Welcome to the dark, brooding underworld of fantasy literature—the Grimdark genre.
If you fancy stories where the sunlight rarely breaks through the clouds and your heroes are just villains who’ve had a worse day, then you’ve come to the right place.
This handy beginner’s guide to grimdark fantasy will help you navigate these shadowy realms like a pro.
Defining Grimdark: It’s Not All Unicorns and Rainbows
Unlike your usual fantasy fare where knights in shining armour gallantly rescue innocent princesses from fire-breathing dragons, grimdark doesn’t pull any punches.
It’s a sub-genre of fantasy where the line between good and evil gets as blurry as your vision after a Friday night at the pub.
Grimdark derives its name from the tagline of the tabletop game Warhammer 40,000: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”
And in grimdark literature, there’s usually only war, torment, moral ambiguity, and buckets of blood.
Common Tropes: More Blood Than a Tarantino Film
Expect protagonists as cheerful as a goth at a beach party. These aren’t your heroic do-gooders with a heart of gold—they’re complex, flawed, and as likely to rob you as they are to save you.
They’ve got more in common with a seasoned convict than Prince Charming.
The settings are just as jolly.
Imagine if Mordor and the worse parts of Dickensian London had a baby—that’s your average grimdark world.
It’s bleak, it’s grimy, it’s brutal, and the chances of encountering a delightful enchanted forest are about as slim as finding a vegan at a steakhouse.
Themes and Characters: As Pleasant as a Root Canal
In a grimdark tale, don’t be surprised if your favourite character meets a grisly end.
The themes here tend to orbit around war, political intrigue, survival, and the darker side of humanity.
Characters are complex and exist in a moral grey area thicker than a London fog.
So, if you like your characters saintly and your endings happily-ever-after, this genre might give you more shocks than licking a battery.
But, if you’re intrigued by the depths of human depravity and how individuals navigate through a world as welcoming as a bed of nails, then grimdark could be your cup of tea’—dark and bitter.
How It Differs from Other Genres: Apples and Very Rotten Oranges
While traditional fantasy often revolves around a struggle between good and evil, grimdark plunges you into a world where those concepts are about as clear-cut as a Jackson Pollock painting.
Instead of lofty quests and noble heroes, grimdark stories focus on survival in a harsh world.
If epic fantasy is an inspiring orchestral symphony, grimdark is the guttural growl of a death metal band.
It’s raw, it’s intense, and it isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Where to Start Reading Grimdark Fantasy
Here are thirty-three formidable titles to cut your teeth on. Be warned: these aren’t your fluffy bedtime stories.
1. The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie, fondly called Lord Grimdark, is the poster boy of this genre. His First Law Trilogy kicks off with ‘The Blade Itself,’ and its world is about as forgiving as a tax collector. Chock full of morally dubious characters, gratuitous violence, and a plot twistier than a pretzel, this series is a masterclass in grimdark.
2. Empires of Dust by Anna Smith Spark
Fancy poetry? Love a bit of the old ultra-violence? Then Anna Smith Spark’s Empires of Dust trilogy is your jam. The series starts with ‘Court of Broken Knives.’ Smith Spark’s style, a lyrical and visceral blend, mirrors the blend of beauty and brutality of the grimdark genre. Her characters are as ruthless as they come, so don’t expect to make any new friends here.
3. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
‘The Poppy War’ offers a grimdark tale drenched in historical and cultural richness. R.F. Kuang doesn’t shy away from depicting the raw brutality of war and its dehumanising effects. Here, the heroes make choices that will have you squirming in your seat. It’s as uplifting as a plummeting lift, but by God, it’s compelling.
4. War for the Rose Throne by Peter McLean
Starting with ‘Priest of Bones,’ Peter McLean’s series can be best described as Peaky Blinders with a grimdark twist. It’s filled with gang wars, political machinations, and a world as grim as a Monday morning. The writing is razor-sharp, and the characters are about as trustworthy as a three-pound note. It’s a grim ride, but worth every bloody moment.
5. The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
This ten-book series is grimdark on an epic scale. With a complex plot, intricate world-building, and a character list longer than your arm, Erikson doesn’t ease up on the grimdark elements. It’s as light-hearted as a funeral in a downpour, but for those with the courage to take it on, it offers a reading experience like no other.
