Aristotle said, “Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.”
One of the reasons dark fantasy gets compared to horror is because of the unrelenting darkness and brutality of its worlds. Where it’s not just a matter of IF something terrible will happen but WHEN. But the most terrifying element of dark fantasy is that you don’t just fear what the villain will do next—
you fear what the “hero” might do.
Because there are no real heroes in dark fantasy.
Not the self-righteous, prance-in-on-a-pony kind of hero anyway. Who likes those judgmental savior-types anyway? Most people don’t get to live in a world where everything is painted in easy shades of white and black, and you get to always keep your hands clean as freshly fallen dew in a sunlit meadow.
Heroes in dark fantasy are anti-heroes. They may want to do good but are prevented at every turn by the harsh realities of their world (sound familiar?). They may not care about “the greater good” at all—that’s not going to help them survive. They may start morally gray and then get blacker as the book goes on. And evil might prevail in the end.
And there is what’s so truly scary and gripping about dark fantasy. Just like living in the real world, there are no guarantees. No one has informed the protagonist that everything will be okay in the end—and it probably won’t be. There is no guarantee good will triumph over evil, as is promised by vanilla fantasy tales. There’s no guarantee that “good behavior” will gain the protagonist anything at all, because this is not some morality tale with a prescribed ending. There may be some aspects of happiness gained at the end—or the protagonist could die a horrible death.
It’s all up in the air, and anything could happen.
That’s not to say that dark fantasy stories are aimless or random. On the contrary, the best stories pit flawed, broken characters against a messed-up world and make you root for them, no matter what they have to do to survive along the way. You want them to be able to avoid doing terrible things, but you also want them to overcome what they’re up against—and sometimes those two things just don’t go hand. What’s worse, they might just get sucked into doing bad things for the fun of it. And that’s not random, that’s realistic. What dark fantasy is willing to look at and admit that most other genres whitewash: everyone gets corrupted by evil.
That means there’s no predicting what the “hero” might do next. What’s more suspenseful and terrifying than that?
If you like to read heroes who occasionally perpetrate some evil (okay, or maybe a lot), here are some dark fantasy recommendations to keep you on your toes.
1. Chronicles of the Black Company, Glen Cook
Some feel the Lady, newly risen from centuries in thrall, stands between humankind and evil. Some feel she is evil itself. The hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must, burying their doubts with their dead. Until the prophesy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more. There must be a way for the Black Company to find her… So begins one of the greatest fantasy epics of our age—Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company.
2. The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (The First Law)
Logen Ninefingers, infamous barbarian, has finally run out of luck. Caught in one feud too many, he’s on the verge of becoming a dead barbarian – leaving nothing behind him but bad songs, dead friends, and a lot of happy enemies.
Nobleman Captain Jezal dan Luthar, dashing officer, and paragon of selfishness, has nothing more dangerous in mind than fleecing his friends at cards and dreaming of glory in the fencing circle. But war is brewing, and on the battlefields of the frozen North they fight by altogether bloodier rules.
Inquisitor Glokta, cripple turned torturer, would like nothing better than to see Jezal come home in a box. But then Glokta hates everyone: cutting treason out of the Union one confession at a time leaves little room for friendship. His latest trail of corpses may lead him right to the rotten heart of government, if he can stay alive long enough to follow it.
Enter the wizard, Bayaz. A bald old man with a terrible temper and a pathetic assistant, he could be the First of the Magi, he could be a spectacular fraud, but whatever he is, he’s about to make the lives of Logen, Jezal, and Glokta a whole lot more difficult.
Murderous conspiracies rise to the surface, old scores are ready to be settled, and the line between hero and villain is sharp enough to draw blood.
3. The Darkness That Comes Before, R. Scott Bakker (The Prince of Nothing)
The first book in R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series creates a world from whole cloth-its language and classes of people, its cities, religions, mysteries, taboos, and rituals. It’s a world scarred by an apocalyptic past, evoking a time both two thousand years past and two thousand years into the future, as untold thousands gather for a crusade. Among them, two men and two women are ensnared by a mysterious traveler, Anasûrimbor Kellhus – part warrior, part philosopher, part sorcerous, charismatic presence – from lands long thought dead. The Darkness That Comes Before is a history of this great holy war, and like all histories, the survivors write its conclusion.
4. Elric of Melnibone, Michael Moorcock (The Elric Saga)
Elric of Melnibone, an albino prince, travels in the Ship Which Sails Over Land and Sea to the city of Dhoz-Kam, through the Shade Gate to the Pulsing Cavern where the magic swords Stormbringer and Mournblade await him. The youthful Elric is a cynical and melancholy king, heir to a nation whose 100,000-year rule of the world ended less than 500 years hence. More interested in brooding contemplation than holding the throne, Elric is a reluctant ruler, but he also realizes that no other worthy successor exists and the survival of his once-powerful, decadent nation depends on him alone. Elric’s nefarious, brutish cousin Yrkoon has no patience for his physically weak kinsman, and he plots constantly to seize Elric’s throne, usually over his dead body. Elric of Melniboné follows Yrkoon’s scheming, reaching its climax in a battle between Elric and Yrkoon with the demonic runeblades Stormbringer and Mournblade. In this battle, Elric gains control of the soul-stealing Stormbringer, an event that proves pivotal to the Elric saga.
