A lot of people want to know what grimdark is and I wrote an entire essay on the subject (What is Grimdark?). However, grimdark is like Shakespeare in that it is something better experienced rather than described. As such, I've compiled a list of what I consider to be twenty of the best grimdark novels for giving you a sense of what the genre is all about.
I've left off some works which I felt were exceptionally good but were more part of an existing genre (Howard, Lovecraft). I also have simply left some off because I hadn't read them yet (Steven Erikson's Malazan). I've also excluded everything which isn't a book, which was hard in the case of Kentaro Miura's Berserk.
|No self-promotion at all. See!|
There's a good question of what I mean by "grimdark" when I describe it. For the purposes of this list, I just mean dark and gritty low fantasy or hardboiled science fiction. It isn't defined by the number "***ks" per page, heroes killed, or people assaulted. It's about a cynical worldview where the entirety of the world seems to be against your heroes. I've written similar stories with my Cthulhu Armageddon and Lucifer's Star books. They, of course, will not be on this list.
Basically, my opinion of grimdark is that they are books for when you want to read stories about settings where everything has gone wrong for our heroes. Where there is injustice, intolerance, and the kings are just the sort of people who happened to be lucky enough to inherit their conquering grandfather's thrones. It's the opposite of high fantasy and idealistic science fiction and is nothing new in writing. However, it's something that people sometimes have a taste for or even prefer. That's a reader's prerogative. Most of these books are the well known highlights of the subgenre but I've slipped in a few indies because I think they deserve to be there.
So, without further ado...THE LIST! I chose to do twenty because, really, why not?
20. A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden
This is a story that stars the last of the orcs (though he's never called that) on a mission to kill his own nephew during the last days of Viking paganism. It's a surprisingly high concept ideal that works even better without the Tolkienisms. The story includes questions of faith, conflict between religion, revisionist history, and even quantum theory while somehow remaining true to a violent Medieval worldview that sees everything in binary black and white. Our "hero" is a monster in the vein of Grendel but he's on a Bewoulf-like journey. Probably one of my all-time favorite fantasy novels, really, and definitely something which deserves to be on this list.
19. Steel, Fire, and Blood by Allan Batchelder
A brutal berserker is on one last mission to take down the End of All Things (a grandiosely titled magical warrior who just might be able to pull it off). I very much enjoyed this novel and note it's actually the start of a much larger book series. Vykers is an excellent protagonist as he's slightly embarrassed by the fact he's getting older and can't pull off his famous miracles of murder anymore. He's also surrounded by people who both need him to be their monster but are painfully aware he's not as good as his replacement. He's also all they've got.
18. The Thousand Scars by Michael Baker
I'm a bit tired of non-stop European fantasy and specifically European fantasy set during the time of knights and kings. Aside from Vikings, we don't get much variance from that. So, I was really pleased by Michael Baker setting his story in a fantasy version of the Peloponsian War. The not-Greeks are faced against the Not-Persians and the former has decided to raise an army of the undead to repulse the latter. I love the antiheroes of this book as they're complete scum but they know the ritual will destroy the world, so we're stuck with them.
17. Shattered Dreams by Ulff Lehmann
One of the problems with depictions of war in fantasy is they always take a "Richard the Lionheart" view of following the big badasses and the larger strategic picture. Ulff Lehmann does a great job of following the boots on the ground as a massive invasion threatens to overrun a series of small kingdoms under the boot of an aggressive expansionist empire. Magic may be coming back to the world and maybe the gods but it's not necessarily a good thing.
16. Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell
Kings of Paradise just may be the best thing out in 2018 and I don't say that lightly. It's grimdark but grimdark I've never seen before. The story of a deformed cannibal, a handsome prince, and an ambitious peasant girl turned priestess that want to move from their crappy snow-covered hellhole of a land to a beautiful island paradise. They just have to conquer it and destroy its people first (or save them from their fellows--either's fine).
15. Darkmage by M.L. Spencer
It's a common fantasy story: a ragtag band of misfits bands together to save the world. Except, this time they fail miserably. Darkmage is the Prequel to the Rhenwars Saga which brutally dissects most fantasy tropes. The heroes empowered by their righteousness make things worse and the villains are people with their own horrific story. I've enjoyed this entire series and while it's not really as gritty as some, it's one of the most vicious in its deconstruction of high fantasy.
