The best dark SFF of 2023 so far

Last Updated on June 28, 2023

It’s that time of the year. Apologise to your TBR piles in advance because the Grimdark Magazine review team is about to make it rain new books at your house! 2023 had had some brilliant dark SFF drop so far, and there is a bit of something for everyone in our list with city-sized AI robots, dragons, necromancy, empires overthrown, dreams crushed and hope clawed for. If you’re looking for something new to read, we’ve got you covered!

Babel by R.F. Kuang

Andrew Jaden

cover of Babel by R.F. KuangThere are books you devour. And then there are books you nibble at in small chunks, books you need to savour because they are revelatory in so many different ways. And Babel by R.F. Kuang is one of the latter. Subtitled , or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, it is made clear from the beginning that this isn’t your average dark academia themed fantasy novel.

Read the full review here.

About the book

The city of dreaming spires.

It is the centre of all knowledge and progress in the world.

And at its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation. The tower from which all the power of the Empire flows.

Orphaned in Canton and brought to England by a mysterious guardian, Babel seemed like paradise to Robin Swift.

Until it became a prison…

But can a student stand against an empire?

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To Shape a Dragon’s Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose

Brigid Flanagan

Cover for To Shape a Dragon's BreathIn a grim world damaged by dragon wars, colonization, and industrialization, To Shape a Dragon’s Breath follows the story of a young Indigenous girl who becomes the hope of her people. Instead of Dragon rider, her people call her Nampeshiweisit. Throughout the book, Blackgoose digs up the older roots of fantasy and plants new life with original ideas, growing this novel into a stronger, more thoughtful story. In a whaling village, a girl watches as a rare dragon leaves its egg. It hatches in front of Anequs, who finds herself in a bond with a baby dragon. Anequs is led into the horrid, complicated politics between her people and the colonial government, which requires that she train in dragoneering at a dragon academy, far away from her people.

Read the full review here.

About the book

The remote island of Masquapaug has not seen a dragon in many generations—until fifteen-year-old Anequs finds a dragon’s egg and bonds with its hatchling. Her people are delighted, for all remember the tales of the days when dragons lived among them and danced away the storms of autumn, enabling the people to thrive. To them, Anequs is revered as Nampeshiweisit—a person in a unique relationship with a dragon.

Unfortunately for Anequs, the Anglish conquerors of her land have different opinions. They have a very specific idea of how a dragon should be raised, and who should be doing the raising—and Anequs does not meet any of their requirements. Only with great reluctance do they allow Anequs to enroll in a proper Anglish dragon school on the mainland. If she cannot succeed there, her dragon will be killed.

For a girl with no formal schooling, a non-Anglish upbringing, and a very different understanding of the history of her land, challenges abound—both socially and academically. But Anequs is smart, determined, and resolved to learn what she needs to help her dragon, even if it means teaching herself. The one thing she refuses to do, however, is become the meek Anglish miss that everyone expects.

Anequs and her dragon may be coming of age, but they’re also coming to power, and that brings an important realization: the world needs changing—and they might just be the ones to do it.

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The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose Utomi

Saberin

Cover for The Lies of the Ajungo by Moses Ose UtomiSet in an African-inspired world full of wonder and horror, Moses Ose Utomi’s novella The Lies of the Ajungo is a powerful, beguiling blend of parable and fantasy. As part of a bargain with the powerful Ajungo Empire, the citizens of the City of Lies sacrifice their tongues when they turn thirteen in exchange for just enough water to survive. When twelve-year-old Tutu realises just how ill his mother has become, he bravely sets out in search of water, determined to return to his city a hero. His journey through the Forever Desert is filled with danger, hope and heartbreak. Over the course of his travels he grows into a man, but also learns the true darkness behind the City of Lies and the realities of the Ajungo.

Read the full review here.

About the book

They say there is no water in the City of Lies. They say there are no heroes in the City of Lies. They say there are no friends beyond the City of Lies. But would you believe what they say in the City of Lies?

