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Gritty Fantasy

What is Gritty Fantasy?

Gritty fantasy is all the rage these days. One of the first authors to bring gritty fantasy to the table was Glen Cook with his Black Company series. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire helped to make realistic fantasy “popular.”

Gritty fantasy is also known as "realistic epic fantasy" (or just "realistic fantasy") and is also sometimes called grimdark fantasy. though gritty fantasy with the emphasis on realism and the darker, grittier world portrayed is often part of the grimdark asthetic; however, not all gritty fantasy is necessarly grimdark. And not all 'gritty' fantasy is necessarly epic fantasy either.

Regular old 'Epic Fantasy' primarly concerns itself with a character whose quest is....well, epic. A seemingly normal, unremarkable denizen of some fantasy world finds himself in a situation where heroism is required, and he must find or develop within himself that heroism to succeed in his mission. This sounds pretty uplifting, and oftentimes it is.

Now, 'Realistic Epic Fantas'y, for whatever reason, has decided to bring it all down to the level of grunt. Instead of a hero, we have an anti-hero. He will rape, murder, pillage and burn if it meets his unique moral code, or if it is necessary to succeed in his “quest”. The world he's trying to save is pretty nasty, so he doesn't mind heaping helpings of nastiness in pursuit of the goal, whether it's goring opponents, plucking out eyes, or eating live animals like a side-show geek.

He will likely have several compatriots who die disturbing deaths (but no more disturbing than those of their victims) along the way, but their terrible teamwork will, in the end, secure their distasteful way of life. A perfect example of this would be Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns. Abercrombie's works may also fit in there.

Now, for books that are gritty fantasy but not epic fantasy (yes there are quite a few), expect a world that's full of decay and dirty, packed with anti-heroes and good guys who do bad things and bad guys who sometimes do good things. Such example of gritty fantasy that's not epic fantasy would be Daniel Polansky's Low Town or books by KJ Parker (The Fencer Trilogy for example).

Characteristics of Gritty Fantasy

  • Level of Magic

Generally pretty low, and what there is of it is not attractive. The villains who tend to use it most are diminished by their reliance on it.

  • Level of Characterization

Moral ambiguity is the name of this game. Heroes and villains may be hard to distinguish, apart from the fact that one has a quest and the other is trying to stop its attainment. There can be a lot of characters.

  • Level of Plot Complexity

Many plot lines, all made complex by their lack of moral straightforwardness. Readers who dislike anti-heroes are advised to seek out Hero Fantasy instead.

  • Level of Violence

The level of violence, sex, and violent sex are high in this sub-genre, and is mainly what differentiates this sub-genre from other related types.

Related Fantasy Subgenres



  • High Fantasy. High and Epic tales of the Fantasy genre almost always include quest. Many use High and Epic fantasy interchangeably, though there are some differences between the two. One can include the other.

  • Quest Fantasy. Epic Fantasy almost always features some quest goal.

  • Coming of Age Fantasy. Many epic fantasy tales (but not always) might feature the coming of age tale of a young man. Wheel of Time for example, A Game of Thrones, A Sword of Shannara, etc.

  • Sword and Sorcery. Crossing Sword and Sorcery with Epic Fantasy makes for an action-packed quest. 

  • Heroic Fantasy. The hero or heroes, of Heroic Fantasy often embark on a quest. 

  • Mythic Fantasy and Legend Retelling Fantasy. Mythology, folklore, and legends are filled with quests. In these tales the quest is as much a plot device as it is a symbol.

Gritty Fantasy Isn’t For You If...

If you don't like a large cast of characters, big scale events, huge wars, realism, realistic characters, bad things happening to people and the like.

Popular Gritty Fantasy