Rising Stars of Grimdark SFF 2023

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

Over the last couple of years, a range of authors have really come to the fore for our review team with their focus on creating grim stories in dark worlds told by morally grey protagonists and anti-heroes. Some of those authors have just released their debuts, while other authors may be a little more established, but have created works the grimdark fan crowd have absolutely gobbled up in the last 12-24 months.

With so many people still arguing over what grimdark means, I’m not going to ram these down your throat as “grimdark” books. However, these are the books we know grimdark fans who follow us will love. Call them dark, call the noir, call them whatever you want; we know grimdark fans will enjoy these rising stars of grimdark SFF 2023.

Krystle Matar, Author of Legacy of the Brightwash

Nominated by Carrie Chi Lough

Legacy of the BrightwashLegacy of the Brightwash is the debut novel by Krystle Matar, and it’s an excellent start to a richly detailed world. Legacy of the Brightwash follows Tashué Blackwood, a former war hero, now an officer of the Authority. It is his duty to make sure the Tainted—people with powers beyond those of regular humans—are monitored. They need to work in approved ways for the Dominion, stay under the supervision of Tashué and his colleagues, and may only marry and have children with approved people.

Read the full review here

About Krystle Mater

Krystle Matar has been writing for a long time, but things got serious when Tashué Blackwood walked into her life, an amber-eyed whirlwind. When she isn’t arguing with him or any of his friends, she parents and farms. She has a lot of children and even more animals and one very excellent husband. She is currently working on lots of stories set in the Dominion. She expects to exist in this universe for awhile.

Read Legacy of the Brightwash by Krystle Mater

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Hiron Ennes, Author of Leech

Nominated by Ryan Howse-Meister

LeechIn Verdira, a brutal winter encroaches as a replacement arrives for a doctor who just died. Both the dead doctor and the replacement are part of The Institute, where doctors are trained; they also both share the same hive-mind. Trained doctors are almost exclusively from The Institute, and the entity inside can take over as many bodies as it believes it needs. But the fact that the replacement has no idea how the original doctor died is cause for concern—what could have happened that the hive mind wasn’t aware of? As Leech continues, the paranoia ramps up as nearly every character displays something that could suggest infection. It comes to a head in one of the creepiest, most unnerving scenes. It’s a bloody mix of body horror and vile character dynamics. As the climax hits, paranoia falls away for something both stranger and stronger. It’s a great ending to this fantastic, weird, unsettling novel.

Read the full review here

About Hiron Ennes

Hiron Ennes is a writer, musician, and student of medicine based in the Pacific Northwest. Their areas of interest include infectious disease, pathology, and anti-capitalist healthcare reform. When they’re not hunched over a microscope or Word document they can be found playing in the snow or playing the harp (though usually not at the same time). They’re queer in every sense of the word, and they really want to pet your dog.

Read Leech by Hiron Ennes

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H.L. Tinsley, Author of The Hand that Casts the Bone

Nominated by Chris Haught

The Hand that Casts the BoneThe Hand that Casts the Bone takes traditional grimdark elements like morally grey characters, ambiguous decisions, and brutal violence and applies them to a Gaslamp atmosphere with Gothic undertones to create something wholly unique. Tinsley’s bleak world sets the stage for the themes of choice, hope, and redemption to play out in varying ways, keeping the reader on their toes at every turn:

“Each person has a threshold at which point, when confronted with things they do not want to face, must choose between fight and flight.”

Read the full review here

About H.L. Tinsley

H.L. Tinsley is the pen name of professional blogger and creative writer Holly Tinsley. Based in the UK, she is a published author of fantasy, Gothic horror and grimdark fiction as well as a regular contributor to gaming, tabletop RPG, and pop culture websites and blogs. Her work has been featured in Horla Magazine online, An Hour of Writes, and the British Fantasy Society journal New Horizons.