In the City of Lies, they cut out your tongue when you turn thirteen, to appease the terrifying Ajungo Empire and make sure it continues sending water. Tutu will be thirteen in three days, but his parched mother won’t last that long. So Tutu goes to his oba and makes a deal: she provides water for his mother, and in exchange he will travel out into the desert and bring back water for the city. Thus begins Tutu’s quest for the salvation of his mother, his city, and himself.

The Lies of the Ajungo opens the curtains on a tremendous world, and begins the epic fable of the Forever Desert. With every word, Moses Ose Utomi weaves magic.

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Forest of Foes by Matthew Harffy

Aaron S. Jones

Cover for Forest of Foes by Matthew HarffyThe ninth book of The Bernicia Chronicles continues the adventures of Beobrand as readers are transported back to Frankia in AD 652. Beobrand has been ordered to lead a group of pilgrims to the holy city of Rome. He plans to journey quickly and return to Northumbria without delay, but as always – nothing is that simple for Beobrand and the road is long and perilous…

Read the full review here.

About the book

Beobrand finds himself caught between the perilous intrigues of royalty and the Church in this latest thrilling Bernicia Chronicles adventure.

AD 652. Beobrand has been ordered to lead a group of pilgrims to the holy city of Rome. Chief among them is Wilfrid, a novice of the Church with some surprisingly important connections. Taking only Cynan and some of his best men, Beobrand hopes to make the journey through Frankia quickly and return to Northumbria without delay, though the road is long and perilous.

But where Beobrand treads, menace is never far behind. The lands of the Merovingian kings are rife with intrigue. The queen of Frankia is unpopular and her ambitious schemes, though benevolent, have made her powerful enemies. Soon Wilfrid, and Beobrand, are caught up in sinister plots against the royal house.

After interrupting a brutal ambush in a forest, Beobrand and his trusted gesithas find their lives on the line. Dark forces will stop at nothing to seize control of the Frankish throne, and Beobrand is thrown into a deadly race for survival through foreign lands where he cannot be sure who is friend and who is foe.

The only certainty is that if he is to save his men, thwart the plots, and unmask his enemies, blood will flow.

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Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh

Beth Tabler

Cover for Some Desperate Glory by Emily TeshSome Desperate Glory is a story about a young woman who discovers everything she believes in is a lie. It’s about propaganda, radicalisation, deprogramming, and transformation. It imagines a world where humanity went to war against the alien threat and lost. Our protagonist, Valkyr, has grown up as part of the last resistance – or so she thinks. She has trained since childhood to avenge the murder of the Earth; but the people in power on Gaea Station, where she grew up, have other uses for her. (-Quote from the author)

Read our interview with Emily Tesh, here.

About the book

While we live, the enemy shall fear us.

Since she was born, Kyr has trained for the day she can avenge the murder of planet Earth. Raised in the bowels of Gaea Station alongside the last scraps of humanity, she readies herself to face the Wisdom, the powerful, reality-shaping weapon that gave the majoda their victory over humanity.

They are what’s left. They are what must survive. Kyr is one of the best warriors of her generation, the sword of a dead planet. When Command assigns her brother to certain death and relegates her to Nursery to bear sons until she dies trying, she knows she must take humanity’s revenge into her own hands.

Alongside her brother’s brilliant but seditious friend and a lonely, captive alien, Kyr escapes from everything she’s known into a universe far more complicated than she was taught and far more wondrous than she could have imagined.

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The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud

Ryan Howse

Cover for The Strange by Nathan BallingrudThe Strange by Nathan Ballingrud is a True Grit-style western on Mars that slowly veers into horror, and westerns and horror are two of my favorite things. The Martian colonies have been cut off from supplies since The Silence, when all communication and shipments from Earth stopped. The colonists become more desperate. When Anabelle’s father’s restaurant is robbed, and they took the last memento of her mother, Anabelle pursues the thieves through an unnerving Martian desert and into even stranger places.

Full review to come.

