Ten cinematic sci-fi and fantasy novels for grimdark fans

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

As avid readers, we know it’s always a great time to pick up a good book. With Hollywood on strike, now is an especially opportune time to discover great new reads, especially those with a cinematic style that brings the story vividly to life. Here are ten novels for dark sci-fi/fantasy fans which prove that curling up with a good book can be just as breathtaking as watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

For Fans of The Godfather

Cover for Jade City by Fonda LeeJade City is Fonda Lee’s World Fantasy Award-winning urban fantasy set in the Asian-inspired island nation of Kekon. Jade City is the nickname for Janloon, the capital of Kekon, which is controlled by mafia-style gangs led by organized crime families.

Jade City has a cinematic quality that reminds me of watching The Godfather or Goodfellas. Fonda Lee’s writing is so captivating that, as a reader, I felt like an extra on the set of a movie, watching the action up-close. As a black belt martial artist, the detail that Fonda Lee brings to fight sequences makes them especially realistic, reminding me of the best fight scenes from Hong Kong and Taiwanese martial arts films. The emotional intensity of these action sequences is matched by several heartbreaking scenes throughout the novel.

Jade City is a breathtakingly original, pulse-pounding urban fantasy and a triumph in every sense.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Jade City is a gripping Godfather-esque saga of intergenerational blood feuds, vicious politics, magic, and kung fu.

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.

The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion—but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.

When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

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The Shadow Glass by Josh Winning

For Fans of Labyrinth

Cover for The Shadow Glass by Josh WinningIf you ever danced with the Goblin King, cried when Artax died, or were a little bit scared of Skeksis when you were young, then The Shadow Glass will have you pumping your fist and grinning like an idiot.

Jack is the son of Bob Corman, an eccentric who made a cult classic fantasy movie called The Shadow Glass. As an adult, Jack is estranged from his father. He hates Bob’s movie, as it represents everything that is wrong in his relationship with his dad. When Bob dies, Jack decides to sell the memorabilia from the cult classic film. But plans crash down abruptly as he learns that the fantasy puppets are no longer only puppets. Somehow, they’ve become flesh and blood heroes and villains in a war that has spilled from fantasy into reality.

From the characters to the storyline, every word is perfectly placed. The Shadow Glass is a delightful smorgasbord of nostalgia and fun, while at the same time exploring themes of loss, love, grief, and self-discovery.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Jack Corman is failing at life.

Jobless, jaded and on the “wrong” side of thirty, he’s facing the threat of eviction from his London flat while reeling from the sudden death of his father, one-time film director Bob Corman. Back in the eighties, Bob poured his heart and soul into the creation of his 1986 puppet fantasy The Shadow Glass, a film Jack loved as a child, idolizing its foxlike hero, Dune.

But The Shadow Glass flopped on release, deemed too scary for kids and too weird for adults, and Bob became a laughingstock, losing himself to booze and self-pity. Now, the film represents everything Jack hated about his father, and he lives with the fear that he’ll end up a failure just like him.

In the wake of Bob’s death, Jack returns to his decaying home, a place creaking with movie memorabilia and painful memories. Then, during a freak thunderstorm, the puppets in the attic start talking. Tipped into a desperate real-world quest to save London from the more nefarious of his father’s creations, Jack teams up with excitable fanboy Toby and spiky studio executive Amelia to navigate the labyrinth of his father’s legacy while conjuring the hero within––and igniting a Shadow Glass resurgence that could, finally, do his father proud.

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A Gamble of Gods by Mitriel Faywood

For Fans of Indiana Jones

A Gamble of Gods coverA Gamble of Gods is the highly imaginative, world-hopping debut by Mitriel Faywood. Faywood’s debut is a genre-defying story, impossible to categorize using conventional literary classifications. The experience of reading A Gamble of Gods is more like watching a blockbuster movie: a hugely entertaining, immersive experience, where the heart-pounding action is balanced by a cheerful levity and even some romance.

Faywood keeps up the fast-paced Indiana Jones-style action throughout A Gamble of Gods without ever having a dull moment. There is truly something here for everyone, and I particularly enjoyed the lighthearted comedy throughout much of the book. I laughed so hard during one scene at around the 75% mark that it almost caused me bodily injury.

So, grab yourself a big vat of popcorn to munch on as you enjoy this blockbuster debut. A Gamble of Gods is a rollicking good time.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Life used to be good. I had money. I had fame. I had respect. The same thrill during work every day. A different woman in my bed every night. Best fighter to hire for dangerous jobs. Most famous thief in the Nineteen Kingdoms. Half the world sought my services when they needed the impossible done. The other half wanted to sleep with me.

