Dark Fantasy books are among the most popular genres of literature. Unlike High Fantasy or Horror, many Dark Fantasy books straddle the line between commercial and literary fiction. The stories are often deeper, the characters more developed and the settings more down to earth. In my opinion, most Dark Fantasy books are classifiable as Low Fantasy. A Song of Ice and Fire by G.R.R. Martin is an immensely popular example of this combination. Dark Fantasy books often borrow from Horror. Likewise, some of the best Horror Books can also be Dark Fantasy. It is a very versatile genre that can appeal to a very broad audience. It’s time to give you my best Dark Fantasy book picks.
What is Dark Fantasy?
My definition of Dark Fantasy is “a work of fantasy” that incorporates “dark, scary, gloomy themes.” This would be too broad and would include Horror, too. I’ll have to define Fantasy, too. Fantasy, to me, means “containing magical elements imposed upon a fictional world.” This is not enough to offset Dark Fantasy books from Horror books, and there will always be some overlap, as Dark Fantasy borrows the bleak elements from Horror and some Horror incorporates Dark Fantasy worldbuilding. There is our clue to the difference.
Horror books focus on creating an atmosphere of dread, fear or disgust, whereas Dark Fantasy books focus on the story and the worldbuilding. Horror, despite the supernatural element, is often more down to earth. The main characters are often quite ordinary and “powerless” in the face of the…Horror. Many Horror books are set in our own world, void of fantasy except for the Horror elements themselves ─ some beast or other supernatural danger imposed on an otherwise normal world.
This is why Low Fantasy and Dark Fantasy mix so well. Low Fantasy is a Fantasy set in an otherwise “normal world” like our own. Whereas practically the whole of Middle Earth is fantastical in nature (High Fantasy), Westeros is a pretty typical Feudal Europe. However, Dark Fantasy can be both High Fantasy and Low Fantasy.
My definition for Dark Fantasy books, then, is thus: “A work with supernatural elements set in a fantastical or normal world, with a focus on world building and character development with dark, scary and gloomy themes.”
I know full well this opens up the opportunity for yet another distinction between Dark Low Fantasy and Dark High Fantasy.
The six best Dark Fantasy Books
Here are my top picks for Dark Fantasy books. I’ve tried to be broad in my preference, and I’ll try to be as minimally spoilerish as I possibly can. You’ll notice from my definition that Night Demon is also Dark Low Fantasy, Book 1 especially leaning towards the Horror side of things. It’s not surprising, of course, that an author who likes to read these books would also write in the genre. I have omitted Dark Romance Books from the list.
#1 Dark Fantasy Books: A Song of Ice and Fire by G.R.R. Martin
Does this need an introduction? In the leading Dark Fantasy books by G.R.R. Martin, the continent of Westeros is about to be plunged into the flames of civil war when Eddard Stark, the hand of the king, discovers something he shouldn’t have. Intrigue, scheming, court politics, armies, great battles, dragons and an icy enemy that threatens to envelop the world in another Long Night. When King Robert Baratheon suddenly dies, the Iron Throne of Westeros passes to his son and heir apparent, Joffrey Baratheon. However, many believe that Joffrey isn’t the late king’s real son but rather a bastard and possibly the product of the incestuous relationship between Joffrey’s mother and his uncle. Powerful contenders oppose Joffrey, who turns out to be a sadist and a narcissist, and other nations and factions mingle in the struggle, too.
Meanwhile, a dark power that was long thought defeated stirs in the icy north. The Night King is on the prowl and gathering his army of the Undead. This causes a mass migration before his wake of the wildlings into the Northern realms of the House of Stark.
Dark times are coming. Winter is coming.
#2 The First Law Joe Abercrombie
On the continents of the Circle of the World, magic is waning, and many have come to believe it is a mere myth. One of the realms of the Circle of the World is the Union, which is in nigh-perpetual war with its neighbours from the far and frigid North to the sweltering South. It is in this turmoil where The First Law trilogy takes place, following the tribulations and exploits of six main characters, from each viewpoint but with their stories entwined.
None of the six are truly good characters, the opposite, even. But despite their flaws, they all do their best to do the right thing. They are eventually all drawn into the wizard Bayaz’s grand plan. Joe Abercrombie, the king of Dark Fantasy books, never disappoints with his grey characters and bad endings.
#3 The Broken Empire by Mark Lawrence
The Broken Empire arose from the ashes of a post-apocalyptic Europe and now reigns supreme. Despite being a powerful hegemon, the royal family is not untouchable, and Prince Jorge Ancrath witnessed the brutal murder of his mother and brother when he was very young. In his teenage years, he vowed revenge and revenge he would take. The Broken Empire follows Jorge’s pursuit of his family’s assassins and then his ascent to kingship through brutal torture, assassination, intrigue and deceit.
Mark Lawrence is a greatly talented author of many fantasy books, many of which are Dark Fantasy books.
#4 Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
The world of Mistborn is a totalitarian and tyrannical one, and it has been like that for many generations ─ a solid state society of suffering and sharp contrasts between the have’s and have-nots called the Final Empire. Under this regime, a group of dissidents rises up against their overlords. Many have preceded them in the effort, and all have failed. What’s different about this group? They are Allomancers, a type of human who can harness the magical powers of metals and alloys by ingesting them. Danger looms larger than ever before the Allomancers, as simply destroying the Final Empire isn’t enough. It’s not enough to destroy the government only to have the realm sink into chaos from which new hegemons might arrive.
Vin, a street urchin, is picked up by legendary Allomancer Kelsier as she embarks on a quest to become a Mistborn ─ the only type of Allomancer who can burn all metals. Kelsier seeks to unite the impoverished Skaa under the banner of those few Allomancers and Mistborn the tyrannical Final Empire haven’t managed to seek out and destroy (yet).
#5 The Nightingale and the Falcon by Stephen Aryan
The Nightingale and Falcon series follows the exploits of a fictionalised Mongol Empire in a fictionalised 13th-century Central Asia and Persia. We follow the warlord Hulagu, one of his many wives, Kokochin, one of Hulagu’s sons, Temujin and the Persian geran Kaivon. Each will play a crucial part in shaping the Mongol world and whether or not the rest of the world will also be the Mongol world. Conflicting political views, opposing agendas, court intrigue and personal stakes all influence the decision-making in Judas Blossom, Stephen Aryan’s first entry into the new series. War, sieges, deception, political cleverness and much more, along with a little touch of magic, are all present in this thrilling Dark Fantasy book.
#6 Self-Plug: Night Demon by Stephen Wolberius
As an avid reader of Dark Fantasy books, it should come as no surprise that I write Dark Fantasy books as an author. Night Demon is set in an ordinary world during the Industrial Revolution and has many Horror elements. However, the focus lies on character development, and the world of Night Demon has lore and world-building behind it. Think of Elilim, the magical language, the Eis Sofos demon hunters and, of course, the demonology itself. Here is the blurb for Night Demon:
Lilian, a thirteen-year-old factory worker in an industrialising town plagued by a serial killer, can see an invisible affliction within other people. When her search for her missing best friend ends with a confrontation with a demon — and learning that the affliction turns humans into demons — another demon named Lucian saves her life and promises answers. Her first clue is that demons are responsible for the many murders. Unfortunately, Lilian’s new lead has problems of his own — Demon Hunters, who claim Lucian is the serial killer and who see Lilian as an accessory.
Can her ability to communicate with these creatures be used to solve the crimes? Or will her connection to the Netherworld prove to be her own undoing…