Discover the dark side of adult fantasy novels with the best grimdark fantasy books.
While discussing books with my younger brother, he mentioned I should write a post about the best grimdark fantasy books.
Surprisingly, I had never heard of the genre. So obviously, I took it as a challenge to learn all about it. What is grimdark fantasy? What are the best books to read if you want to explore the genre?
What Defines Grimdark Fantasy?
So what’s the difference between grimdark and dark fantasy?
In science fiction, you’ve likely heard of dystopian fiction. Well, grimdark fantasy is the fantasy version.
In grimdark fantasy, the book is set in a world full of violence and without morals. Imagine continual war and a world without hope. It’s an ever darker form of dark fantasy where worldbuilding is completely grim and full of anti-heroes. Think Game of Thrones or The Witcher.
So where does the line fall between grimdark fantasy books and dark fantasy? It’s obviously an arbitrary value. And I’m not exactly an expert.
However, based on my research and my knowledge of books, here are some of the best examples of grimdark fantasy if you are feeling in the mood for something a bit darker than I usually recommend.
Best Grimdark Fantasy Books
The Black Company
One of the best grimdark fantasy books out there, The Black Company is the first book about a company of mercenaries. While the bad for good and evil plays out, the members of the Black Company just do what they are paid for. As chronicled by Croaker, the company historian, The Black Company displays its own moral code in a grim and dark world.
Prince of Thorns
Although lovingly raised as a privileged royal child, Jorg Ancrath’s life has led him to become The Prince of Thorns. As a ruler of a grim company of outlaws, Jorg has used his charm and ferocity to carve a place for himself in a ruined land. Yet despite all he’s seen, Jorg’s return to his father’s castle brings the horrors of his childhood to light in this well-regarded grimdark fantasy.
The Poppy War
R. F. Kuang
A gorgeous grimdark fantasy story inspired by the violence of modern Chinese history. Everyone is surprised when Rin, a war orphan, aces her test and is admitted to the elite military school in Nikan. Bullied by her classmates for her dark skin and peasant background, Rin realizes she has magical abilities others do not. With the Third Poppy War looming, Rin might be the Empire’s only chance for survival.
The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie’s debut novel, the first in his First Law series, showcases his astounding ability to bring complicated characters to life. An old wizard with a temper will change the lives of an infamous barbarian at the end of his luck, a selfish noble captain preparing for war, and an inquisitor set on rooting out treason. Full of deadly conspiracies and determined retribution, Abercrombie brilliantly blurs the line between hero and villain.
The Fifth Season
N. K. Jemisin
In a world rocked frequently by catastrophic earthquakes over the millennia, Jemisin tells a story of three women – a young girl just coming into her magical powers, a young woman learning of the injustice of the current system, and a grieving mother hunting for her child as the world collapses around her. Jemisin won three Hugo Awards for Best Novel in three consecutive years for the books in this trilogy.
The Lies of Locke Lamora
Raised as an orphan in the island city of Camorr, Locke Lamora has risen to become a master thief and con artist. The leader of the Gentleman Bastards, a band of thieves and criminals, Locke is living at the top of his career. But when an ambitious competitor threatens to destroy everything that Locke has built, he must figure out how to beat him at his own game.
A Game of Thrones
George R. R. Martin
George R. R. Martin kicks off his epic mastery of political machinations with the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. With winter creeping into the land of summer and the king’s advisors mysteriously dying, Lord Eddard Stark is called to serve as the king’s new Hand. But Stark’s position places his family at risk from the ambitions of the rival houses.
Popular Grim Dark Fantasy
Fitz, the illegitimate child of Chivalry Farseer, grows up as an outcast from the royal family. Yet Fitz develops an innate ability to connect with animals, a magic that can be dangerous if used too often. When Fitz is adopted back into the royal family, he tries his best to replace his old ways with the new teachings as he prepares to become an assassin. As far as popular grimdark fantasy books go, Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy isn’t quite as dark as some, but the grim world is enough for me to place it on my list.
Gardens of the Moon
After years of war between Empress Laseen’s Malazan Empire and Anomander Rake and his sorcerers, even the imperial legions are tired of the bloodshed. Instead of mourning their dead, Sergeant Whiskyjack and Tattersail are forced on another expedition to capture the last free city in this first novel of the acclaimed series of epic dark fantasy books.
A Crown for Cold Silver
Twenty years ago, General Cobalt Zosia led her five nefarious captains and their mercenary armies through an epic battle, defeating monsters and overthrowing an empire. Now retired, Zosia’s peace is shattered when her village is attacked. Set on vengeance, Zosia must confront once-faithful allies and aggrieved enemies to find justice in the first book of The Crimson Empire series.
Blood of Elves
After a century of peace, fighting has broken out among humans, gnomes, dwarves, and elves. Cunning assassin Geralt of Rivia has been awaiting the birth of a prophesied child with extraordinary powers, a child who will change the world, for good or for evil. With the threat of war on the horizon, Geralt must protect the child at all costs. If you are looking for popular adult fantasy novels made into tv series, you can’t miss this inspiration for The Witcher.
The Steel Remains
Richard K. Morgan
Although estranged from his aristocratic fantasy, Gil accepts a request from his mother to free a cousin sold into slavery. As the cynical mercenary sets out on his quest, he soon realizes more is at stake. For Gil finds himself as the only person standing in the way of a dreaded prophecy of the rise of a dark lord.
