As a budding author who just released the first book in my own dark fantasy series, it seems, looking back, that however much I’ve tried to give books of every genre equal opportunity to be read, it has always been this one that affected me the deepest. I define dark fantasy somewhat loosely, as any work of massive imagination that says something about us, humanity, that may be difficult to hear. Don’t get me wrong. The words “bastard,” “sword,” or both of those together will never lose their crunch. Still, a book is never about its skin, but its soul. To me, “dark fantasy” concerns the dreams we dream when we look inward and find the soul is stained. Of course, it should go without saying that this list is incomplete. No doubt some of your own favorites will be missing. If so, be sure to sound off in the comments.
10. The Witcher Series
If you pick up The Witcher books expecting another Lord of the Rings, you might be in for a bad time. The games have done a decent job of capturing the essence of these books, but – call me old fashioned – it’s the opinion of this Internet nobody that the books are just better. However, they are also quite divisive. That’s because Sapkowski’s writing does not represent a Western point of view. The Witcher is Polish, through and through: in its mentality, in its humor, in its worldview; as well as in its treatment of subjects like racism, oppression, and war. First published in the nineties, this series remains a bold statement on what is possible when we give in to the tempting voices of our worst selves. The Witcher saga is vibrant, original, and riveting.
Pros: Unforgettable characters, sympathetic monsters of the non-human variety, deliciously brutal ones of the human kind.
Cons: May leave unfamiliar readers scratching their heads. Do your homework and read up on Poland before starting.
9. The Vagrant (The Vagrant, #1)
I purchased this book on a whim before a longish flight from San Francisco to New Orleans. I thought I was in for another somewhat forgettable high fantasy romp, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself falling headfirst into a wicked, simultaneously lyrical and blood-soaked science fantasy reminiscent in the best way of Gene Wolfe and China Mieville. The prose is beautifully jagged, littered with diamonds in the rough. The characters, including the protagonist (who doesn’t speak), and his best friends, a baby and a goat, are instantly endearing. The threats are real, and every blood splatter felt. The Vagrant is the most fun I’ve had reading a new author in years, and I am hoping for many many more books from Peter Newman to come.
Pros: Dank prose, graceful treatement of clichés, a sono-sword that can wreck your shit.
Cons: Present tense narration pulled me out of the story at times.
8. Blood Meridian
To me, this book is the essence of dark fantasy. There are no swords in Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant, horrifying epic about a gang of scalp-hunters riding the highway to Hell during the Mexican-American War (maybe sabres or bayonets). There are no dragons or damsels in distress. If there were, make no mistake, Glanton, Judge Holden, Toadvine, and the Kid would shoot and scalp them.
But despite lacking the traditional genre trappings, every word of this book deals in the fantastical, the awful, and the awe-inspiring; from the oneiric quality of the prose, to the story’s villain, the enigmatic, seven foot-tall albino known as the Judge, who is the embodiment of war itself. Blood Meridian isn’t a work that plots a clear path between moral or intellectual points. It is the reading of a nightmare that is wholly American, wholly historical, and yet somehow also mythical and timeless. It is one of the few books I have read that I reread with ritualistic engagement every few years. There is a tree of dead babies. And that scene where they make gunpowder… look, just read it.
Pros: The Judge. Peeing to make gunpowder. Something about floating blue islands.
Cons: One of the bloodiest books in print. No punctuation.
7. Inferno (Dante, not Dan Brown)
The Divine Comedy was one of the first works written in a language common people could read (Italian, rather than Latin). Its author, Dante Alighieri, was a man who experienced life’s highest highs and lowest lows. He met his true love, lost her, was exiled from his hometown of medieval Florence, and then spent most of his life searching for redemption.
That quest is mirrored here, in his often crude, more often clever narrative poem about a man who, while wandering lost “midway through life’s journey” finds that the only way for him to see his lost love again in Heaven is to literally go through Hell; to journey through the deepest pits of despair and bear witness to the souls of the damned being punished there for their sins. It is gross, it is long, it is tedious, and it is life-changing. And, of all the works of dark fantasy on this list, it is probably the only one that people will still be reading a thousand years from now.
Pros: Lots of mofuggas getting their goddamned comeuppance. Poop demons. The line, “Through me you go to the grief-wracked city.”
Cons: Hundreds of pages long. Read the Ciardi translation. Others read like the Bible.
6. The Heroes
A standalone, grimdark war story set in the same world as Joe Abercombie’s First Law trilogy. I love the word “grimdark.” It makes me feel smart when I say it, like I could almost add a little Richard Attenborough to the finish and nobody would call it out. And it perfectly captures what this story is about, bleakness, cold steel, and rivers of spilled blood over of all things… a hill. That’s right. This is the story of a bunch of guys killing each other over who gets to be King of the Hill. Like that one part of that Metallica song.
And it works. The conflict itself becomes the main character of this story, and it unfolds through the clearest lens of battle I’ve yet read in fantasy fiction. I really value that Abercrombie took the time to write this book, which seems like a weird thing to say, and maybe it is, but if The Heroes didn’t exist, I probably never would have given a second thought to one of our species’ favorite and most destructive pastimes, which is pointlessly slaughtering each other over who gets the best view.
Pros: Red meat and redder steel. Looooooong. My copy came from Armchair Books in Edinburgh (the one in the header image).
Cons: Heavy enough to use as a weapon if you ever find yourself storming a hill.
