On the grimmer borders of the genre kingdom lies the realm of “dark fantasy,” a term that evokes morally gray heroes and a decidedly bleak worldview. The term is rather broad, encompassing everything from Michael Moorcock’s Von Bek to the current trend of gritty low fantasy set in dark ages that are, well, dark. Whatever the definition, it’s a subgenre in which the good guys aren’t always well behaved, where horror elements are allowed to drift about as they please (Charles L. Grant once referred to these types of books as “quiet horror”), and even when things end well, they walk through deeply cynical territory. Here are five books we’ve pulled from the dark corners of the genre.
Beyond Redemption, by Michael R. Fletcher
Beyond Redemption is a tale of post-apocalyptic fantasy in a world where all the gods are dead and delusion and belief empower the people. When a group of outlaws kidnap a child meant to be the ascendant god of the world’s largest church, it kicks off a violent power struggle, as various factions attempt to either retrieve the child or take him for themselves. While perhaps not for fainter constitutions, Fletcher’s world is brimming with detail and amazing ideas, including living-dead assassins, a charismatic slaver who would make the Purple Man squirm, and a style of sword duel that involves playing to the crowd to increase their belief in your power.
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The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands, by Stephen King
Stephen King seems an unlikely suggestion for grimdark fantasy readers, but the high-water mark of King’s twisted pulp fantasy epic really delivers. As Roland and his companions make their way further towards the imposing Tower, the deserts and vast flatlands give way to forests and ruined cityscapes, and they find that Mid-World may be a more familiar land than they first thought. King imbues his post-apocalyptic quest fantasy with powerful doses of cosmic horror and unnervingly grimy end times flourishes. While it ends on a cliffhanger, this is the one book in the series that best stands on its own, from the opening gunfight with a massive cyborg bear to the final showdown with a homicidal. A.I.-controlled train.
The Physiognomy, by Jeffrey Ford
Where to begin with this one? An arrogant, drug-addicted physiognomist named Cley travels from the Well-Built City to a small mining town at the behest of the City’s sinister master Drachton Below. The town, which draws its income from mining something called “Blue Spire” that eventually turns those mining it into azure statues, is responsible for the theft of a fruit that might bring the eater immortality. Below tasks Cley with using his knowledge of facial features and appearance to discover the thief, but matters become complicated: Cley is distracted by Arla, the daughter of the prime suspect, who has ideal facial features. Meanwhile, Cley suffers withdrawal from the drugs his master uses to control him, and begins to question Below’s plans for both him and the City. Ford’s ability to make dreamlike scenes feel concrete is on full display; The Physiognomy shines with bizarre and sometimes terrifying images that border on the nightmarish.
The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley
Hurley specializes in dark, both in her bleak Bel Dame Apocrypha sci-fi series, and in her epic fantasy trilogy The Worldbreaker Saga. The Mirror Empire begins with a group of otherworldly invaders slaughtering an entire village as the protagonist’s mother holds them off with a gate spawned from blood magic (and if that isn’t some kind of metal, I don’t know what is). From there, Hurley builds a tale of cataclysmic destruction, two separate worlds that interact with each other, a magic system that changes depending on prominent heavenly bodies, and some truly nasty sentient plant life. Against this backdrop, the book manages to integrate multiple social themes, including cultural differences, privilege, and colonialism. Hurley’s strength is her complex world-building, creating vast cultures whose clashing ideals and desires make them feel like truly unique entities. The scope is dizzying, but far from daunting.
Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by Teresa Frohock
Upon retrieving his sister from Hell, disgraced exorcist Lucian abandoned the love of his life, Raechel, to a demonic possession by something called the Wyrm. Worse still, his sister is… different after her time below, crippling her brother’s leg and making plans to open the portal to Hell so the dark legions can invade Earth through the borders of a medieval alternate reality called the Woerld. With the help of a ten year old girl recently brought to the Woerld from Earth, Lucian sets off to redeem himself, aid Raechel in her predicament, and stop his sister. Frohock gives new life to the medieval gothic aesthetic, crafting a disquieting story in which the darkness owes as much to the atmosphere as the pitch-black plot.
What’s your favorite work of dark fantasy?