Fantasy novels are frequently filled with evil wizards, dark powers, black knights and hellish monsters. This genre explores the dark side of nature—our lust for power, need for revenge, our weakness in the face of despair or temptation. So, in a sense, the emergence of “dark fantasy” as a specific sub-genre was inevitable. Agreeing on a precise definition of what dark fantasy is or isn’t is probably impossible; there is a fine line between the normal darkness of a fantasy universe and the grimmer, more violent versions. If you’re looking to explore the genre, these are the 20 best dark fantasy books and series you can start with, in no particular order.
1. The Godblind Trilogy, by Anna Stephens
Stephens’ debut trilogy opens thousands of years after the realm of Rilpor exiled the Mireces—worshipers of the Red Gods—forcing them into a harsh life in the mountains. But now the Red Gods and the King of the Mireces are plotting to take back what was once theirs from the Gods of Light. In a word, this fantastic series is “gritty.” It’s populated by the sort of broken, complex characters that give dark fantasy its searing energy, but what really elevates it to modern-day classic status is the brutal skill Stephens employs in her action and battle scenes. She’s one of the rare writers who can make you feel the violence of these battles viscerally, making this a must-read for any fan of the genre.
2. Priest of Lies (War for the Rose Throne), by Peter McLean
What sets McLean’s series apart from other dark fantasy is the focus. Making a story epic usually involves going grand—huge wars, battles, struggles that play out over the course of centuries. McLean drills down and tells the story of what’s essentially a gang war in a city—but it’s an exceptionally dark, violent, and entertaining gang war. Thomas Piety returns from his service as an army priest to find his city a burned-down wreck and his criminal enterprises in disarray. He reforms his old gang, the Pious Men, and sets about reclaiming his territory from an invading gang. But he quickly finds that the invaders, the Gutcutters, have support that goes beyond his experience, leading him to an increasingly bleak and desperate struggle for survival. Piety is a tremendous narrative voice, telling his story with a laid-back authority that sells every detail.
3. Chronicles of The Black Company, by Glen Cook
Often referred to as the first true grimdark series, Cook’s classic sprawls over ten books as it follows the titular group of mercenaries over several decades of warfare between The Lady and The Rebel. Cook’s violent, realistic portrayal of battle, murderously high body count, and gray morality don’t seem so revolutionary today, but in 1984 it was an acrid breath of fresh air in the genre. The Black Company’s history extends for centuries, and we’re only privy to a narrow bit of its complex story. But since the story is told by Croaker, the Company’s resident doctor and historian, the deep dive is exciting instead of confusing. There aren’t many books that can claim to have changed their genre forever, but The Black Company is one of them.
4. The Warded Man (The Demon Cycle Series), by Peter V. Brett
Brett’s Demon Cycle Series is truly an epic tale—heck, an entire epic story happened long before you get to the first book in the series, The Warded Man. Thousands of years ago, mankind struggled helplessly against demons that rose at night, destroying anything the humans tried to build and killing whoever they encountered. Then the Wards, which magically repelled the demons, were discovered—and then Wards that could be used as weapons followed, and mankind drove the demons away. The knowledge of the Wards was lost as science elevated humanity to the pinnacle of civilization—only to see it destroyed when the demons return. With only limited knowledge of the Wards left, humanity barely hangs on until heroes rise to fight back. What makes these dark fantasy books so great is the way Brett combines elements of high fantasy with a darker style. The threat of the demons isn’t vague—it’s physical, and fighting them is a visceral affair of tremendous violence, all accomplished via an arcane and complicated magic system.
5. The Vagrant Trilogy, by Peter Newman
Newman’s Vagrant Trilogy is a dark, dark series. Set in a dying world post demonic apocalypse, it’s a challenging read due to Newman’s choice to write in a first-person, omniscient style that drops the reader right into a complicated fictional universe without back story, explanation, or exposition. And that universe is a bleak one. As the Vagrant—who doesn’t speak—bears a sentient sword known as The Malice through demon-controlled country to the final stronghold of humanity, the world he sees is one where the question isn’t whether humanity will survive, but if it should even bother trying. Filled with demons that must control physical bodies to interact with the world, this is a difficult series to get into, but if you put in the work your reward will be one of the best dark fantasies in recent years.
6. The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
Abercrombie has established himself as a reliable dark fantasy brand. His hyperviolent First Law universe has sprawled into several book series exploring different characters and pockets of his world. It’s weird to think that a book published in 2006 would be a “classic” of the genre, but The Blade Itself fits the bill, introducing a grim fantasy world wracked by never-ending war and populated by characters who aren’t especially good or evil. They’re just self-interested, and in a genre that typically offers heroes who are willing to sacrifice everything to save a universe that hasn’t done much for them, this remains a bracing series that subverted so many fantasy tropes and cliches that it basically reinvented the genre.
