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The 16 Best Dark Fantasy Books of All Time

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Here at Nerdmuch.com, we understand the allure of dark fantasy, a genre that masterfully blends elements of traditional fantasy with darker, often more sinister themes. In dark fantasy, readers traverse worlds where magic not only enchants but also terrifies, where heroes face not just external threats but also the darkness within themselves.

This genre stands out for its ability to explore the more shadowy aspects of fantasy storytelling. Here, the narratives often veer into complex themes such as moral ambiguity, grim settings, and a sense of brooding foreboding. Happy endings aren’t guaranteed, and characters are frequently tested in ways that blur the lines between right and wrong.

Our latest list features standout works in this captivating genre. Titles like The Priory of the Orange Tree, The Book Eaters, and Atlas Six have been selected for their exceptional ability to weave together the mystical and the macabre. These books are not just about the magic and mythical creatures; they’re also about exploring the darker side of human (and non-human) nature.

These selections have been handpicked by our team of fantasy aficionados, ensuring that each book resonates with the distinctive essence of dark fantasy. They’re perfect for readers who crave stories that are as thought-provoking as they are thrilling. Check out our list of the best dark fantasy books and series below to discover worlds where darkness doesn’t just lurk in the shadows—it thrives.

The First Law Series by Joe Abercrombie

Also Available via Bookshop.org | $47

The First Law Series by Joe Abercrombie is an enthralling journey into a world rife with conflict, power struggles, and unexpected alliances. Set in a vividly imagined universe, the series initially follows three main characters: Logen Ninefingers, a feared warrior with a bloody past; Jezal dan Luthar, an arrogant nobleman and aspiring fencing champion; and Inquisitor Glokta, a former hero turned torturer grappling with his own demons. Their paths intertwine in a world teetering on the brink of war, where ancient magics are stirring and political machinations threaten to engulf the realm. As the series progresses, it delves deeper into the complexities of its characters and the brutal realities of their world, making it a story of not just battles and magic, but also of human nature and survival.

Considered one of the best dark fantasy series, The First Law stands out for its unique blend of gritty realism, sharp wit, and subversive storytelling. Abercrombie’s series is often regarded as one of the lighter offerings within the genre, not because it shies away from dark themes, but due to its infusion of sardonic humor and a certain levity in its narrative voice. This combination makes the series both profoundly engaging and surprisingly accessible. The characters are deeply flawed yet immensely relatable, and the world-building is both expansive and detailed. Abercrombie masterfully plays with genre tropes, often turning them on their heads, which results in a fresh and invigorating take on fantasy. It’s this inventive approach that cements The First Law Series as a standout in the realm of dark fantasy.

Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry

Buy it at Bookshop.org | $18

Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry, although not as popular (yet) as some of the other books on this list, is one of my personal favorite dark fantasy series; I even have it featured in our list of the best fantasy books ever. The titular book 1 in the series introduces readers to a world steeped in blood and betrayal. The story centers around Kagen Vale, once a beloved hero and the emperor’s most loyal protector. However, his world shatters in a single, horrific night when an unknown enemy slaughters the royal family, leaving Kagen as the sole survivor amidst the ruins of his life and loyalty. Haunted by guilt and rage, Kagen embarks on a relentless quest for vengeance, plunging into a shadowy world of ancient gods, blood magic, and hidden realms. His journey is not just a hunt for the culprits but also a grueling path of self-discovery, as he grapples with the darkness within himself and the brutal realities of the world he thought he knew.

Kagen the Damned has earned its place as one of the best dark fantasy books of all time due to its masterful blend of intricate world-building, deep character exploration, and a plot that deftly weaves together elements of myth, magic, and moral complexity. Maberry’s storytelling is both raw and elegant, painting a world where the lines between hero and villain are blurred, and where the pursuit of justice becomes as perilous as the threats lurking in the shadows. The series stands out for its unflinching exploration of themes like power, corruption, and the cost of vengeance, all wrapped in a narrative that is as emotionally gripping as it is action-packed. In Kagen the Damned, readers find not just a dark fantasy tale, but a richly layered saga that resonates with the enduring questions of what it means to be a hero in a world that has lost its way.

The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

Book Eaters

Buy it at Bookshop.org | $26

The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean presents a unique twist on dark fantasy, immersing readers in a world where knowledge is literally consumed. The story revolves around the life of Devon, a member of a secretive, book-eating family living in the moors of Northern England. These families are unlike any other; they sustain themselves not on food, but on the pages of books, gaining memories and knowledge from each page they devour. However, this extraordinary ability comes with a price. Devon’s journey begins in earnest when she faces a mother’s worst nightmare: her young son, Cai, born with an insatiable hunger for human minds instead of books. As Devon grapples with her son’s dangerous appetite and the rigid, patriarchal rules of her family, she embarks on a desperate quest that challenges the very foundations of her world.

