What is Grimdark Fantasy? We often see Grimdark defined as “gritty”, “violent”, or “immoral” fantasy. While those descriptors are often accurate, to us Grimdark is more specifically Fantasy that features realistic leading characters who behave less like Arthurian knights and more like regular people, often placing their own interests above all else.
Here are five series offering a diverse group of fantastic leading characters, including some highly relatable individuals who are simply trying to survive through very difficult situations, as well as others who are categorically insane.
Author: Joe Abercrombie
First Book: The Blade Itself
Series: Initial trilogy, plus multiple standalone books in the same world.
The best and most accurate description of this series remains as follows: the characters include a narcissistic royal, a sadistic torturer, and a schizophrenic, murderous barbarian….and those are the good guys. So true! Never before has such an amazing pack of anti-heroes been assembled, and you will, without question, be cheering for them by the end. First Law is graphic, brutal, and in an unexpected twist, surprisingly thought provoking. There are so many pearls of wisdom and insight amidst the carnage that they shine through despite the intensity of their surroundings.
Did I mention the dark humor? Some of the lines are so clever you’ll try to remember them for later use, but ultimately find they are just too dark to actually say aloud. If you can handle the heat, these books (as well as the follow-ups) are amazing. Challenge yourself by trying to spot the psychopath (finding the torturer is too easy).
From the Publisher: Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught up in one feud too many, he’s on the verge of becoming a dead barbarian, leaving nothing behind but some bad songs, a few dead friends, and a lot of happy enemies.
Nobleman, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, Captain Jezal dan Luthar has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules.
Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a jar. But then Glokta hates everyone: cutting treason out of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendships. His latest trail of corpses may lead him right to the rotten heart of government… if he can stay alive long enough to follow it.
Murderous conspiracies rise to the surface, old scores are ready to be settled, and the line between hero and villain is sharp enough to draw blood. Unpredictable, compelling, wickedly funny, and packed with unforgettable characters, The Blade Itself is fantasy with a real cutting edge.
Author: George R.R. Martin
First Book: A Game of Thrones
Series Status: 5 of a planned 7 books published.
Out of literally dozens (hundreds?) of characters, the number who are clearly “good guys” or “bad guys” can be counted on one hand. For all of rest it’s a matter of perspective. Martin does an amazing job of showing us the same situation through multiple POV’s, and from each character we get a totally different angle on what initially seemed clear-cut.
Also….death. If your favorite character is in peril, you need to be afraid because this could well be their last page. No one kills off more characters than Martin, and while it can be sad when it happens, it makes the stories of the living that much more compelling.
From the Publisher: Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. To the south, the king’s powers are failing—his most trusted adviser dead under mysterious circumstances and his enemies emerging from the shadows of the throne. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the frozen land they were born to. Now Lord Eddard Stark is reluctantly summoned to serve as the king’s new Hand, an appointment that threatens to sunder not only his family but the kingdom itself.
The Broken Empire Trilogy
Author: Mark Lawrence
First Book: Prince of Thorns
Series: 3 books, all published
To understand The Broken Empire, one must first understand the true nature of psychopaths:
- Psychopathy (noun) definition: A personality disorder characterized by diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior. See also: Jorg Ancrath
Jorg Ancrath, the Prince of Thorns, is probably the most psychopathic main character in all of Fantasy, and will stop at absolutely nothing to get the revenge he seeks for the brutal murder of his mother. His actions will literally make you cringe, and yet somehow you will love him for it.
From the Publisher: When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. At thirteen, he led a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be king…
It’s time for Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath to return to the castle he turned his back on, to take what’s rightfully his. Since the day he hung pinned on the thorns of a briar patch and watched Count Renar’s men slaughter his mother and young brother, Jorg has been driven to vent his rage. Life and death are no more than a game to him—and he has nothing left to lose. But treachery awaits him in his father’s castle. Treachery and dark magic. No matter how fierce his will, can one young man conquer enemies with power beyond his imagining?
The Crimson Empire
Author: Alex Marshall
First Book: A Crown for Cold Silver
Series: 3 planned books, one published to date
20 years ago a commoner named Zosia somehow managed to raise an army from nothing, overthrow the king, and ultimately make herself Queen of the Empire. After only one year of rule, however, she mysteriously chose to fake her own death and live secretly in obscurity.
While anyone from her past should know to treat the retired, hiding Zosia like a leaking nuclear weapon and stay far away, someone who discovers her secret identity takes aggressive actions that make Zosia very, very, angry. The result? BOOM
From the Publisher: “It was all going so nicely, right up until the massacre.”
The Gentleman Bastards
Author: Scott Lynch
First Book: The Lies of Locke Lamora
Series: 3 books published of a planned 7 total
The Gentleman Bastards are a group of charming, fun-loving, professional thieves and con-artists, whose mentor poses as a priest for both a cover identity and the “free money” placed in the temple’s collection baskets.
Primary POV Locke Lamora’s charm gives The Bastards the most light-hearted feel of the five series in this list, but make no mistake: this series is quite dark, with a combination of morally flexible “good guys” with incredibly vicious enemies.
From the Publisher: An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying.
Any others you think should have been on the Top 5? Let us know using our Contact page, or in the Comments below!