Most people, when envisioning a fantasy world, see a Tolkein-esque setting with rolling green hills, little dwarves with thick Scottish accents, and beautiful elves dressed up in fine silks. They envision a hero, with a sword, and a destiny that only he or she was chosen for. They see good vs evil. However, now emerging in this crowded genre is a sub-genre of dark and mysterious fantasy with a twist. A sub-genre known as grimdark.
The Broken Empire Trilogy (Mark Lawrence)
When the very first chapter in a fantasy trilogy opens with the sacking of a peaceful farming village and your protagonist admiring the view of dead bodies piled up on top of one another, you essentially know what you’re getting yourself into. The Broken Empire Trilogy doesn’t disappoint in that respect, as it follows Jorg Ancrath, a misanthropic anti-hero reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s Alex DeLarge, with a hunger for power and leaving nothing but a bloodbath in his wake. Political intrigue, war, and a distinct lack of heroism—what’s not to love?
The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie)
In the grim-dark fantasy sub-genre, Joe Abercrombie is like royalty. Literally. He even dubbed himself Lord Grimdark. It should come as no surprise then that his debut fantasy trilogy, The First Law, would make it into the top 10. It’s set in a realistically gritty world where there is no good or bad, no black or white. There are just varying degrees of morally grey. The story itself is told from several different character POV’s: a Northman with a dark past, a former slave hell-bent on vengeance, an arrogant nobleman, and a shrewd cripple with a knack for torture. They’re all beautifully fleshed out, all equally flawed, and all have their own part to play in a bigger story.
A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin)
If Joe Abercrombie is Lord Grimdark, then George R.R. Martin is King of the genre. His epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is considered to have broken the mould in first place and paved the way for others. It’s the story of several noble alliances fighting for power over a land, unbeknownst to them, that is threatened by an emerging supernatural force. A Song of Ice and Fire has everything: politics, war, sex, dragons, love, backstabbing and some of the most descriptively beautiful writing you will ever read.
The Dark Tower (Stephen King)
Stephen King broke into the fantasy genre in a way most didn’t think possible—through a blend of spaghetti western, fantasy, and a post-apocalyptic world. Trust Stephen King and his ever-growing imagination to do such a thing. The story begins by following the last of the Gunslingers, Roland Deschain, as he searches for the Man in Black across the Mohaine Desert. If it’s a unique fantasy that you’re looking for, you’ve found it.
Drenai Saga (David Gemmell)
The Drenai Saga is heroic fantasy married with dark fantasy which tells the story of the Drenai nation and those who stand the test of time. Something that becomes apparent during the series is that archetypal heroism is usually followed by the bleak, utterly miserable realism that is death. David Gemmell certainly knew how to tell a story though, knew how to attach a reader to a character, and knew how to take a Tolkein-esque fantasy and spin around on its head.
Chronicles of the Black Company (Glen Cook)
Immediately you’re thrust into this dark world with action and from then on it becomes apparent that this is going to be an easy to read, enjoyable series with huge battles and supernatural wizardry. Like Abercrombie, Glen Cook is fantastic at not only pulling you into a dark world, but infusing it with humour through his characters Croaker and One-Eye. If it’s anti-heroes you’re after, you’ll get them with the Chronicles of the Black Company.
The Night Angel trilogy (Brent Weeks)
Straight from the cover you know you’re getting a story about hooded assassins and The Night Angel trilogy is just that. The story is a fast paced page-turner that follows Azoth, a common guild rat turned wetboy (a sort of über-assassin) under the guide of Durzo Blint (a sort of world-renowned wetboy). To become an assassin, Azoth must abandon his morals and become the unsavoury Kylar Stern. The writing is almost episodic in that the whole way through its constant twist and turn, twist and turn, with solid writing and pacing.
Shattered Sea (Joe Abercrombie)
Joe’s attempting at blending Young Adult fiction with grimdark works beautifully in Half A King, the first book in the Shattered Sea series. It pulls the reader, however old, into a dark, Viking-inspired world of village raids, piracy, slavery and backstabbing. It follows Prince Yarvi, a likeable cripple, in a coming of age tale set in a typically dark Joe Abercrombie setting.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson)
A ten part series might seem like a bit of a mountain to climb, but you’ll soon discover it’s necessary given the size of the world, the characters, the races, and the history. Set in a world tormented by war and bloodshed, the Malazan books are tragedy-filled, realistically grim tales of heroes and anti-heroes that Steven Erikson is not afraid to murder right in front of you. It’s Game of Thrones on steroids and certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Demon Cycle (Peter V. Brett)
Forget whisking yourself away to a beautiful world with magical faeries and loveable dwarves, the Demon Cycle sucks you into a world you really don’t want any part of but can’t help being a part of. It’s a world of demons and cowering in the corner because it’s too dangerous to go out at night. It’s just downright ugly, thus we’re given the likeable protagonists, Arlen, Rojer and Leesher. They’re not morally-flawed in the way Abercrombie or George R.R. Martin’s characters are. But that’s all right. You’ll need people you can trust in a world this dark.