Grimdark is a subgenre of fantasy which most readers have heard of. But reading the term and understanding what it means and, even more importantly, which books fit into the category are two entirely different things. So lets try to define exactly what I mean by grimdark before I start listing the “Top 25 Grimmest Grimdarks“.
Wikipedia’s definition of Grimdark is “. . . a sub genre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction that is particularly dystopian, amoral or violent. The word was inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.‘ “
Others descriptions of grimdark fantasy focus on its cynical outlook, disillusioned mentality, and penchant for more fighting, more blood, more violence than classic fantasy. Many of the critics believing grimdark is a nihilistic rebuke to the more inspirational Tolkien-type fantasy, where there was an ingrained optimism that good would triumph over evil and humans wished to be enlightened; grimdark putting forward the contrary view that there is no right, and even if there is, no person can ever actually accomplish it.
With all that being said, there can be no doubt that grimdark is a large part of fantasy these days. From George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law to Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire, the shelves are covered with finely written tales of flawed characters who live and fight in world filled with ultra-realistic violence, brutality, and overwhelming cynicism and disgust for the human condition. And I’ve read more than a few of these great grims. So many in fact, I decided it was time to compile a list of the best of the genre.
To accomplish the task of ranking all these great books, I first gathered together a list of all the grimdarks I could find (taking into consideration the opinion of others on what is and is not a grimdark), then gathered the overall series rating from Goodreads, as well as making note of the total number of Goodreads ratings for each book. Once I had all this data, I ran the numbers through an equation to give fair weight to both the rating and the number of ratings on Goodreads. This list is what I got, surprising as it is.
Without any further babbling by myself, get ready to be filled with grimness, grittiness, and dark despair because THE TOP 25 GRIMMEST GRIMDARKS are below!
25. MANIFEST DELUSIONS – MICHAEL R. FLETCHER
Michael Fletcher’s exquisite madness is on full display in this grimdark beauty. Just imagine a world where madness equals magical power to change the world around you? Said power able to be used for both good and bad according to your sanity. Yeah, it’s damn wicked grimdark fun.
Purchase Beyond Redemption at Amazon.
24. THE CRIMSON EMPIRE – ALEX MARSHALL
A relative newcomer to the grimdark ranks, The Crimson Empire fills its narrative with every grimdark trope out there. Bad-ass female warrior? There are several of them. Unprovoked slaughters? No problem. Grey characters? Sure. Sex? Of course. Philosophical bullshit? Without a doubt. I could go on and on, because this is a story written to be a grimdark, not a story which just happens to be a grimdark.
Purchase A Crown for Cold Silver (The Crimson Empire) at Amazon.
23. STEELHAVEN – RICHARD FORD
This series has been described as dark, brutal, and without mercy. The huge cast filled with characters who must decide if they are wolves or the sheep. And if that doesn’t describe a grimdark I don’t know what does.
Purchase Herald of the Storm at Amazon
22. THE TIES THAT BIND – ROB J. HAYES
Rob J. Hayes has crafted one of the grimmest of the grimdarks with this series. Sure, he has been quoted as saying he might have tried too hard to make this one grim, but no matter, it is still one of the most unapologetic grims readers will find out there.
Purchase The Heresy Within (The Ties that Bind) (Volume 1) at Amazon.
21. BLOODSOUNDER’S ARC – JEFF SALYARDS
This series is a difficult one for me to categorize. Sure, the world Salyard creates is pretty damn grim and ultra realistic with philosophical spouting bastards, but it feels more like a realistic fantasy than a true grimdark. However, the majority of readers say its a grim, so on the list it goes.
Purchase Scourge of the Betrayer: Bloodsounder’s Arc Book Oneat Amazon.
20. INSTRUMENTALITIES OF THE NIGHT – GLEN COOK
Personally, I don’t view this series as a true grimdarks, but most readers do. However, I will agree that this fantasy retelling of 13th century Europe with its great, competing religions, crusades, and political turmoil does give a pessimistic and realistic portrayal of human beings and their flaws.
Purchase The Tyranny of the Night at Amazon.
19. THE MACHT – PAUL KEARNEY
Paul Kearney delivers non-stop violence, death, and destruction in this thinly veiled retelling of the Greco-Persian conflicts of ancient history. And just when you think you’ve seen the worst, something horrible inevitably happens to someone, because . . . this is grimdark, brother!
Purchase The Ten Thousand at Amazon.
18. DREAD EMPIRE – GLEN COOK
The Godfather of Grimdark has his second series on the list. Dread Empire a precursor of his more famous Black Company, as a huge cast of characters kill, manipulate, and betray one another in a world torn apart by war and religious fervor. Not as good as Black Company, but still a damn fine series.
