Core Best Fantasy Lists
- Top 25 Fantasy Books
- Top 100 Fantasy Books
- Best Fantasy Series
- Best Stand Alone Fantasy
- Best Young Adult Fantasy
- Top 50 Coming-of-Age Fantasy
- Top 25 Best Indie Fantasy
- Best Fantasy Audiobooks
- Best Fantasy You've Never Read
- Most Influential Fantasy
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- Great Fantasy Books
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Best Yearly Lists
- Best Fantasy of 2017 (SO FAR)
- Best Fantasy of 2016
- Best Fantasy Books of 2015
- Best Fantasy Books of 2014
Best Decade Lists
- Best Fantasy Since 2010
- Best Fantasy Books of the 90's
- Best Fantasy Best of the 80's
- Best Fantasy Books of the 70's
- Best Fantasy Books of the 60's
- Best Early Modern Fantasy (30's to 50's)
- Best Pre-Tolkien Fantasy
Best Thematic Lists
- Best Anti-Hero Fantasy
- Best Asian Fantasy
- Best Feel Good Fantasy
- Best of the Tolkien Clones
- Best of the Dresden Clones
- Fantasy That Will Blow Your Mind
- Best Fantasy Books for Women
- Best Strong Female Heroine Books
- Best Fantasy Books by Female Authors
- Best Fantasy Books for Children
- Best Vampire Books for YA
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Best Subgenre Lists
- Top 50 EPIC Fantasy
- Best Heroic Fantasy
- Best Grimdark Fantasy
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- Best LitRPG Books
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- Best Sword and Sorcery
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- Best Vampire Romance
- Best Dragon Fantasy
- Guide to Fantasy Genres
- How to Find Your Next Read Here
- Guide to Vampire Books
- Beginner's Fantasy Guide
- Best Science Fiction Books
Best Fantasy Games
Best Fantasy Movies
- Epic Fantasy
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- Fables/Fairy Tale Books
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- Dragon Fantasy Books
- Bangsian Fantasy Books
- Assassin Fantasy Books
- Arabian Fantasy Books
In Prince of Thorns, and the Broken Empire trilogy as a whole, we follow Jorg Ancrath, who, in any other series, would be the intimidating dark lord. The character was inspired by Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, and he is, in my humble opinion, the best anti-hero to grace fantasy. In Prince of Thorns, however, we see him grow up, from a small boy grappling with the violent murder of his mother and brother, to a young man, on the road with bandits, seeking vengeance for the many traumas he was forced to experience. What makes Prince of Thorns so brilliant is that we're exclusively tied to Jorg's first-person perspective.
It's impossible not to begin to see things his way after a while, and while, sure, he's a horrible, murderous bastard, he's the first to admit that. His sense of humour is so wickedly hilarious, that it's easy to forget you shouldn't be rooting for him. In terms of grit, the Broken Empire that Jorg runs rampant across is a desolate place, filled with hungry undead, warring kings, and, worst of all, bandits like Jorg. The violence is brutal and immediate, and across the trilogy Jorg does wonderfully entertaining things such as cutting off his friend's head simply because he needs something to throw, and somehow it never feels silly or edgy for its own sake. Entire cities are left desolated by Jorg's antics, and we're always on-board because we know he does what he does in an effort to avenge his brother and sister. It's brilliantly, poetically written, absolutely brutal, and unrelentingly gritty.
Read this book if: you can handle the sort of protagonist who can make you want to puke and laugh at the same time.
Books in The Broken Empir... Series (3)
Here he is, 'Lord Grimdark' himself. The Blade Itself and the First Law trilogy are among the first, and the best of the current wave of grimdark, gritty fantasy. It was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel, but deserves much more.
The Blade Itself is wonderfully gritty, not just in terms of explicit violence and sex, although it definitely has those, but in the way hard truths about the world are given to the reader through the lens of a traditional quest narrative. The characters are where this grit shines through, and the most notable of them is the crippled hero turned torturer, Inquisitor Glokta, who spends the first chapter he appears in torturing the absolute shit out of an innocent prisoner. We're also blessed with a berserker barbarian trying (and failing) to become a better person, a spoiled little brat of a swordsman, an exasperated yet talented soldier, and more. Across the series we see cannibal wizards, demons, monsters, absolutely incompetent rulers, and more. It's an insanely well-written, page-turning adventure, and after reading it you'll stare into space for a good fifteen minutes wondering how it all came to this. Ahhhh, grit, how I love you.
