A Brief Guide to Grimdark Fantasy and Where to Start Reading it

Don’t know what people mean when they talk about grimdark? Find your guide to grimdark fantasy, including definitions and books to start with.

I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, but my tastes have always leaned toward the dark, tense, and morbid. Any day of the week, and twice on Sunday, I’ll take a troubled antihero over a traditional do-gooder.

So when I discovered there was a sub-genre of fantasy known as “grimdark,” I was ecstatic.

About Grimdark

The term comes from the miniature war game Warhammer 40,000, whose tagline is “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”

So this gives off a pretty strong vibe—hopeless, violent, and bleak. While the mention of a far future sounds more like science fiction, the game makes extensive use of fantasy tropes such as magic, supernatural beings, mystical creatures, and so on.

Grimdark Magazine’s exploration of the rise of grimdark traces a line from grimdark to its predecessor sword and sorcery, which the article describes as “sword-swinging protagonists who were usually not out to save the world but were motivated by their own survival, tribal affiliations, or hot-blooded desires”.

However, before it, heroic fantasy featured more traditional heroes who were good and brave and faced down the world’s evils.

The later evolution of grimdark is described as a “grimmer, darker, and more realistic approach to epic fantasy” stripped of the idealism that arose in the 1990s, and it attributes its popularity to the publication of George R. R. Martin’s first novel in the Game of Thrones series in 1996.

Definition of Grimdark

Aside from the clear intent of the name’s tone, it was difficult to get a clear definition of what the sub-genre entailed. Was anything with a dark aura grimdark?

Or were there more specific motifs and elements, as seen in certain romance sub-genres? It threw me for a loop, so I avoided using the term for a while before deciding to investigate further.

It turns out that the definition of grimdark was unclear for a reason—over the years, various influencers have given varying definitions, all similar but slightly different.

Firm definitions of the genre follow similar but variable themes:

From Google dictionary: “A genre of fiction, especially fantasy fiction, characterized by disturbing, violent, or bleak subject matter and a dystopian setting.”

From Wikipedia: “Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.”

From Macmillan dictionary: “A type of fantasy fiction with unusually dark and violent themes and tone. If you like bloody swordfights and morally grey characters, grimdark is the genre for you.”

Finally, I liked a simpler definition from grimdark master N. K. Jemisin on Twitter, which describes the subgenre as the fantasy equivalent of science fiction‘s dystopia genre.

In a nutshell, these are dark, broken worlds with dark, broken characters.

Examples of Grimdark Fantasy

If this describes your mood, here are three great examples of grimdark in action for you to enjoy and contemplate:

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

After her son is murdered by his father, Essun sets out to save her daughter from the same fate. Meanwhile, a rift has ripped the earth apart, causing ash to blanket the sky for years to come.

Civilizations are at war and annihilating one another. And the powerful people who could save them all are enslaved and subjected to severe abuse and oppression. It doesn’t get any more depressing or sinister than this.

Jemisin, on the other hand, takes an unflinching, close-up look at the cost of systemic abuse and hatred through this fractured story across time and identities.

This series was the first to win the Huge Award for Best Novel three years in a row for each title in the series, and it deserved it.

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuangwar

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuangwar

This is one of the quickest examples of grimdark I’ve seen in recent releases, and for good reason.

It begins in the Empire’s worst region with orphan Rin, who has been taken in by drug dealers. Rin manages to ace the empire-wide test for military academies, determined to escape the life of use and abuse they have planned for her.

As she begins her education at Sinegard, she realizes that earning her way in will not be enough to compete on equal footing with her peers, so she embarks on an intense, never-ending quest to claim her personal power and surpass her classmates.

This continues as they are dispatched into a real war raging across the empire, and in her growing desire for power, Rin will even use psychoactive substances to summon destructive gods she will be unable to control once unleashed.

The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

grimdark fantasy

While George R. R. Martin was launching the Game of Thrones series, Hobbs was launching her Farseer series. The two authors have frequently been compared due to their complex characters, political power plays, and cynical view of humanity’s nature.

The first book in this series, The Assassin’s Apprentice, features FitzChivalry Farseer and his enigmatic friend Fool. Fitz is the prince’s bastard, so he grew up on the outskirts of the court, in the stables.

Fitz’s grandfather, the king, secretly enrolled him in training, where he learned to use his magical mind-bending abilities as an assassin. As raiders encroach on the kingdom’s coasts, Fitz must put his training to the test.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

When people hear the words grimdark fantasy, they often think of The Blade Itself. That’s because Joe Abercrombie established himself when he released the first book in The First Law series in 2006.

It’s difficult to give a comprehensive summary of a book this layered, as much of the book’s glory comes from its characterization. There’s a downtrodden barbarian, a conflicted nobleman, and a cripple turned torturer who exposes his government’s corruption.

The First Law contains numerous bloody and brutal plot threats, and The Blade Itself is only the beginning of the wound. It’s unpredictable, darkly funny, and full of real-life characters.

grimdark fantasy

In summary, Grimdark is a subgenre of speculative fiction with a dystopian, amoral, and violent tone, style, or setting.

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