6. The Prince of Nothing series by R. Scott Bakker
Starting with ‘The Darkness That Comes Before,’ Bakker’s series is a philosophical deep-dive into a world that’s as friendly as a starving crocodile. The characters are complex, the philosophy is dense, and the world-building is as comprehensive as it gets. The Prince of Nothing series is perfect for readers who like their fantasy grim, their stakes high, and their themes heavy. It’s as cheery as a windowless cellar, but it’s an enthralling read nonetheless.
7. The Black Company by Glen Cook
Often credited as the grimdark progenitor, Glen Cook’s ‘The Black Company’ focuses on a mercenary company in a cynical, war-torn world. Expect plenty of morally grey characters, grim settings, and an all-round feeling of ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’. It’s a series that smacks you in the face like a cold breeze, leaving you breathless and eager for more.
8. The Broken Empire Trilogy by Mark Lawrence
This series starts with ‘Prince of Thorns’, a book that introduces us to Jorg Ancrath, a protagonist as heartwarming as a kick in the shins. Lawrence’s narrative is as sharp as a well-honed blade, and his world is a place where hope goes to die. If you fancy a walk on the dark side with a character who wouldn’t know a moral compass if it bit him on the bum, give this trilogy a whirl.
9. The Nevernight Chronicles by Jay Kristoff
‘Nevernight,’ the first book in the series, presents us with Mia Corvere, a plucky young woman with a thirst for revenge and a shadowy talent for murder. She’s about as cuddly as a cactus, but you’ll find yourself rooting for her anyway. Kristoff’s grimdark saga is as dark as a pint of stout and as lethal as a viper’s bite. Strap in for a bumpy, bloody ride!
10. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning George R.R. Martin’s epic series, starting with ‘A Game of Thrones’. Full of political intrigue, morally grey characters, and a level of unpredictability that makes Russian roulette look like a safe bet, this series is a must-read for grimdark enthusiasts. Just don’t get too attached to the characters; Martin is notorious for serving them up for dinner.
11. The Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks
Starting with ‘The Way of Shadows,’ Brent Weeks presents a gripping tale of Azoth, a guild rat turned assassin. This trilogy is as cheerful as a tax audit, with moral ambiguity, dark magic, and a grimy underworld. Weeks paints a world steeped in shadows where life is cheap, and redemption comes with a high price. It’s a brutal, gritty ride that’s sure to satiate your grimdark cravings.
12. The Bone Ships series by RJ Barker
‘The Bone Ships’ sails into grimdark waters with a tale of ancient sea beasts, bone-made vessels, and a society that values death over life. Barker’s maritime world is as unwelcoming as a slap to the face, and his characters are hardened by a life of hardship and danger. If you’ve ever wondered what grimdark would look like on the high seas, this series is your answer.
13. The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan
Richard K. Morgan’s grimdark offering introduces us to Ringil Eskiath, a war hero with a biting wit and a preference for men. Expect a fair amount of brutality, cynicism, and the sort of banter that could make a sailor blush. It’s a dark, twisted journey that takes you through war, slavery, and betrayal. It’s as sweet as a vinegar smoothie, but its gripping narrative makes it a grimdark gem.
14. The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
Venturing into urban grimdark, ‘The Night Watch’ presents a modern-day Moscow teeming with supernatural beings. Lukyanenko’s world is as grim as a winter’s night, filled with vampires, witches, and shapeshifters living under a tense truce. It’s a thrilling, dark tale of power, conflict, and sacrifice that’ll have you wondering what lurks in the shadows of your own city.
15. A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall
The protagonist of ‘A Crown for Cold Silver’ is an ageing warrior who just wants to retire in peace but gets dragged back into the fray. It’s a tale of revenge filled with ruthless mercenaries, cruel demons, and political conspiracies. The world is as unforgiving as a hailstorm, and the characters are as warm as a winter’s morning. It’s a brutal, no-holds-barred ride into the grimdark genre.
16. Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne by Brian Staveley
Kicking off with ‘The Emperor’s Blades,’ Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne is as light and fluffy as a lead balloon. The series presents a world on the brink of war, fraught with political intrigue, secret assassins, and divine powers. With complex characters and a multi-layered plot, it offers a delicious slice of grimdark pie.
