Are you looking for the best dark fantasy books?
Are you looking for amoral protagonists, anti-heroes, and complexly drawn characters stumbling their way through a world of muted greys (and corpses)?
Are you a dark lord who has plenty of minions and not enough heroes to kill?
Or maybe you are dealing with a particularly plucky band of heroes and have run out of ideas for defeating them?
Consult these top dark fantasy novels and discover how evil gods and goddesses, mercenaries, torturers, and of course anti-heroes have dealt with pernicious obstacles like virtue, honesty, and good will. Some of them are even just fun to read!
(If you are not some sort of evil villain and are in search of dark tales to pass the time in the evenings then you are really messed up–and this list is going to be perfect for you.)
How I Chose The Top Dark Fantasy Books to Read
First I started drinking.
Then I started drawing dark runes, backwards across the floor on a moonless winter evening.
Finally the demons started showing up.
Their initial reply, as always, was “oh no not again,” or “I really don’t want your soul.” But, as always, they are bored and enjoy talking.
I talked to Satan, Baphomet, Flibbertigibbet (extensively), Sauron, Bellatrix LeStrange (who also reviewed my earlier epic fantasy book, by the way), Voldermort, Skeletor, Krampus and a plethora of other evil lords and demons about their struggles with the forces of good.
I then held a focus group where it was determined that the most important factor in creating this list was the following criteria:
- That it wasn’t Game of Thrones.
Not because the series doesn’t contain texts that are surely some of the best dark fantasy books, but because everyone already knows about them.
The Best Dark Fantasy Books Ever Written
Io9 created a list containing the 25 best moments in the history of dark fantasy, but I don’t think it really identified the top dark fantasy books. Probably because they didn’t risk eternal damnation by cavorting with demons like Flibbertigibbet (who might just be able to talk the world to death). They also took a quite latitudinous interpretation of the fantasy genre, including things like Homer’s Odyssey in their list. Usually I am all for this sort of blurring of genric lines, but in this case I wanted to employ a tighter definition of dark fantasy.
Splatterism: The Tragic Recollections of a Minotaur Assailant (An Edifying Upbuilding Discourse)
A failed suicide attempt unites the last living minotaur, Evander, with the eminent sorcerer and perfidious rake Scammander, who might have lost all of his magical knowledge or might have just stashed it elsewhere to make room for his biggest plot yet.
Bonded by suffering and a special antipathy for humanity, the two set out to do what all villains dream of: destroying the world, one civilization at a time.
Is there anyone who can stop them?
If you are looking for a book which has assassins, magic, wit and wordplay and complexly fashioned anti-heroes bent on exercising their will-to-power, Splatterism should be your next read.
The Blade Itself
This might be one of the most perfect dark fantasy books written to date. How can you not fall in love with a book that begins so cleverly, the opening chapter called “The End.”
You will fall in love with each and every one of these characters as they do terrible things to their fantasy world.
[box type=”note”]How this will make you better at being evil: Want to take over the world?
Read the whole way through, this series provides you with a step-by-step guide for doing just that. First you’ll need a lazy, self-absorbed military captain who’s excellent at cards but terrible at fighting, a barbarian who’s out of his prime but can commune with ghosts, and a murderous, color-blind psychotic runaway slave.[/box]
Before They Are Hanged
Abercrombie opens the book with a quote from the famous German poet Henrich Heinne, “we must forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.”
Whether or not you should forgive an enemy is something I’ll return to in just a moment.
The reason you need to read this book, the one before it, and the one after it is Stan dan Glokta. Glokta is perhaps the best fantasy character created since Legolas and the Dread Pirate Roberts. Once a dashing cavalry officer (just like Stendhal!) he has been reduced to a hideous cripple. A very clever hideous cripple.
this is essentially what Glokta looks like
In fact, I tried to trade my soul to Satan in order to become Stan dan Glokta, but after signing my name in blood a clause appeared advising that I would be a torturer just like Glokta, but instead of chopping fingers off I would be torturing people all over the Internet with inane list posts. So all in all, a pretty good trade.
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: Become a very clever hideous cripple. You will also learn to consider forgiving your enemies, but not before they are hanged, then not forgive them, hang them anyways, hang them a second time, then go finish off their spawn and all known relatives.[/box]
Best Served Cold
This is another great dark fantasy book written by Joe Abercrombie who has given us the most cunning definition of “hero” the world has ever read:
“You were a hero round these parts. That’s what they call you when you kill so many people the word murderer falls short.”
I’ve been talking about Abercrombie a lot on this blog. Abercrombie is essentially like Homer, only he’s not blind, doesn’t speak in ancient Greek dactyls, didn’t mess up the rhymes of Hesiod in a legendary poetry competition, and writes things down. But he is basically the Homer of dark fantasy books.
This book has a number of important educational quotes and this one in particular should be written in the hall where your minions dine on the flesh of the fallen every evening:
“Good steel bends, but never breaks. Good steel stays always sharp and ready. Good steel feels no pain, no pity, and above all, no remorse.”
This book is probably the darkest and dirtiest on here. That is a good and a bad thing.
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: You will learn to never, ever, ever mess with Monza Murcatto.[/box]
The Black Company
Soldiers live and wonder why.
After you start traveling from city to city serving various dark overlords, drinking on cold winter nights, watching One-Eye and Goblin play their magic tricks on each other, and hanging out with a guy-girl named Soulcatcher you will start to wonder a few things.