7. The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Some would argue (not incorrectly) that Wolfe’s incredible series is science-fantasy or even sci-fi once you get past the first two books and really dig into what he’s doing. But the fantasy elements are predominant, and this is one of the darkest examples of the genre—a story that has an apprentice torturer as a main character. It’s also an example of the Dying Earth subgenre, and the sense of rot and decay that permeates the story of Severian the torturer and his journey across a world that exists on both a superficial and more metaphorical level makes the violence of Severian’s adventures even more effective. The bleakness of the story is matched only by the complexity of Wolfe’s worldbuilding, a technique that leaves it to the reader to work out what lies beneath the surface.
8. Elric of Melniboné, by Michael Moorcock
If dark fantasy is your cup of tea, Moorcock’s Elric is the original gangster of the genre. An albino sorcerer sitting on the throne of a collapsing empire, Elric was dark and gritty in a time when Tolkien-style high fantasy with a binary moral code was dominant. As a melnibonéan, Elric is physically frail and relies on drugs and magic to maintain his vitality. Also as a melnibonéan, Elric despises himself and his fading culture even as he works to save his people from the rising human kingdoms around him. Moorcock has integrated Elric into his vast Eternal Champion mythology, but it remains that splash of self-loathing that makes this series stand out.
9. The Forgetting Moon (The Five Warrior Angels Series), by Brian Lee Durfee
Durfee’s series, kicking off when a sovereign who believes he is the second coming of God’s son begins conquering the known world, is big. It’s also bloody, as Prince Aeros Raijael of Sor Sevier relies on his grimly competent and incredibly cruel Knights Archaic to prosecute his war and decimate his enemies. But the cruelty and violence on display aren’t the point. These characters believe wholeheartedly in the holiness of their mission, and the series becomes an exploration of how inhumanity is justified in the service of supposedly laudable goals. The final result is a dark fantasy series that reads like the volume was turned up to eleven.
10. The Darkness That Comes Before (Prince of Nothing Series), by R. Scott Bakker
Bakker’s epic Prince of Nothing series encompasses two series and seven novels—so far. Set in a high fantasy world wracked by religious war and an ancient prophecy describing the end of the world, Bakker subverts both fantasy tropes and typical writing techniques. One example that pays off handsomely is the way he holds back the main character of the first series, the remarkably logical and isolated monk warrior Anasûrimbor Kellhus, for a huge part of the first book. Kellhus is a terrific character, and the story of how he takes the reins of fate into his own hands is told with unrelenting violence—in fact, there are several scenes in the series that ought to come with trigger warnings. It’s all in service of a story that explores the philosophical aspects of fantasy tropes more deeply than most.
11. Gardens of the Moon (The Malazan Book of the Fallen Series), by Steven Erikson
Erikson and author Ian Cameron Esslemont conceived the universe of Malazan as part of a role-playing game; they’ve each gone on to publish lengthy fantasy series set there. Erikson’s ten-book series is a masterwork of dark fantasy. The first five books don’t tell a single, epic story, but rather focus on specific events in different parts of a world as different powers—military, magical, and political—struggle against each other linked by characters, themes, and events. Erikson imbues his characters with complex moralities that motivate them to surprise the reader as Erikson rejects standard fantasy plotting and good-versus-evil setups. The end result is a story that seems oddly paced when first encountered, but the slow-boil sprawl of the series starts to take on an epic weight enjoyed by few fantasy worlds as you progress.
12. Black Sun Rising (The Coldfire Trilogy), by C.S. Friedman
Celia S. Friedman’s early 1990s Coldfire Trilogy is set on an alien world where human colonists arrived and had to adapt to the presence of the Fae, supernaturally powered creatures that can make a human’s worst nightmare or greatest desire become a physical reality. Over the centuries, humans have learned to harness the Fae’s power, giving rise to sorcerers and a new religion. But there are other creatures that feed off of humanity’s interactions with the Fae, and as they grow stronger, they threaten everything. Friedman doesn’t wallow in grim violence here, but her fantasy world is an unforgiving one with its own brand of brutality.
13. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Trilogy), by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin’s series won all the Hugos—literally—and established her as the most important writer in speculative fiction today. The Broken Earth trilogy isn’t often described as dark fantasy, in part because it incorporates elements of science fiction and in part because it employs more literary techniques than ultra-violence. But it’s a dark universe that Jemisin has created, one where the world itself seems determined to destroy the people who live on it and simple survival dictates every aspect of human society. It’s also a savage story of violent prejudice and the consequences of actions, told in an appropriately epic key. And the first book in the series, The Fifth Season, ends with one heck of a wham line sure to thrill anyone reading it for the first time.
14. Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
James, better-known as a literary writer, made waves when he published the first book in his new Dark Star fantasy trilogy. It was immediately trumpeted as an “African Game of Thrones,” but that’s not entirely accurate. While it shares that series’ complexity, it has a more mythological tone than the high fantasy that George R.R. Martin leverages, and it revels in a dark, bloody world that goes beyond Martin’s infamously brutal universe of Westeros. Tracker, who possesses a tracking and hunting ability beyond mere skill and experience, is charged with locating a boy who has been missing for years. His quest forces him to navigate an Africa that is split by tribal politics and soaked in ominous, dangerous magic. Most dark fantasy is still dominated by Western European cultural tropes, so this is not only a terrific story but a great change of pace.
15. Alabaster: Pale Horse, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Kiernan’s novels Pale Horse, Threshold, and Low Red Moon, along with a few collections of stories, tell the tale of Chance Matthews. After suffering inconceivable loss as a young woman, Chance stumbles upon an ancient, patient, and intelligent evil that has existed on Earth forever and manipulates everyone to its own goals. A dark version of an urban fantasy, it takes the familiar tropes of plucky young heroes in over their heads with ancient evils and takes them in surprising directions without losing sight of the terrifying nature of all that’s hidden in this world. Deliberate and thoughtful, Kiernan’s ability to ladle on dread is unparalleled in the genre.
16. The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter
Winter self-published his debut novel before getting picked up by a traditional publisher. His African-influenced story is deeply-imagined and dripping with dark intensity. The Omehi are a warlike people, defined by battle and led by the women who can summon dragons and the men who have superhuman fighting abilities. But Lawrence’s focus on Tau, a common man with no special powers and who is thus just fuel for the machines of war, is what sets this story apart. When soul-breaking tragedy drives Tau to violence, the story becomes a slow burn of vengeance, and one of the best dark fantasies to hit shelves in the 2010s.
17. Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire Series), by Mark Lawrence
The universe in Lawrence’s amazing series is a possible future of our own world, a world destroyed over and over again by The Builders until it’s almost unrecognizable. The Builders left behind a thin legacy—entire areas of the planet that remain too radioactive to enter are riddled with leftover weapons and scattered technologies—but the world is so far beyond our time it’s wholly original even if you do recognize some of the place names. Into this stunning universe, Lawrence introduces one of dark fantasy’s greatest anti-heroes: Honorous Jorg Ancrath, a prince without a kingdom whose rage both drives and limits him as he seeks to take back what was brutally stolen from him. Come for the dark, violent world-building, but stay to watch Jorg’s slow evolution as he grapples with his own nature.
18. The Gunslinger (Dark Tower Series), by Stephen King
For some, fantasy has to involve swords and dragons and dark lords wielding even darker magicks. But fantasy has been expanding in scope for decades, and King’s delirious fever dream of a series definitely counts. Telling the story of an entire universe in danger of destruction and the ancient gunslinger who fights The Man in Black to save it, King mixes in tropes from westerns, sci-fi, horror, and just about everything else (including himself, appearing as a character in the story in the later volumes). The darkness stems from the sense of an ending world growing ragged at the edges as it slowly disintegrates from the sacrifices the characters have to make to save it. As with any King novel, the horror of those sacrifices are usually delivered like a punch to the gut.
19. Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
The line between comic book and graphic novel is blurred in this fantastic story. If you don’t think of comics when you think dark fantasy, the Monstress series might just change your mind as it tells the story of Maika Halfwolf, who is an “arcanic”—a mix between human and animal. Arcanics are routinely hunted—and eaten—by witches who absorb their power, so it’s lucky for Maika that she can pass as human even as a war rages between the arcanics and the witches. If creatures getting devoured for their power isn’t dark enough for you, nothing is, but this story gets better and better with each new issue.
20. The Court of Broken Knives (Empires of Dust Series), by Anna Smith Spark
Spark’s debut series Empires of Dust is an incredibly well-done example of dark fantasy. As the Sekemleth Empire falls apart, a band of mercenaries led by the tough Tobias is hired to speed along regime change by assassinating the emperor, which won’t be easy. As the band makes its way across the desert, the world is laid out and characters are introduced, leading to a slow boil of schemes, plots, betrayals, and desires that take this simple premise and muddy the waters with blood and darkness. If the complex knot of interlocking fates that Spark lays out in the first novel, The Court of Broken Knives, doesn’t hook you, the brutal way she unties those knots will.