Here is a list of my personal recommendations when it comes to reading grimdark fantasy. Now I'm not going to say that these writers and these books had a direct influence on my writing ... no, wait. I'm totally going to say that.
I'm listing these in no particular order other than what comes to my mind first and remember, a list such as this is neither representative of the entire subgenre nor by any means exhaustive ... If something catches your eye, just click on the snazzy cover pictures to be redirected to an amazon.com near you.*
#1 Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire & Red Queen trilogy
I'm actually glad I hadn't read the Broken Empire trilogy before I finished Touch of Iron, because I would have wanted to copy him sooooooo much. Lawrence's writing is fantastic. I gush about this trilogy here, but I've also recently finished his Red Queen trilogy, and am really excited for Red Sister which comes out in 2017.
Verdict: If you're thinking about reading something in this grimdark subgenre you've been hearing about, I'd recommend Lawrence's beautiful prose which he complements with horrific violence and heartrending feels, often at the same time.
#2 Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy
This was the book that started it all for me - with 'it' I mean the need to seriously start writing books like this, only y'know with a female lead character.
The pacing is relentless, the world dark and tragic, the battles brutal. Shit happens all the time. And then ... it just gets worse.
Stylistically the First Law trilogy is very different from Mark Lawrence in that, while at times poignantly describing human nature, Abercrombie often uses a snarky, sarcastic overall tone that perfectly fits his jaded, broken characters. However, this is the trilogy that gave us the phrase grimdark. And it's fun. In a depressing, gritty, and violent way.
#3 Steve Erikson's Malazan Books of the Fallen
I encountered this epic saga years back in form of a guy whose MMORPG character was called Malazan. In chat, we often talked books (OMG I forgot how much time I used to have, playing computer games, chatting on ze internetz, and reading non- stop) and he mentioned Erikson's.
I immediately took to them. There's strong character development, lots of violence again, war in a dark and grim setting. As I write this, there are ten (!) books - just so you know what you're getting into. And when you start with Gardens of the Moon, it feels like you've entered this world by way of a torn, but still halfway functional parachute: the impact is hard, and you have to hit the ground running.
Some people are immediately turned off by that kind of thing, but I like that Erikson trusts the reader to be smart ... and tough.
#4 Glenn Cook's The Black Company
This book is old grimdark. It was first published in 1984. (I won't tell you how old I was at that time.) But it's quickly become a dark fantasy classic, and the reason was that it's a tale of epic battle that told not of the noble deeds of paladins and mages of the realm, but of the common soldiers in the trenches, mercenaries from the gutter, some with a flare of magic, but most simply killers, and good at what they do.
The members of the Black Company have their own code of honor, albeit wrapped in the brutality of war.
If you are looking for epic exploration of a fantasy world, and y'know elaborate explanation for the magic system(s) showcased ... don't get this book. If you're into characters, and fast paced action, and battles that seem realistic - you're in for a treat.
#5 Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles
I sidled into Fantasy by way of classic mythologies and historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell with his Sharpe books (Napoleonic Wars) were a staple read in our house. So when Cornwell started re-visioning the Arthurian legend in his historically grounded, no-punches-pulled style, I was so in awe, I started reading any Arthurian re-telling that came my way.
However, to this day, I say with full conviction: there is no other Arthurian re-telling I would ever recommend. Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles is my definitive version. The characters are terribly realistic, humans that are flawed - Arthur especially - the battles and conflicts are brutal, both physically and emotionally.
Lots of dark stuff happens, and while Cornwell never actually shows you any magic spells Merlin or Nimue - the Druids - cast, you wonder and hope with Derfel the narrator whether it might be all true.
With the success of Cornwell's newer, Anglo Saxon series The Last Kingdom (a TV show on BBC, but alas, no Merlin in it!) I'm holding out for a high quality mini series of the Warlord Chronicles.
#6 David Gemmell's Drenai Saga
Legend is the story David Gemmell is most known for, but I have yet to read a book of his that wasn't exceptionally well written. This is the reason why a major fantasy award is named after him.
The first book in the Drenai saga, Legend, was first published in 1984, just like Cook's Black Company. It's very different in tone, but equally gritty. His heroes are often world-class swordsmen, or axe wielders ... or at least they were years ago. Like Druss. But really, most of Gemmell's characters are forced to play way out of their league, facing impossible odds.
Death seems so sure as the final outcome for everyone because it is. But the message that I heard is one I feel deeply within myself: even in the face of your own mortality, you can choose how to make a stand. Add to that what has become a grimdark trademark - the mix of battles, suffering, treachery, and revenge, and what you get is awesome.
#7 Michael Moorcock's Elric
It all starts here, really. Elric is the cynical albino prince of a dying race with a magic sword. There's battles and treachery, a harsh, cruel world, drugs and slavery, political intrigue. I mean, this book was published in 1972! It's classic grimdark, a subversion of the heroic fantasy genre; the sword and sorcery tropes are all laid bare here, as is the pull of destiny via a Chosen One.
I came to Elric by way of Moorcock's Corum, and with both, I remember the distinct feeling of watching a cute, furry animal being skinned: it's repulsive, but I just couldn't stop staring. I wasn't sure which of the two to put on this list, but then settled for Elric.
He came before.
#8 Stephen King's The Dark Tower
I first saw King's Dark Tower saga on my dad's bookshelf, but I didn't dare read it, because Stephen King ... He's that guy who writes those scary stories behind horror movies, right? I got past that eventually, though I still haven't read any of King's classic horror stuff - more the pyschological stories.
Anyway, the Dark Tower is grand. It's epic. It's unlike the usual european class of heroic fantasy in that it has a western vibe, though the Gunslinger's name 'Roland' draws a connection to the medieval Song of Roland. Again, the characters you meet in this fantastic tale will stick with you for a long time. There's death, and pain, and suffering, violence, drugs and sex, and alternate universes.
#9 G.R.R. Martin's You know nuffin' Jon Snow
This is the one you all know anyhow. A Song of Ice and Fire. Game of Thrones. Everyone can die ... even the people you thought were the heroes.
If you haven't read the books, you've probably seen the show. So. Yeah. Grimdark: battles, war, treachery, political intrigues, death, brutal death, horrific violence, and unsexy sex. Also: dragons. And snow zombies. Move along.
#10 Neil Gaiman's Sandman and American Gods
I couldn't really decide whether to put Gaiman's Sandman or Gaiman's American Gods here. The latter is one of my all time favorite novels, and I've re-read it so often. I finally went with Sandman because it's a different medium than the other books on this list and yet still showcases grimdark quite nicely.
The overarching theme in the whole saga is pretty meta (it was the nineties, come on!), but I love the grim tragedy that Gaiman spun here. There are some issues I haven't re-read in a long time, and probably never will, because the images just horrified me so much, etched into my mind like acid burns.
But if you're looking for grimdark, and don't want to grab a graphic novel by Frank Miller or Alan Moore for some peculiar reason, then get Sandman. You won't regret it.
I'll leave it at these ten for now, but there are so many more that should be on this list, that I'll probably just update it every now and then. Did I miss one of your favorites? Who do you think should be on this list?
*These are affiliate links. Yes, I love Amazon so much I've sold them my soul. Never fear, though. This comes at no additional cost to you.
To get more recommended reading, enter your email address.