Then one day this strange guy showed up with his even stranger pet, the latter a bit of a gift horse by all accounts, and turned it all upside down. They claimed to have come to save my life, and while they were at it, I got them to help out with the most important quest of my existence: finding the Supreme Key of the Dragon. Needless to say, none of it turned out quite how I expected. But we had fun, even if it was hell sometimes. In the end, what we found was worth it all.

My name is Conor Drew, the Gods destined me for great things.

But I turned them down.

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The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

For Fans of Apocalypse Now

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark

The Court of Broken Knives established Anna Smith Spark as the Queen of Grimdark, and for good reason. This is grimdark fantasy of the highest caliber, with four complex lead characters in a bleak and violent world that feels like a medieval version of Apocalypse Now.

Anna Smith Spark’s sparse yet cinematic writing style is the perfect vehicle for delivering this brutal tale, with many poetic moments throughout the novel. The Court of Broken Knives is simultaneously ruthless and beautiful: truly a must-read for grimdark fans.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

The Court of Broken Knives is the explosive debut by one of grimdark fantasy’s most exciting new voices.

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.

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The Builders by Daniel Polansky

For Fans of The Magnificent Seven

The Builders by Daniel PolanskyThe Builders is Daniel Polansky’s riotous grimdark fantasy western featuring a band of gunslinging anthropomorphized animals bent on revenge.

The Builders follows a grizzled mouse soldier known as the Captain as he assembles a ragtag team of adventurers in his pursuit of vengeance. Besides the mousey Captain, The Magnificent Seven-style team consists of a stoat, an opossum, a badger, a salamander, a mole, and an owl.

The Builders is a fast-paced thrill ride of action as the motley crew face their odious, odorous skunk enemy. The story is instantly absorbing, a testament to Daniel Polansky’s outstanding writing, which is full of dark wit, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Personally, I found The Builders to be unputdownable, devouring the entire book in one afternoon.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE 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.

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The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

For Fans of Pirates of the Caribbean

Cover for The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

Some books are so magical you know within a few pages that they will end up on your favorites shelf. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty is such a book, telling the magical tale of Amina, a medieval pirate in the Pacific, within the historical context of the Crusades. This book is compelling, twisty, and brilliant.

We spend most of the story with Amina and her motley crew of sailors, reassembled by necessity. Shannon Chakraborty weaves in mythology, history, and brilliant characters with an adventure story to create a plot that is also, most of all, fun to read.

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is a masterpiece and a must-read for those who enjoy historical fantasy, brilliant characters, and great storytelling. Oh, and there’s pirates and a good dose of fun and betrayal.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Shannon Chakraborty, the bestselling author of The City of Brass, spins a new trilogy of magic and mayhem on the high seas in this tale of pirates and sorcerers, forbidden artifacts and ancient mysteries, in one woman’s determined quest to seize a final chance at glory—and write her own legend.

Amina al-Sirafi should be content. After a storied and scandalous career as one of the Indian Ocean’s most notorious pirates, she’s survived backstabbing rogues, vengeful merchant princes, several husbands, and one actual demon to retire peacefully with her family to a life of piety, motherhood, and absolutely nothing that hints of the supernatural.

But when she’s tracked down by the obscenely wealthy mother of a former crewman, she’s offered a job no bandit could refuse: retrieve her comrade’s kidnapped daughter for a kingly sum. The chance to have one last adventure with her crew, do right by an old friend, and win a fortune that will secure her family’s future forever? It seems like such an obvious choice that it must be God’s will.

Yet the deeper Amina dives, the more it becomes alarmingly clear there’s more to this job, and the girl’s disappearance, than she was led to believe. For there’s always risk in wanting to become a legend, to seize one last chance at glory, to savor just a bit more power…and the price might be your very soul.

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Wistful Ascending by JCM Berne

For Fans of Guardians of the Galaxy

Cover for Wistful Ascending by JCM BerneWistful Ascending is JCM Berne’s debut superhero space opera and the first installment in his Hybrid Helix trilogy. Rohan is a hybrid, with a human mother and an alien father from the imperialist il’Drach race. He inherited superpowers from the paternal side of his family, including super strength and the ability to fly. After spending a decade fighting an intergalactic war, Rohan now wishes to live a quiet, anonymous life as a Tow Chief Second Class on the space station Wistful.

Wistful Ascending is full of space action. Despite Rohan’s superpowers, JCM Berne conveys a real sense of vulnerability for our hero. I found myself holding my breath while reading several of the action scenes. Through his compelling storyline and realistic character development, JCM Berne convinced this cynical grimdark reviewer that superheroes can be cool.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

A superhero space opera for grownups. For fans of Invincible and Marvel Cinematic Universe films who like a little hard science fiction in their superheroes.

The il’Drach have conquered half a galaxy behind the civilization-ending Powers of their mixed-species children. Half-human Rohan, exhausted by a decade fighting for their Empire, has paid a secret and terrible price for his freedom.