The Book Eaters earns its place as one of the best dark fantasy books due to its innovative concept and the profound depth of its narrative. Dean skillfully weaves a tale that is as much about the power and pitfalls of knowledge as it is about the lengths a mother will go to protect her child. The novel’s dark fantasy elements are seamlessly integrated into a story that explores themes of power, identity, and the sacrifices made for family. Its ability to combine the fantastical with poignant, human experiences sets it apart in the genre, resonating deeply with readers. The novel’s rich, atmospheric settings, combined with its exploration of the darker aspects of its unique magic system, create a captivating read that lingers long after the final page.

The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Buy it at Bookshop.org | $23

The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence introduces readers to the young, formidable protagonist, Prince Jorg Ancrath. Set in a brutal, post-apocalyptic world that has reverted to medieval technology and social structures, the story begins with Jorg at the age of thirteen. After a horrific event leads to the death of his mother and younger brother, Jorg embarks on a path of vengeance, leading a band of ruthless outlaws. His journey is marked by violence and power struggles, as he seeks to confront his past and reclaim his rightful place as a prince. The narrative is dark and unflinching, presenting a world where moral ambiguity reigns and the line between hero and villain is blurred.

What cements The Prince of Thorns as a standout in the dark fantasy genre is Lawrence’s skillful subversion of typical fantasy tropes and his creation of a deeply complex and morally ambiguous protagonist. Jorg Ancrath is not your typical hero; he is flawed, often cruel, and driven by a deeply personal vendetta. Lawrence’s world-building is rich and immersive, painting a vivid picture of a fractured kingdom where the remnants of old world technology exist alongside medieval brutality. This novel is celebrated for its unapologetic darkness, intricate plot, and the way it challenges readers to grapple with themes of power, redemption, and the nature of evil, making it a truly memorable addition to the dark fantasy genre.

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Buy it at Bookshop.org | $18

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman is set in a world steeped in magic and danger, where guilds and gods meddle in the lives of mortals. The story follows Kinch Na Shannack, a thief indebted to the Takers Guild, renowned for its sinister influence. Kinch’s journey begins when he is sent on a mission to rob an unsuspecting traveler but ends up entangled in a larger, more perilous adventure. This traveler, Galva, a knight and veteran of the goblin wars, is on a quest to find her missing queen. The narrative weaves through treacherous landscapes filled with goblins, witches, and otherworldly creatures, all brought to life with Buehlman’s vivid storytelling. Kinch’s dark humor and unique abilities, like his knack for speaking the tongue of thieves and a penchant for magical larceny, add depth to this gritty, fantastical world.

The Blacktongue Thief has earned its place as one of the best dark fantasy books for several reasons. Buehlman’s skillful blending of dark humor with a grim and enthralling world sets it apart. The novel’s strength lies in its intricate world-building, filled with detailed lore and a tangible sense of danger lurking around every corner. Kinch, as the protagonist, brings a unique voice to the genre, combining wit and a morally ambiguous nature that perfectly encapsulates the essence of dark fantasy. The book’s ability to balance the brutality of its world with moments of levity and genuine human connection resonates deeply with readers, making it a standout example of how dark fantasy can both entertain and challenge its audience.

Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Buy it at Bookshop.org | $18

Atlas Six by Olivie Blake invites readers into a shadowy world of magic, intellect, and ambition. The story revolves around the titular Atlas Blakely and five other uniquely talented magicians, each handpicked for their extraordinary abilities. They are contenders for induction into the secretive Alexandrian Society, a group that guards and explores the lost knowledge of the world. Over the course of a year, these six candidates must prove their worth in a competition that tests not only their magical prowess but also their morals, alliances, and capacity for deception. As alliances form and secrets unfold, the line between friend and foe blurs, setting the stage for a tale rich in intrigue and power struggles.

The acclaim of Atlas Six as a dark fantasy masterpiece stems from its intricate blend of intellectual depth and moral complexity. Blake’s novel is more than just a magical competition; it’s a cerebral exploration of ambition, betrayal, and the darker sides of human nature. The characters are compellingly flawed, each battling their own inner demons and ethical dilemmas. The book’s rich, dark world-building, combined with its exploration of the seductive and often corrupting nature of knowledge and power, places it among the best in the genre. Its narrative, rife with twists and philosophical underpinnings, captivates readers, making Atlas Six a standout in the realm of dark fantasy.

Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Buy it at Bookshop.org | $18

Gideon the Ninth, penned by Tamsyn Muir, unfolds an extraordinary tale set in a universe where necromancy and science fiction intertwine. The story follows Gideon Nav, a swordswoman with a sharp tongue and an even sharper wit, who yearns to escape her life of servitude in the Ninth House. Her plans are disrupted when Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and a necromancer of remarkable talent, requires Gideon’s sword skills for a deadly trial. Together, they journey to a decrepit space station, where they join representatives from the Empire’s other houses. Each pair, a necromancer and their cavalier, must navigate a labyrinth of puzzles and dangers, vying for the ultimate prize: the secret to immortality. The plot thickens with intrigue, betrayal, and a series of ghastly murders that threaten to unravel the fabric of their reality.

Gideon the Ninth is lauded as one of the best dark fantasy books due to its unique blend of genres and the richness of its storytelling. Muir’s novel is a groundbreaking fusion of gothic horror, space opera, and fantasy, creating a narrative that is as unpredictable as it is captivating. The book’s dark fantasy elements are intricately woven into its narrative, exploring themes of death, decay, and the macabre. Muir’s world-building is intricate and immersive, presenting a universe where the lines between life and death are as blurred as the moral compass of its characters. Gideon’s journey, marked by both humor and heartbreak, resonates deeply with readers, making Gideon the Ninth a standout in its genre for its ability to marry the grotesque with the profound, creating a compelling and unforgettable reading experience.

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Buy it at Bookshop.org | $19

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon unfolds in a world teetering on the brink of chaos. This epic tale is set across two divided continents, where a thousand-year-old prophecy threatens to upend the fragile balance of power. In the East, Sabran the Ninth, Queen of Inys, must produce an heir to protect her realm from the encroaching darkness. Meanwhile, Ead Duryan, an outsider at court, secretly serves as a protector, wielding forbidden magic against an ancient enemy. Far in the West, Tané, an ambitious dragonrider, faces a life-altering decision that could shape the future of the world. The story masterfully weaves together the fates of these characters, creating a rich tapestry of intrigue, betrayal, and courage in the face of an impending draconic war.

The acclaim for The Priory of the Orange Tree as one of the best dark fantasy novels stems from its intricate world-building and the depth of its narrative. Shannon’s novel is a triumph in its genre, blending the fantastical elements of dragons and magic with a complex political landscape. The novel is praised for its subversion of traditional fantasy tropes, particularly in its portrayal of strong, multi-dimensional female characters who drive the narrative. Its exploration of themes such as power, religion, and prejudice is both nuanced and compelling, resonating with readers long after they turn the last page. This combination of an immersive world, rich storytelling, and thematic depth cements The Priory of the Orange Tree as a standout work in dark fantasy literature.

The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkin

The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood unfolds a riveting tale set in a world where gods and mortals intertwine. The story follows Csorwe, an orc priestess who, on the brink of a sacrificial death, is offered a chance at life by the enigmatic wizard Belthandros Sethennai. Seizing this opportunity, Csorwe embarks on a perilous journey that defies the fate ordained by her gods. As she navigates through treacherous realms and faces formidable foes, Csorwe’s loyalty is tested, and she is drawn into a web of power struggles, ancient magic, and forbidden realms. The narrative is rich in fantastical landscapes and labyrinthine plots, with Csorwe’s character growth central to the unfolding epic.

The Unspoken Name secures its place as one of the best dark fantasy novels due to its intricate world-building and the depth of its character development. Larkwood skillfully crafts a universe that is both vast and detailed, blending elements of high fantasy with a darker, more introspective tone. The novel explores themes of identity, choice, and destiny, challenging traditional fantasy tropes. Csorwe’s journey from a sacrificial pawn to a complex character grappling with issues of loyalty, love, and self-determination is both engaging and thought-provoking. This blend of unique storytelling, rich world-building, and compelling character arcs make The Unspoken Name a standout in the dark fantasy genre, appealing to readers seeking depth and darkness intertwined with their fantasy.

The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King

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The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is an expansive and intricate narrative that combines elements of dark fantasy, horror, and Western genres. The story centers around Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger, on his quest to reach the Dark Tower, a mythical structure said to be the nexus of all universes. His journey takes him through a desolate world that mirrors our own in disturbing ways, brimming with danger and decay. Along the way, Roland gathers a group of followers from different times and worlds, each drawn into his quest for various reasons. The series weaves a complex tapestry of fate, destiny, and time, as Roland confronts not only physical adversaries but also the demons of his past and the uncertainties of a crumbling world.

