Before we begin, I think it’s important to first mention that nobody can agree on what the term Grimdark really means. Everyone has a different definition, which can be fun for discussions but also frustrating at times when someone disagrees with you on your own definition. In a nutshell, I look for these elements:
Consequences: A lot of the time in classic or traditional fantasy when a character makes a mistake they find a way out of it. Not in Grimdark. When a character makes a mistake, they pay for it or someone close to them pays for it. If it’s a big mistake, someone is going to pay a big price.
Morally Grey Characters: The lines between good and bad are blurred, our main characters can’t be defined easily as who is the protagonist and antagonist. Often they can be classified as both. You’ll find yourself rooting for someone you almost feel guilty rooting for because they make decisions based on their own survival and not necessarily because something is right or wrong.
Unpredictability: With most fantasy books you can almost predict where the story will go. There can be comfort in reading a book knowing good will prevail and evil will be vanquished. Not so in Grimdark. You’ll be surprised and tortured not knowing who will be victorious and who will fail. Characters you care about will die, sometimes horribly.
Themes: Some of my favorite Grimdark works pull from history for inspiration. It doesn’t get much more Grimdark than history. Because we see these characters go through these grueling journeys, it’s satisfying seeing them prevail even when the odds are stacked against them. Pulling themselves up when everything seems hopeless can be motivating to get through our own lives when we’re at our lowest point.
Low Fantasy: When a book is too focused on high fantasy or includes more fantastical creatures or magic systems it feels less like boots on the ground and a story you can relate to. You don’t get that gritty vibe, more shiny and full of glitter. High fantasy and magic systems serve as a convenient way to get characters out of trouble sometimes, when that option is off the board you have more concern for your favorite characters.
If you want to hear more about all things Grimdark, check out this video on YouTube or here for the audio version full of interview highlights from authors much smarter than I am describing what Grimdark means to them or here for our Friday Conversation podcast episode discussing Grimdark… again with people much smarter than I am.
Now with all of that out of the way, I want to tell you about my Top 10 Favorite Grimdark books and three honorable mentions. For those of you who like to go into books blind, I won’t mention too many plot points, more so my reactions after I read the books.
In no particular order:
The Winter Road by Adrian Selby
The Winter Road can be considered a stand alone, there are no other books you have to read before and no books you have to read after. It is loosely connected to two other books, but they can be read out of order. It was one of my favorite reads of 2022.
In The Winter Road we follow characters who are exploring fairly unknown and dangerous regions in their world, trying to bring peace and progress. Needless to say they meet resistance and you begin to wonder who decides if the way a group of people live should be changed. When our characters make mistakes (and they do) they pay dearly for them.
This book also had me contemplating things like life, love and how time changes everything. Just thinking about it as I write this article gave me chills. It’s a powerful, gripping and through provoking read that is perfect for someone looking for a stand alone.
A Congregation of Jackals by S. Craig Zahler
This is less Grimdark fantasy tale and more of a Grimdark Western. Just like The Winter Road, it’s a stand alone and fairly quick read. Have you seen the film Bone Tomahawk? S. Craig Zahler wrote that, so if you’ve seen that film you have an idea of what you may be in for.
It’s a western setting but in some ways makes it feel more realistic. A Congregation of Jackals is a tale of whether someone can escape their past mistakes and reinvent themselves or if you can never out run your past. Will it always be there, waiting in the shadows for the right time to strike or can you undo your past deeds?
As you learn what the characters have done in the past, you wonder if you should be rooting for or against them. Was what they did justified? Should they be forgiven? Can they ever find peace? It’s a haunting and cruel story that will stick with you long after the last page.
The Manifest Delusions Series by Michael R. Fletcher & Clayton Snyder
You almost can’t have a list of Grimdark books without mentioning this series. Beyond Redemption is forever a Grimdark staple and contains one of the most creative worlds you’ll read in any fantasy book.
In this series our delusions become reality and can result in giving us power. Power isn’t always good, and there are safeguards built into the world to prevent anyone from becoming too powerful.
Even with as dark as this book can get, there are still hilarious moments that turn the characters from people you despise to people you root for. Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, the humor makes them more interesting and it’s almost needed to break up the darkness contained in this series.
This series has it all, but can be too Grimdark-y for some, but if you can handle the violence, gore and absolute bonkers world, give it a try.
You can listen to an interview with Michael R. Fletcher here or a spoiler filled talk with Fletcher and Clayton Snyder for the Manifest Delusions series, but beware it’s spoiler filled.
Obsidian: Awakening by Sienna Frost
Another one of my favorite books from 2022 also includes one of my all-time favorite characters from fantasy, ever.
This book made me question the choices leaders must make, knowing someone will suffer for their decisions but the need to keep the greater good in mind. Do we really want to be free? Do we really have the desire to be out on our own in a dangerous world or would we really prefer life safe behind walls?
I’m lucky enough to be mentioned on the Amazon page for this book with my quote “Absolutely heartbreaking.” This book was difficult to read at times (like most of the books on this list are) but it’s so good. Remember above when I mentioned how much I enjoy seeing characters overcome the odds and persevere even when faced insurmountable odds? This book embodies that.
Edge of the Breach by Halo Scot
The RIFT Cycle has it all: murder, mayhem, love, crude humor, murder, turning people into confetti and… did I mention murder? This is Star Wars meets Dexter with a touch of The Sopranos.
