New to Grimdark or Fantasy? Not sure what you’ll like, or if you’ll like Grimdark at all? Here are a few books to consider looking at. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or just getting into it, or even looking for things to stay away from, these are a dozen good Grimdark starters.
I actually pared this down a bit, picking off series a hadn’t read more than a few of, or series I didn’t like, or Game of Thrones, because seriously, if I’m the FIRST to tell you you should read it, then you haven’t been paying the world any attention. Also, know that it’s really hard to classify Grimdark. There’re several series I wouldn’t have included except I know people that include them as Grimdark, and others that I waffled a bit on whether to include or not. A person that reads a lot of YA or the like might be more liberal about calling a world gritty and dark than someone who reads a lot of horror, for example.
1. The Grim Company – by Luke Scull
After failing to find the Grim Company at my local library, I picked up a discount copy during the summer of 2014 and proceeded to read it cover to cover in under three days. This is partly due to the length of tGC; at less than 400 pages, it’s one of the shorter books on this list, but also due to the fact that it’s just that good. Luke Scull’s debut effort provides very different characters with very different motivations and emotions. A halfmage—a man barely able to use his magic to wipe his own ass. A disillusioned hero—a man with ambitions too big for even his own over-inflated ego. A barbarian champion—fallen from fame and living in the past. An addict—whose motivations surround only her ability to get another fix. In a world where the gods themselves have been pulled down and slain, and other, more terrifying creatures lurk in the shadows—a group of misfits struggle to become heroes. An intensely enjoying read in a decided dark world.
2. Prince of Thorns – by Mark Lawrence
I couldn’t make a Grimdark list without including Mark Lawrence, one of the masters of the genre. Since PoT debuted in 2011, Lawrence has released another six or seven novels, all inspired by the darkness of his first. You never forget your first. As such, while I hate Jorg Ancrath with a burning passion—I mean, he’s one of my least favorite protagonists ever—I had to include him on this list. Because the story is really, really good. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s violent. It’s petty, depressing, and awful. There’s pretty much everything some of my friends hate in a book. But it is a great read and an exceptional Grimdark entry. Even better, maybe, is the continuing series. I actually got so repulsed by Jorg that I stopped reading the third book. He’s just… horrible. So if you’re into that, maybe dive on in.
3. The Blade Itself – by Joe Abercrombie
The Blade Itself was my first introduction to Grimdark, and since I read it for the first time back in 2010, I’ve had the occasion to reread it several times. The opening trilogy of the First Law is not perfect, but it was an amazing introduction to the Grimdark genre. Dark and gritty, petty and violent, the darkness of evil often mixing with the light of good. Not everyone gets a happy ending and not everyone lives, just as life illustrates. The characters may not be as well explored or defined as some as Abercrombie’s later ones, but seeing them learn the world and how it works along with yourself is a dynamic I struggle to find elsewhere. If you’re new to Grimdark, I’d start with this. If you’re an old hand, but new to Abercrombie, maybe I’d start with The Heroes, but definitely add The Blade Itself to your reading list.
4. The Lies of Locke Lamora – by Scott Lynch
It took me three tries to get into tLoLL, as the first part is just frustrating fluff and fancy words. These first two hundred damn pages are more than an entry to a magnificent world, however. They help set the mood for the entire series—or at least the three books Lynch has managed to produce thus far. Upon getting by this roadblock however, I found an incredibly detailed, vividly imagined world, one constructed of shades of grey, and where life was not just the simple survival that it seemed at first. Sure, parts of tLoLL are a struggle, a fight for survival, but there’s more. A deliciously dark undertone, something I found I related to very much.
As a side note, let me just say that Scott Lynch suffers from anxiety and depression, and that it has affected his writing. But as someone that also suffers from these, I find it amazing that he’s managed to publish three, let alone ONE, book. The dude is an inspiration, plain and simple.
5. Dragon Hunters – by Marc Turner
The recommendation not to include the first of a series comes from Marc Turner. Sure, you can certainly read When the Heavens Fall, Turner’s intro into the Chronicles of the Exile, but you don’t have to. At least, not yet. In addition to enjoying the second more, I would recommend Dragon Hunters first as it’s not a direct sequel to WtHF. Doesn’t even have the same characters or same setting. It’s set in the same world, perhaps a little before and after the events of WtHF, but you need not read the first to understand what’s happening. An introduction to the world is all WtHF is, and a clunky and underwhelming debut that Dragon Hunters blows out of the water. While a good introduction to Turner’s prose, something that prepares readers for the second, it really does little else than set the mood. Sure, there are other important elements that appear in Red Tide, nothing that occurs in Dragon Hunters is directly relevant to WtHF. While not as dark as some others on this list, the plot and characters feel quite real, and quite human. Their aims often overlap but none completely intersect. Their motivations are often unclear, or disappointing, even petty. The human element is well portrayed by Turner, something that’s often quite difficult in a fantastical world.
6. The Emperor’s Blades – by Brian Staveley
This is one of the couple I wasn’t sure if I’d actually call Grimdark. But the world is gritty. The choices between good and evil aren’t clear. The line between good and evil even isn’t clear. The Emperor’s Blades features a murdered king, his three children, and the pursuit of survival and vengeance. Not justice, vengeance. While some characters attempt to survive, others seek to right events by any means necessary. I was critical in my review of this for neglecting the female lead, but where the original failed, the sequels have done justice. And where the first installment maybe isn’t dark enough that I’d classify it as Grimdark, the others certainly swayed me to include it.
