Craving a fantasy book with bite? These reads will deliver. From eerie fairy tales to epic sagas, each of these 16 dark fantasy books exposes the dangerous underbelly of fantasy worlds. In these stories, brutal battles come with a cost, not all romances end with happily ever afters, and humanity's capacity for cruelty and cowardice can't be solved with a simple spell. That's not to say these books are depressing; by contrast, each of them will pull you into an absolutely mesmerizing and magical world. Just keep your wits about you while you visit ... it wouldn't do to get lost in these dark fantasies forever.
Creatures of Want & Ruin
An unforgettable and consistently surprising dark fantasy, Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin is set in an alternate history version of Prohibition Era-Long Island. Ellie West is a fisher-woman by day and a bootlegger by night in her beloved home of Amityville. Ellie knows that her illegal side-hustle is not without its perils, from lawmen and mobsters alike, but she’s eager to help her younger brother pay for his education.
When Ellie’s desperation leads her to sell some hooch she acquired second-hand to strangers planning a decadent party, she gets caught up in a dark side of rum-running that she never could have anticipated. The liquor she sold gives those who drink it terrible, apocalyptic visions ... and the potent spirits can be traced back to a cult of devil-worshippers whose power over the people of Long Island is spreading like wildfire.
The Sunset Warrior
This post-apocalyptic science fantasy novel is the first in an action-packed five-book series. Generations ago, environmental disaster made life above ground on Earth impossible. The survivors retreated underground, where the feudal society of Freehold rose up in darkness. Power in The Freehold rests in the hands of lords called Saardin, who maintain control over the underground kingdom with the help of their bladesmen. Ronin is one of these warriors whose role in the harsh world of Freehold is to maintain order. But when tensions underground threaten to escalate into war, Ronin defies tradition to prevent the last of humanity from destroying itself. In search of peace, Ronin does the unthinkable and journeys above ground, seeking answers on the alien surface of the Earth.
The Book of the Damned
This collection of three sinister, sensuous fantasy stories shows Tanith Lee’s skill for building immersive, unsettling worlds. In one, a writer follows the ominous path of a man who has promised her he’s destined to die that day. In another, a traumatized woman in the Middle Ages transforms into her unfathomably powerful male alter-ego in the evenings, and stalks the streets of Paradys searching for prey. And in “Stained With Crimson,” a poet falls under the thrall of an uncannily beautiful woman who seems to know his most private, shameful fantasies.
Silver Birch, Blood Moon
This World Fantasy Award-winning anthology features twisted takes on fairy tales by celebrated authors like Caitlin R. Kiernan, Nalo Hopkinson, Neil Gaiman, and more masters of eerie speculative fiction. From a dread-filled retelling of Thumbelina, to a gritty rendition of Snow White, to an adaptation of The Little Mermaid from the witch’s perspective, each of these delightful stories invites readers to remember the inherent horror in most tales that begin with ‘once upon a time…’
RELATED: 11 Enchanting Fairy Tales for Adults
It’s easy to see why this absolutely absorbing dark fantasy-mystery was awarded a Shirley Jackson Award. The story follows the members of a British folk band, who converge on the rambling country estate of Wylding Hall to record an album. During their time at Wylding Hall, band member Julian vanishes without a trace, and is never seen again, leaving trauma and unanswered questions in his wake. Years after Julian’s disappearance, the remaining band members return to Wylding Hall to film a documentary about the baffling mystery surrounding Julian. But once they’ve returned to the scene of the tragedy, the past won’t stay buried for long ...Featuring morally ambiguous protagonists and a gripping atmosphere of dread, Wylding Hall is a must-read for those who like their fantasy stories filled with anti-heroes.
This unique urban fantasy is set in Gem City—a place where inhabitants can borrow another person’s soul and commit sin without consequence. Callie Delgado is put in an impossible situation when the mob holds her responsible for her ne’er-do-well brother’s debts. What’s a sister to do? She can either pick up some shady jobs from the crime underworld, or she can pay for a closed casket funeral with money she doesn’t have.
Since Callie’s empty pockets won’t get her far in renting a soul, she strikes a deal with the local sleazeball Soul Charmer. However, this only plunges her deeper into danger as she’s now smack dab in the middle of the dark world of magic.
In the simple and charming town of Zephyr, Alabama, twelve-year-old Cory Mackenson believes that he can sense the spirits lingering in the churchyard. With an over-imaginative writer’s mind, Cory takes a thrill in the other odd happenings around town. However, when his father dives into the lake to discover a nude and brutally beaten corpse, Zephyr’s mysteries take a less fun turn.
Although the townspeople leave the strange murder to be forgotten, the Mackenson’s can’t let it go. As they search for the truth they’re taken down a dark and winding path full of magic, madness, and true evil.
RELATED: 9 Scary-Good Fantasy Horror Books
Coffins cultivates thrilling supernatural horror in this pre-Civil War fantasy novel, which tells of a horrible string of tragedies that plagues the infamously abolitionist Coffin family. It started with the inexplicable death of an infant. Shortly after, the family lost twin boys in a mysterious shipyard accident. As patriarch Cash Coffin locks himself away in madness, his youngest son—dwarf Jebediah—turns to his friend Davis Bentwood.
