When we think of fantasy, certain tropes and storylines come to mind. An epic quest to save the land from an encroaching evil. A supposedly lowborn hero who’s actually the heir to a great kingdom. A wise mentor figure—often in the form of a wizard—who supports the main cast until he must sacrifice himself to allow the others to continue their journey. Series like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Jordan’s Wheel of Time embody these classic structures. But what if we want a little realism, a little grit, in our fantasy? That’s where grimdark books come in.
Not to be confused with dark fantasy, although there is some overlap, grimdark books are for those of us who want morally grey characters and the inevitably morally grey plot lines that ensue. In other words, the glossy romantic veneer of many traditional fantasy stories is stripped away, leaving behind violence, cynicism, and bleakness.
Despite the trappings of the sub-genre, authors can explore these themes in a variety of ways. And those plot lines don’t always involve sexual violence! While it may seem like this fantasy category is filled with only white male authors, that’s hardly the case. So here are some grimdark examples to get you started on your reading journey. And if you’re already a fan, maybe you’ll find something new.
Classic Grimdark Books
The Black Company by Glen Cook
While The Black Company is often heralded as a dark fantasy, it also falls in this sub-genre due to the straightforward portrayal of the mercenary unit that form its cast of characters. After all, these mercenaries are hardly romantic heroes—they do what the job entails and collect their fee.
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Arguable the series that kickstarted the modern grimdark book trend, the ending of A Game of Thrones shocked many readers when it killed a viewpoint character that in another fantasy would have been the hero to overcome all difficulties and save the kingdom in peril. The series kicked off by this book subverts and comments on several tropes that were prevalent in 1990s era epic fantasy, but does so in ways that may seem dated today.
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
How can I not include the author whose Twitter handle includes the word grimdark? That would be a huge oversight. Much is made of the bloody violence and interesting characters that pervade Abercrombie’s books. What’s talked about less is the black humor. It’s tough to balance the darkness that’s present in the best gritty fantasy books with humor and a lighthearted tone, but he often succeeds.
Overlooked Grimdark Novels
Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman
Black Sun Rising is actually stealth grimdark sci-fi. You can read it like a fantasy novel until you remember it’s about humans who originally settled a world populated by forces that manifest a person’s worst fears. This novel dares you not to be fascinated by Gerald Tarrant, the undead sorcerer who gave up his humanity for knowledge.
A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones
Don’t let the cover turn you off; we all know a woman wouldn’t dress like that in such a cold climate. Considering how long Jones has been writing, it’s a little dismaying that she gets forgotten in discussions of grimdark books. Be forewarned: this is a deceptively dense read. But if you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, you should have no problem.
The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan
So if you like The Black Company but wonder what it would be like if the characters were battle-loving aristocrats, this is your book. I included this novel because it features a hero who 1) has post-traumatic stress disorder and doesn’t shy away from that and 2) is explicitly queer, which sadly is still rare in this sub-genre.
New Grimdark Novels
Acacia by David Anthony Durham
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s a threat from the icy north. A ruler dies. His children are scattered to the winds with the hope that they’ll be able to save their kingdom in the future. Definitely for the A Song of Ice and Fire series fans who want something with more diversity.
The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
If you love huge, complex worlds in your fantasy, you won’t go wrong with this novel by Hurley. Even more to the point, it features very original, inventive world-building with wormholes and mirror empires. Thought those sorts of things were only present in gritty sci-fi? Hardly.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
What is there to say about N.K. Jemisin at this point? If you read SFF and you haven’t picked up a Jemisin novel yet, I must insist you do so immediately. I’ve been a fan since her debut, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but The Fifth Season is a major level-up in prose and themes. And if you love post-apocalyptic stories, this novel and its sequels feature a world that has an apocalypse every few centuries or so. Think that sounds repetitively boring? Hardly.
Melokai by Rosalyn Kelley
If you’ve ever wondered what a grimdark take on a matriarchal society would look like, look no further. Melokai features a brutal female warrior leader as its protagonist. The heroine’s time of service is up, but instead of learning what gruesome fate awaits her, she discovers her kingdom may lose its precious safety.
The Poppy War by R.K. Kuang
Don’t let the beginning fool you into thinking this is a simple coming-of-age-in-academy story. The Poppy War is a full-fledged war novel with all of the atrocities and brutality you expect in wartime. If you’re tired of grimdark books that use medieval Europe as its setting, The Poppy War takes you to a world based on China.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
Speaking of Asian-inspired settings, Lee’s Jade City is for those of us who love mafia stories. If you’re not a fan of Hong Kong crime films, imagine a wuxia version of The Godfather. This one’s also for readers who’d like an urban take on gritty secondary world fantasy.
The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee
The Gaslight Dogs is a rare book that draws upon Inuit culture for its world-building. The book follows a female shaman and a military captain from an invading country who must work together to stop a force that may destroy both their peoples.
Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
Instead of saving a kingdom, have you ever wanted to follow the story of overthrowing a ruler? Promise of Blood offers a nice change of pace from medieval era technology by introducing us to a setting that makes ample use of guns and gunpowder.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Don’t think grimdark books can only take place in secondary world fantasy settings. Certain Dark Things is an urban fantasy book set in Mexico City. Want a fresh take on vampires? This novel features one descended from the Aztecs.
A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Morgan
It’s still relatively uncommon for a grimdark fantasy novel to feature a female lead. It’s even rarer for them to feature an older woman as the protagonist. A Crown for Cold Silver introduces us to a legendary female general who toppled an entire empire for the sake of the downtrodden! She even retired when her work was done. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. Even retirement.
The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
This novel features another band of mercenaries, this time sent on a mission to kill the ruler of a rich, unconquered empire. But nothing is ever that straightforward. If you like your grimdark books to have a dose of political intrigue and maneuvering, this one’s for you.
Darkmage by M.L. Spencer
Darkmage follows the titular character as he defends his world from the forces of darkness. Unfortunately, his duty may also mean sacrificing friends and loved ones, country, and even his own humanity. Doesn’t that suck?
Godblind by Anna Stephens
The plot of this novel revolves around the impending war between the exiled followers of the gods of blood and the followers of the gods of light. Given that one side explicitly worships gods of blood, you can guess the level of bloodthirsty violence in this book. Even so, be prepared from some cringe-inducing scenes.
Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle
If you’re looking for something in the vein of Abercrombie, this one might be worth a try. Due to the heroine’s age, some people have mistaken this for a YA novel. I advise against this. Otherwise, some of the brutality may shock you.
Bonus Grimdark Manga
Because this is me, I have to include a couple manga suggestions for the readers out there who want to see grimdark stories in a different medium. If you’re feeling adventurous, try these two titles.
Berserk by Kentaro Miura
Berserk is the grimdark manga to end all grimdark manga. Fans of grimdark books will recognize all the tropes here. This is a long-running series and the plot is not the easiest to explain without some major spoilers, so let’s just say it all began when the friendship between a talented young warrior and his mercenary captain fell apart.
Claymore by Norihiro Yagi
Want your grimdark to feature a predominantly female cast? Claymore features half-demon warrior women who are charged with defending the general populace from a demonic threat—even if it inevitably ends in them losing their humanity. What’s notable about Claymore in the manga realm is that its plot lines are unpredictable and characters you thought were untouchable are so very vulnerable. But grimdark readers will eat those twists and turns up, I bet.
Have you read any of these grimdark books? What did you think? And if you’ve decided you’re not a grimdark reader, check out our other coverage of the SFF genre as a whole.