Purchase A Cruel Wind (Dread Empire) at Amazon.
17. LOW TOWN – DANIEL POLANSKY
This story about a former intelligence agent and war hero turned drug dealer and crime lord in a slum called Low Town is a genre blender, making use of many noir crime themes to give it a unique feel. No matter though, it is also as grimdark as they come. And a damn fine one too.
Purchase Low Town (Low Town, Book 1) at Amazon.
16. GRIM COMPANY – LUKE SCULL
Detractors will cry that the series is too similar to Abercrombie’s First Law; fans will say who cares, because Scull weaves a bloodthirsty tale filled with flawed heroes and grey villains set in a decaying world devoid of magic. Most readers should just read the books and see if you like them or not.
Purchase The Grim Company at Amazon.
15. KANE – KARL EDWARD WAGNER
Kane is a very dark character with dark stories; he is a killer and sorcerer, suggested to be Caine from the Judeo-Christian Bible. And he is brutal as they come, as one reviewer succinctly put it, “Kane is what would happen if Conan and Elric were able to mate successfully.”
Purchase Gods in Darkness: The Complete Novels of Kane at Amazon.
14. CORUM – MICHAEL MOORCOCK
Following the tragic tale of Prince Corum, the last of his race, this tale is a dark and gloomy affair from beginning to end. An epic of a survivor witnessing the slow transformation of his world, as hordes of humans take over, and nothing he does can stop the death of everything he loves.
Purchase Corum – The Knight of Swords: The Eternal Champion at Amazon.
13. THE ACTS OF CAINE – MATTHEW WOODRING STOVER
I’ll allow the author to describe the opening book of the series: “It’s a piece of violent entertainment that is a meditation on violent entertainment — as a concept in itself, and as a cultural obsession . . . It’s a pop-top can of Grade-A one-hundred percent pure whip-ass.” Sounds like grimdark to me.
Purchase Heroes Die (Acts of Caine Book 1) at Amazon.
12. A LAND FIT FOR HEROES – RICHARD K. MORGAN
This series is ultra dark, ultra violent, profanity laced with explicit descriptions of torture, mutilations, and sex (mostly homosexual) with both humans and non-humans. It has been called a grimdark series for the hardcore grimdark readers who are not squeamish.
Purchase The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes) at Amazon.
11. THE RED QUEEN’S WAR – MARK LAWRENCE
Taking place within the same world and during the same time period as Lawrence’s The Broken Empire, this is another amazing grimdark series which pulls no punches, as it mixes brutal death, zombies, devious characters, and unlooked-for outcomes with a cowardly main character.
Purchase Prince of Fools (The Red Queen’s War) at Amazon.
10. SHATTERED SEA – JOE ABERCROMBIE
A grimdark epic from Lord Grimdark himself; this one focused on the quest for revenge by young Yarvi, whose path takes him to far off lands and into the remains of a violent past. Yes, the books are a bit on the young adult side, but they’re still classic Abercrombie grimdark.
Purchase Half a King (Shattered Sea) at Amazon.
9. THE SECOND APOCALYPSE – R. SCOTT BAKKER
Complex world, complex characters, schemes within schemes, epic battles, political intrigue, and mature themes set in an exotic feeling local. Some people call it a “thinking man’s grimdark.” And you will either love it or despise it. Not really any in-between with this series.
Purchase The Darkness that Comes Before at Amazon.
8. THE ELRIC SAGA – MICHAEL MOORCOCK
Sad. Brooding. Cynical. Brutal. Grim. All words used to describe this most famous of Moorcock’s works. Is it grimdark or sword and sorcery? My reply: Why can’t it be both? I personally believe it can be and should be, because Elric’s tale is about as damn grim and dark as you can get.
Purchase Elric of Melnibone and Other Stories at Amazon.
7. RAVEN’S SHADOW – ANTHONY RYAN
With a cyncial tone about life, honor, right and wrong, and filled with gratuitous violence, Raven’s Shadow is always among the tops of most grimdark reader’s list. Certainly, it has many epic fantasy elements, but the true nature of the book is grimdark — whether one likes it or not.
Purchase Blood Song (A Raven’s Shadow Novel) at Amazon.
6. THE BLACK COMPANY – GLEN COOK
This series helped inspire many grimdark writers of today. As Steven Erikson has written: “. . . Glen Cook single-handedly changed the face of fantasy . . . He brought the story down to a human level . . . Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote.” Peyote = Grimdark.
Purchase The Black Company at Amazon.
5. THE BROKEN EMPIRE – MARK LAWRENCE
With a main character in Jorg Ancrath who is arrogant, manipulative, and an unrepentant murderer and rapist, Lawrence’s series is among the most widely read and loved grimdark fantasy series out there. It also is one of the most hated. Guess you can’t please everyone.
