Top five grimdark stories hiding behind pink and pastels

Last Updated on March 30, 2024

We readers are always advised not to buy books because of their covers. But thinking about how we at Grimdark Magazine decide to pick up stories, it becomes clear that covers are key to setting expectations. Just like every retelling of Robin Hood has a bow and arrow somewhere on the cover, grimdark tends to come in shades of black, red and grey. (Of course, there are exceptions.) Covers indicate market positioning and intended audience, as does cover copy. I’m sure all of us have fallen prey to a pretty cover promising something it doesn’t deliver on. However, we’ve reviewed a range of books that fit our definition of grimdark (TL:DR a morally grey protagonist in a world stacked against them) while looking like fun and fluffy reads – the proverbial wolf in a sheep’s pelt. This list will shine a spotlight on books with pretty, colourful covers that you should give a try.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson

bright pink cover of Her Majesty's Royal CovenHer Majesty’s Royal Coven by Juno Dawson is a perfect example. It comes in fluorescent pink but proceeds to captivate with an incisive discussion of trans rights in an age of rampant TERF-ery. Set around a magical shadow government founded by Anne Boleyn, HMRC is a story where the ends justify the means. The characters range from a young trans witch trying to find her place in the world (and witchcraft) to a woman willing to kill whoever she needs to to regain her position. This one is a chonker, as is the follow-up The Shadow Cabinet. A series that hits all the right notes.

From the publisher:

Hidden among us is a secret coven of witches.

Know has Her Majesty’s Royal Coven,they protect crown and country from magical forces and otherworldly evil.

But their greatest enemy will come from within…

There are whisperings of a prophecy that will bring the coven to its knees, and four best friends are about to be caught at the centre.

Life as a modern witch was never simple … but now it’s about to get apocalyptic.

The Poisons We Drink by Bethany Baptiste

The Poisons We DrinkSimilarly, The Poisons We Drink by Bethany Baptiste comes in a pretty pink package. This is an urban fantasy YA story on the ways in which love can be a tool. Venus (aptly named) is a brewer of love potions – both highly illegal and very dangerous. The world of this novel has split love into a range of facets and looks at them from a very cynical point of view. Because love is power, and love can be manipulated. The main characters of The Poisons We Drink are brilliantly selfish people, stubbornly working towards their own goals. A book I didn’t quite expect, but one that’s a great fit for readers of Grimdark Magazine.

From the publisher:

In a country divided between humans and witchers, Venus Stoneheart hustles as a brewer making illegal love potions to support her family.

Love potions is a dangerous business. Brewing has painful, debilitating side effects, and getting caught means death or a prison sentence. But what Venus is most afraid of is the dark, sentient magic within her.

Then an enemy’s iron bullet kills her mother, Venus’s life implodes. Keeping her reckless little sister Janus safe is now her responsibility. When the powerful Grand Witcher, the ruthless head of her coven, offers Venus the chance to punish her mother’s killer, she has to pay a steep price for revenge. The cost? Brew poisonous potions to enslave D.C.’s most influential politicians.

As Venus crawls deeper into the corrupt underbelly of her city, the line between magic and power blurs, and it’s hard to tell who to trust…Herself included.

The Poisons We Drink is a potent YA debut about a world where love potions are weaponized against hate and prejudice, sisterhood is unbreakable, and self-love is life and death.

Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender

Cover of Queen of the ConqueredYou might be forgiven for thinking Kacen Callender’s Queen of the Conquered is a YA novel and not one of the bleakest stories of recent years. The cover, white with some pink, featuring the profile of a Black woman, is about as misleading as the stubborn insistence some people have when shelving The Poppy War as YA. Queen of the Conquered is an incisive story discussing slavery and colonialisation of the Caribbean. Set on the islands of Hans Lollik, the story picks up when Sigourney Rose, last living member of her family, uses her supernatural ability to influence the powers that be to accept her as a contender for the island’s throne. She is a creature of rage, forged in the fires of seeing her entire family being massacred as a child. And Sigourney is out for revenge – revenge that is sweetest when the people she wants to fall ultimately concert their own end. The story is grimdark, and Sigourney a fascinating, nuanced morally grey character. Even if the reader ends up hating her (or perhaps that’s just me).

