A few days back, me and my friend, Pranav were having a discussion on fantasy books. Somehow I started telling him how Tolkein’s work ‘The Lord of Rings’ was fifty years ahead of its time in its vision. He was busy telling me about the Game of thrones series. When I told him that the Hobbit world was equally as good as King’s Landing, his pejorative remark was something on the line that ‘Game of Thrones have “human beings” as their characters.’
Though I am still convinced of the good that the Hobbit world has done to fantasy literature, undeniably, traditional fantasy epics are fading to appeal to the readers. It is because of the realism that transforms into the character development of the story, as my friend’s argument was pointing out, that grimdark fantasy books and series have become the vogue. The harsh realities of life, death, destruction, evil, sorrow and betrayal speak more to the world we live in than any other sub-genre of fantasy books.
But what is grimdark fantasy ?
As the word itself suggests, grimdark fantasy books are both grim, in their settings and world-building, as well as dark, in their flair of writing as well the characterization of the story.
Grim here refers to gloom, death and destruction and dark resembles something dystopian, gory and unscrupulous. The term was actually inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000:
In the grim darkness of the far future there is only WAR.
Is grimdark fantasy different from dark fantasy ?
Yes. The two are different. Dark fantasies combine elements of horror and dread in fantasies whereas grimdark fanatasy books are realistic sorrowful fantasies that are about grim lives of grimmer folks. Not to say that there is no overlap between the two but they are usually distinguished by the above mentioned criteria.
R. R. Martin books give you the best insight on what makes a great grimdark fantasy book. The fact that Game of Thrones series grossed over $88 million dollars PER EPISODE from HBO subscriptions in enough evidence to show how much grimdark fantasy is in-demand.
But let’s dig a bit deeper than the surface and see what are the other reasons why so many authors are writing fantasy books in this sub-genre and people are reading and watching the same.
In the evil and unfair times that we are living in, the feeling of despair and dejectedness central to grimdark fantasy stories are relatable. The sweet, romantic, serene glossy veneer is rubbed off in grimdark fantasy books. There are usually, fights between real people who are believable and have flaws. The antagonist is as relatable and conflicted as the protagonist.
There are real surprises and breath-taking moments in grimdark fantasies.
So there is intense romance, kisses and ugly sex; blood and gore; guts, treachery and betrayal.
They are riveting, hook the readers/viewers and once you have decided to devour these stories, it is less likely that you would want to stop before reaching the end because you never know what turn your story is going to take next!!!
We are all waiting for the end of R. R. Martin’s books in the Song of ice and fire series, aren’t we?
I have ranted enough for those who knew all this and created enough anticipation for newbies to grimdark fantasy.
Now let’s see what are some of the great grimdark fantasy books out there that we can savor.
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
You haven’t read grimdark fantasy if you haven’t devoured Joe Abercrombie’s ‘The First Law series.’ This is one of the few novels that comes, as author Jon Courtenay Grimwood puts it, “close to living up to its publisher’s hype”. The first book in the trilogy, the story has immense bloodshed, unspeakable torture and can be given full 5-stars when it comes to depicting violence. But don’t dread it. He has got equally rich characterization in his novels to transform the brutally repugnant into a compelling narrative.
You can read the summary of the book from the link given below:
The Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
I can go on lauding R. R. Martin for any length of time.
Why, the ‘Game of Thrones’ series that was inspired by his books brought grimdark fantasy into the vogue.
Please don’t tell me you don’t know the story or haven’t watched the TV show as yet!
Though the end of the series was a huge disappointment for all the GOT fans, we must wait patiently to see what the end of R.R. Martin’s book series has for us.
A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones
Two young mages discover their true dark powers in the quest to come together and fulfill their shared destiny.
J.V. Jones is one of my favorite writers and she is a must read for all grimdark fantasy book lovers. Her books are characterized by vivid action, real characters, and a dense descriptions of settings that can excite the most jaded of fantasy bookworms.
Acacia by David Anthony Durham
Anybody who has loved reading R. R. Martin cannot afford to miss this. In fact, s/he could expect even more.
David Anthony’s story is about the king of Acacia who was killed by the meins, forcing his four children to take charge and carry the burden of maintaining the family legacy. But they are surprised to learn the things Acacia had done to maintain the family legacy.
You have to read the story yourself to relish the unnerving moments and see what makes the story so original in its conception and ambitious in scope.