Purchase Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire) at Amazon.
4. THE FIRST LAW – JOE ABERCROMBIE
This series by Lord Grimdark himself might not have created the genre, but it certainly heralded a new era of dark, violent fantasy with its subversion of most fantasy tropes and its focus on despicable, realistic characters and their unsanitized actions. A classic in the genre without a doubt.
Purchase The Blade Itself (The First Law) at Amazon
3. MALAZAN – STEVEN ERIKSON & IAN C. ESSLEMONT
The most epic of fantasy books is a grimdark? I know. I was a bit taken back by the idea as well, but quite a lot of readers place it in the genre, viewing the atmosphere, tone, and violence as more similar to the grims than to the other epic fantasy series out there.
Purchase Gardens of the Moon at Amazon.
2. ROYAL ASSASSIN – ROBIN HOBB
Another epic fantasy series which certainly feels out of place on this list. However, if you view the narrative through a critical eye, the grimness of FitzChivalry’s life and trials certainly pop out at you. You also notice that the world he lives in isn’t exactly Hobbiton, and those around him aren’t exactly the chivalrous heroes of the Lord of the Rings. Nope, this one can’t be called grimdark per se, but most of its narrative qualities fit the grimdark criteria near perfectly.
Purchase Assassin’s Apprentice at Amazon
1. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE – GEORGE R.R. MARTIN
Okay, I can hear the groans from some of you; the mumbles of complaints that Martin’s epic is exactly that: epic fantasy; and I agree with you in part. But we all can agree these books are pure grimdark in many respects, right? They are dark, pessimistic, nihilistic, filled with brutal murder, torture, rape, and even less savory things. Honestly, Martin’s writing makes some grimdark books look tame in comparison to what he puts his characters through, which is why so many readers view it as the consummate grimdark fantasy.
Purchase A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1) at Amazon
Well, there is the top twenty-five grimdarks.
Pretty surprising isn’t it?
At least, it was to me. Honestly, several of my favorite grims didn’t even make the cut! Which sucks since I put the list together. So while I know some of you are pissed your favorite series was left off or ranked lower than you feel it should have been, believe me when I say I’m as upset as you are. But never fear, there is a way to let your voice be heard: Vote on the poll below!
“Is it grimdark or sword and sorcery?”
A lot of people consider grimdark to be a successor to sword and sorcery. It may even BE just another variation on sword and sorcery. After having read a fair amount of sword and sorcery published over the century, it seems to me that sword and sorcery morphs as a sub-genre every two or three decades.
ASoIaF seems to me to be obviously both epic fantasy and grimdark. Sub-genres aren’t mutually exclusive.
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Great point about grimdark merely being a bastard child, if you will, of sword and sorcery.
And as for ASoIaF, I believe so many people are including it in gridmark now because they believe it has more qualities from that subgenre than other subgenres of fantasy.
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Excellent and objective post Wendell!
I’m not so surprised that Malazan and ASOIAF made it to the top 3 but Royal Assassin came as a surprise. True, the world wasn’t rainbows and flowers and there were some dark themes, but it was a bit far from the brutality and gore I came to expect from the genre.
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Totally understand about Royal Assassin. I too was a bit surprised by its inclusion, because, honestly, my personal list of grimdarks would not have included it — even though I did find the first two books of Hobb’s series damn depressing affairs.
The first two books are sweetness and light compared to what comes later. The latest trilogy, in particular, is the most unremittingly harrowingly series I’ve ever read – the protagonist, like the author, suffers from serious depression throughout, and he gets put through hell.
But if you’re looking for the essence of grimdark: I don’t know enough about the subgenre to say, not being a fan. But I know what it isn’t: grimness and darkness. I recently read Best Served Cold – not only is it happy-bunny-rabbits compared to Hobb, or indeed Martin, but you could pick up a random D&D novel from 20 years ago and find something with more violence, more sex, more gore, more cynicism, and more explicit description of the above. Even David Eddings at times got darker than Abercrombie! (seriously, people forget how dark and nightmare-fuel-y The Elenium got in places).
[the exception is swearing. Abercrombie’s characters say “fuck”, and apparently this is shockingly gritty and adult.]
My theory is that the difference is actually in how they stop the darkness from becoming overpowering. Writers like Hobb or Martin do it by juxtaposing the darkness against elements of pleasantness – families, lovers, friends, being innocently happy, even if only briefly and occasionally – and against a faith in the possibility of something better. The hope in a happy ending, if not for the protagonist then at least for some future generation. What I’ve seen of grimdark tends to push the angst up to 11 by ditching all those moments of light… but instead, it makes the dark itself less frightening by adopting a certain air of insoucience – not so much ‘cynical’ (because lots of books are cynical), but ‘jaded’, in which a few rapes and murders before breakfast are just something to laugh (cynically) about. That still doesn’t distinguish it from things like The Elenium, or a certain strain of D&D novels (etc), which perhaps we should consider retrospectively grimdark, but it’s a big difference from contemporaries like Hobb or Martin.