Read this book if: you want a sweeping quest, but think that heroes are nave idiots, the world is innately shithouse, and terrible things happen to good people.
Books in The First Law Series (3)
Beyond Redemption is so high on this list because, while it's not the absolute best novel I've read (but it's pretty damn good), it's definitely the grittiest. It takes place in a world in which belief defines reality, and so believing something makes it so. Naturally, the insane are the most powerful.
Every page of this novel is steeped in rotten muck, filth and violence. Some of the contents of the book are genuinely appalling, and I won't get into specifics for fear of ruining the shock value. The primary viewpoint character spends the entirety of the story thinking more about how shitty his sinus infection is than anything else, and he's the least gritty character of all of them.
Others include a kleptomaniac mass-murderer, a narcissistic, conniving swordsman, a self-loathing pyromaniac and the ruthlessly self-centred, manipulative head of a corrupt religion. These sorry fuckers proceed to spend the whole novel being as absolutely dickish as possible, and along the way a whole lot of people die, or worse. The world is a festering hell-hole, where rubbish and shit line the streets, and the best fate to hope for is a swift death rather than a torturous one. Overall, if you like grit, this is your crack.
Read this book if: you want to read about the absolute most deplorable characters, in an unrelentingly bleak setting.
Books in Manifest Delusio... Series (2)
With a Martin-esque plot and Jim Butcher pace, The Axe and the Throne is a definite "must read" for even the pickiest fantasy fans.
In his stunning debut, Ireman has built the type of world so vivid and engrossing that leaving it at the end is agony. In spite of leaning toward grimdark, where authors often enshroud every scene in depressing darkness, there is no lack of cheerful moments or brilliant scenery. Yet the pangs of near-instant nostalgia that come after you put down a book like this have less to do with the inspired setting, and far more to do with those who inhabit it.
From savage, unremorseful heroes, to deep, introspective villains, the cast of this story is comprised of believable characters capable of unthinkable actions. And it is these characters -- the ones you wish you could share a drink with or end up wanting to kill -- that forge the connection between fantasy and reality. Keethro, Titon, Ethel, Annora. These are names you will never forget, and each belongs to a man or woman as unique as they are memorable.
No book would be complete without a its fair share of intrigue, however, and there is no lack of it here. Each chapter leaves you wanting more, and Ireman's masterful use of misdirection leads to an abundance of "oh shit" moments. Do not be fooled (or do -- perhaps that's part of the fun) by storylines that may appear trope-ish at first. This is no fairytale.
This right here, boys and girls, is the novel that is credited with beginning the grimdark fantasy movement that we know and love today.
In the midst of the eighties, when even the grittiest novels, like Legend, still had their characters fighting for what they believed in, The Black Company features the titular band of mercenaries simply working for coin. Working for a 'dark lord' style fantasy villain, no less. But hey, gotta pay the bills somehow. Grit abounds in droves, and the wonder and 'epic-ness' of most fantasy is forsaken for a story about a group of soldiers just doing their jobs.
The writing is unremarkable and to the point, which reflects the points of view of the grunts whose stories we follow. None of the characters are nice, and the combat is never glorified. It's all in a day's work for these sorry bastards, and the epic conflicts of the god-like figures they fight for and against are far above their pay-grades. Gritty humour also abounds, and reading the book is entertaining, and fun, even if the characters are having the most miserable times of their lives.
Read this book if: you want to see where the whole sorry genre of grimdark came from, and have a fun time doing it.
Books in Chronicles of Th... Series (11)
With a title like Heroes Die, you know it's going to be gritty. This book, and the whole Acts of Caine series, is an absolutely amazing blend of sci-fi and fantasy. In a dystopian future, humanity has discovered a way to travel to parallel dimensions. One of those worlds just happens to be a pretty close approximation of the stereotypical fantasy world, and our protagonist, Caine, is sent there to get into as many cool fights as possible, which is then all broadcast back to Earth as entertainment.