The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
The philosophically bent minds would love reading Bakker’s epic grimdark fantasy. A post-apocalyptic novel about the young Anasûrimbor Kellhus, Bakker has hooked the readers in his novel with the question if he will bring about the restoration of order or yet another apocalypse. The ‘holy war’ that he initiates will leave you thinking about a lot of things.
A delightful read, the story severs limbs and equally warm the heart.
The Black Company by Glen Cook
A series of adventures, the book is, as the name suggests, about an evil company. One of the greatest fantasy epics of our age, it is about a cold-hearted empress who employs ruthless mercenaries in her kingdom who maim and kill people. But only until the good forces have decided to rise again.
Black sun rising by C.S. Friedman
Friedman’s character Gearald Tarrant gives up his humanity for knowledge.
Yes. You heard that right.
A grimdark fantasy that might closely resemble sci-fi, his protagonist lives in a world ruled by malevolent energy forces. The first book in the coldfire trilogy, the book is filled with unexpected twists and turns and is a triumph of imagination in the fantasy world of literature.
The Steel remains by Richard K. Morgan
War hero Ringil Eskiath, is forsaken by his family because of his sexual orientations but is called back by his mother to help solve local trouble. He has to investigate slave trade that has been incited by a violent and mysterious supernatural force which strangely Ringil finds himself sympathetic to. In a gripping and complex narrative, Richard manages to give us one of the best grimdark fantasy plots to read.
Promise of Blood by Brian Mcclellan
The first book in The Powder Mage trilogy, Field Marshl Tamas overthrows his king in a coup and brings bread for the starving in his kingdom. But the coup has provoked the nine kingdoms and Tamas’ only hope is Adamat, a former police inspector who is now a private investigator and Taneil, who is also his estranged son. Taniel consumes gunpowder that allows him gain supernatural powers. What happens next is….what you have to read and find out.
Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
He now has nothing to loose, and that makes him the dangerous one.
The first in the Broken Empire series, the story is about Jorg Ancrath, a prince who is stripped of all his pride when he sees his mother and brother brutally murdered in front of his eyes. He learns the ways of outcasts and toughens himself till he can feel no more. He is now back to regain the throne through the only way he knows he can do this i.e. by bloodshed. But little does our Prince realize that the way up isn’t that easy. There is betrayal and the coming back of familiar dark memories. Will the Prince wrest back the throne or whether the dark forces will coalesce to vanquish his attempt ?
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
If you are looking for blood sucking, gory stuff and like vampires, then this is the book to go for. It features a vampire descended from Aztecks. And best of all, it is a grimdark fantasy in an urban setting.
A ragpicker who meets a vampire in Mexico city and the match is better than you would have initially suspected. Atl, the vampire, is on the run from the rival gang of European vampires who executed her family and there develops a sweet relationship between the two. They go through a series of travails on the run together but in the end, Atl escapes and Domingo, the garbage picker is left behind. Though not a very strong grimdark novel, Silvia’s perspective of vampires and bloodshed is definitely a fresh perspective that you should not miss.
The Dragon’s Legacy by Deborah A. Wolf
One of the most fantastic debut works that I have ever read, The Dragon’s Legacy is about a mystic beast who sleeps “at the heart of the world” and would destroy it if awakened. The story revolves around Hafsa Azeina who has to choose between aligning with her mother and her father, who is the bestial beast. Her mother had separated her from her father but that did no good to curb the dark powers inside the girl. Rich in moral dilemmas, this grimdark fantasy is sure to give you the nerves
Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle
If you like reading about torture and brutality, then you can’t miss Touch of Iron. All Abercrombie fans will love this about twins Noraya and Owen smith, who leave their home at the ridge to cross the plains. With three weeks of travel ahead and winter approaching, they meet half-wight Master Telen Diaz who is escorting the exiled Prince Bashan, the seeker of the Living Blade who hopes to overthrow her half-sister from the throne.
The teens see the Ridge burning from the end of the road and while Owen continues ahead, Noraya returns home. She finds people either dead or enslaved and resolves to seek vengeance. Though Diaz and Nora’s spicy romance in the story give you the squirms, Whitecastle has overdone with the carnage at some places. Nevertheless, the list of some of the best grimdark fantasy books is definitely incomplete without the mention of his book.
Did I miss any of your favorite grimdark fantasy books ? Let me know in the comment section and I will add it to my list:)
Hope you enjoyed reading this article!