Read The Hand that Casts the Bone by H.L. Tinsley

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Zamil Akhtar, Author of Gunmetal Gods

Nominated by Tom Smith

Gunmetal GodsGunmetal Gods is a novel focused on a fantastical analog to the Crusades. It’s told through dual points of view of both Kevah, a janissary soldier, and Micah the Metal, a paladin. Kevah’s an old man now, forced out of retirement by his Shah for one last job. Micah is looking to take over Kostony, the holy city and seat of the janissaries. The main characters in Gunmetal Gods have a fascinating dynamic with one another. They both have similar mysteries surrounding them, both pieces in the same puzzle. Both want to protect the city of Kostony from the other. There are several other pieces that fit together as the story goes on and revelations unfold.

Read the full review here

About Zamil Akhtar

Zamil Akhtar is an indie science fantasy author and blogger living a location-free lifestyle. He can be found in Boston, Dubai, or Manila depending on the time of year. Of Pakistani heritage, he grew up in the Middle East and moved to western Massachusetts when he was thirteen, and his varied upbringing colors his fiction. He has a BBA in Marketing from the University of Massachusetts and an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University. His loves are videogames, science fiction and fantasy novels, HBO dramas, and Southeast Asia.

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Clay Harmon, Author of Flames of Mira

Nominated by Aaron Jones

Flames of Mira

Set in a subterranean volcanic world beneath a frozen wasteland, Flames of Mira follows Ig, a powerful elemental enslaved by a ruthless ruler. Flames of Mira is dark, tense, and full of action. It is perfect for readers who like their fantasy full of morally grey characters battling with moral dilemmas in a unique world that just seems to bring pain to both the powerful and the weak. Ig had undergone a life-threatening trial binding chemical elements to his body and now works in secret as an enforcer for corrupt Magnate Sorrelo Adriann. He is cursed with a flesh binding magic that will kill him if he disobeys the cruel ruler. When Sorrelo is overthrown in a coup, Ig is forced to make difficult choices and attempt to escape his flesh binding as a battle for the throne begins.

Read the full review here

About Clay Harmon

Clay Harmon grew up outside Yosemite National Park and started writing in high school on Star Wars fanfiction websites. He’s worked at Barnes & Noble and received his degree in marketing at CSU Fresno. He now works for a tech company, and in his off-time lifts weights, loses at video games, and terrorizes his cats.

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Shauna Lawless, Author of The Children of Gods and Fighting Men

Nominated by Fiona Denton

The Children of Gods and Fighting Men is a fantastic novel and as debut I think Lawless has knocked it out of the park. Lawless has seamlessly woven Irish mythology and history together and created a well-structured and paced novel which can be enjoyed if you know nothing about the history or folk lore of Ireland. But if you do, her attention to historical detail and accuracy adds to the pleasure of reading The Children of Gods and Fighting Men. The fantasy elements are low magic, and use the Irish legends of the Fomorians, hostile supernatural beings, and their rivals the Descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Read the full review here

About The Children of Gods and Fighting Men

Shauna Lawless is an author and lover of Irish history and mythology. She lives in County Down with her husband, three boys, and her loveable sproodle, Chewy.

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A.K. Larkwood, Author of The Unspoken Name

Nominated by Brigid Flanagan

The Unspoken Name

A.K Larkwood’s debut novel, The Unspoken Name, the first novel in The Serpent’s Gate series, is all about choice. There is absolute power in hitting bottom; you have faced death, the end, and come out on the other side. After that, the world is open to you choice-wise. Is the power of choice enough to build a substantial epic series? The answer is a resounding yes! Choice is one of the most primal things humans can make. Your choices make or break your future. This debut novel is excellent and worth reading, even if it is just for the world-building alone.

Read the full review here

About A.K. Larkwood

A.K. Larkwood is a science fiction and fantasy writer and enthusiast. She studied English at St. John’s College, Cambridge. She has worked in higher education and media relations, and she is now studying law. She lives in Oxford, England, with her wife and a cat.

Read The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

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C.L. Clark, Author of The Unbroken

Nominated by Fabienne Schwizer

The UnbrokenThe Unbroken is modern grimdark at its finest. Epic in scale, set in a world fraught with discord at all fronts and centered around Touraine, a soldier compelled to fight for the conquering army of her home, and Luca, the conquering princess (though she ain’t very princessy). If old-school grimdark is what brought you to this site, then The Unbroken is the sort of book you should strongly consider picking up from the up-and-coming generation of writers.