14. The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French
This was a surprise self-published hit from 2017 and so successful that it managed to get a contract with a traditional publisher with a new release date in July of 2018. The premise is a bunch of giant warthog half-orcs are the border patrol for a kingdom of humans. Jackal is the best of his kind but also deeply immersed in the macho "warrior ethos" of his culture that is 90% crap and 10% manipulation. The Grey Bastards confronts Jackal with a lot of hard life lessons even as it deconstructs the idea of the badass warrior culture.
13. The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
I mentioned in my review of Scott Oden's work that I am kind of tired of traditional European fantasy. So, this book (like The Dragon's Legacy) benefits strongly from being set in a mythical China that is isolated from the rest of the world. I'm going to say this book isn't just dark fantasy, though, it is hardcore grimdark. Every protagonist does monstrous things because they live in a monstrous world and the chief "hero" is certifiably insane. If you have a fascination with the psychology of those who do the unspeakable, I think you'll like this a lot.
12. Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes
Rob J. Hayes is actually the first grimdark author whose work I knowingly read. The Ties That Bind series started off as a gritty sort of Conan then seagues into something deeper as the story ends up becoming the basis for an entire world of tragic antihero-filled adventures. However, Where Loyalties Lie has a benefit the other books don't in that it's about pirates! While technically a sequel to The Ties That Bind, it can be read on its own. Roguish characters who actually do awful things, fascinating dynamics, and amazing world-building. Drake Morass wants to build a pirate kingdom and recruits gentleman bandit Keelin to help his dream become reality but there's just one small problem, two really: Drake Morass is a manipulative sociopath and there's already a pirate king.
11. The Dragon's Legacy by Deborah A. Wolf
This is the newest work on my list embodies the other side of grimdark from the gore and antiheroes: the complex social politics as well as moral ambiguities. It's very much like George R.R. Martin's Essos in a way as no one's hands are clean but very few people can be said to be evil. It's just the world has shaped everyone into those who will do whatever it takes to survive and rationalize it later. The fact the entire planet is dying and there's seemingly nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening also adds a layer of grim to what is a complex political as well as social tale told from multiple perspectives.
10. First and Only by Dan Abnett
This was a difficult one to do because I needed one and one Warhammer 40K novel here only. A novel which would stand-in for all of the entirety of a universe which gave us the word "grimdark" in the first place. It didn't take long to decide Dan Abnett would be the author who would stand-in for all of the 40th millennium but that, itself, was a massive pile of books to choose from. In the end, I think the Gaunt's Ghosts series was his best. It's the story of a military company which lost its world and are now fighting for a new homeland in an endless series of battles that will eventually exterminate them. In the end, for all their heroism, they are only meat for the Imperium's grinder.
9. Ghosts of Tomorrow by Michael R. Fletcher
It was a toss-up between this and Beyond Redemption by the same author. Ghosts of Tomorrow is a science fiction grimdark novel set in the not-so-far-off future. In that future, there's a brisk trade in "scans" which are the personalities of human beings taken from organic brains in a process that destroys the latter. In what is largely a metaphor for the Third World, thousands of children are killed every year in order to satisfy the West's demands for such "product". It is gritty, dark, and combines the best elements of cyberpunk with a gritty detective novel. Also, it has a adolescent cyborg ninja gunslinger that is somehow terrifying.
8. The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Stephen King's sci-fi Western fantasy horror epic was another difficult choice because while it certainly influenced a lot of grimdark works (Cthulhu Armageddon by moi included), it was a work which preceded a lot of what people thought to be the beginnings of grimdark. Despite this, I think its genre-blending premise is what made me think it deserved to be on the list. Also, the fact Roland may appear to be the embodiment of good and justice but he's a man as insane and consumed with his cause as the Man in Black. I really hope they keep the ending to the first book in the movie--that is what will determine whether it's a good adaptation or not.
7. Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
I feel a bit guilty including two cyberpunk novels into this list despite the fact its own perfectly well-defined genre but Altered Carbon embodies a lot of what I love about sci-fi grimdark. I could have easily placed Richard K. Morgan's Land Fit for Heroes instead but I believe Altered Carbon works best here. Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-UN special operative who has been specially trained in psi-ops and murder. In the future, memories and personalities can be traded across bodies like clothes so death has become somewhat blase. Takeshi ends up getting taken to Earth against his will, put in a body he doesn't care for, and forced to help solve a rich trillionaire's suicide. Takeshi will kill anyone to get his way back home and ends up doing it.
6. Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson
Lord Foul's Bane is another work of proto-grimdark which helped create the genre as we know it today. Thomas Covenant was a direct challenge to the majority of heroes in fantasy. A self-hating leper with no combat skills and no desire to interact with the fantasy world he's found him in, he commits an unforgivable crime in the first part of the book. It is not traditional grimdark but it's work which challenges the structure of then-traditional fantasy and was all the better for it. The fact it one of the most controversial works of fantasy out there is also going for it.
5. Elric: The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock
This one, honestly, feels like cheating since Elric is a character so firmly part of the Sword and Sorcery tradition. However, I felt the need to put him here because he's a character who embodies the anti-establishment and deconstructive nature of grimdark heroes. Basically, Elric is a crappy hero. He's always using evil sorcery and a murderous soul-stealing sword to do "good" and wonders why it ends up with his loved ones killed as well as the situation getting worse. He was created as a cunning, sickly wizard compared to Conan's archetype and the original White Wolf remains a character everyone should check out the original novellas of.
4. The Black Company by Glen Cook
If you don't think Elric should be included then allow me to present an alternative in The Black Company. It is a novel and series with a simple premise: follow the perspective of those soldiers who would be mooks of the main villain in any other series. They're not orcs but the titular company might as well be so under any circumstances. The Black Company aren't, particularly, awful people but they serve a sorceress overlord who looks better by comparison to the chaos a typical fantasy world lives under.
3. The Last Wish by Andrjez Sapkowski
The Witcher series is one which the majority of geeks probably know from the games by CD_Projekt Red. Following the adventures of mutant monster hunter, Geralt of Rivia, they are notable for how utterly craptastic the world is. Monsters have almost been exterminated on the planet but the evil that men do far eclipses what a creature that eats people might accomplish. Geralt remains one of the few individuals with a consistent moral compass but cannot do anything but kill the occasional rapist and try to collect his fees.
The series also contains the tragic anti-heroes' journey of Ciri, a young destined Chosen One who ends up broken, battered, morally compromised, and shell-shocked rather than ennobled by her destiny. The Last Wish is only the beginning of the Witcher Saga but nicely shows Geralt in his element--before everything completely goes to hell.
2. Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
No grimdark list would be complete with Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns, which proves children can be crueler than adults. After all, what other series opens up with a fourteen-year-old leading the charge to slaughter as well as pillage a bunch of innocents then culminates in the "hero" engaging in the same offense as Thomas Covenant? If you can get past this horrifying beginning, things are much more interesting than merely a case of teenage sociopathy but it is a story about someone who is monstrous in their behavior as well as the environment that made him. I will say I actually prefer Red Queen's War and Book of the Ancestor in terms of reading merit. As dark as they can get, though, they never plum the depths which Prince of Thorns shines.
1. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercombie
This one will probably come as no surprise to anyone since, after Martin, it is the series which pretty much codified the grimdark genre. Want an unromantic story about a bunch of very unpleasant people who end up killing a lot of other people in what makes the world worse? Well, this isn't the book but it's close. There's many likable characters in this story but they are all heavily flawed and realistic.
Glokta the torturer has no skills but his ability to inflict pain so that's what he does, even though he was once a great hero. Colm West dreams of ascending the ranks of the military despite his peasant upbringing and abuses his sister into not hurting his career. Logen Nine-fingers is fleeing a horrific past even as he's now wrapped in the machinations of a wizard. Where it will go is a journey that is horrifying, surprising, twisted, and enjoyable. A series I actually wrote an essay on, called, "Is The First Law Trilogy the Anti-Tolkien?"
Some honorary mentions: The Heresy Within by Rob Hayes, Acts of Caine by Matthew Stover, Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, Horus Rising by Dan Abnett, Godblind by Anna Stephens, Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher, Damoren by Seth Skorkowsky, Dawn of War by Tim Marquitz, Mercury's Son by Luke Hindmarsh, The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan, A Wizard's Forge by A.M. Justice, Exile by Martin Owton, and Melokai by Rosalyn Kelly
If you want some alternate opinions, checkout Grimdark Magazine's picks.