5. The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)
No fat pink masts or Myrish swamps to be found here. This is a YA novel. But it is also a monumentally deep and important one. I battled with myself about whether or not to list the whole series, like I did with a few other spots on this list, but I think The Subtle Knife is a much stronger novel than the other two, however much I enjoyed them twenty years ago, when I first… holy f***, I’m old.
This isn’t just a story about a knife that can cut doorways to other worlds; it is a book about the idea of what a world is. It isn’t just about two kids from different parallel universes who are thrown together by a series of exploding events and also an airship, a broken family, a gaggle of witches, and don’t forget the giant armored polar bears, who then end up forming a deep friendship and experiencing first love together; it is about the idea of what our loved ones give us. It isn’t just about the infinite possibilities out there in the multiverse, including worlds where children wear their souls outside their bodies as shape-shifting animals who only take a fixed form after puberty, and other worlds where creepy shadow people eat those fixed forms, leaving cities where there are no grownups and only gangs of punk-ass children; it is about the nature of infinity, and how truly small humanity is in the face of it.
Pros: Cittagazze, Pantalemon, The Guild of Philosophers.
Cons: Can’t think of any, although this series is not well-loved by highly religious folks.
4. The Sandman
A benchmark work in the development of “mature” comics, The Sandman was now-fantasy superstar author Neil Gaiman’s breakout work, and it ran long enough to fill ten trade paperbacks (not to mention all the spin-offs, sequels, and prequels). There were a few other comic series that I considered putting in the graphic novel slot on this list – Transmetropolitan, Northlanders, and Moore’s Swamp Thing to name a few. But this story, about a family of immortals known as the Endless who represent personifications of the human psyche (as well as plenty of others borrowed from various mythologies, including the DC/Vertigo universe), supersedes not just its peers in the comic world, but the medium itself.
The Sandman is a love ballad to storytelling, more specifically fantasy. Its cast includes Dream, Destiny, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Death, and Delirium – could any group of words better summarize why we read this genre? Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, takes center stage for most of the main Sandman run, and his explorations of our dreams, our hopes, and our fears, are all masterfully written and drawn. My favorite arc is A Game of You, but I can’t remember a single issue of The Sandman that I didn’t like, and most, I absolutely loved. It takes a certain level of genius to maintain that level of interest over 100-something issues. This is Gaiman at his youngest, most raw, and purest.
Pros: Perfectly plotted. Snappy dialog. Old school art and coloring still pops.
Cons: Some kids these days might need to step out of the box to really get into a comic printed on newspaper.
3. The Black Company (Chronicles of the Black Company, #1)
The granddaddy of books about knights who say f—. Well, not knights, exactly. Just normal soldiers. This is a grim, realistic, and often hilarious examination of men at war through the fantasist’s lens. The fact the fantasist in question is a veteran of the U.S. military adds the necessary authenticity. Glen Cook’s flagship series pulls no punches, both in terms of how men “in the shit” talk and how they behave. A diverse cast of characters with a broad range of personalities, who constantly subvert expectations. The dark lord, for example, is a smokin’ hot woman.
Pros: Characters and cities that live and breathe. No kid gloves about violence and war.
Cons: Croaker is a little bit nondescript as far as protagonists go.
2. The Master and Margarita
A satirical novel by Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov about a machine gun-toting cat who works for Satan and performs street magic, this is the book that subverted the entire Soviet Union and its culture of ideological censorship with nothing but humor, despite being published posthumously after the author burned it, rewrote it from memory, and hid it in a box for three decades.
The basic plot is that the Devil, a fabulously fashionable man who wears a pince-nez, arrives in Moscow to make trouble for everyone, including the government, the titular Master (a writer languishing in obscurity), and his sweet love, Margarita. There is also a simultaneous retelling in flashbacks of the trial and execution of Jesus Christ. Dope doesn’t begin to describe this novel. Some people say the classics aren’t sexy, but with the amount of nudity and broomsticks, in this particular instance, those people would be wrong.
Pros: The quote “Manuscripts don’t burn.” Excellent use of a story-within-the-story. Machine gunning demon cat.
1. The Book of the New Sun
I’ve read “The Book of the New Sun” cover-to-cover four times, and each time it becomes richer, deeper, and more enjoyable. Neil Gaiman wrote an entire article on why you should read Gene Wolfe, who the New York Times called “Science Fiction’s Difficult Genius” and who Ursula K. LeGuin called “Our Melville.” Wolfe is a writer’s writer. His stories are shadowy, labyrinthine puzzles, impossible to fully grasp on the first read-through. Oh, you will think you know what’s going on, and who’s-who, and who that guy’s mother is. The first time. Maybe even the second. But trust me, you have no idea.
The Book of the New Sun tetralogy is set in far-future Argentina, when the sun is dying, and follows the confessions of Severian, a disgraced young journeyman in the Guild of Torturers who is kicked out for falling in love with and subsequently showing mercy to one of his victims. Over the next four books, we travel with Severian and his mercury-weighted executioner’s sword all over the Americas, as he collects heads for a paycheck, battles mad scientists and their giant homunculi, resuscitates his grandmother from the lake of the dead, faces an army that can only speak in short government-approved aphorisms, time-travels, journeys to the stars, and ultimately, becomes leader of the free world. If you are already skeptical of this list of events, that’s great – you’re off to a good start at successfully reading Wolfe.
Pros: Terminus Est, the Alzabo, conversing with the Ascians, the king of unreliable narrators.
Cons: Dense and difficult, but worth the work.
So, those are my top ten. What are yours?