Caine is essentially a gladiator, and the book, beyond being a pulse-pounding, adrenaline-fueled adventure filled with violence and testosterone, questions why we are so entertained by depictions of violence. Somehow, the book manages to be both pulpy entertainment and a crash-course in philosophy at the same time.
The levels of grit are through the roof, and Caine, a bare-knuckles brawler, comes up against armoured, sword-wielding opponents and dismantles them by breaking their bones, tearing their tendons, or just popping a handy knife through an eyeball. He's a fantastic anti-hero, and will discuss the moral implications of violence even as he tears through a contingent of guards. The 'heroes' of the story, on the whole, totally fuck up in their seemingly selfless endeavours to play hero. The second book in the series, Blade of Tyshalle, actually manages to be even grittier, but Heroes Die makes this list by virtue of being first, and by being so damn entertaining.
Read this book if: you want to read about a tough sonofabitch killing a bunch of guys with his bare hands and accidentally learn about philosophy at the same time.
Books in The Acts of Cain... Series (4)
Because, duh, it was going to be on here somewhere. I almost feel as if it isn't worth writing an entry on this one, because everyone knows it so well, but here goes.
A Game of Thrones was the forerunner of the modern grimdark fantasy movement, and popularised the sort of gritty realism that is present in so many fantasy books today. Without it, it's likely that many of the other books on this list would exist. However, as the series progresses it does become bloated, and it's concerning that the series doesn't seem to be nearing completion anytime soon, but I digress. The first book is amazing, and if you haven't read it, you can't rightly call yourself a modern fantasy fan, you peasant. George R. R. Martin wasn't afraid to break with convention and just kill the shit out of his protagonists, or maim them in the most horrible ways, and coming from the eighties and nineties where most fantasy books were decidedly clean and heroic, that was a big deal. Thanks George.
Read this if: you are a human being with eyes.
Books in A Song of Ice an... Series (7)
Gardens of the Moon is the first book in Steven Erikson's gargantuan, sprawling Malazan Book of the Fallen. It follows several different viewpoint characters as they fight for or against the Malazan Empire as it attempts to conquer the known world.
Fantasy is no stranger to sprawling epics, like Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, but that series, and many epics like it, are decidedly lacking in grit. Malazan, on the other hand, is the literary equivalent of a six-truck pile-up, where every truck happened to be shipping a bulk order of sandpaper. There are a whole bunch of different characters, whose stories slowly weave together, but the common thread is that they've all been fighting for way too long, and are sick of the endless, pointless conflict.
Magic tears poor foot-soldiers to shreds, gods possess innocent children and every shadow holds a knife. Somehow, Erikson manages to make all of the numerous characters memorable, and by the end of the series you'll be so entrenched in his world that you'll need a short stint in a mental facility to return to reality. It's epic military fantasy at its very best.
Read this book, and the other nine doorstoppers, if you want to immerse yourself completely in a gritty fantasy world, and don't have any plans for the next twelve to eighteen months.
David Gemmell's influence on modern fantasy is significant, and Legend is where that all begins. This is clear to anyone familiar with the David Gemmell Awards for fantasy, which other authors on this list have been nominated for and/or won.
Legend is the story of Druss, an ex-hero of great renown, now into his sixties. Upon hearing of the greatest fortress in the world's imminent attack by an overwhelmingly powerful army, Druss is faced with the choice of whether to live out his last decade or two in peace or to go out in a wicked blaze of glory. I think you can guess which choice he makes. The story is gritty, violent and hopeless, but what makes it great is the fact that the characters all know they're doomed, but they choose to stick their middle fingers up at the enemy and fight anyway.
Because fuck those guys. Gemmell wrote the first draft of the book when waiting to hear the results of cancer tests, and it's about confronting one's own mortality. There's a lot at the heart of this book, and it's clear why it's endured through the decades to be so influential.
Read this book if: you love hopeless last stands, and characters that continue to fight no matter how absolutely shitty the odds are.
Books in The Drenai Series (10)
Elric is the famed albino sorcerer and wielder of Stormbringer, a sentient sword that confers power upon its wielder. All for the totally-reasonable price of being fed souls. Needless to say, the saga of Elric is a fantasy classic.