Now retired, he strives to live a quiet life towing starships for the space station Wistful. His most pressing problems are finding the perfect cup of coffee and talking to a gorgeous shuttle tech without tripping over his own tongue.

A nearby, long-dormant wormhole is opened by a ship full of scared, angry refugees, and the many eyes of the Empire focus uncomfortably on Wistful.

As scientists, spies, and assassins converge, reverting to the monster the Empire created is the surest way to protect his friends. And the surest way to lose them.

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One Word Kill by Mark Lawrence

For Fans of Stranger Things

One Word Kill by Mark LawrenceOne Word Kill is Mark Lawrence’s science fiction-infused bildungsroman that takes place in London in 1986. The narrator, Nick, is a 15-year-old boy who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. He has, at best, a 50% chance of surviving until his twentieth birthday.

Nick is a mathematical prodigy and a social outcast with a small circle of close friends who love playing Dungeons & Dragons and discussing the metaphysical implications of quantum mechanics. The sci-fi elements come when Nick is approached by a visitor from the future with an important message that could rescue him from cancer, but more urgently for Nick, save his troubled new friend, Mia.

One Word Kill is full of 1980s nostalgia, with plenty of references to classic board games, television shows, movies, and music of the era. As with Mark Lawrence’s fantasy novels, One World Kill is hyperintelligent and beautifully written.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

In January 1986, fifteen-year-old boy-genius Nick Hayes discovers he’s dying. And it isn’t even the strangest thing to happen to him that week.

Nick and his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are used to living in their imaginations. But when a new girl, Mia, joins the group and reality becomes weirder than the fantasy world they visit in their weekly games, none of them are prepared for what comes next. A strange—yet curiously familiar—man is following Nick, with abilities that just shouldn’t exist. And this man bears a cryptic message: Mia’s in grave danger, though she doesn’t know it yet. She needs Nick’s help—now.

He finds himself in a race against time to unravel an impossible mystery and save the girl. And all that stands in his way is a probably terminal disease, a knife-wielding maniac and the laws of physics.

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The Combat Codes by Alexander Darwin

For Fans of The Karate Kid

The Combat Codes by Alexander DarwinThe Combat Codes is the debut martial arts science fiction by Alexander Darwin in which war has been replaced by hand-to-hand combat. Alexander Darwin is an accomplished martial arts master and also a wizard at writing well-choreographed, cinematic fight scenes. In this way, The Combat Codes feels much like a sci-fi version of The Karate Kid.

The Combat Codes is manna from heaven for martial arts enthusiasts, who will enjoy the breathtakingly realistic action scenes and philosophical discussions on the importance of martial arts.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

In a world long ago ravaged by war, the nations have sworn an armistice never to use weapons of mass destruction again. Instead, highly skilled warriors known as Grievar Knights represent their nations’ interests in brutal hand-to-hand combat.

Murray Pearson was once a famed Knight until he suffered a loss that crippled his homeland — but now he’s on the hunt to discover the next champion.

In underground and ruthless combat rings, an orphaned boy called Cego is making a name for himself. Murray believes Cego has what it takes to thrive in the world’s most prestigious combat academy – but first, Cego must prove himself in the vicious arenas of the underworld. And survival isn’t guaranteed.

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The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown

For Fans of Alien

The Scourge Between Stars by Ness BrownThe Scourge Between Stars is the debut sci-fi horror by Ness Brown, an astrophysics graduate student and former astronomy instructor. Earth has become uninhabitable due to the unmitigated environmental damage of modern human civilization, and repairing the damage to Earth has been deemed too difficult compared to establishing civilization elsewhere. However, an attempt to colonize a faraway planet has also proved unsuccessful. Now the starship Calypso is headed back to Earth in a final effort to save the last of humanity.

Jacklyn Albright is the acting captain of Calypso, filling the role vacated by her incapacitated father, who remains locked in his quarters, unresponsive to the needs of the crew. Jacklyn is left to face an increasingly dire situation with insufficient food and a growing threat of mutiny. But a new and harrowing threat arises when crew members are found murdered in gruesome fashion, purportedly by a hostile alien on board the ship.

The Scourge Between Stars is compulsively readable, with fast-paced plot kept me flipping through the pages of this short novel.

Read the full review here.

ABOUT THE BOOK

As acting captain of the starship Calypso, Jacklyn Albright is responsible for keeping the last of humanity alive as they limp back to Earth from their forebears’ failed colony on Proxima b.

Faced with constant threats of starvation and destruction in the treacherous minefield of interstellar space, Jacklyn’s crew has reached their breaking point. As unrest begins to spread throughout the ship’s Wards, a new threat emerges, picking off crew members in grim, bloody fashion.

Jacklyn and her team must hunt down the ship’s unknown intruder if they have any hope of making it back to their solar system alive.

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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.