In this world the season you are born in determines what type of powers you have. We meet two characters from different walks of life and backgrounds, when their paths collide it makes for a journey that left me shocked, laughing out loud, and even a little teary eyed. The story evolves through the four book series and the end of the fourth book still haunts me.
This book has some very powerful scenes and also some extremely brutal and unforgiving scenes. It’s definitely not for anyone who minds lots and lots of murder. There are some intense scenes in this series that are imprinted forever on my mind.
Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell
The Ash and Sand trilogy is one of my all-time favorites from start to finish, and Richard Nell is one of my favorite people to talk to. Oh, and my all-time favorite character is in this series.
A page or two into Kings of Paradise will prepare you for the type of story you’re in for. Nell doesn’t take long to surprise and shock you. There are so many unexpected twists and turns in this series that I was on the edge of my seat reading every page. Characters succeeded, failed, were killed, killed and tortured in ways that I still think about from time to time randomly through my day.
The second book in the series, Kings of Ash is still a book that gives me goosebumps because of the surprises and tragedy in those pages. They haunt me, even years later.
The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
If you’re someone who needs a likable character to root for, this series probably isn’t for you. There really isn’t anyone in this series that I could latch onto and root for. If you’re like me and prefer to go into your books blind, do not read the synopsis.
I’m typically not a fan of combat scenes. They tend to go on too long and just aren’t interesting. The way Anna Smith Spark writes combat makes me wanting more of it. You get into the head of the person in the fight and what they are experiencing while they fight for their life.
Between the family histories, politics, double crosses and violence this is one of those books that leaves you wondering what will happen next. Nothing is off of the table. Everyone is vulnerable. We explore the through process of groups of people who learn to use violence to solve every problem over and over again, what that can do to individuals and groups of people is terrifying. The second half of the last book in this series was difficult to read and one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had reading.
Gunmetal Gods by Zamil Akhtar
Have you ever read a story that had everything you love? Gunmetal Gods is that book for me. We read a lot of battles, of victories and defeats. But what happens to the people in the city that was just sacked? What is next for them after dust settles?
We follow two characters, Kevah and Micah who will constantly leave you conflicted on who you would rather see be the last one standing. The story is brutal, merciless, unique and horrifying. Much like other books on this list, there are scenes that will haunt you forever.
Zamil’s prose is spectacular and he manages to balance characters, world building and plot masterfully. Fantasy is in desperate need of a fresh perspective and Zamil brought that to the genre in the best ways.
We Men of Ash and Shadow by HL Tinsley
Ever wonder what a gas lamp Grimdark book with a hint of Guy Ritchie style humor would be like? Read We Men of Ash and Shadow.
The book reads very smoothly, Tinsley has a style of writing that quickly captivated me. I found myself flying through the pages, Tinsley has prose that is very efficient. The world, characters and hint of humor all mixed together perfectly.
The book is dark and unforgiving, with characters that you’ll grow to both love and hate and a city that feels as if it’s another living, breathing character. If you’re a fan of things like Peaky Blinders, Snatch or Gangs of New York, you’ll probably love this as much as I did.
The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
If you can handle it’s dark tone and themes, The Darkness That Comes Before will quickly engross you with it’s bleak and dreary world, thought provoking philosophy and riveting characters. This is one of those books that isn’t for everyone, but if it is, it will be an unforgettable ride.
At it’s core The Prince of Nothing trilogy revolves around a Holy War but it’s so much more than that. We learn about the history, the tragedy and the potential second apocalypse that could be imminent. Bakker turns character and story tropes on their heads, making what should be your typical archetypes into unforgettable and unique characters.
The prose is absolutely beautiful with so many quotes you’ll ponder long after you put the book down. It’s part Grimdark fantasy and part philosophy book. It is another book that doesn’t have a likeable character, so if you need someone to root for this is another book that may not be for you.
I’m on my second read of this series as I type this and I’m finding more and more that I missed and foreshadowing for events much later in the series. It’s masterfully done and my all-time favorite fantasy series.
There are a couple of books that I didn’t quite fit into my top 10 but I still want to mention. Starting with:
The Hellborn King by Christopher G. Brenning
The Hellborn King Saga reads like a movie. It’s cinematic, engrossing and a hell of a page turner. Brenning has a knack for writing fantastic prologues and scenes that will keep you hooked from the first page.
The world, story and plot flow from beginning to end, with characters that you’ll become attached to and understand their motivations even if you disagree with their actions. Much like other books in this list, no one is safe. Characters are put through the ringer and die but it serves the story and isn’t for shock value.
If you like fast paced novels with captivating characters and battles, this is the book for you.
Saraphina’s Lament by Sarah Chorn
Much like Anna Smith Spark, Chorn has a poetic writing style that takes a little bit to adjust to. It’s beautiful prose that you’ll find yourself getting lost in.
It doesn’t happen often, but there is a character death in this novel that made me put the book down and walk away for a minute. It made such an impact on me I needed a minute to recover.
Some books you finish and you move on. Others stick with you and haunt you, Saraphina’s Lament has been with me and left such an impact on me it’s one I’ll never forget and always recommend.
Priest of Bones by Peter McLean
Priest of Bones is Peaky Blinders in a fantasy setting. It’s one of the more accessible reads on this list, with some dark elements but easy to read and digest. It’s not loaded down with a ton of world building or info dumps, it flows really well.
As mentioned above, it does have some emotional beats but also explores the impact of soldiers returning home from war after being gone, PTSD and the unexpected pitfalls of being a leader in any situation.
Priest of Bones is one of the first books I recommend to readers new to fantasy looking for a feel for Grimdark.