Part of Grimdark Magazine’s Ten Queer Books to Kickstart Your Reading

About C.L. Clark

C.L. Clark is the author of The Unbroken, the first book in the Magic of the Lost trilogy. She graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA and was a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. She’s a former co-editor of the Hugo-nominated and British Fantasy Award-winning PodCastle, and her work has appeared in Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fantasy Magazine and more.

Read The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

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Cameron Johnston, Author of The Maleficent Seven

Nominated by Chris Napier

The Maleficent SevenThe Maleficent Seven from author Cameron Johnston is an interesting, bloody, action-packed novel that starts big and doesn’t let up. Starting at a point where most novels would end, The Maleficent Seven brings a bunch of grim, weary bastards together to protect a town threatened by the march of a seemingly unstoppable army of fanatics. Humor, blood, and a lot of bad people doing bad things – The Maleficent Seven is a book you will not want to miss.

Read the full review here

About Cameron Johnston

Cameron Johnston is the British Fantasy Award and Dragon Awards nominated author of dark fantasy novels, The Traitor God, God of Broken Things, and The Maleficent Seven. He is a swordsman, a gamer, and an enthusiast of archaeology, history, and mythology. He loves exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars by a roaring fire.

Read The Maleficent Sevent by Cameron Johnston

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Mike Shackle, Author of A Fool’s Hope

Nominated by Rai Furniss-Greasley

A Fool's HopeIf Shackle was just finding his voice as an author in We Are the Dead, he has really excelled and polished his craft in the sequel. A Fool’s Hope knows precisely what sort of beast it wants to be from the very beginning, and it doesn’t disappoint fans of The Last War who have been looking forward to this novel. A Fool’s Hope is gritty, thrilling, with well-crafted and surprisingly likeable characters (for the most part), and it progresses the overall narrative in fine fashion. The Last War is a series that many more fans of grimdark and dark fantasy should check out.

Read the full review here

About Mike Shackle

Originally from London, Mike Shackle has called Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, New York,
and Dubai his home over the years before settling down with his family in Vancouver. In that time, he’s sold washing machines, cooked for royalty, designed a few logos, and made a lot of ads. Ideally, he’s happiest daydreaming over a cup of tea.

Read A Fool’s Hope by Mike Shackle

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Shelley Parker-Chan, Author of She Who Became the Sun

Nominated by Sally Berrow

She Who Became the Sun2021 was the year of the sapphic trifecta – The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan and The Unbroken by C.L. Clark. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan is an amazing Chinese-inspired military fantasy with grimdark leanings. Their next book and sequel, He Who Drowned the World, is due out in 2023.

Check out Grimdark Magazine’s Ten Queer Books to Kickstart Your Reading

About Shelley Parker-Chan

Shelley Parker-Chan (she/they) is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, Shelley Parker-Chan was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. Parker-Chan’s writing owes more than a little to all three. In 2017 they were awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender.

Read She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

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Hannah Kaner, Author of Godkiller

Nominated by James Tivendale

GodkillerKissen’s family were killed by zealots of a fire god. Now, she makes a living killing gods, and enjoys it. That is until she finds a god she cannot kill: Skedi, a god of white lies, has somehow bound himself to a young noble, and they are both on the run from unknown assassins. Joined by a disillusioned knight on a secret quest, they must travel to the ruined city of Blenraden, where the last of the wild gods reside, to each beg a favor. Pursued by demons, and in the midst of burgeoning civil war, they will all face a reckoning – something is rotting at the heart of their world, and only they can be the ones to stop it.

Read the full review here

Part of Grimdark Magazine’s The SFF Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2023

About Hannah Kaner

Hannah Kaner is a Northumbrian writer living in Scotland. She works as a senior digital consultant in Edinburgh, delivering digital healthcare, tools, and services for the public sector. She has a first class degree in English from Pembroke College, Cambridge, and a Masters of Science with distinction from the University of Edinburgh. She is inspired by world mythologies, angry women, speculative fiction, and the stories we tell ourselves about being human.