About the book

1931, New Galveston, Mars: Fourteen-year-old Anabelle Crisp sets off through the wastelands of the Strange to find Silas Mundt’s gang who have stolen her mother’s voice, destroyed her father, and left her solely with a need for vengeance.

Since Anabelle’s mother left for Earth to care for her own ailing mother, her days in New Galveston have been spent at school and her nights at her laconic father’s diner with Watson, the family Kitchen Engine and dishwasher as her only companion. When the Silence came, and communication and shipments from Earth to its colonies on Mars stopped, life seemed stuck in foreboding stasis until the night Silas Mundt and his gang attacked.

At once evoking the dreams of an America explored in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and the harder realities of frontier life in Charles Portis True Grit, Ballingrud’s novel is haunting in its evocation of Anabelle’s quest for revenge amidst a spent and angry world accompanied by a domestic Engine, a drunken space pilot, and the toughest woman on Mars.

Nathan Ballingrud’s stories have been adapted into the film Wounds and the Hulu series MonsterlandThe Strange is his first novel.

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Forge of the High Mage by Ian C. Esslemont

James Tivendade

Cover for Forge of the High Mage by Ian C. EsslemontEsslemont continues his early empire Path to Ascendancy sequence impressively with the fourth instalment, Forge of the High Mage. This series is a prequel to the events of Erikson‘s Malazan Book of the Fallen and Esslemont’s own Novels of the Malazan Empire, with this entry seeing Kellanved (The Emperor), Dancer (Master Assassin), Dassem Ultor (The Sword), Tayschrenn (High Mage) and their armies advancing into Falar. Awaiting them in or approaching their destination are a powerful religious faction that worships the elder god, Mael, the tribes of the Jhek that includes soletaken wolf and bear warriors, formidable Crimson Guard mercenaries, and something mysterious and ancient that, if left unchecked, could cause devastating damage to the surrounding environment and those within the vicinity.

Read the full review here.

About the book

After decades of warfare, Malazan forces are now close to consolidating the Quon Talian mainland. Yet it is at this moment that Emperor Kellanved orders a new campaign far to the north: the invasion of Falar.

Since the main Malazan armies are otherwise engaged in Quon Tali, a collection of orphaned units and broken squads has been brought together under Fist Dujek – himself recovering from the loss of an arm – to fight this new campaign. A somewhat rag-tag army, joined by a similarly motley fleet under the command of the Emperor himself.

There are however those who harbour doubts regarding the stewardship of Kellanved and his cohort Dancer, and as the Malazan force heads north, it encounters an unlooked-for and most unwelcome threat – unspeakable and born of legend, it has woken and will destroy all who stand in its way. Most appalled by this is Tayschrenn, the untested High Mage of the Empire. He is all-too aware of the true nature of this ancient horror – and his own inadequacy in having to confront it. Yet confront it he must, alongside the most unlikely of allies . . .

And then the theocracy of Falar is itself far from defenceless – its priests are in possession of a weapon so terrifying it has not been unleashed for centuries. Named the Jhistal, it was rumoured to be a gift from the sea-god Mael. But two can play at that game, for the Emperor sails towards Falar aboard his flagship Twisted – a vessel that is itself thought to be not entirely of this world . . . Here, then, in the tracts of the Ice Wastes and among the islands of Falar, the Empire of Malaz faces two seemingly insurmountable tests – each one potentially the origin of its destruction . . .

These are bloody, turbulent and treacherous times for all caught up in the forging of the Malazan Empire.

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The Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

Sally Berrow

Cover for Fourth Wing by Rebecca YarrosFourth Wing is a rip-roaring, breathlessly exciting war school fantasy featuring high stakes, a tough as nails heroine, a brooding love interest, epic power-up moments, and wonderfully sarcastic dragons. High literature it is not, but it’s still the best book I’ve read all year.

Read the full review here.

About the book

Twenty-year-old Violet Sorrengail was supposed to enter the Scribe Quadrant, living a quiet life among books and history. Now, the commanding general―also known as her tough-as-talons mother―has ordered Violet to join the hundreds of candidates striving to become the elite of Navarre: dragon riders.