Why is the life in a mercenary unit so much more rewarding than your day job?
Why doesn’t our world have a cool backstory filled with insane gods and goddesses named The Lady and The Dominator?
Why don’t you own a forvalka?
And why you have waited so long to read this book?
The minimalist prose and the brooding characters create a truly black company of mercenaries (who fought in something called the Pastel Wars) working in one of fantasy’s first truly grey worlds. Moral ambiguity abounds, as well than more than a few unsettling deeds.
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: Hire the Black Company. These guys don’t mess around.[/box]
Shadows never run.
While this is the motto from my own sect of antiheroes, it is also the essential attitude of The Black Company. These guys are a hardened crew, hired to do the dirtiest and most difficult deeds for The Lady, a sort of demigoddess serving the cause of evil.
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: Build your fortress in a city of death and make sure its obsidian walls are built by bones and remains of everyone in the town. Also hire the Black Company, these guys don’t mess around.[/box]
The White Rose
This is the concluding entry to the original trilogy containing of some of the best dark fantasy books. Glen Cook will go on to write another trilogy called the Books of the South, but its much like Zelazny’s additional 5 books of the Chronicles of Amber: no body reads them.
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: You will learn that The Dominator is not just a sexual position. Lastly and most importantly, hire the Black Company, these guys don’t mess around. Oh wait one more important thing: if you ever see a comet in the sky you are screwed.[/box]
This is a picture of an Oxford college with the iconic Radcliffe Camera in the background, which is a much cooler place than Brakebills. Why did I take such a beautifully horrible picture full of dirt instead of green lawns? Because I went to Cambridge, that’s why.
The final text of the series has been dubbed by Joel Cunningham over at the Barnes & Noble blog as a series that will change your relationship with fantasy. So if things are going good between you and fantasy leave this book alone. Quentin has a way of ruining lives.
If your minions have a very low opinion of you, introduce them to Quentin: a precocious, entitled, petulant high school student who also discovers that he can learn magic. See how easy he is to hate?
The Magicians commences in the real world, migrates to a more magical one named Fillory (which is Narnia spelled backwards) that the main character Quentin had read about growing up, written by a man named Christopher Plover, which, incidentally, is C. S. Lewis spelled backwards.
Learning sorcery at a school of witchcraft and wizardry is as disappointing as reading for a degree in Literature in modern day graduate school, where magic is difficult, laborious, and downright dull. Anyone who has had to read the secondary scholarship on their favorite poet or author of choice knows exactly what the students at Brakebills (a name that may or may not be a subtle stab at the crushing student loan debt foisted upon the families shuffled through America’s educational institution), are going through.
As an aside, I’m a new reader to the Barnes and Noble Book blog, and it is turning out to be one of the hidden jewels of the Internet.
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: Fulfil someone’s wish. Most likely they will hate their lives even more after it comes true and doesn’t live up to their unrealistic expectations. If that doesn’t work, show up to class and bite someone’s head off.[/box]
The Magician King
This book is famous all across the world for using the word “deliquescing.” Grossman loves words, and that is just one more reason why The Magician King is one of the best dark fantasy books that you should read right after you burn a few houses in the shire.
No shires left to burn? Kidnap someone.
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: You will learn words that confuse and awe the idiots you are surrounded by. It is important to confuse and awe your minions so that however much they think they know, they know one thing for sure: you are smarter than they are.
This guy has no idea what “deliquescing” means.
It is also much easier to convince them to die for you when they are not really sure what you are asking, so they end up doing it anyways.”[/box]
The Magician’s Land
I rarely mention things like fantasy maps, but the map from the Magician’s Land is absolutely one of my favorites.
We are ushered into a Golden Age in Fillory, “unlike anything since the time of the Chatwins.” There is plenty of adventure since it is “an age of legends, noble deeds and great wonders and high adventure, unfolding in a golden summer that went on and on and on.” Eliot and his fellow leaders had already “ousted a great barbed dragon from a box canyon out in the Cock’s Teeth and recovered two Named Blades from its hoard. They’d hunted a pair of fifty-headed trolls through the Darkling Woods, and forced them into the open and held them down and heard the sputtering crackle, like ice cracking in a nice vodka tonic, as they turned to stone in the morning sun.”
There is also plenty of wintery disillusionment, and this great dark fantasy novel is packed with a “deep, cold suburban silence.”
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: If your world has an underworld, you need to plunder it. If you currently live in your world’s underworld (likely), you need to thoroughly scour your Blackspire Keep: there are untold treasures that are immensely powerful and rare.[/box]
The Darkness that Comes Before
If The Magicians is like “Harry Potter for adults,” then The Darkness that comes Before is like The Lord of the Rings for very, very demented adults and philosophy majors and R. Scott Bakker is Sauron.
[box type=”note” border=”full”]How this will make you better at being evil: Name your evil minions with horrible words no one can pronounce. If your enemies can’t pronounce their names, they can never call them out on the field of battle and have them killed. Try pronouncing “Cnaiür urs Skiötha.” Exactly.
Alternatively, if you can actually pronounce this kind of word, it might end up destroying the entire world, which would be a good thing. Even better, set up your evil lair in a land that no one can pronounce the name of: then you can read the best dark fantasy books without ever being disturbed by the threat of photogenic heroes, bumbling wizards who always seem to remember a spell that saves the world at the very last second, benevolent child-heroes, and courageous hobbits who should never have escaped your hordes and dragon riding witch kings with cursed, poisonous, blades.[/box]