Anyone well-versed in fantasy lore will know of Elric, since he's one of the most famous characters of the swords and sorcery era, along with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. He first appeared in short stories in the sixties, but this is his appearance in a full-length novel, in which his origins are detailed. Moorcock is staunchly anti-Tolkien, and this book is about as far from The Lord of the Rings as fantasy can get. It's all darkness, pacts with old gods, drug use and death.
As the Emperor of Melnibon, Elric is, oddly, one of the least 'evil' of the Melnibonans, who serve the forces of chaos. He's a great anti-hero, filled with warring darkness and light, sacrificing all that he cares about for power that ultimately brings him ruin. Elric's saga, and sword and sorcery in general for that matter, is a must-read for any fan of modern gritty fantasy.
Read this book if: you want to get to know the grand-daddy of all brooding, tragic anti-heroes.
Books in Elric Series (11)
Locke Lamora is a professional con artist, bullshitting the aristocracy of a Venice-style fantasy city out of their hard earned gold. But far from a cutesy, Robin Hood style adventure, The Lies of Locke Lamora takes a decidedly dark turn.
Locke, and his cast of con artists, are an absolute pleasure to read about, with unrivalled banter, clever plots, and no qualms about the judicious application of violence when necessary. The book starts out relatively lightly, and then sucks you into its dark centre, consistently upping the violence and grit, pushing these seemingly light-hearted characters far, far beyond their breaking points. Even when things are grimmest, Locke simply cannot keep his smart mouth shut, and the pure inappropriateness of some of his witty comments are absolutely hilarious, even if they do have decidedly horrific consequences.
The book has two threads; one following Locke and his crew in the present, and another detailing Locke's progression from a lonely orphan into the leader of his merry band of grifters. The characterization is second to none, and it truly hits home when the characters are in peril. The grit catches you off-guard, and it's all the more effective for it. Shout-out to Scott Lynch for also providing one of the best bromances in fiction (Locke and his second in command, Jean, are just such good friends, it's delightful).
Read this book if:
you want to grow to care for a lovable band of thieves and then see them lose everything.
Books in Gentleman Bastar... Series (7)
In this first instalment of the Crimson Empire trilogy, we're presented with a diverse yet tight-knit band of adventurers twenty years after they completely fucked up their attempt to take over the, and subsequently faded into legend.
The book opens with the line 'It was all going so nicely, right up until the massacre,' and, well, somehow things go even further downhill from there. Once again, the characterization is sublime (what is it with gritty fantasy novels and fantastic characterization?), and Zosia and her Five Villains are a delight to read about. Unsurprisingly for a group calling themselves Villains, they're all, well, rather villainous, and this leads to some deliciously gritty atrocities (and that's just those committed by the 'heroes').
The premise of the book is essentially that Zosia is forced out of retirement for one last adventure, to gain vengeance on those who took everything from her. It's like the Liam Neeson movie of fantasy books, with an utterly kick-ass, but world-weary protagonist romping around, beating the shit out of the young upstarts who dare to think that they can tangle with her. The world is great, with demons running around doing all sorts of spooky shit, and the local religion going all Spanish Inquisition on the poor populace.
Read this book ifyou want to read about a badass coming out of retirement and assembling the team for one last, bloody hurrah. When you find yourself cheering at the prospect of a young man being burnt alive, you know the author has you wrapped around their gritty little finger. Also, come to think of it, I should probably see a psychologist.
Books in The Crimson Empi... Series (3)
Low Town (titled the Straight-Razor Cure in the UK), is the first instalment in the Low Town series, and is a noir detective mystery transplanted to a fantasy setting.
The story is set amidst puke, piss, drugs and dead children, and follows a drug-dealer called 'the Warden', who samples from his own stash. Upon discovering a murdered child, with no-one else bothered to investigate, the Warden sets out to solve it himself, and is dragged through the trash of Low Town.
The Warden is a typically gritty hard-boiled, disgraced lawman character, and would be just at home in Detroit, dealing heroin, as in Low Town, with pixie's breath. The setting is another grim highlight, so vile that you'll want a shower after reading. Polansky has nailed gritty realism with this one, and the characters aren't the over-powered heroes found in some fantasy novels, but shitty people doing their best. Or worst, in some cases. The pacing of Low Town is excellent, and it's as addictive as the drugs found within its pages.