17. The Vagrant by Peter Newman
Peter Newman’s ‘The Vagrant’ is a bit like Mad Max meets grimdark. In a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by demonic forces, the protagonist, a mute and nameless knight, travels towards a hopeful beacon carrying a legendary weapon and a baby. Newman’s desolate, war-torn landscape and his broken, desperate characters encapsulate the essence of grimdark.
18. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson
This series, starting with ‘Lord Foul’s Bane,’ gives us Thomas Covenant, a leprosy-stricken writer transported to a magical realm where he’s destined to be the saviour. It’s a tale that delves into the darker aspects of the human psyche, shattering the boundaries between good and evil. With its flawed anti-hero and uncompromising narrative, this series is a grimdark classic.
19. The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, beginning with ‘Assassin’s Apprentice,’ isn’t as relentlessly grim as some of the other titles on this list, but it’s got enough morally grey characters, political treachery, and brutal realism to earn a spot. It’s a beautifully written tale that delves into the cost of duty and the harsh realities of life. A grimdark offering that will tug at your heartstrings.
20. Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher
‘Beyond Redemption’ takes grimdark to a new level, exploring a world where insanity is power, and delusions can reshape reality. It’s a dark, unflinching story packed with flawed, deranged characters and a world as welcoming as a nest of vipers. Fletcher’s tale is a mind-bending descent into madness, epitomising the grimdark ethos.
21. Low Town by Daniel Polansky
In ‘Low Town,’ Polansky combines elements of grimdark fantasy with hard-boiled crime. The protagonist, known as the Warden, is a former investigator turned drug dealer navigating through a seedy underworld. It’s as uplifting as a rainy bank holiday, but its compelling mix of mystery, magic, and gritty realism makes for a compelling read.
22. Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman
‘Black Sun Rising’ marks the start of Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy, a unique blend of science fiction and fantasy that’s as cheerful as a stubbed toe. Here, human fears and beliefs can manifest into reality, making for a dangerous, unforgiving world. The characters are a mix of morally ambiguous, complex individuals that fit right into the grimdark mould.
23. The Powder Mage Trilogy by Brian McClellan
The series begins with ‘Promise of Blood,’ and it’s a gunpowder-fuelled epic, teeming with political coups, ancient gods, and magic. McClellan’s world is grim and bloody, and his characters are far from the shining heroes of traditional fantasy. The Powder Mage trilogy is a fantastic entry point for those seeking a touch of the revolutionary in their grimdark reads.
24. The Grim Company by Luke Scull
With a title like ‘The Grim Company,’ you know what you’re getting yourself into. Scull delivers a world where the gods are dead, magic is dying, and humanity is not faring much better. It’s a tale of anti-heroes, dark magic, and a fight against oppressive forces. It’s grim by name and grim by nature, making it an excellent addition to your grimdark reading list.
25. The Gentleman Bastard Series by Scott Lynch
Starting with ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora,’ Lynch’s series is grimdark with a generous dose of wit. It’s a tale of con artists and thieves, set in a world rich with venetian-style intrigue and danger. It’s as light-hearted as a dentist appointment, but its blend of fast-paced plot, complex characters, and razor-sharp dialogue makes it a standout in the genre.
26. The Godblind Trilogy by Anna Stephens
Anna Stephens’s debut series, beginning with ‘Godblind,’ is about as cheerful as a funeral in the rain. With a religious war, morally ambiguous characters, and a truckload of brutality, Stephens takes us on a grimdark journey of epic proportions. It’s a relentless, blood-soaked series that pulls no punches, perfect for those who enjoy their fantasy dark and uncompromising.
27. The Acacia Series by David Anthony Durham
Kicking off with ‘Acacia: The War with the Mein,’ Durham’s series presents a story of political intrigue, war, and betrayal in a world as warm and welcoming as a bear trap. It’s a sweeping tale of power, ambition, and the cost of empire. The Acacia series is a grimdark journey with a touch of epic fantasy that will leave you pondering the grey areas of morality.
