A long-haired man swings an axe during battle on 'The Witcher.'

The 10 Best Dark Fantasy Books, Ranked

First off, let’s define dark fantasy for all the genre purists out there.

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Fantasy can either take place in a fantastical world unlike our own (high fantasy) or in a mundane world like ours where fantastical elements creep in (low fantasy/magical realism). “Dark” means that it includes spooky/horror elements. And there we go!

10. Between Two Fires

Cover art for "Between Two Fires"
(Christopher Buehlman)

Between Two Fires is kind of like a medieval The Last of Us. The plot revolves around a disgraced knight who becomes a surrogate father to a special young girl in a time of great pestilence. The Black Plague is raging in 1300s Europe, but the little girl sees that there is more than some bad bacteria at work. The disease has actually been orchestrated by Lucifer and his fallen angels in an effort to rebel against god once more. Demons, monsters, and death stalk the land, and this spiritually inclined child might be able to use her divine insight to change things.

9. The Witcher series

Cover art for "The Witcher: Blood of Elves"

Before the The Witcher was a world renowned Triple A game series and Netflix show, the story was told in a series of books! Centering around magical mutant monster killers called Witchers, the series follows one such Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, as he goes around a grim fantasy world doing what he does best. If you haven’t guessed what that is, it’s killing things. Horrible things. Vampires. Chimeras. Demons. Geralt deals with all manner of nasty horror beasts for which ordinary humans are no match. He’s dark fantasy Batman!

8. The Name of the Wind

Cover image for Patrick Rothfuss's "Name of the Wind," first book in the Kingkiller Chronicles Image credit: DAW Books
(DAW Books)

The Name of the Wind tells the story of Kvothe, a young man who grows up to become the most powerful wizard that his fantasy world has ever seen! After his parents were murdered by magical beings, the newly orphaned Kvothe enters into a dangerous school for magic and comes out a full fledged magical assassin! Told in his own voice, The Name of the Wind chronicles his magical journey up from the gutter and into the court of a king (whom he killed). They don’t call this series The Kingkiller Chronicles for nothing.

7. The Dark Tower Series

Cover art for Stephen King's The Dark Tower

When it’s a Stephen King novel, the horror speaks for itself. It, Carrie, and Pet Sematary prove that when it comes to the macabre, King is king. But did you know that all of King’s stories are actually connected in a wider multiverse? The pillar of which is a transcendental Dark Tower located in a wasteland dimension that is being sought out by gunslinger/knight errant Roland Deschain? The Dark Tower series is a mammoth work of fantasy that reads like one long mega-novel and revolves around the coolest character that S.K. has ever written.

6. American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Image: William Morrow & Company.
(William Morrow & Company)

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a practically invented a genre: Americana fantasy. A massive influx of immigrants migrated to the country in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and their gods came with them. As the world begins to modernize and Americans forget their cultural roots, these gods see their power wane. They are left to listlessly wander the American wilderness, shells of their former glory—that is, until they decide to wage one final war against new gods like technology and industry, and a poor ex-con named Shadow is caught in the crossfire.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire Series

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire Game of Thrones books box set.

Dragons? Direwolves? Magic? Those story elements check the “Fantasy” box. But what about the “Dark” box? Is it the ghostly species of ice-men that are pouring out of the frozen north to bring about endless winter? Yeah … but mainly it’s just the people. The human beings in this world range from morally complicated to downright evil. From pauper to prince, Game of Thrones characters perpetrate absolutely vile acts that turn the world into a constant horror show. It’s a brutal series, replete with murder, betrayal, and sexual violence. It’s also one of the most compelling fantasy stories told since The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s big shoes were filled with the stinkiest of feet.

4. Coraline

Cover art for Neil Gaiman's "Coraline"
(Bloomsbury Publishing)

Do you ever wish that life could be different? That you could be transported away from the humdrum modern world to live out your days in a fantasy land with a more fun parallel version of everyone you know? This novel’s titular heroine says yes! After discovering a secret door in her new house, the young Coraline discovers another world where her Other Mother and Other Father live, and they are wayyyyyyy cooler than her boring real-world parents. And all they want to do is sew buttons on her eyes so she can live there forever! Wait. That’s dark. Maybe we should think this through …

3. Kindred

Cover art for "Kindred"

After a young Black woman named Dana travels ends up inadvertently traveling to 19th century Maryland, she has to struggle to survive. While the premise of Kindred may sound like a sci-fi novel, Octavia E. Butler has reiterated time and time again that he work is not sci-fi. A fantastical phenomenon dropping a character in one of the most horrifying periods of American history? I’d say there’s a case for dark fantasy to be made here. Kindred is a terrifying novel about confronting the brutality of slavery, and this period of American history continues to haunt the modern world.

2. The Stand

Cover art for "The Stand" by Stephen King

The Stand. What a book. Arguably Stephen King’s best, The Stand is about a deadly virus called Captain Trips (long story) that wipes out 99% of the human population. The survivors of the plague begin to experience psychic visions depending on the direction to which their moral compass points. Good guys begin having visions of an ancient woman touched by god, and bad guys begin to see a villainous Man In Black who may just be the devil himself. The survivors are called to seek out these two opposite people, leading to an Armageddon at the end of the end of the world. It’s bonkers.

1. The His Dark Materials series

His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
(Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers)

His Dark Materials is a series that made an enemy out the Catholic church, and was nearly tanked because of it. The plot revolves around the young Lyra Belacqua, a headstrong girl who gets wrapped up in a multiverse-hopping quest to uncover a dark secret that a powerful religious organization called The Magestirium would rather keep in said dark. What is revealed is an even greater secret that threatens to topple heaven itself! Yes, literal heaven. Long story short: Lyra and friends are on a quest to kill god. Can you name a doper plot than that? I’ll wait.

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Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.