5. The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski (The Witcher)
For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf.
Geralt the Witcher—revered and hated—is a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent.
But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.
6. Black Sun Rising, C.S. Friedman (The Coldfire Trilogy)
Over a millennium ago, Erna, a seismically active yet beautiful world was settled by colonists from far-distant Earth. But the seemingly habitable planet was fraught with perils no one could have foretold. The colonists found themselves caught in a desperate battle for survival against the fae, a terrifying natural force with the power to prey upon the human mind itself, drawing forth a person’s worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life.
Twelve centuries after fate first stranded the colonists on Erna, mankind has achieved an uneasy stalemate, and human sorcerers manipulate the fae for their own profit, little realizing that demonic forces which feed upon such efforts are rapidly gaining in strength.
Now, as the hordes of the dark fae multiply, four people—Priest, Adept, Apprentice, and Sorcerer—are about to be drawn inexorably together for a mission which will force them to confront an evil beyond their imagining, in a conflict which will put not only their own lives but the very fate of humankind in jeopardy. Loyalties and ethics are tested (and fail) in this twisted version of the classic hero’s journey.
7. The Poppy War, R.F. Kuang (The Poppy War)
When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school. Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
8. The Steel Remains, Richard K. Morgan (A Land Fit For Heroes)
A dark lord will rise. Such is the prophecy that dogs Ringil Eskiath—Gil, for short—a washed-up mercenary and onetime war hero whose cynicism is surpassed only by the speed of his sword. Gil is estranged from his aristocratic family due to his sexual orientation, but when his mother enlists his help in freeing a cousin sold into slavery, Gil sets out to track her down. But it soon becomes apparent that more is at stake than the fate of one young woman. Grim sorceries are awakening in the land. Some speak in whispers of the return of the Aldrain, a race of widely feared, cruel yet beautiful demons. Now Gil and two old comrades are all that stand in the way of a prophecy whose fulfillment will drown an entire world in blood. But with heroes like these, the cure is likely to be worse than the disease.
9. Lord Foul’s Bane, Stephen R. Donaldson (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever)
He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself.
Yet the Land tempted him. He had been sick; now he seemed better than ever before. Through no fault of his own, he had been outcast, unclean, a pariah. Now he was regarded as a reincarnation of the Land’s greatest hero–Berek Halfhand–armed with the mystic power of White Gold. That power alone could protect the Lords of the Land from the ancient evil of Despiser, Lord Foul. Only…Covenant had no idea of how the power could be used!
The rest of the book and series see Thomas grappling with his own morality and what he perceives to be true about the Land — for if it’s all in his imagination, how can anything he does be wrong? This dark and mind-bending work has been hailed for its bold subversion of the fantasy genre, even among its modern successors.
10. Prince of Thorns, Mark Lawrence (Broken Empire)
Before the thorns taught me their sharp lessons and bled weakness from me I had but one brother, and I loved him well. But those days are gone and what is left of them lies in my mother’s tomb. Now I have many brothers, quick with knife and sword, and as evil as you please. We ride this broken empire and loot its corpse. They say these are violent times, the end of days when the dead roam and monsters haunt the night. All that’s true enough, but there’s something worse out there, in the dark. Much worse.
From being a privileged royal child, raised by a loving mother, Jorg Ancrath has become the Prince of Thorns, a charming, immoral boy leading a grim band of outlaws in a series of raids and atrocities. The world is in chaos: violence is rife, nightmares everywhere. Jorg has the ability to master the living and the dead, but there is still one thing that puts a chill in him. Returning to his father’s castle Jorg must confront horrors from his childhood and carve himself a future with all hands turned against him.
Mark Lawrence’s debut novel tells a tale of blood and treachery, magic and brotherhood and paints a compelling and brutal, and sometimes beautiful, picture of an exceptional boy on his journey toward manhood and the throne.
And if you want a fresh voice on the dark fantasy scene, check out my new release, Raven Queen Arise. My anti-heroine Illyria wants only one thing: glorious vengeance. Even if she has to team up with Death himself to get it.
Here’s a taste of what’s inside:
“One of the souls Illyria steals during the story is one of the people dearest to her. She takes it by mistake, not yet understanding her own power. This is a soul she swears she will never consume no matter the cost, no matter what’s at stake. She carries this soul with her until the bitter end. But when everything is truly on the line, will she keep her promise and loyalty?”