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Ever since A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, readers have been seeking out similar works of grimdark: a fantasy subgenre in which characters and plotlines are morally gray or completely amoral, and the line between hero and villain is blurred. Grimdark stories often take place in a dystopia or alternate world with some sort of dark twist, such as a centuries-old blood feud — grimdark books also tend to involve violence, and lots of it. Finally, they tend to keep readers guessing, leaving it unclear who will come out on top (unlike in traditional fantasy, where the “good guys” may struggle, but almost always triumph in the end).
So for those who like their fantasy with a healthy side of grit, grimdark might just be the subgenre for you. Here are 10 grimdark books to get you started in this darkly realistic realm of speculative fiction. We’ve put them in chronological order so you can see how the genre has evolved, but this is by no means a required reading sequence — feel free to explore whichever appeals to you first.
Elric of Melniboné is the fundamental opposite of fantasy’s famous Conan the Barbarian — who, while rugged in appearance and demeanor, is a respected and chivalrous warrior. Elric, on the other hand, is a merciless sorcerer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. In this first installment of Moorcock’s Elric series, the titular character is on a quest to kill his cousin using Stormbringer — an ancient, soul-devouring sword — in order to ensure his reign as emperor, which begins Elric’s downward spiral into even greater evil. Read More.
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Lord Foul’s Bane is one of the most frequently cited originators of grimdark. In this novel, a young, leprosy-affected man named Thomas Covenant is transported from our world to “the Land,” a parallel dimension based on classic fantasy tropes. However, Thomas believes this experience is merely a delusion; in a frantic, thoughtless attempt to test the boundaries of his new reality, he commits a horrific act of violence. The rest of the book and series see Thomas grappling with his own morality and what he perceives to be true about the Land — for if it’s all in his imagination, how can anything he does be wrong? This dark and mind-bending work has been hailed for its bold subversion of the fantasy genre, even among its modern successors. Read More.
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You’ll find that the company in this novel live up to its name: the titular characters are ruthless mercenaries, employed by an icy-hearted empress. Indeed, from the moment the Company is hired by “the Lady” and outright murder their former employer just to escape a contract, you know they’re not to be trifled with. Then again, neither are “the Taken,” a legion of the Lady’s former adversaries, brought together to serve under her. And then there’s the “the Circle,” a group of rebels against the Empire who purportedly want to restore goodness, but whose motives and character are just as questionable as any of the others’. This winding tale full of violence and betrayals is a delicious piece of grimdark, and only the first in a series of epic adventures surrounding the Black Company. Read More.
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