From the publisher:

An ambitious young woman with the power to control minds seeks vengeance against the royals who murdered her family, in a Caribbean-inspired fantasy world embattled by colonial oppression.

Sigourney Rose is the only surviving daughter of a noble lineage on the islands of Hans Lollik. When she was a child, her family was murdered by the islands’ colonisers, who have massacred and enslaved generations of her people – and now, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.

When the childless king of the islands declares that he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney uses her ability to read and control minds to manipulate her way onto the royal island and into the ranks of the ruling colonisers. But when she arrives, prepared to fight for control of all the islands, Sigourney finds herself the target of a dangerous, unknown magic.

Someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. As the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.

The Hurricane Wars by Thea Guanzon

Cover of The Hurricane WarsThea Guanzon’s voice in The Hurricane Wars is refreshing and so addictive. The debut novel follows Talasyn, a helmsman in the Sardovian army, who finds herself up against the heir of the opposing empire, Alaric. In the flurry of battle, Talasyn’s quietly-kept powers are exposed to Alaric; powers that was believed to have once been eradicated from existence. We follow both parties navigate the war amidst this revelation, as well as team up to prevent a threat greater than the Hurricane Wars themselves. Guanzon makes use of several classic Grimdark elements: battles, wars and the brutality of an empire. These set the foundations of the novel, which are then balanced out with the angst and tension that seeps through the novel from the growing feelings between Talasyn and Alaric. The Hurricane Wars is perfect for readers who like their Grimdark books with a side of romance.

From the publisher:

All Talasyn has ever known are the Hurricane Wars. An orphan of the struggle, she uses the power of light to fight for her people against the Night Empire.

All Alaric has ever known is darkness. The son of the Night Emperor and their deadliest weapon, he wields terrifying shadow magic to crush the rebellion.

Then he sees Talasyn, his sworn enemy burning bright across the battlefield. The moment they clash their lives are changed forever.

Now a greater threat is rising and only they can stop it.

The coming storm threatens to destroy everything. If they don’t destroy each other first . . .

After the Forest by Kell Woods

Cover of After the ForestAfter the Forest by Kell Woods may not be quite as pink on the outside than some others on this list, but it is certainly as dark. Set after the end of a familiar tale, this story reckons with the aftermath and looks at how a (small-minded) community deals with people they consider different. After the Forest combines plain human cruelty with a fantastical story about werewolves and witches to create a masterful debut. It not only picks up on reference from familiar fairy tales but understands what makes them recognisable – and brings back a cruelty we may recognise from the Brothers Grimm.

From the publisher:

Fifteen years after the witch in the gingerbread house, Greta and Hans are struggling to get by. Their father and stepmother are long dead, Hans is deeply in debt from gambling, and the countryside lies in ruin, its people starving in the aftermath of a brutal war.

Greta has a secret, though: the witch’s grimoire, secreted away and whispering in Greta’s ear for the past two decades, and the recipe inside that makes the best gingerbread you’ve ever tasted. As long as she can bake, Greta can keep her small family afloat. But in a village full of superstition, Greta and her mysteriously addictive gingerbread, not to mention the rumours about her childhood misadventures, are a source of gossip and suspicion.

And now, dark magic is returning to the woods and Greta’s magic – magic she is still trying to understand – may be the only thing that can save her. If it doesn’t kill her first.

Read these books via Amazon

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Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne Schwizer

Fabienne can usually be found with her nose in a book or two. Most of her life revolves around words, be that reading, writing, or editing. You can find more of her ramblings over on www.libridraconis.com, where she also reviews YA books and more lighthearted Fantasy and Science Fiction, as @FLSchwizer on Twitter, and @libri_draconis on Instagram. If you're curious about what she is currently reading, check out www.goodreads.com/libridraconis.