Read this book if:you want to read a noir thriller, but are bored by the stupid real world.
Books in Low Town Series (3)
Anaimon: The Starfall is a highly original and imaginative foray into an epic fantasy series. Grand adventure abounds across a vast world steeped in rich history and vibrant cultures.
Anaimon: The Starfall is a highly original and imaginative foray into an epic fantasy series. Grand adventure abounds across a vast world steeped in rich history and vibrant cultures.
Sharing camaraderie, sorrow, terror, and moments of levity, Burning Flower and her friends journey to undo the breaking of Anaimon. Forging a friendship and a destiny inconceivable, they travel to undo the ruin of their world as the pursuit of foes and nightmares converge upon them. Fans of Malazan, Tales of the Otori, and LOTR will find much to enjoy here, with immersive world-building and vivid descriptions of a unique and colourful setting.
Blood Song is all about the protagonist, Vaelin, growing up in a battle school, and his transformation from a child into a dangerous motherfucker.
Ryan's writing is extremely solid, and as the tale of Vaelin's rise to power unfolds in extended flashbacks, related by the fully-grown character, it is, like many of the books on this list, difficult to put down. It's easy to grow to love Vaelin as a character, seeing him develop from such a young age, and his inner turmoil is just as captivating as the external struggles.
As he progresses through the school, Vaelin gains a collection of allies and enemies, and these side characters are extremely well-written. In terms of grit, there's plenty of it, and as you can imagine there is lots of violence involved in learning to become a master-warrior, and what comes after. The world, as they so often are in these books, is on the brink of disaster, and mired in war, and I'm sure you would expect no less from an entry on this list.
Read this book if:you enjoy following a character from childhood to mastery. Mastery over the art of beating people to shit, that is.
Books in Raven's Shadow Series (3)
With 'grim' in the title, it's not hard to guess that this book is clearly camped in the grimdark sub-genre, and it hits all the right beats for gritty, amoral fantasy.
The Grim Company begins with a city being destroyed. Just to, y'know, make sure you get what you're in for. From there, a cast of gritty characters romps around the world, with the interesting inclusion of a legless mage. The world finds itself in the 'Age of Ruin', jumped-up wizards killed the gods, leaving their corpses scattered around the world, leaking wild magic. Scull's imagination is great, and he manages to make his book fun without sacrificing any of the hard-fightin', hard-drinkin', sweary goodness of grimdark fantasy.
It's also fun to have a setting with plenty of magic, which is relatively rare in the muddy worlds of gritty fantasy. Scull's pacing is impeccable, and after an explosive beginning, he chugs along nicely, and it's easy to find yourself up at four in the morning cursing what a bloody idiot you are for not going to sleep at a normal human time.
Read this book if you like fantasy with a healthy portion of fun mixed in with the broken bones and rusted steel.
Books in Grim Company Series (3)
This book is a thoroughly grimdark adventure, following a world-weary PTSD sufferer on his quest to save the world he doesn't much care for. It's messy, gross, intense, brooding and also fucking awesome. Richard K. Morgan has written some kick-ass sci-fi like Altered Carbon, and his fantasy also rocks.
This book is a great example of fantasy caked in mud and blood rather than shining armour and codes of chivalry. Ringil, the protagonist, is a guilt-ridden, broken psyche wrapped in battle-scarred skin. If there's even a shred of hope or goodness in my protagonists, I'm disappointed, and Ringil suits me just fine. The book is super-violent and super-sexual, and it's all about as gritty as contact lenses coated in dirt.
It's quite gritty, is the point I'm trying to convey here, and there are plenty of moment where you'll feel mighty uncomfortable. But that's what you're here looking for, isn't it, you sick bastard? Ringil isn't the only viewpoint character, and the others are also well-characterized and interesting. Morgan certainly has a way with words, and the prose is a delight to read, just as the world-building is intruiging, with hints of more beyond the standard fantasy-land.
Read this if: you like swearing, violence and angry sex. Or all three at once.
Books in A Land Fit for H... Series (3)
Bitter Seeds begins the Milkweed Triptych, a genre-bedning series set in an alternate version of WWII, where the Nazi's have created super-soldiers, and Britain responds by turning to warlocks and blood-magic.