7. The Barrow – by Mark Smylie
A standalone novel based on Artesia—a tabletop setup I’ve never played—The Barrow is the official debut of Mark Smylie, and a glimpse into his dark, bloody and highly sexual world. I would call The Barrow the ‘Altered Carbon’ of fantasy, as it reminds me more of Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk thriller than his own fantasy series did. Smylie pushes the envelope with graphic sexual acts, gut-wrenching drama, vivid and horrific violence and gore that spares no character. Women pretending to be men. Orgies between men and women, men and men, creatures and… other things. If you’re more into the violence aspect of life than Japanese porn, I would say even maybe skip this one. Black Heart—the sequel—has been delayed indefinitely, so it’s just a standalone, but still the ride is vivid and… interesting.
8. The Red Knight – by Miles Cameron
Miles—or Christian—Cameron up until the Red Knight came out, was a historical fiction author, specializing in tales of Greece and the Crusades, Persia and Macedonia. The Red Knight is his foray into fantasy and it shows. The writing is just so technical, the language to period, the description so specialized. The world is also realistic and bloody, depicting a dark age fantasy read as just that: Dark. It’s an adventure that I would refer to as immersive, highly interesting, gripping and thrilling, just not “fun”. I’m only three books through this five book epic, but already I’ve not dreams of holding a line against a army of beasts and demons out of nightmare, blood spilling around my fingers, and the blood leeching from me as I’m put in the ground. A bit dark, I know, and not the most enjoyable dream ever, but a thrilling ride nonetheless.
9. Blood Song – by Anthony Ryan
This is maybe my fav read of all time, honestly. I love the world that is created in Blood Song and the way that Anthony Ryan portrays it. I love Vaelin, the main and pretty much only POV, that leads the story for a majority of book. I love that the read is a delicious blend of dark and light, that the world is a complicated and complex place, a realistic and intensely immersive place. But I HATE the sequels. When taken alone, they’re okay reads. Maybe even good. When taken as continuants to Blood Song… they suck.
10. The Warded Man – by Peter V. Brett
In a world where demons walk the night while humans cower within their homes, life is measured a mile at a time. Few travelers brave the roads as this would leave them out at night behind delicate, mobile wards. And anyone left out at night is left to fend for themselves, as they will surely perish. Three unlikely heroes are born into this world, three that will fight to reshape it.
Well, maybe four. I mean, five. Six? Seven? Eight? Damnit Brett make up your damn mind. While quite enjoyed the first book of the Demon Cycle—and actually liked the second more—the constant addition of new characters, each with their own backstories, helped kill any momentum Brett worked to build for himself. Then there were the words that he kept making up—more and more in each book. And the moment early in the fourth book where I realized the title characters wouldn’t appear again until the fifth.
The Warded Man is an entirely new concept and great addition to Grimdark, so long as you take it for what it is. It IS a great story. It IS a vivid world. It isn’t a great series. Brett seems to change his mind in Book 2 in an attempt to revitalize it, to refocus it. Or something. He introduces a new title character to help carry the mantle. And… well, the first one is really good. It’s not exactly the confined story that Blood Song can be taken as, but it’s a good adventure.
11. A Dance of Cloaks – by David Dalglish
David Dalglish is a success story of self-publication. As with Michael J. Sullivan, it took the established publishers way too much time to realize their greatness. Unlike Michael J. Sullivan, though, Dalglish’s world isn’t what I’d call a fun adventure. I mean, it was good; every book. But none of them come to the level set by some of the Riyria stories. None of them have the good clean, family, PG (to PG-13) fun that Sullivan’s books feature. I think it took to Book 5 (of 6) for me to rate one 5 stars. I mean, none of the books up to that point were bad, again, just none broke the 3.5-4.0 star range. They’re good, worth the time, worth the money. They just didn’t change my life, make me think. When taken as a whole, however, Haern’s journey is one of the better ones I’ve ever completed. If in fact it IS complete. Dalglish has expressed a desire to return to this world, maybe to these characters—but only after he accomplishes a few things he’d put off, more stories he thought he might never write.
Set in a well imagined, well designed world, ADoC begins an adventure based in shadow and blood that will span 6 books (more if you count Dalglish’s other efforts into this world, and another half if you take his novella based on Thren). A world where Haern toes the line between good and evil, justice and vengeance; challenged constantly by a wave of enemies and sometimes-allies, none more dangerous than his own father.
12. Battlemage – by Stephen Aryan
Battlemage isn’t in fact my favorite entry in the Age of Darkness trilogy. Or my favorite entry in a debut series. Or my favorite debut. But unlike Dragon Hunters, it is actually important that you begin this one at the beginning. Battlemage helps set the mood, and the mood drives the series. Now, even a trilogy and a half later, the mood of Battlemage is still driving the plot. And that mood is fear. Fear, and hate. A truly dark and desperate world, Battlemage begins with a war that threatens to tear apart a continent. And at the forefront, mages wielding tremendous and awe-inspiring power. But more than inspiring awe, they inspire fear. Throughout the book and series Aryan confronts fear of the unknown—leading to bigotry, hate, bullying and even ethnic cleansing. While the plot of Battlemage may not seem as realistic as some of the others on this list, the issues it deals with are just that.
Honorable Mentions: Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan; Hope and Red, by Jon Skovron; A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin; A Crown of Cold Silver, by Alex Marshall; Traitor’s Blade, by Sebastien de Castell; Acacia, by David Anthony Durham; The Dragon’s Path, by Daniel Abraham.
And if Grimdark ain’t your thing, I’ll be releasing other lists of stuff I like to read, and would recommend shortly: Scifi, Epic Fantasy, YA, Dystopian, and other things. Hope it helps!