But when you’re smaller than everyone else and your body is brittle, death is only a heartbeat away…because dragons don’t bond to “fragile” humans. They incinerate them.

With fewer dragons willing to bond than cadets, most would kill Violet to better their own chances of success. The rest would kill her just for being her mother’s daughter―like Xaden Riorson, the most powerful and ruthless wingleader in the Riders Quadrant.

She’ll need every edge her wits can give her just to see the next sunrise.

Yet, with every day that passes, the war outside grows more deadly, the kingdom’s protective wards are failing, and the death toll continues to rise. Even worse, Violet begins to suspect leadership is hiding a terrible secret.

Friends, enemies, lovers. Everyone at Basgiath War College has an agenda―because once you enter, there are only two ways out: graduate or die.

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The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty

Fabienne Scwhizer

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 favourites shelf. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty is such a book. I was smitten by the end of the historical preface, in love by the time I first got to glimpse Amina herself. Shannon Chakraborty wrote herself into readers’ hearts with the Daevabad series – fans will spot a fun easter egg in this – but has seriously levelled up with this new book. Telling the magical tale of Amina al-Sirafi, medieval pirate in the Pacific within the historical context of the Crusades and Holy War, this is compelling, twisty and brilliant.

Read the full review here.

About the book

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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The Book that Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence

John Mauro

Cover for The Book that Wouldn't Burn by Mark LawrenceReading Mark Lawrence’s latest novel, The Book that Wouldn’t Burn, feels like having your mind blown in slow motion. This first volume of his new Library Trilogy is a blend of science fiction and fantasy but at the same time transcends conventional genre labels.

Read the full review here.

About the book

The boy has lived his whole life trapped within a book-choked chamber older than empires and larger than cities.

The girl has been plucked from the outskirts of civilization to be trained as a librarian, studying the mysteries of the great library at the heart of her kingdom.

They were never supposed to meet. But in the library, they did.

Their stories spiral around each other, across worlds and time. This is a tale of truth and lies and hearts, and the blurring of one into another. A journey on which knowledge erodes certainty and on which, though the pen may be mightier than the sword, blood will be spilled and cities burned.

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Night Angel Nemesis by Brent Weeks

Fiona Denton

Cover for Night Angel NemesisNight Angel Nemesis is the latest novel from bestselling fantasy author Brent Weeks and marks a return to the world of his debut trilogy. The Night Angel Trilogy of The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge, and Beyond the Shadows was released in 2008 by Orbit, before Grimdark Magazine was even a twinkle in the eye of the Internet. I cannot tell you how much I loved that original trilogy, but by now, my copies of the books are held together with sticky tape and good intentions. I was gleeful at returning to Week’s world with Night Angel Nemesis, the first of The Kylar Chronicles.

Read the full review here.

About the book

After the war that cost him so much, Kylar Stern is broken and alone. He’s determined not to kill again, but an impending amnesty will pardon the one murderer he can’t let walk free. He promises himself this is the last time. One last hit to tie up the loose ends of his old, lost life.

But Kylar’s best — and maybe only — friend, the High King Logan Gyre, needs him. To protect a fragile peace, Logan’s new kingdom, and the king’s twin sons, he needs Kylar to secure a powerful magical artifact that was unearthed during the war.

With rumors that a ka’kari may be found, adversaries both old and new are on the hunt. And if Kylar has learned anything, it’s that ancient magics are better left in the hands of those he can trust.

If he does the job right, he won’t need to kill at all. This isn’t an assassination — it’s a heist.

But some jobs are too hard for an easy conscience, and some enemies are so powerful the only answer lies in the shadows.

