Last Updated on February 12, 2024
Since the publication of Prince of Thorns in 2011, Mark Lawrence has become one of the most well-known and respected authors in the grimdark community. As of 2022, he has published fifteen novels over five trilogies, creating an intricately connected universe that blends fantasy and science fiction. Mark Lawrence is also a tireless proponent of indie fantasy, particularly with his creation of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) competition.
It is, perhaps, less well-known that Mark Lawrence is also a prolific author of short stories, many of which reach the same lyrical heights as his novels. In this listicle, I give my ranking of the top ten Mark Lawrence short stories. Six of these are related to characters from his published trilogies, but several of my favorites are standalone stories that are independent of his other work.
Let us begin with my all-time favorite short story from Mark Lawrence.
1. During the Dance
“During the Dance” is a tragically sad story about a young girl, barely four years old, who can see beyond the physical world. She sees spirits and angels dancing everywhere around her, adorned in beautiful colors and conveying different emotions through their dances. These “dancers” come naturally to her, bringing much joy to the young girl and her family. The story is narrated by the girl’s older brother, whose dancer is somehow trapped inside himself. “You got to let him out,” entreats his sister. Then one day she is visited by a beautiful new dancer, black as coal, at the foot of her bed. The grief experienced by the family captures their rawest of emotions. This story reminds me of “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe with its combination of melancholic beauty and aching despair. The ending of the story is absolutely perfect and left me sobbing. “During the Dance” is a masterpiece, one of the best short stories I’ve read by any author.
Read During the Dance for free
2. Locked In
“Locked In” is the single most terrifying short story I’ve ever read. Let me just warn you that this story can’t be unread after you’ve finished it—there is no turning back the clock to undo what will be revealed. I’m not going to spoil anything about the plot of this outstanding horror story. Let me just say that the most frightening stories are the ones that are real. “Locked In” is available for free here. Just don’t read it before bedtime. Seriously. “Locked In” is free to read here.
3. The Visitor
“The Visitor” is a deeply personal short story for Mark Lawrence, told from the point of view of a severely disabled girl, Angela, who obtains a superpower. The unique twist is that Angela’s superpower coexists with her disability rather than overriding it. “The Visitor” ranks as one of his finest short stories. Mark Lawrence has also written a follow-up story, “The Visitor: Kill or Cure,” which has a darker tone and is full of action. I hope that someday Mark Lawrence will turn this idea into a full-length novel. Although “The Visitor” is part of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Card Series, no knowledge of other Wild Cards stories is required to understand and appreciate this story.
Read The Visitor
4. The Devil You Know
“The Devil You Know” is a short story that fills the gap between Red Sister and Grey Sister in Mark Lawrence’s trilogy, The Book of the Ancestor. But it is so much more than that. To the careful reader, “The Devil You Know” establishes connections among all five of Mark Lawrence’s trilogies. There are many secrets buried here, including in the title itself, which won’t become obvious until reading Lawrence’s most recent novel, The Girl and the Moon, which concludes his Book of the Ice trilogy and ties together all fifteen of his novels. “The Devil You Know” is one of three short stories featuring characters from the Book of the Ancestor. The most well-known of these is “Bound,” which takes place between Grey Sister and Holy Sister. A third story, “Thaw,” takes place many years after the conclusion of Holy Sister and further elaborates on the relationships among Nona, Ara, and friends. But the best of these is “The Devil You Know,” which I consider to be a must-read for Mark Lawrence fans. Just be
sure to read it carefully for subtle clues.
Read The Devil You Know
5. The New World
“The New World” continues the story of Jalan and Snorri after the end of The Red Queen’s War trilogy as they sail to the New World. As always, Jalan is a vibrant narrator, full of self- deprecating humor. This story is a lot of fun. Jalan has been appointed a Cardinal by Pope Gomst III. (Yes, Father Gomst apparently got a promotion since his early days in Prince of Thorns.) Jalan is sent on a voyage to the New World, nominally to serve as a missionary. The story itself is the journey to the New World. There’s seasickness, mutiny, chess, and even some Star Trek humor, not necessarily in that order. Those of you playing “I Spy a Taproot” will also be more than satisfied with this short story. It’s truly a joy to be back in the company of Jalan and Snorri. I laughed out loud several times while reading “The New World.” If you love The Red Queen’s War trilogy as much as I do, be sure to check this out. “The New World” is included as part of The Red Queen’s War omnibus. Read our complete review of “The New World” here.
