When it gets cold outside, my reading tastes change. I don’t know if that’s the case for other people, but mine does. They become a little more angry, a little more dark. The number of thriller and horror books on must-read lists and in TBR piles doesn’t mean I’m the only one. Suppose you don’t want to read a thriller. If you’re a fantasy fan who likes to go dark, what should you do? If you want to read dark fantasy books, then that’s where they come in!
The definition of dark fantasy can be hard to come up with, and it’s not always clear. It’s not the same thing as horror, but there can be some overlap. In fact, books about fantasy written by horror authors are often called dark fantasy. As for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, some people call it grimdark because it is a little grittier, a little more bloody, or even just a little darker. I don’t think this is a good idea, but I can see why people do this.
People who don’t like dark fantasy stories can agree that there are a few things that happen in them all. They may sound gloomy and moody. They might show humans battling with supernatural forces in a picture. They may also have an anti-hero as the main character. In other words, the bad guys from traditional fantasies may be the main characters in dark fantasy books. Like when your characters aren’t sure about morals? You should read dark fantasy.
I put a lot of different dark fantasy books on this list because the term “dark fantasy” isn’t very specific. Everyone should be able to find something. This is a list of some well-known classics of the subgenre. But I tried to go off the beaten path.
The Citadel of Fear by Gertrude Barrows
Stevens was one of the first major female authors of science fiction and fantasy. She used the pseudonym Francis Stevens when she first published her work. If this list did not include her, it would be a mistake. She is said to have invented dark fantasy. The Citadel of Fear is the story of two adventurers who find a hidden Aztec city. It turns out that one of the men let a dark god go with him back to civilization. You can see how pulpy styles like this dominated science fiction and fantasy in 1918 by reading The Citadel of Fear, which came out then.
Elric: The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock
Elric of Melnibone, a drug-addled albino sorcerer by author Michael Moorcock, is one of the most well-known anti-heroes in fantasy. When Elric is the last Emperor of a dying empire, he faces threats from outside, family members who want his throne, and an existential malaise. And that doesn’t even touch on the fact that his soul-stealing sword, Stormbringer, will bring death to everyone he cares about.
The Black Company by Glen Cook
The Black Company is about an elite group of mercenaries called the “Black Company.” They fight for the Lady, a powerful sorceress who rules an empire and may or may not be the face of evil itself.
Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop
Black Jewels by Anne Bishop is a dark series that introduces readers to a world where the power balance between men and women has been thrown out of wack. In this world, a few chosen people desperately hope for the one person who can finally set things right. Saetan, Lucivar, and Daemon are the names of your heroes until you find out that they’re all called that.
Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman
The first book in Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy is a mix of science fiction and fantasy. It introduces us to a world filled with natural forces that can bring a person’s worst nightmares to life. Like other dark fantasy books, the main character in Black Sun Rising isn’t the warrior priest Damien Vryce, but the vampiric Gerald Tarrant, who has been fighting an internal battle for centuries over whether to be a good person or become evil.
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Introduces us to Roland, the last gunslinger on a mission to find The Man in Black, who will be familiar to fans of Stephen King’s horror novels. The first book in the series, The Dark Tower, introduces us to Roland and the Man in Black. Idris Elba, who played Roland in the movie, now has a role in our minds. 🙂
The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan
You can’t go wrong with a book by Caitlin Kiernan if you want fantasy that is almost like horror. In this book, you’ll find ghost stories, New England horror like H.P. Lovecraft, and story structures like House of Leaves.
Miserere by Teresa Frohock
A fight to open Hell’s gates? It sounds more like a scary book, doesn’t it? But when you put that same conflict in a different fantasy world, it turns into a dark story. All of the best things about fantasy, like betrayal, redemption, and hope, are in Miserere, but it also has supernatural elements that will make any horror fan jump for joy. There are exorcist, demons, and ghosts.
Alice by Christina Henry
In this twist on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Christina Henry’s Alice is a dark retelling of the classic story.
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Assault on women tends to be very common in dark fantasy books. Sometimes it’s done well, and sometimes it isn’t. There are two types of foods that I think Tender Morsels fits into. Dark fairy stories are also possible. Especially if you look at the original stories and not the ones made by Disney. They are very dark. Lanagan’s first book is a retelling of the Snow White and Rose Red fairy tale. It looks at both the good and bad parts of human nature. This book does take the dark in dark fantasy very seriously, but be warned: it is very dark. For more dark fairy tales, check out this list.
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Before Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo made her name with Shadow and Bone, a story about a soldier named Alina who discovers that she has powers that can fight off the monsters that threaten her country. They draw the attention of a powerful magic user called the Darkling. From there, Alina plunges into a world of intrigue and betrayal, where she must fight for her life.
The Young Elites by Marie Lu
Dark fantasy books are full of bad guys. But what about the villains? Introduces us to Adelina Amouteru, who shows us what happens when you let your dark side out.
Sabriel by Garth Nix
To get into a world filled with dangerous magic and the dead, Nix’s Old Kingdoms trilogy is for you. Her family has a tradition for her to be a necromancer, which means she has to do that in this first book.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Or at least, that’s what we think. When Coraline crosses a threshold to find a house and family that look like her own, she finds out that it’s not what she thought. Never think that books for kids can’t be dark and scary. Creepy is what Coraline’s other mother and other father are all about.
I planned to put together a list of dark fantasy books, but I couldn’t help myself and added a few graphic novels as a bonus! A lot of interesting dark fantasy stories are being told in that medium right now, so if you want something new, give these a try.
Black Butler by Yana Toboso
Ciel Phantomhive’s family has been a “hound” for the British monarch for many years now. Doing their dirty work, in a sense. That’s not the whole story, though. In Ciel’s childhood, there was a tragedy that left him the only survivor of his family and bound to a demon in the form of Sebastian. During translation, the joke about Sebastian being “one hell of a butler” (or “a butler from hell”) is lost. However, the moral ambiguity of Toboso’s characters is still there.
Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
There’s a reason that Liu and Takeda’s Monstress won awards. It has dark magic, not-so-dead gods, matriarchal societies, and a deliberate mix of Asian and European myths. Don’t be afraid of the complicated world-building. Pay attention to the art and you’ll be on your way.
Claymore by Norihiro Yagi
These all-women warriors are called the Claymore in this Japanese version of European sword and sorcery fantasy. They spend their lives destroying monsters that feed on the general public. Women who hunt monsters get their powers from the monsters they hunt. They also risk becoming monsters. An easy-to-follow game of hack-and-stab turns into a huge story of revenge and intrigue, as well as the freedom to do what you want.
Tokyo Ghoul by Sui Ishida
Ishida’s work is heavily influenced by Franz Kafka’s work. His protagonist, Ken Kaneki, turns into a half-ghoul after a bad first date, and Ishida looks at the fine line between human and animal. Kaneki’s fight to stay human in the face of his ghoul side’s ravenous hunger is the heart of this dark fantasy series. If you try this, make sure you strap in tight. Wild and unpredictable, Tokyo Ghoul and its follow-up, Tokyo Ghoul:re are a great way to spend time.