I don’t know about other people but as the seasons turn cooler, my reading tastes change. They become a little bit moodier, a little bit darker. I doubt I’m the only one, given how many thriller and horror novels are joining must-read lists and TBR piles. But what if you don’t want to pick up a thriller? What if you’re a dedicated fantasy reader who wants to walk on the darker side? That’s where dark fantasy books come in.
The definition of dark fantasy can be hard to pin down. It’s not synonymous with horror, but there can be overlap. In fact, fantasy novels written by horror authors often get categorized as dark fantasy. For other people, fantasy novels that are a little grittier, a little bloodier, a little more—dare I say—grimdark—belong to that category, which is why George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire sometimes gets that label. I personally don’t agree, but I understand why readers do this.
Quibbling aside, there are a few traits common to dark fantasy stories. They may have a gloomy and moody tone. They may portray humans grappling with supernatural forces. And, they may feature an anti-hero as the main character; in other words, the villains of traditional fantasies may be protagonists in dark fantasy books. Like moral ambiguity in your characters? Dark fantasy is the subgenre for you.
Given the loose definition of dark fantasy, I included a variety of novels on this list. There should be something for everyone. And while there are a few well-known classics of the subgenre listed here, I tried to veer away from the well-beaten path.
1. The Citadel of Fear by Gertrude Barrows
One of the first major female authors of science fiction and fantasy, Stevens originally published her work under the pseudonym Francis Stevens. Credited as the woman who invented dark fantasy, this list would be remiss not to include her! The Citadel of Fear tells the story of two adventurers who stumble across a hidden Aztec city. Unfortunately, one of the men allows a dark god to escape back with him to civilization. First published in 1918, The Citadel of Fear is a good example of the pulpy styles that dominated the science fiction and fantasy genres at the time.
2. Elric: The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock
Moorcock’s drug-dependent albino sorcerer Elric of Melnibone has become one of the most recognizable anti-heroes in fantasy. The last emperor of a declining empire, Elric grapples with external threats, family members who want his throne, and a kind of existential malaise. And that’s not even touching the fact that his soul-stealing sword Stormbringer will inevitably bring doom to all he holds dear.
3. The Black Company by Glen Cook
The Black Company follows the eponymous elite mercenary company who currently fights in the service of the Lady, a powerful sorceress who rules an empire and may or may not be the face of evil itself.
4. Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop
Speaking of characters normally expected to play antagonistic roles, Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series introduces readers to a dark world where the balance of power between men and women have been cast askew and where a select chosen few desperately hope for the one person who can finally set things right. That sounds normal until you discover that your heroes are named Saetan, Lucivar, and Daemon.
5. Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman
A blend of science fiction and fantasy, the first volume of Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy introduces us to a world imbued with natural forces that literally bring a person’s worst nightmares to life. Like other dark fantasy books, the highlight of Black Sun Rising is not the novel’s warrior priest protagonist Damien Vryce but his uneasy ally, the vampiric Gerald Tarrant, who fights a centuries-old internal struggle between living up to his humanity or succumbing to evil.
6. The Gunslinger by Stephen King
The first installment of The Dark Tower series introduces us to Roland, the last gunslinger on a mission to track down The Man in Black—a figure who will be familiar to readers of King’s horror novels. And while the movie adaptation isn’t anything to write home about, we can now imagine Idris Elba as Roland. You’re welcome.
7. The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan
For people who want fantasy that is virtually indistinguishable from horror, you can’t go wrong with a Caitlin Kiernan novel. If you like ghost stories, if you like New England horror a la H.P. Lovecraft—minus the negative connotations that Lovecraft’s works carry—and if you like story within story structures reminiscent of House of Leaves, this one’s for you.
8. Miserere by Teresa Frohock
A battle over opening the gates of Hell? Sounds more like a horror novel, doesn’t it? But when you take that familiar conflict and set it in a secondary fantasy world, it becomes a dark fantasy story. Miserere has all the best parts of fantasy—betrayal, redemption, and hope—mixed with supernatural elements that’ll make any horror fan jump with glee—exorcists, demons, and ghosts.
9. Alice by Christina Henry
Alice in Wonderland is perfect fodder for a dark retelling and Christina Henry’s Alice delivers in this twisted take on Lewis Carroll’s classic story.
10. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Sexual assault tends to figure prominently in many dark fantasy books. Sometimes in a well-handled fashion; sometimes less so. I think Tender Morsels falls into the first category. Along similar lines, fairy tales can be dark. Like, really dark…especially if you look toward the original versions and not the family-friendly stories released by Disney. A retelling of the Snow White and Rose Red fairy tale, Lanagan’s debut explores the best and the worst of human nature. Be forewarned, though: this book does take the dark in dark fantasy seriously. If you’re interested in more dark fairy tales, be sure to check out this list.
11. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Before Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo burst onto the literary scene with Shadow and Bone, about a soldier named Alina who discovers she has mysterious powers capable of driving back the monsters that threaten her country. These powers attract the attention of a powerful magic user known as the Darkling and from there, Alina plunges into a world of intrigue and betrayal.
12. The Young Elites by Marie Lu
Dark fantasy books are full of anti-heroes. But what about anti-heroines? The Young Elites trilogy introduces us to Adelina Amouteru, who shows us what happens when you embrace your dark side.
13. Sabriel by Garth Nix
Nix’s Old Kingdoms trilogy drops readers into a world filled with dangerous magic and the undead. In this first installment, the titular heroine must take up her family’s duty of being the necromancer who puts the undead to rest.
14. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The grass is always greener on the other side, or so we think. Coraline discovers otherwise when she crosses a threshold to find a house and family similar to her own. Never think that children’s books can’t be dark and scary. Coraline’s other mother and other father are the embodiment of creepiness.
While I did intend to put together a list of dark fantasy books, I couldn’t help myself and added a few graphic novel selections as a bonus! Lots of interesting dark fantasy stories are being told in that medium right now, so give these a try if you want something new.
1. Black Butler by Yana Toboso
Ciel Phantomhive’s family has served the British monarch for generations as their “hound.” Doing their dirty work, essentially. But a tragedy happened in Ciel’s childhood, leaving him the family’s sole survivor and bound to a demon who takes the form of a perfect butler named Sebastian. The pun of Sebastian being “one hell of a butler” (or “a butler from hell”) is lost in translation, but the moral ambiguity of Toboso’s characters absolutely is not.
2. Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
There’s a reason Liu and Takeda’s Monstress is an award-winning series. Matriarchal societies, a deliberate mash-up of Asian and European mythologies, dark magic, and not-so-dead gods permeate this dark fantasy series. Don’t be intimidated by the dense worldbuilding. Take it in, pay attention to the art, and you’ll be on your way.
3. Claymore by Norihiro Yagi
This Japanese take on European sword-and-sorcery fantasy introduces us to the Claymore, a group of all-female warriors who devote their lives to destroying monsters that prey on the general populace. But these women pay a price: they gain their powers from the very monsters they hunt and risk the chance of becoming monsters themselves. What starts out a simple hack-and-slash adventure unfolds into a sprawling tale of revenge, intrigue, and freedom.
Heavily influenced by the works of Franz Kafka, Ishida explores the fine line between humanity and the monstrous when his protagonist, Ken Kaneki, transforms into a half-ghoul after a disastrous first date. Kaneki’s struggle to retain his humanity in the face of his ghoul side’s ravenous hunger forms of the backbone of this dark fantasy series. If you give this a go, strap in tight. Tokyo Ghoul and its sequel, Tokyo Ghoul:re are a wild and unpredictable ride.
Do you love dark fantasy books? What are your favorites?