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Gothic by Philip Fracassi

Robin Marx

Cover for Gothic by Philip FracassiPhilip Fracassi’s new horror novel Gothic opens with its protagonist Tyson Parks trapped in an untenable situation. Twenty years ago he was a New York Times bestselling horror author, hailed as Stephen King’s heir apparent. But times have changed and his more recent books have been commercial and critical failures. His smug Manhattan agent—lounging in the posh corner office Tyson’s labor and talent financed—berates him like a child for falling out of step with the fickle tastes of the fiction market. Tyson’s latest manuscript is both late and diverges significantly from the book he pitched to his anxious publisher. The creative well is running dry and his business partners are growing impatient while his debts mercilessly compound.

Read the full review here.

About the book

On his 59th birthday, Tyson Parks—a famous, but struggling, horror writer—receives an antique
desk from his partner, Sarah, in the hopes it will rekindle his creative juices. Perhaps inspire him to write another best-selling novel and prove his best years aren’t behind him.

A continent away, a mysterious woman makes inquiries with her sources around the world, seeking the whereabouts of a certain artifact her family has been hunting for centuries. With the help of a New York City private detective, she finally finds what she’s been looking for.

It’s in the home of Tyson Parks.-

Meanwhile, as Tyson begins to use his new desk, he begins acting… strange. Violent. His writing more disturbing than anything he’s done before. But publishers are paying top dollar, convinced his new work will be a hit, and Tyson will do whatever it takes to protect his newfound success. Even if it means the destruction of the ones he loves.

Even if it means his own sanity.

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A Shade of Madness by Thiago Abdalla

Rai Furniss-Greasley

Cover for A Shade of Madness by Thiago AbdallaA Shade of Madness follows on where successful debut A Touch of Light left off and dives straight back into a world in increasing peril. Thiago Abdalla continues to demonstrate excellent worldbuilding and the exploration of flawed characters trying to do what they believe is the right thing. Far from having any ‘middle book syndrome’, A Shade of Madness is another strong entry into The Ashes of Avarin series that promises more dark, high fantasy with a heavy focus on both death and, well, madness.

Read the full review here.

About the book

As griffin riders clash against airships above and hordes of madmen below, Lynn finds herself surrounded by enemies. Ones that will test the limits of her faith. To defeat them, she must risk everything… including her sanity.

Adrian has lost the Legion, but new magics on foreign shores might be the answer he needs to rebuild his army. His return to the Domain will bring vengeance, and the hope that he will finally prove himself to his father.

Nasha’s curse has taken on a new, terrifying shape. She dreads it could be just what the dead goddess needs to escape from Her prison within the Silent Earth. Will she be strong enough to resist, or will Nasha’s curse give rise to the monster she fears to become?

Madness is spreading and it cares not for the borders of men.

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The Tyranny of Faith by Richard Swan

Adrian Collins

Cover for The Tyranny of Faith by Richard SwanIn The Tyranny of Faith by Richard Swan, our protagonist Helena, Vonvalt, and his retainers travel from Galen’s Vale to the empire’s capital of Sova to unravel the pit of treachery it has become. Old mentors and leaders, and some of the very most senior justices in Vonvalt’s Order of Magistrates must be cut from the body of the empire, lest they poison if further. And if the treachery and intrigue and action stopped there this would still be a very good book. But because it’s a fucking great book, it doesn’t stop there.

Read the full review here.

About the book

A Justice’s work is never done.

The Battle of Galen’s Vale is over, but the war for the Empire’s future has just begun. Concerned by rumors that the Magistratum’s authority is waning, Sir Konrad Vonvalt returns to Sova to find the capital city gripped by intrigue and whispers of rebellion. In the Senate, patricians speak openly against the Emperor, while fanatics preach holy vengeance on the streets.

Yet facing down these threats to the throne will have to wait, for the Emperor’s grandson has been kidnapped – and Vonvalt is charged with rescuing the missing prince. His quest will lead him – and his allies Helena, Bressinger and Sir Radomir – to the southern frontier, where they will once again face the puritanical fury of Bartholomew Claver and his templar knights – and a dark power far more terrifying than they could have imagined.

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Need more books for your TBR?

Check out our previous year’s recommendations:

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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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