which is probably the only reason my quote is on the cover. Ed is one of the nicest guys in fantasy and I’ve just finished Crowfall and it’s incredible.

My quote: “9.2/10 –  Guaranteed already, this will be one of the best books I will read this year. I can see Blackwing becoming a big deal in the fantasy world and I can’t wait for the next book.”

Rob J. Hayes – Where Loyalties Lie (The Best Laid Plans #1)

Note: The guy I put forward from my group and the eventual winner of #SPFBO. I’d say Hayes is the finest self-published Grimdark Author around. (Sorry, M.L Spencer, Rosalyn Kelly, and Ben Galley. You guys rule too!)

My quote: “Piratical grimdark mastery, superbly written, with utterly engaging characters”






Gareth Hanrahan – The Gutter Prayer

My quote: “Hanrahan’s highly anticipated fantasy debut is a real breath of fresh air . . . The Gutter Prayer features a skilfully crafted world, with masterful drama, expert dialogue, brilliant characters and an ending I did not see coming . . . A book that every fantasy fan should read







Dyrk Ashton – Paternus: Wrath of Gods (The Paternus Trilogy #2)

Note: There is a rumour that this book was written by Dyrk Ashton’s alter ego Micheal R. Fletcher (Grimdark royalty) but I have met Dyrk once and if it was one of Michael’s doppels it was very convincing. Either way, this is one of the most researched myth/legend/lore based dark epic urban fantasy concoctions ever written. Dyrk is a SPFBO semi-finalist with over 1000 Goodreads reviews as a self-pub author. When you have me (lol), Anthony Ryan, Nicholas Eames, Anna Stephens, MR Carey and Mark Lawrence on your covers then you aren’t doing too bad. I’m not going to link this one but I said the first book was “A dark urban fantasy gem”




Peter McLean – Priest of Lies (War for the Rose Throne #2)

Note: As far as I can remember, I’m sure Peter can tell you otherwise if I’m wrong, I was the first reviewer to read Priest of Bones too and loved it which is why I metaphorically knocked down Ace Books door to get a copy of this. It’s even better than the first.

My quote: “Priest of Lies is stunning low fantasy by an author who is on top of his game.





Anna Stephens – Godblind

Note: One of the nicest members of the fantasy scene (unless you are scared of hammers) – I was lucky enough to attend the Godblind book launch.

My quote: “A thrilling, unrelenting and a brilliantly presented debut.”
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James Tivendale

James Tivendale

Reviewer. Sober. Charity Worker. Pool Player. Poker Player. Fitness. Runner. Metal. Rap. Mario Kart. Zelda.