Can Davis accept that there is more to the misfortunes of the Coffins than coincidence? Will the dark, otherworldly horrors waiting on the Underground Railroad stop claim more lives? Vividly descriptive and featuring a faux “true story” narrative, Philbrick’s novel is a bone-chilling walk through one of the darkest parts of American history.
The Dark Tower
This seven-plus-book saga by Stephen King is a perfect fit for fantasy fans who also enjoy high strangeness and horror. King’s magnum opus follows Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger of Gilead, as he travels to the mythical Dark Tower, a pillar that holds up the very fabric of reality. In order to fulfill his destiny, Roland must battle evil figures like The Man in Black and The Crimson King, and form a fellowship with travelers from our own world. Full of body horror, unrepentantly bloody battles, and true moments of terror, The Dark Tower series is a perfect fit for dark fantasy fans who want to sink their hooks into a long epic.
The Gormenghast Trilogy
This classic gothic fantasy series by the late Mervyn Peake is soon to be a TV series adapted by Neil Gaiman, so now’s the perfect time to discover the books. Peake’s masterpiece follows the eccentric inhabitants of the crumbling kingdom Gormenghast. Most of the royals and their servants adhere to rituals and customs with a strict rigidity, using these traditions as a way to bring meaning to their otherwise meandering existence. But a conniving kitchen boy aims to unseat the status quo in the dysfunctional kingdom, threatening Gormenghast's heir Titus Groan. In his quest for power and upheaval, Steerpike manipulates the castle's most isolated inhabitants, including Titus' fanciful sister Fuschia.
RELATED: 10 Must-Read Adult Fantasy Books
This eerie fairy tale by Neil Gaiman has become a modern classic, winning Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Awards. Young Coraline is unsettled after her family moves to a new apartment. Despite omens warning her not to follow her curiosity, Coraline opens a small door that leads from her family’s flat to an adjoining one that is believed to be empty. Coraline steps through the door and into an alternate, and apparently utopian, version of her life, in which Other Mother and Other Father—adoring adults who closely resemble her own parents, although with buttons for eyes—dote on her. But Coraline soon realizes that her time in the Other World is not without a price.
Elric of Melniboné
The first book in the Elric Saga pulls readers into a gritty sword and sorcery epic. Taking high fantasy by the horns, Moorcock’s novel is set in an alternative Earth at the dawn of human history. Albino prince Elric—properly titled Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné—is a cynical and reluctant ruler. Unfortunately, Elric is intelligent enough to know that he is the only worthy successor to the throne, and his now-withered nation is reliant upon his reign.
The brash and brutal Yrkoon has a deep disdain for his cousin Elric, which gives him an insatiable hunger for the power of the throne. Though he would rather be left to his own devices, Elric stands against his own bloodline for his nation’s sake.
The Blade Itself
The First Law trilogy’s compelling opening novel, The Blade Itself, takes a gleefully anti-heroic approach to the fantasy genre. Logan Ninefingers is an unlucky, overzealous barbarian who’s one misstep away from death. Captain Jezal dan Luthar is a self-absorbed card shark whose mind is often too far away from the bloodshed of the battlefield. The disabled Inquisitor Glokta is a hateful torturer, determined to eradicate treason from the union. Together, they make up the three protagonists who face the treachery of the short-fused wizard Bayaz.
New York Times best-selling author Joe Abercrombie injects wit and a cutting edge into this dark story of murder conspiracies and gray morality. His richly-compelling characters act as cynical guides through courtly intrigue and large scale threats.
The Monster of Elendhaven
Jennifer Giesbrecht weaves a nightmarish tale in this novel which crashes the horror genre full force into the foundation of fantasy. This Gothic tale centers around the seaside city of Eldenhaven— forgotten by the South, economically barren, and withering from the plague. Driven by the perverse lust for revenge, an evil master twists a monster with magic to carry out his vicious and violent plan. The monster—nameless, man-shaped, and immune to such trivial things as death—stalks the streets with a hunger to take lives.
The merciless and unrepentant magician has eyes set only on the destruction of all of those who left the city to die. The rest of the world is just collateral damage.
Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook
In this novel Henry takes the classic and beloved story of Peter Pan and flips it on its head. Readers follow the story of Jamie, the first Lost Boy that Peter brings to the island. Enchanted by the promise of never growing old and making his own rules, Jamie becomes Peter’s right hand man and favorite boy. However, as more children are brought into Peter’s world, Jamie finds that life on the island isn’t as carefree as he once thought. In a brutal retelling with a high and bloody body count, we see the choices that turned Jamie into the legendary nemesis of Peter Pan—Captain Hook.
As the first book in the gripping series Permafrost, White Stag introduces readers to Janneke, a daughter raised to hunt and fight like a male heir. On the day her village is razed by goblins, Janneke is kidnapped and sent to work for a man named Soren. As Janneke begins to find what little good she can in the world she has become trapped in, she loses her ties to the human world. A monstrousness grows inside of her, and she must decide whether to embrace that and her deepening loyalty to her master, or hold on to the life she left behind.
This post is sponsored by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Portalist to continue publishing the sci-fi stories you love.