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Gaurav Mohanty, Author of Sons of Darkness

Nominated by Elizabeth Tabler

Sons of DarknessBled dry by violent confrontations thwith e Magadhan Empire, the Mathuran Republic simmers on the brink of oblivion. The Republic’s Leaders, Krishna and Satyabhama, have put their plans in motion within and beyond its blood-soaked borders, to protect it from annihilation. But theymwill soon discover that neither gold nor alliances last forever. They are, however, not the only players in this game. Mati, Pirate-Princess of Kalinga, must mend her ways if she is to be a good wife. But old habits die hard, especially when one habitually uses murder to settle scores. Karna, the gifted son of a lowborn charioteer, hopes to bury his brutal past, but finds that life is not generous in offering second chances. The crippled hero-turned-torturer Shakuni struggles in the maze of daggers, that is politics, leaving little time for him to plot the revenge he craves.

Alongside a cast of sinister queens, naive kings, pious assassins and predatory priests, these dubious heroes will converge where the Son of Darkness is prophesied to rise and break the World, even as forgotten Gods prepare to play their hand.

Check out more South Asian and Indian Subcontinental Stories You Should Be Reading on Before We Go Blog

About Gaurav Mohanty

Author, lawyer, standup comedian, papercut survivor, pretend swordfighter, recovering burgers addict. As evident, his life has many tabs open. Though he was doing well as a lawyer in Mumbai, he is now pursuing the infinitely more unattainable dream of being the first epic fantasy novelist of India. A connoisseur of mythologies and momos, he enjoys channeling The Rock and writing author bios in third person. Sons of Darkness is Gourav’s first novel. Give it a shot for the poor author owes considerable gold to goblins.

Read Sons of Darkness by Gaurav Mohanty

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T.R. Napper, Author of 36 Streets

Nominated by Adrian Collins

36 StreetsIn T.R. Napper’s debut novel, 36 Streets, Lin Thi Vu is a bounty hunter working for the most feared gangster in Ha Noi. She works her trade in a cyberpunk future Vietnam where the Chinese have invaded and taken over the region and the people of Ha Noi and the 36 streets are pawns butchered between the Chinese military and the Viet Minh. Tired of doing jobs for the Chinese rooting out Viet Minh guerrillas, Lin requests a different type of job. Her boss instructs her to act the part of a private detective for a westerner. Only her job isn’t just to do the job, it’s to take all of the westerner’s money.

Read the full review here

About T.R. Napper

T. R. Napper is also a former diplomat and aid worker, having lived and worked throughout Southeast Asia for over a decade delivering humanitarian programs. Napper is a scholar of East and Southeast Asian literature, and has a creative writing doctorate in Noir, Cyberpunk, and Asian Modernity.

Read 36 Streets by T.R. Napper

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Kian N. Ardalan, Author of Eleventh Cycle

Nominated by John Mauro

Eleventh CycleWith its epic worldbuilding, hauntingly beautiful aesthetic, and well-realized protagonists, Eleventh Cycle is a tour de force of grimdark fantasy and a bold statement from emerging indie author Kian N. Ardalan. The novel takes place in the mist-encircled land of Minethria as the prophesied Eleventh Seed is born. This offspring of the Elder King may, perhaps, serve as savior to the mortal beings of this war-torn land. Eleventh Cycle achieves Brandon Sanderson-level worldbuilding, but with a murkier tone and a more nuanced execution. What makes Eleventh Cycle so effective is that this darkness is balanced with a big heart. Ardalan shares Sanderson’s talent at creating empathetic, broken characters, bringing a deeply personal focus to a vast,mcomplex world. At its core, Eleventh Cycle is a character-driven fantasy featuring four mortal protagonists living in a land that is indifferent to their struggles.

Read the full review here and our recent interview with Kian N. Ardalan here

About Kian N. Ardalan

Kian N. Ardalan was born in Dusseldorf, Germany to Persian parents. When he wasn’t playing video games, reading novels, or trying to convince his parents to watch that R-rated movie about vampires and werewolves, he delved into fantasy worlds of his own making.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.