As someone who has thoroughly enjoyed watching Mark Lawrence’s new video series on YouTube, “Perfecting the First Page,” it is a joy to see the master at work with his latest short story, “Solomon.” This is only the fourth short story that Mark Lawrence has published from the point of view of Jorg Ancrath from his Broken Empire series. “Solomon” takes place between the events of Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns. Jorg’s dark humor is in peak form as he is presented with a baby purported to be his own illegitimate child. As usual for Mark Lawrence, “Solomon” is a perfectly crafted story, poetic in its style with a balance between levity and darkness. It is always a thrill to return to the Broken Empire, and I hope Mark Lawrence will follow up with more Jorg stories in the future. “Solomon” is part of the newly published Unbound II anthology by Shawn Speakman. Read our complete review of Unbound II here.
Read Unbound II by Shawn Speakman
7. Know Thyself
“Know Thyself” is my favorite story from Mark Lawrence’s Road Brothers anthology, a collection of fourteen short stories featuring characters from The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War trilogies. Each story in Road Brothers is followed by a brief footnote from Mark Lawrence that provides some additional perspective on the characters. “Know Thyself” features Jorg Ancrath as a six-year-old boy with a propensity for violence. The highlights of the story are his interactions with Father Gomst, who is one of several failed father figures in Jorg’s life. The description of Jorg’s four-year-old brother, William, is particularly chilling, especially as he declares what he would like to become when he grows up. Read “Know Thyself” as part of the Road Brothers anthology.
8. Sleeping Beauty
“Sleeping Beauty” is another standout story from the Road Brothers anthology. This story puts Jorg into a fairy tale setting, as a kiss awakens him from an extended fever dream which blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. This story pays homage to multiple fairy tales, including Goldilocks and Rapunzel, but it most notably parallels the story of Sleeping Beauty. The kiss that awakens Jorg, at least in his own mind, is from Katharine ap Scorron, the focus of his romantic obsessions. It is uncertain if Katherine is actually there, or if she is just a figment of Jorg’s imagination. Or perhaps Katherine is purposely manipulating Jorg’s dreams with her newly acquired dream-weaving powers.
The dream itself finds Jorg in a military medical bunker from the ancient Builder civilization, with a data echo threatening to enter Jorg’s body to give itself a physical form. Jorg is strapped down and subjected to various forms of medical experimentation, including the use of an artificial skin gel that can heal burns.
The story flows in and out of this dream-world, blending Jorg’s reality with his hopes and fears. It is unclear how much of the dream sequence is Jorg’s own fever-induced delirium versus a manipulated dreamscape planted in his mind. Mark Lawrence has a particular knack for writing fever dream sequences in several of his books, and this short story is another great example. The science fiction elements are especially well done as Jorg interacts with the data echo of the ancient Builder. Read “Sleeping Beauty” as part of the Road Brothers anthology.
Read Road Brothers
9. Bad Seed
“Bad Seed” holds a special place in the history of Grimdark Magazine. It was the first story acquired by Adrian Collins when he started the magazine back in 2014. “Bad Seed” gives the origin story of Red Kent, one of the bloodiest of Jorg’s Road Brothers from the Broken Empire trilogy.
In fact, the first issue of Grimdark Magazine proudly features a hatchet-wielding Red Kent on its cover. Beyond its historical significance, “Bad Seed” is also a bloody great story. And I do mean bloody. “Bad Seed” is the epitome of grimdark and a must-read for fans of the Broken Empire.
Read Bad Seed in Grimdark Magazine Issue #1
10. Dark Tide
“Dark Tide” is an eerily unsettling horror story. A mysterious dark tide is rising, leading to strange electrical disturbances, epileptic seizures, and spontaneous boiling of holy water. The dark tide threatens to engulf the world, as if hell itself were rising from the depths to drown humanity in its darkness.
The story takes place on two time frames, beginning on a submarine navigating the depths of the dark tide. We then fall back in time to when the dark tide first emerged, seeping up from basements accompanied by an ancient rotting stench. The second part of the story eventually brings us back full circle.
“Dark Tide” is a haunting blend of horror and science fiction. The horror of the story is only amplified by its spareness, leaving the reader guessing as to the origin of the dark tide and the ultimate fate of our protagonists. I especially like how “Dark Tide” dabbles in philosophical and religious overtones.
Mark Lawrence revisited this theme with “Darker Tide,” a campier version of the story with Stranger Things vibes. The premise of the two stories is the same, but Lawrence takes them in two completely different directions. While “Dark Tide” focuses on horror, “Darker Tide” blends horror elements with 1980s adolescent nostalgia, similar to his Impossible Times trilogy. While both stories are excellent, “Dark Tide” is my favorite.
Read “Dark Tide” for free here.