Sounds interesting right? It blends fantasy, historical fiction and sci-fi in a way that somehow works and feels genuine. The way magic works in the book is absolutely brutal. Warlocks appease vast, unknowable, demon-like entities with sacrifices, from a severed finger to a trainload of civilians. The increasing desperation of the British to combat the super-powered Nazi soldiers leads to some pretty questionable decisions made in the name of the greater good, and the viewpoint characters making those decisions end up, understandably, pretty fucked up.
Another interesting point is that one of the viewpoint characters is actually one of the Nazi super-soldiers, with the ability to walk through walls. The brutal training he undertakes at the hands of Nazi scientists is awful, and he makes for an interesting character. Overall, the violence is intense, with bullets flying, mortars falling, demons warping reality and Nazis flying around or setting people on fire with their minds. An illustration from the book would make a pretty sick album cover for a metal band.
Read this book if:you like WWII, but think it didn't have enough super-soldiers and demons.
Books in Milkweed Triptyc... Series (3)
Let me begin by saying that Mark Lawrence is a god and I would worship the very ground he walks upon. Why, then, is his book not rated higher on my list, you ask? Well, in terms of pure grittiness, Prince of Fools and the rest of the Red Queen's War trilogy is beaten out by the Broken Empire trilogy, which I'll get into further down the list.
In Prince of Fools, we follow Jalan Kendeth, drunkard, coward, womanizer and prince. The novel sees his beaten up by criminals, bound to a Viking warrior, and chased through icy wastes by the relentless undead. It somehow manages to be both utterly hilarious and horrifying, and some of the fight scenes with the undead, particularly at the end, are brutal. The book's particularly fun to read because instead of taking all of this grit on the nose like a more hardened protagonist might, Jalan is scared to tears by everything he witnesses, and there's a lovely relatability in this. Even human criminals that pursue Jalan are a genuine threat, and the poor bastard is beaten up more times that you can count. Mark Lawrence uses a tight first-person, single point-of view, and it's extremely effective. The characterization in this book, and Lawrence's others, is some of the best I've ever encountered.
Read this book if: you want some of the best characterization ever, and like seeing a hopeless layabout forced into the type of fantasy adventure usually reserved for heroes. Or even those people moderately capable with a sword.
Books in The Red Queen's ... Series (3)
The Darkness that Comes Before, and the Prince of Nothing trilogy, along with Bakker's other works, are deep, philosophical books that demand your full attention, but are very rewarding if you will give it to them. This first book was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel.
This book is as profane and violent as the best of them, but what sets it apart are two things. Firstly, the writing is more poetic, and more literary than most, and at its best, it's beautiful. This contrasts against, a filthy, vulgar world, and a cast of violent characters. Secondly, the content of the book is deeply philosophical and intellectual, not in an 'everyone sits around and discusses the meaning of life' way, but in that the underpinnings of the characters and plot draw from eastern and western philosophies. The plot is epic and with many threads that play out across the series. It's a heavy meal, this, and not the sort of read that's for you if you're just looking for a light, entertaining read.
Read this book if: you like more intellectual novels, but don't want to miss out on all the sex and violence either.
Books in The Prince of No... Series (3)
Lord Foul's Bane begins the epic Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, a series in which a leprosy-stricken man in the real world is transported to a stereotypical fantasy world. However, what ensues isn't a cutesy Narnia-like adventure, but something far less cutesy. To say the least.
The grit in this book isn't primarily in the world, or the action, but in what an utter son of a bitch the protagonist it. Thomas Covenant isn't like other anti-heroes in that he's a bastard with a heart of gold. He's a bastard through and through, and utterly unlikeable. Despite this, he's a well-drawn character grappling with the crippling disease of leprosy, refusing to believe that the fantasy world he's found himself in is even real.
Covenant is so despicable at times, that on my first read of the book, I found myself doing something that I haven't done before or since; putting the book down because I was too appalled to continue. Offsetting this is the flowery, poetic, old-fashioned way in which the book is written. Lord Foul's Bane isn't fun to read, nor will it probably be your favourite book, but it's an experience important to fantasy as a genre.
