In grimdark fantasy books, the settings are harsh and violent, and the characters aren’t always morally clear. This means that the books don’t always end happily ever after.
Often, characters in Grimdark have become cynical, disillusioned, or even cruel because they have to deal with the harsh realities of their world. In stories where everything is dark and grim, even small victories for hope feel like huge victories.
In George R. R. Martin’s book, A Song of Ice and Fire, these ideas are used in a lot of ways. Martin’s series is very clear that he doesn’t like the idealism of classic fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings. Instead, he uses characters and tropes from those stories, but with much darker results.
These grimdark fantasy books are a great way to learn about this dark and gloomy genre. They also show that even the darkest, grittiest fantasy worlds can be fun.
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter
By Michael Swanwick
Swanwick’s first book in the series is a dark mix of magic and steampunk that makes it hard to sleep at night.
Jane is made to build mechanical war dragons in a factory. She is tempted by one of the dragons to escape, which shakes the foundation of their dystopian world.
Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is both genre-bending and twisted. It was also a finalist for the 1994 Locus Award, which is given to the best book of the year.
A Place Among the Fallen
By Adrian Cole
A Place Among the Fallen is the first book in Adrian Cole’s Omaran series. It introduces us to a land and people who don’t believe in magic, and a leader who puts all heretics to death.
Korbillian leaves his magical home of Ternannoc when it is going to be destroyed. He comes to Omara to save it from the same fate. His journey starts with an epic fight between the certainty of death and the hope for salvation.
By Robert Lynn Asprin and Lynn Abbey
Thieves’ World is the first in a series of world-building anthologies. It looks at the dangerous city of Sanctuary through the eyes of different characters and authors.
The collection looks at everything from a dark point of view, of course, to thieves.
One book has stories by John Brunner, Lynn Abbey, Poul Anderson, Andrew J. Offut and Robert Lynn Asprin. The second book has stories by Christine DeWees, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Lynn Abbey.
Sister Light, Sister Dark
By Jane Yolen
This book is about Jenna, a young girl who was raised by women who worship the Great Alta. It shows a culture that is based on myths, legends, and a lot of misinformation.
It’s what the women who raised Jenna teach her to do. They show her how to mix light and shadow as she stares into the mirror.
Jane Yolen starts a three-part story with a promise that things will get bad and history will be thrown out of order.
The Mere Wife
By Maria Dahvana Headley
It’s a modern retelling of the epic poem Beowulf, and it shows two mothers who are trying to protect the people they love.
The suburb of Herot Hall is pristine and peaceful for its residents, but it looks like a scary fortress to anyone who lives outside its gates.
Mothers of two young boys who live in caves have to cross borders to settle a dispute between them. Gren, the son of a former soldier named Dana, took Dylan, the son of Willa and Roger Herot.
The Blade Itself
By Joe Abercrombie
Author Joe Abercrombie, a New York Times best-selling author, made a world that was full of cruelty. He named the first book in his The First Law series after a line from Homer’s The Odyssey: “The blade itself incites to acts of violence.”
Most likely, Abercrombie is the best modern author of gray morality. In this book, he paints a dark picture of the three main characters: exiled barbarian Logen Ninefinger, disgraced and disabled torturer Glokta, and spoiled nobleman Jezal.
The Blade Itself shows that people are often held back by their own jaded views of themselves and the dark world they live in, both of which they can change.
The Poppy War
By R.F. Kuang
Kuang’s start to this grim series is based on Chinese military history, which is a refreshing change from fantasy worlds with European influences.
Rin, a war orphan, surprised everyone when she was accepted into the military academy Sinegard. She even surprised herself. People are getting angry, and a third poppy war is coming.
Big picture morality isn’t what Kuang talks about in this book. He talks about the smaller communities and families that are at the mercy of conflicting military forces.
The Lies of Locke Lamora
By Scott Lynch
The Gentlemen Bastards Series introduces the infamous thief Locke, a man who is almost killed by his overzealous desire to steal. His luck only keeps him from dying.
It is full of clever deceptions, schemes inside schemes, and double-crosses. The book is about people who have strong hearts and strong minds as Locke tries to beat a shadowy enemy at their own game.
By Anna Stephens
The Mireces have been living in exile for a thousand years because they worship the bloodthirsty Red Gods. They are now led by a king who wants to conquer the bustling cities and green lands they were forced from.
If Rillirin, a slave owned by the Mireces, comes into Dom’s village, he has to hide some very bad secrets.
As more and more leaders start to believe in the Red Gods, the information Dom and Rillirin have could change the course of the next war.
The Steel Remains
By Richard K. Morgan
When you read books in the grimdark genre, you can’t avoid having cynical characters. Gil, who has been out of work for many years, is very disappointed in the world.
In the end, Gil’s mother asks him to help her with a task that takes him through dark sorcery and a terrifying prophecy. Gil has been estranged from his powerful family for years.
As Gil hears about demons that are both cruel and beautiful, he wonders if his solution will be even worse.
A Crown for Cold Silver
By Alex Marshall
General Cobalt Zosia’s exploits are well-known around the world. But that was twenty years ago.
People who used to be her captors have heard that Zosia is still alive, and they don’t believe her when they hear that she’s planning to build an army.
She is angry and wants to get back at the people who killed her family, so she looks for answers and follows the heads that give them.
The Black Company
By Glen Cook
Some say that The Lady is evil itself. It’s becoming more and more dark as her influence grows. The last mercenary group of the Free Companies, the Black Company, bury their dead and ignore their doubts.
But there are rumors about The White Rose, a force that can be used to show hope in dark times. Glen Cook served in the U.S. Navy, which helps him mix fantasy with real-life military stories.