The Darkness That Comes Before
R. Scott Bakker
In this epic grimdark fantasy tale, civilization was practically destroyed in the First Apocalypse two thousand years ago. Now, a charismatic new leader has arisen declaring a new Crusade, sparking the Second Apocalypse. Bakker’s debut novel is extremely complicated, covering multiple nations, religions, and magical systems, so The Prince of Nothing series is best for those who don’t mind world-building on steroids.
Best Grimdark Books by Women
The Court of Broken Knives
Anna Smith Spark
In the richest empire in the world, the city of Sorlost has become one full of decadence and waste. Haunted by the empire’s vulnerability, Orhan Emmereth leads his company of soldiers across the desert to kill the Emperor and ravage the city, starting the empire afresh. But among Orhan’s company, a strange boy running from his past finds himself headed toward an unexpected destiny.
A Cavern of Black Ice
J. V. Jones
Left for dead as a newborn and raised by the Surlord Penthero Iss, Ash March has always suspected that she is different. As she grows, Iss expectantly waits to see what powers Ash develops and has her guarded day and night by his living blade. Raif Severance also knows he is different after surviving a raid that sends his country to war. However, if they are to defeat the growing evil, both Raif and Ash must learn to control their powers and embrace their joint destiny.
Certain Dark Things
In a mix of paranormal and grimdark fantasy, Silvia Moreno-Garcia transports you to a Mexico City that has become a haven for vampires. When street kid Domingo meets Atl, a jaded vampire on the run, his life is changed forever. Fleeing the rival narco-vampire gang, Atl and Domingo try to escape the city, pursued by both humans and vampires alike.
Ruled by two crime families, Kekun Island is the only place in the world that mines a rare magical jade that gives superhuman abilities. Instead of protecting the island from invaders, the Green Bone families on Kekun have given into a luxurious lifestyle. When the antagonism between the crime families turns into outright war, Kekun finds itself threatened from within and without.
Early Grimdark Novels
The Broken Sword
In this classic grimdark fantasy book, the elves seek to remake the sword Tyrfing that Thor broke to save the roots of the tree of life. Scafloc, a human raised by elves, seeks to persuade the ice-giant to make the sword whole again so the elves can defeat the trolls. But Scafloc’s own shadow self is threatening to ruin his mission.
Elric of Melniboné
For 100,000 years, Melniboné ruled the world but 500 years ago the empire collapsed. Now ruling over a dying Melniboné, King Elric only takes the throne because he is the kingdom’s last hope. Cynical and melancholy, the albino King Elric must do all in his power to constantly outlast the attempted coups of his cousin Yrkoon.
Lord Foul’s Bane
Stephen R. Donaldson
In this classic grimdark fantasy book series, a man with leprosy unexpectedly awakes in a magical fantasy world. Dubbing himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, at first, he doubts this strange new land. Although before he was an outcast, now he is revered as the reincarnation of the Land’s greatest hero, destined to use his power to evil Despiser, Lord Foul. Except, Thomas isn’t sure what power he is supposed to possess.
Sister Light, Sister Dark
Raised in a matriarchal society that worships the Goddess Alta, Jenna has been raised in the mountains as a warrior. However, Jenna’s greatest gift is the ability to call forth her dark twin, Skada, who has the soul of the goddess reborn. Fearing that Jenna fulfills an ancient prophecy that speaks of change and unrest, the ruling powers feel threatened.
Additional Grimdark Fantasy Books
The tenth child of the Battle Lord to King Janus, Vaelin Al Sorna is left as a child at the gates of The Brothers of the Sixth Order. There, Vaelin is raised as a foundling to become a Warrior of the Faith. Angry at his father’s abandonment, Vaelin eventually learns his parents’ motivations and finds he is destined to change the realm and the entire world.
R. A. Salvatore
R. A. Salvatore has made quite a name among the adult fantasy books starting with The Icewinds of Dale Trilogy. In this prequel series, Salvatore explores the backstory of Drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden. Find out how one solitary draw escaped a society and family that wanted him dead and walked out of the Underdark.
Years after the giants were subdued in the violent wars, the Banished Lands fear the giants are rising again, threatening a war to end all wars. Young Corban has always wanted to become a king’s soldier, and he unexpectedly gets his wish when tragedy strikes. Meanwhile, High King Aquilius seeks to unite the land and seek out the two champions declared in prophesy.
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter
Swanwick introduces steampunk into his grimdark fantasy books in this imaginative series. A slave in a steam dragon factory, Jane escapes with the help of Melanchthon, a rusted old dragon hulk. Determined to find freedom, she disguises herself to attend school and begins shoplifting to make friends. Yet Jane eventually suspects her stolen dragon and other plans for her.
A Gathering of Ravens
When a Dane slays his brother, Grimnir, the last of a line of monsters that have plagued mankind for time untold, immerges from his lair to get vengeance. However, the world has changed since his last appearance and the old ways are dying. Yet Grimnir’s task leaves him with an impossible dilemma, for if he stands with the Christian king and gets his vengeance he will be allowing the Old Ways to disappear forever.
What Are Your Thoughts on Grimdark Fantasy?
Do you enjoy dark books like grimdark fantasy? Or would you prefer something with a little more hope in it? As always, let me know in the comments!
More Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Lists:
One of my Top 3 Grimdark books/series is the “Book of the Ancestor” series by Mark Lawrence. The first book is called “Red Sister”. Powerful and convincing female characters and a plot that moves at a fantastic pace make this entirely un-put-downable.