But I’d have to read more of the genre to see how that generalisation holds up.
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Wonderful thoughts. I certainly agree that true grimdarks are nihilistic in their view of the world, portraying their protagonists as more monsters than people with little to no optimism for anything resembling a happy ending. I suppose, that “type” of story is what most people think of as grimdark.
As for Abercrombie, I can’t say I’m an expert on whether his work belongs on the grimdark lsit, because I’m not really a fan. Sure, I’ve tried to read First Law and The Shattered Sea trilogy, but neither impressed me at all. Others disagree with my assessment however.
Well, I just went with “Abercrombie” because he’s the most unarguably grimdark author I’ve read – the genre doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m told the second First Law book is grimdarkier than the first, but I’ve not gotten to that yet.
We should also maybe add that there’s a structural issue here too. The grimdark canon is mostly sword-and-sorcery-style adventure, as I understand it – The Blade Itself, for instance, is superficially MPOV, but those POVs don’t come into serious conflict and are all gradually gathering together to take part in the same adventure plot in the sequels. Works like Martin and Hobb’s non-Fitz books are highly, if not ovewhelmingly, MPOV, and actually use those POVs to tell conflicting, contrapuntal stories, which I think is a big part of what distinguishes them from core grimdark. The Fitz novels are closer but still not quite the same – for instance, they’re much less about an adventure than about a character who has some adventures (the Farseer Trilogy covers probably more than a decade in the life of its protagonist), which again is a structural difference. The heightened nihilist atmosphere of grimdark probably can’t be sustained across such large canvasses. Although I’m sure someone will take that as a challenge!
[sudden thought: grimdark = sword&sorcery + noir? Marlowe would fit right at home in The Blade Itself.]
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So… Ive been reading so much grimdark without knowing I was reading grimdark, seeing as most novels are set in “the grim darkness of the future”… Great post. Thank you for getting me clued up.
Love the list!! Haven’t heard of several of these books – I’m guessing they’re older?
A few are long in the tooth. 🙂
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I voted Salyards’ Bloodsounder. Such an underrated author and grimdark series!
Going by this list, I also think you’d enjoy Angus Watson’s The Iron Age trilogy. I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it yet 🙂
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Or I should say, going by your comments on this list…I realize it’s not exactly your personal favorites but rather a ranked list from crunching the numbers.
Yeah, my list would have been a good bit different, and Bloodsounder’s Arc would have been much higher.
You must never have read The Barrow by Mark Smylie. I’ve read every single book on your list except elric and The Barrow would definetly be the grimmest of all grimdarks. You need to check it out. Seriously its like ASOIF and I’m not kidding. Smylies’s world feels like it could be the continent to the west of westeros. All the different houses and dynasties, just look at the guys like 6 different maps. But what really makes it seem like grrm is the way its written.Except the incest and tranies and violence and betrayal is kicked up 10 more notches! I think the author hurt himself with how x rated it is because a lot of people will not pick it up if they’ve read reviews about it.
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I’ve never heard of it. I’ll definitely have to check it out.
A Song of Ice and Fire is grimdark?……..I guess I’ve read more in the sub-genre than I thought……I’ve skirted around grimdark for a while because I’m not sure if I’m ready for it, or what I think it is. Now I’ll have to reevaluate my position. Abercrombie, Cook, and Lawrence have had my attention for awhile now.
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Hello, one of the best grimdark ( or simply fantsay book) I have ever read : A Land Fit for Heroes trilogy from Richard Morgan. With probably the most badass anti heroe possible 🙂
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One person I’d suggest you include in the research, if you haven’t already: David Gemmell. It may be that he’s too old (but not old enough to be ‘classic’) and too British to make the top list these days, but I think he’s an important forerunner. I’m not sure his books were ever all-out grimdark, but they flirted with it: lots of morally-ambiguous protagonists (assassins, killing-loving ‘heroes’, mongol princes intent on invading the country and slaughtering everyone, etc), lots of character deaths (sometimes almost all the characters!), and a reasonable amount of sex and violence (though less explicit than some modern authors). The Shannow novels in particular may be significant, for bringing the tropes of the Wild West into post-apocalyptic fantasy in a sort of gun-and-sorcery(-and-time-travel) hybrid – they’re probably his grimdarkest, though there are also certainly traits in the Drenai novels.
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