The Dark Tower series is regarded as one of the best dark fantasy works due to its unique blend of genres and the depth of its storytelling. Stephen King masterfully crafts a universe that is both familiar and eerily alien, a reflection of our world’s myths, legends, and history, yet twisted by a dark fantasy lens. The series’ strength lies in its rich character development, intricate plot, and the way it deftly tackles themes of good versus evil, reality versus fantasy, and the journey of self-discovery. King’s ability to blend the mundane with the fantastical, to create a world that is both grounded and otherworldly, cements The Dark Tower as a seminal work in the dark fantasy genre, appealing to a broad spectrum of readers seeking depth, adventure, and a touch of the uncanny in their fantasy literature.

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky is an enthralling journey into a world where ancient tribes shape the land, each connected to a distinct animal spirit. The story centers around Maniye, a young girl torn between two heritages: her father’s Tiger and her mother’s Wolf. In this world, tribe members can shift into their respective animal forms, a power that defines their way of life. Maniye’s dual heritage makes her an outcast and a pawn in the power struggles tearing her world apart. As she flees from her father’s cruel plans, Maniye’s journey becomes one of self-discovery and survival. Along the way, she encounters a vivid cast of characters, from Asmander, a charismatic Southern noble, to Hesprec, a shaman of the Serpent tribe, all entwined in a world brimming with conflict and ancient magic.

The Tiger and the Wolf stands out as one of the best dark fantasy books for several reasons. Tchaikovsky’s intricate world-building and the novel’s thematic depth are central to its acclaim. The book masterfully explores themes of identity, belonging, and the struggle between personal desire and societal expectations. Tchaikovsky’s portrayal of Maniye’s internal conflict, coupled with the harsh realities of a world divided by tribal loyalties and ancient enmities, offers a rich narrative tapestry. Furthermore, the novel’s unique approach to shapeshifting and its vivid, immersive world set it apart in the genre. It’s a tale that delves deep into the darker aspects of power and freedom, resonating with readers who seek a fantasy world that is both complex and shadowed with moral ambiguities.

Manifest Delusions Series by Michael Fletcher

Manifest Delusions series by Michael R. Fletcher immerses readers into a unique and unsettling world where the line between delusion and reality is not just blurred but often completely erased. The series begins with Beyond Redemption, where the central premise is that people’s delusions can manifest into reality, shaping the world around them. This concept gives rise to a host of fascinating and deeply flawed characters, each harboring their own dangerous illusions. The narrative weaves through a gritty, dark landscape, exploring themes of power, insanity, and the nature of belief. The plot centers around a heist gone awry, delving into the depths of human depravity and the consequences of unchecked power born from madness.

The Manifest Delusions series stands out as one of the best dark fantasy books for several reasons. Fletcher’s originality in crafting a universe where mental illnesses and delusions become real provides a fresh and intriguing take on the genre. This unique magic system serves as a compelling backdrop for exploring darker themes and human psychology. The series excels in its character development, portraying deeply complex and morally ambiguous characters that challenge readers’ perceptions of heroism and villainy. Fletcher’s skillful storytelling intertwines these elements with a gripping narrative, making Manifest Delusions a groundbreaking work in dark fantasy, revered for its bold, innovative approach and its unflinching exploration of the darker aspects of human nature and fantasy.

Gardens of the Moon: The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1 by Steven Erikson

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Gardens of the Moon: The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1 by Steven Erikson introduces readers to the vast, intricate world of the Malazan Empire. The story begins amidst the final stages of the empire’s expansion, focusing on the city of Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis. The Malazan Empire, under the leadership of the mysterious Empress Laseen, seeks to consolidate its power, but faces resistance from the city and its defenders. Meanwhile, an array of characters, including a disillusioned soldier, an ambitious mage, and an ancient and powerful Ascendant, find themselves drawn into the conflict. Their paths intertwine in a complex web of politics, war, and magic, with the stakes extending far beyond the immediate conflict.

The book is often hailed as one of the best dark fantasy novels due to its richly detailed world-building, complex characters, and the depth of its narrative. Erikson skillfully blends elements of epic fantasy with dark, gritty realism, creating a universe where moral ambiguity is the norm and the line between good and evil is frequently blurred. The novel’s intricate plot, filled with unexpected twists and deep lore, rewards readers who appreciate meticulous detail and a sprawling, interconnected storyline. Its exploration of themes such as power, betrayal, and redemption, set against a backdrop of a vast and ancient world, makes Gardens of the Moon a standout in the genre, offering a deep and immersive reading experience.