Read this book if: you like classic fantasy but hate goody-two-shoes protagonists. Or even protagonists that aren't complete assholes.
Books in The Chronicles o... Series (3)
This is a story about a young street-rat becoming the apprentice of the most skilled assassin in the world, and as you'd expect from a tale about assassins, there's a lot of well assassinating. It's the first in the Night Angel trilogy.
The book opens on the protagonist as a young child, crawling through mud for enough coins to avoid a beating from his betters in a brutal street-gang. But then he accidentally witnesses a magical assassin killing a bunch of guys. Pretty gritty. It only becomes more so from there, and one particular sequence towards the end is absolutely fucking brutal.
There's lots of cool sneaking around, awesome fights, and enigmatic magic as the protagonist slowly grows up to become a rival to his master. Rags to riches tales, especially those based around someone slowly becoming absurdly powerful, are always entertaining, and this is a good example of that. I do, however, feel that the series does lack focus, and ends up feeling a bit bloated, but hey, if that's the price to pay for some sweet-ass ninja assassinations then I'm on board.
Read this if: you like awesomely choreographed action, stealth, and muttering 'cool' under your breath as you read.
Books in Night Angel Series (3)
This is another departure from traditional medieval fantasy, and is King's foray into creating a fantasy epic, but with a Weird West vibe. The Dark Tower series it begins is being adapted into a film that will be released later this year.
It's an extremely unique book, and King considers the series his magnum opus. For all it's weirdness, it's an impressive feat of fantasy, and an absolutely gritty one to boot. The Gunslinger is mostly about Roland Deschain, the last of the Gunslingers, following a mysterious 'man in black' across the desert of a dying world. Along the way he kills a heck of a lot of people, battles mutants, you know, all that fun stuff. Rolan was inspired by Clint Eastwood's world-weary and eminently cool 'The Man With No Name' from The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and it's as if that character was set loose in a decaying fantasy world to follow up on a grudge. The book can actually be quite slow in places, but the violence, when it happens, it brutal.
Read this if: you like Stephen King's work, want something completely different, or enjoy reading about some dude shooting a bunch of other dudes.
Books in The Dark Tower Series (7)
This is an odd one to appear on a list of the grittiest fantasy books, but hear me out. Lord Loss is the first book in the Demonata series, which is a 10-book YA horror/fantasy blend that is absolutely brutal.
Honestly, the violence and mental anguish depicted in the first book alone is more than one could expect to find in most adult books. Back in high-school I found this book in my school library. What were the librarian's thinking? In this book, demons completely destroy the life of a well-characterized young man, and things escalate explosively until the corpses of loved ones are being played with like puppets. Despite the extreme violence, Shan somehow pulls of a realistic and genuine response in the protagonist, and it never feels 'edgy' or just an attempt at shock value. It may stray more into the horror genre than fantasy, but let's forget about that. The series becomes more firmly entrenched in fantasy as it progresses. There are mages and everything!
Read this book if: you like lightning-fast pacing, horrible violence, creative demons, or are a sadistic bastard who enjoys depictions of suffering.
Books in The Demonata Series (10)
The Red Knight and the Traitor Son Cycle it begins are the most historically-accurate depictions of medieval-era warfare that I've ever read. In fact, if you want to continue enjoying military fantasy as a whole, don't read this book, since it will make everything else seem silly (Where is that knight's squire and retinue of retainers? How the hell did that guy get into his plate armour so fast? Why does that army have no camp followers? What about their supply lines?).
Miles Cameron is actually a pen-name for Christian Cameron, a man almost ridiculously qualified to write military fantasy. He has a BA in Medieval History with honors and served in the United States Navy. As if that wasn't enough, he is an experienced re-enactor of medieval and classical battles. This is a man who knows what it feels like to cop a sword-blow to the helmet, and his writing shows it. Even the depiction of magic is based upon how people once thought magic might actually work. The novel follows the titular Red Knight, the leader of a mercenary company that is hired to defend an Abbey from the monstrous forces of 'the Wild'. Cameron is dedicated to depicting warfare realistically (even if it is against monsters), and when you hit someone with a mace, he demonstrates that the results are not exactly pretty. There are plenty of splintered bones, snapped tendons and torn-out throats.