28. Chronicles of the Exile by Marc Turner
Marc Turner’s series, starting with ‘When the Heavens Fall,’ provides a grand saga of dark gods, magical artefacts, and a host of characters who’d probably rob their own grandmothers. With its complex plot, morally grey characters, and world steeped in darkness, this series is a grimdark feast for fans of high stakes and epic conflicts.
29. The Five Warrior Angels by Brian Lee Durfee
The series begins with ‘The Forgetting Moon,’ where Durfee serves a banquet of battle-hardened warriors, ancient prophecies, and looming apocalypse. It’s a story of war and destiny, where hope seems as distant as a summer’s day in a British winter. Its harsh world, complex characters, and intricate plot make it a fantastic entry to the grimdark genre.
30. The Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley
Starting with ‘The Mirror Empire,’ Hurley’s saga plunges us into a world where star-powered magic, sentient plants, and parallel universes are the norm. It’s as comforting as a bed of nails, exploring themes of power, identity, and survival in a world on the brink of annihilation. If you want your grimdark served with a side of originality, The Worldbreaker Saga is just the ticket.
31. The Grimnir Series by Scott Oden
Scott Oden takes us on a bloody romp through a Viking-inspired world in the Grimnir series, starting with ‘A Gathering of Ravens.’ It’s a tale of revenge, filled with brutal battles, ancient magic, and a protagonist who’s as cuddly as a cactus. Oden’s world is harsh and unforgiving, and his characters are as morally grey as they come. It’s a fantastic blend of historical fiction and grimdark fantasy that will leave you thirsting for more.
32. The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French
Jonathan French’s ‘The Grey Bastards’ is a wonderfully filthy dive into a world of half-orcs, treacherous humans, and deadly magic. It’s grimdark with a dash of grit and a generous helping of dark humour. The characters are rough, ready, and morally ambiguous, making it a standout entry in the grimdark genre. It’s a wild, raucous ride that isn’t for the faint-hearted, but if you can handle the grime, it’s well worth the journey.
33. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard
Although it predates the term ‘grimdark,’ Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, starting with ‘The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian,’ embodies many of the genre’s defining characteristics. Conan’s world is a savage, brutal place filled with dark magic and deadly creatures. The protagonist himself is a far cry from your typical hero, embodying a ruthless, take-no-prisoners approach to life. It’s a foundational work for the grimdark genre, demonstrating that even in fantasy, the world can be a dark, dangerous place.
Honorary Mention: The Horus Heresy Series in the Warhammer 40,000 Universe
Last but definitely not least, let’s delve into the grimdark depths of the Warhammer 40,000 universe with the Horus Heresy series.
This sprawling saga is a monumental piece of grimdark fiction.
Taking us to the 31st millennium, the series explores the galaxy-spanning civil war that nearly tore the imperium of man apart.
The Horus Heresy, spearheaded by the emperor’s favoured son, Horus, pits brother against brother in a devastating conflict.
From the lofty heights of the Imperial Palace to the bloody battlefields of a thousand worlds, no one is safe from the horrors of war.
In true grimdark fashion, the Horus Heresy is a tale of betrayal, of once-noble heroes falling to corruption, and the devastating price of ambition and power.
It offers a grim vision of the future where there is only war and the laughter of thirsting gods.
The series, with contributions from various authors, is a grimdark feast for fans of war-torn galaxies, morally ambiguous characters, and high-stakes battles.
Be warned, though—once you start, you’ll find yourself on a journey as vast and dark as the Warhammer 40k universe itself.
Grimdark fantasy is a journey that’s not for everyone. It’s like Marmite—you either love it, or it gives you nightmares.
But if you can stomach the grit and grime, if you can handle the moral ambiguity and the despair, you’ll find a genre that isn’t afraid to take risks, to defy expectations, and to show the world in all its brutal, messy glory.
So take a deep breath, grab one of these books, and step into the shadows. Who knows? You might find that you like the dark.
So there you have it, a quick and dirty introduction to the world of grimdark fantasy. It’s a genre that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to show you the world in all its murky shades of grey. But remember, it’s not all doom and gloom’—there’s plenty of dark humour, thrilling action, and captivating stories. Dive in, and who knows? You might find that you enjoy exploring the shadows.
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