As autumn arrives and the summer warmth vanishes, it seems like the perfect time to delve into the darker side of fantasy. I love light-hearted fantasy romance, but there’s something about dark fantasy that I can’t resist. Maybe it’s the shivers up my spine, or the thrill of uncovering an ancient secret. Here’s a list of ten dark fantasy books that I enjoyed and recommend. They cross genres, from epic fantasy to paranormal romance, but they all mix magic and violence in a way that is tense and unsettling. Choose one you’ve never read before, and settle in for an evening of tension and terror.
(And, of course, you could read my very own Witchfog for a spot of autumnal terror on the wild Yorkshire moors)
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
This novel (and the rest of the trilogy) will rip up your childhood dreams and leave you shaken. It’s like a combination of Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia – but where everything goes wrong in the darkest way possible. From the dark sides of life as a magic-user to the consequences of addiction and sexual assault, this book is the ultimate in dark fantasy.
Perfume, by Patrick Süskind
An unsettling dark fantasy set in the filthy streets of eighteenth-century Paris, Perfume delves into smells and emotions in a way that no other book manages. It’s brutal and vicious, with one of literature’s most unsettling anti-heroes, but its descriptions of scents are sublime in their beauty and power.
Keturah and Lord Death, by Martine Leavitt
With the tone of a fairy-tale and the presence of an anthropomorphised Death, Keturah and Lord Death is unusual and fascinating. When Keturah ventures too far into the forest and meets Lord Death, she finds herself trapped in a series of bargains to secure her own life and the lives of those around her – while also searching for her true love.
The Court of the Midnight King, by Freda Warrington
This is a lush historical novel set during the life of Richard III. But this War of the Roses is very different to that in history books; strange beasts fight alongside human soldiers, and the worship of a mother goddess continues alongside Christianity. It follows the story of Kate, a witch whose life is tangled up with that of the young Richard III.
The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter
This short story collection is famous for good reason. I love every single story; my boyfriend said they made him feel sick. Take from that what you will. With werewolves, vampires, and shapeshifters galore, these fairytale retellings are the darkest of dark fantasy, and are all utterly spellbinding.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
Before Six of Crows, there was The Lies of Locke Lamora, a dark, twisty heist novel with memorable characters and rich worldbuilding. Nothing is as it seems, no one is safe, and no rule is too sacred to be broken. This dark fantasy is action-packed and emotionally exhausting – you’ll definitely want to race on to Book 2.
Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey
Dark, sensual, and imaginative, this story of an alternate medieval France is a classic for good reason. With morally ambiguous characters and a whirlwind of dramatic action, every page is tense and erotic. This is a huge book, but it’s well worth the reading commitment to discover one of the greatest dark fantasy books.
Sabriel, by Garth Nix
This is the only Young Adult book that I’ve included on this list, but it’s no less dark than the others. Title character Sabriel inherits her family’s powers to enter the world of the dead – and the responsibilities that come with that. As dark, ancient magics creep south, Sabriel must use her powers to save the Old Kingdoms.
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
For me, this is the vampire romance, and it predates the recent wave of paranormal romance. It’s dark, unsettling, and far more raw than many better-known vampire romances. Robin McKinley is best known for her fairytale retellings, but this dark fantasy takes the darkest parts of every fairytale and ties them together into a gritty urban fantasy.
Guilty Pleasures, by Laurell K. Hamilton
And, speaking of vampires, I couldn’t finish this list without a mention of Anita Blake. The later books in this series got a little too much for me, but there’s no denying the power of these gory, sexy, vicious novels. Vampires, shapeshifters, and lots of guns makes for dark fantasy that never slows down for a second.
What are your favourite dark fantasy books, and have you already read any of these? (You may notice that I’m not really an epic fantasy reader… but I know there are some amazing epic dark fantasies, so maybe I should relax that rule!)