Read this book if:you like historical fiction, or want a story about how a medieval army would actually work. Also, cool monsters.
Books in The Traitor Son ... Series (5)
If you don't know who Joe Abercrombie is, then shame on you. His other work is at the forefront of gritty fantasy (hint: you might spot him further down this list), but Half a King, and the Shattered Sea trilogy it belongs to, is Abercrombie's foray into Young Adult fantasy. Because of this, it's less intense than his other work, but that doesn't mean it isn't' bloody good, and gritty as all hell.
In this book, Joe Abercrombie basically takes an inquisitive young man with a crippled hand and asks 'How can I best fuck up this kid's life?' The answer to that question involves murder, failed raids, slavery, a merciless manhunt, and ceaseless violence. It's set in a world inspired by the Vikings, but with the violence pumped up a notch, if that were possible. The waters are freezing, the longships leaky, and the axes nicked. In short, it's gritty as a smoothie made with sand. The second and third books in the trilogy get even better, and by the end, Abercrombie has fucked up the lives of a great many characters. I don't know if reading about that sort of stuff is how you get your kicks, but it sure is how I get mine.
Read this is you like: the classic coming of age story, but want a gritty twist to it. The characterization in this book is fantastic, and seeing the protagonist's transformation from a coward into a remorseless bastard is entertaining as hell.
Books in Shattered Sea Series (3)
Titled The Painted Man outside of the US, this book is about a world where, every night, demons descend upon the world and tear people to shreds. People squat behind magical runes called 'wards' and hope that the wards don't fail, which they often do, for like no reason at all.
If you're looking for a book in which dozens of heroic, noble side-characters are gobbled up by unstoppable monsters, then this is it. It's made even more gritty by the fact that, whenever anyone tries to fight one of the demons, they're basically fucked from the beginning due to the fact that conventional weapons don't work on the blasted things. Travelling through this blighted world and seeing how th e different societies have attempted to cope with the ever-present threat of annihilation is great entertainment, and it's nice to see a book where the monsters are actually scary, and pose a very real threat to the protagonists and those around them.
It focuses on three protagonists, taking them from when their lives are torn apart by demons as children, their loved ones gobbled up, to when their lives are torn apart as adults, their new loved ones gobbled up. The reason why it's number twenty-five on this list, however, is that the subsequent books in the series lose focus, and introduce too many side-characters which are given too much attention. The main characters also become ridiculously powerful, and the demons that were so threatening in the first book become more like an annoyance. Despite this, The Warded Man is still pretty great, and was nominated for a David Gemmell Legend Award.
Read this if you like:desperate struggles against impossible odds, and fantasy where the fights are like the colonial marines being overrun in Aliens.
Books in The Demon Cycle Series (5)
Our Version of the List
At a Glance
- 1 Prince of Thorns (Mark Lawrence)
- 2 The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)
- 3 Beyond Redemption (Michael R. Fletcher)
- 4 The Black Company (Glen Cook)
- 5 Heroes Die (Matthew Woodring Stover)
- 6 A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin)
- 7 Gardens of the Moon (Steven Erikson)
- 8 Legend (David Gemmell)
- 9 Elric of Melniboné (Michael Moorcock)
- 10 The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)
- 11 A Crown for Cold Silver (Alex Marshall)
- 12 Low Town (Daniel Polansky)
- 13 Blood Song (Anthony Ryan)
- 14 The Grim Company (Luke Scull)
- 15 The Steel Remains (Richard K. Morgan)
- 16 Bitter Seeds (Ian Tregillis)
- 17 Prince of Fools (Mark Lawrence)
- 18 The Darkness that Comes Before (R. Scott Bakk...
- 19 Lord Foul's Bane (Stephen R. Donaldson)
- 20 The Way of Shadows (Brent Weeks)
- 21 The Gunslinger (Stephen King)
- 22 Lord Loss (Darren Shan)
- 23 The Red Knight (Miles Cameron)
- 24 Half a King (Joe Abercrombie)
- 25 The Warded Man (Peter V. Brett)
Publicly Ranked Version of the List25 items >>
- Legend (David Gemmell)
- Bitter Seeds (Ian Tregillis)