A lot of people want to know what grimdark is and I wrote an entire essay on the subject (What is Grimdark?) discussing the subject. 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 ten 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) and others because they were by an author already mentioned. I also have simply left some off because I hadn't read them yet (Erikson). I've also excluded everything which isn't a book, which was hard in the case of Kentaro Miura's Berserk.
There is also one more book series left off in A Game of Thrones. This isn't because A Game of Thrones doesn't qualify. I think of it as the Platonic ideal of grimdark as it's to fantasy what Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were to comics. However, I also think of it as cheating as basically everyone already knows A Song of Ice and Fire. If you want to read grimdark you should start there and then move on.
So, without further ado...THE LIST! I chose to do fifteen because, really, why not?
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. Godblind by Anna Stephens
I'm afraid this one is a book you'll have to take the merits of on faith since Godblind is a story that only I and a few others have read. It is, however, coming out on July 11th, 2017, though and promises to be probably the best grimdark novel of the year. The fact there's so many other great novels which have been released says something about my faith in that that I think you should pre-order it despite its improbable $20 Kindle price tag. It is 500 pages of some of the scariest, bloodiest, and most fascinating fantasy you're likely to read. As for what it's about? Well, let's just say the Red Gods are thirsty and they're ready to be fed.
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, Cthulhu Armageddon by C.T. Phipps, Lucifer's Star by C.T. Phipps, Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, Horus Rising by Dan Abnett, The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark, Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher, Damoren by Seth Skorkowsky, Galefire by Kenny Soward, Dawn of War by Tim Marquitz, Paternus by Dyrk Ashton, Shattered Dreams by Ulff Lehman, The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan
If you want some alternate opinions, checkout Grimdark Magazine's picks.