Library at Mt. Char by Scott Hawkins

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Library at Mt. Char by Scott Hawkins is an audacious foray into the dark fantasy genre that intertwines the bizarre with the sublime. The plot revolves around Carolyn and her adopted siblings, who were taken in by Father, an enigmatic and powerful figure. They are not ordinary children; each is trained in specific “catalogs” of knowledge, ranging from languages to the more esoteric arts of resurrection and foretelling the future. When Father goes missing, the delicate balance they’ve known is upended. The story unfolds as Carolyn strategically navigates a world filled with secrets, mystical libraries, and hidden dimensions, leading to a gripping climax that challenges the very nature of power, knowledge, and destiny.

The novel is considered one of the best dark fantasy books for its unique blend of the surreal and the profound. Hawkins’ narrative is a deftly woven tapestry of dark humor, intricate mythology, and deeply layered characters. It stands out for its originality in a genre often crowded with familiar tropes. The book’s strength lies in its ability to be unpredictably wild yet thoughtfully profound, keeping readers on the edge of their seats while pondering the larger existential questions it poses. This combination of imaginative storytelling, rich world-building, and philosophical depth cements Library at Mt. Char as a standout work in dark fantasy, appealing to those who seek stories that are as intellectually stimulating as they are entertaining.

Gunmetal Gods Trilogy by Zamil Akhtar

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The Gunmetal Gods Trilogy by Zamil Akhtar plunges readers into a vividly crafted world where the struggles of gods and men intertwine. The series begins with a tale of two nations on the brink of a colossal war, a conflict that has its roots in both political ambition and ancient, mystical forces. Central to the narrative is the journey of Kevah, a soldier seeking revenge, and Micah the Metal, a formidable warrior who becomes embroiled in a plot that could reshape the world. As the saga unfolds, readers are introduced to a tapestry of characters, each grappling with their own destinies, desires, and the whims of gods. The trilogy masterfully combines elements of epic fantasy with horror, as characters not only battle each other but also face terrifying supernatural entities and the darker aspects of their own natures.

The Gunmetal Gods Trilogy is acclaimed as one of the best dark fantasy series for several reasons. Firstly, Akhtar’s intricate world-building crafts a universe that is both expansive and detailed, providing a perfect backdrop for the story’s complex themes. The series stands out for its unique blend of traditional fantasy elements with darker, more horror-centric aspects, creating a gripping and sometimes chilling reading experience. Akhtar’s skill in character development ensures that each figure in the narrative is multi-dimensional and compelling, driving the story forward with their personal struggles and growth. Additionally, the trilogy’s exploration of themes such as power, faith, and the human condition resonates deeply with readers, making it a standout in the dark fantasy genre. The combination of Akhtar’s rich storytelling, the depth of the characters, and the immersive world they inhabit cements the Gunmetal Gods Trilogy as a landmark in dark fantasy literature.

The Dresden Files Series by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher introduces readers to Harry Dresden, Chicago’s first (and only) wizard private investigator. The series kicks off with Storm Front, where Dresden finds himself entangled in a web of magic, murder, and mystery. As the series progresses, Dresden navigates a world filled with a diverse cast of characters, including vampires, werewolves, faeries, and other supernatural beings. Each book combines elements of mystery, urban fantasy, and the occasional dash of humor, all set against the backdrop of modern-day Chicago. The series is marked by its intricate plotting, where Dresden often finds himself solving crimes, battling dark forces, and uncovering deeper, more dangerous conspiracies that threaten the mortal and magical worlds alike.

What sets The Dresden Files apart as one of the best dark fantasy series, despite its somewhat lighter tone compared to other entries in the genre, is its unique blend of gripping storytelling, well-developed characters, and an immersive world that grows more complex with each book. Jim Butcher’s skillful balance of dark themes, such as power struggles and moral ambiguity, with elements of humor and relatable character development, creates a series that is both entertaining and deeply engaging. The series has garnered a loyal following for its ability to maintain a sense of levity and humanity, even when delving into the darker aspects of fantasy. This balance, along with the compelling evolution of Harry Dresden’s character, cements The Dresden Files as a standout in the realm of dark fantasy.

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Bobby Bernstein
Bobby is the Co-Owner of Nerd Much?. He's the former Games Editor and current Shopping Editor at Heavy.com, former Editor in Chief of Den of Geek, and former bylines at HiConsumption, Slickdeals, Gamedeveloper.com, and more! He is also on Opencritic. He has been writing about nerdy stuff on the web for over 10 years. The best way to reach him is on Twitter.

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