We all want a good book to read, but most of the ones out there in lists of recommended reading material are porn with little plot (romance, I mean romance), young adult books (that’s where decent representation is at these days), or thrillers. None of them recommend dark fantasy.
And while I love watching John Wick as much as the next blood-splattered fan of massacres, with reading material, I’m pickier. If it doesn’t interest me, I don’t finish reading it and end up donating to my local charity shop. Then there are the books I’ve only read once. I separated my personal library into reference (non-fiction), books I’ve read once (placed where I can’t reach them because I’m probably not likely to read them again), and books I like enough to want to read again. Yes, I have that many books, it turns out.
I don’t always read in this exact genre (Frankenstein is, arguably, more science fiction), but here’s a few of my favourites. There’s a variety in other genres and age limits. Of course, no book entirely fits in one genre like a glove.
This shortlist of ten books are the stories I have read more than once. The ones I’m usually talking (rambling) about for some reason or another. The ones I’d recommend for people who like the same fiction as I do. I’ve also noted what I like about the book, why I class it as dark fantasy, and what the book means to me.
I can also assure you that these books have impacted my writing, and that my works are similar in some way and different in others. I’ll mention that, too.
(In this essay, I will…)
Back Cover of My Copy: The Illustrated Good Omens, 2019 edition
THE END OF DAYS IS NIGH. TREMBLE ALL YE UNFAITHFUL. THE APOCALYPSE STARTS IN TADFIELD.
Judgement Day is upon us, and it’s not a drill this time. The world is due to end next Saturday, just after tea, and there are an awful lot of people set on making sure it happens.
Aziraphale and Crowley are not among them. This particular angel and demon are rather fond of the music, the wine and the bookshops that Earth has to offer. They’ve grown rather fond of each other, being honest, given they’ve known each other since The Beginning. They’re not particularly keen on seeing it all go to waste.
But the powers-that-be have a plan, so Aziraphale and Crowley are going to need to be quite careful in their efforts to foil it. Quite Careful indeed.
Finding the Antichrist, who they appear to have lost, would be a fine place to start…
What I Liked: It’s a book about the apocalypse and everything that goes wrong with it. To me, this is the epitome of Sod’s Law (if it can go wrong, it will go wrong). There’s an angel and a demon who may or may not be in love, a group of kids who some people think are the real protagonists (one of them is the bloody Antichrist), a witch and a witchfinder who fall in love, and another witchfinder and his neighbour call girl. British humour at its finest.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: When isn’t something like this dark fantasy? It’s got everything you could want from a dark fantasy. An angel and a demon working against their respective “head offices” while they try to find the Antichrist they misplaced eleven years ago. It’s got dark humour. I think I read somewhere Neil Gaiman said it’s a satire about the book of Revelations (y’know, that last book in the New Testament no-one actually understands).
What The Book Means to Me: I love laughing about the historical inaccuracies in the Bible, especially as people take the Bible to be a historical truth. A book that does just that is top of my list. I won’t go into detail about how I have the illustrated version and the pictures are beautiful. The prose itself is approachable, which isn’t something I think a lot of books have these days.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2010 edition
Magnificent and electrifying, The Vampire Armand tells the tale of the mesmerising leader of the vampire coven, the Theatre des Vampires in Paris.
This angel-faced killer was snatched from the steppes of Russia as a child, and sold as a slave in Renaissance Venice. From there Armand’s story spans several hundred years, culminating in a visit to New Orleans at the end of the twentieth century.
Here his victims await either death or immortality. But once there, his own existence comes into question as he must choose between salvation and his immortal soul . . .
What I Liked: There are some books I’ll put up with overblown language, and this is one of them. It has captivating prose, framed as Armand tells his story to David Talbot. Vampires, of course, it’s about vampires. I once heard someone describe Armand as the original seventeen-year-old redheaded vampire. And if you like flowery language, this is the book for you.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: There’s a lot of heavy material here. Armand is a traumatised vampire. It’s about death and rebirth, I thought. Armand “is reborn” quite a few times over the chronological course of his life. Also, vampires.
What The Book Means to Me: I don’t get on with Lestat. I find him too irritating (though some might say the same of Armand). I love Venice, New Orleans, and stories about people finding themselves. I’ve never been to either Venice or New Orleans, and I write about identity in my fiction. To me, this book is the sort of book I wish I’d written. Quite a few on my list are, but this is one of the higher ones.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2013 edition
Just when you thought Doomsday was over . . .
Centuries ago Acheron saved the human race by imprisoning an ancient evil being bent on absolute destruction. Now that evil has been unleashed and it is out for revenge.
Misjudged, condemned, betrayed and abandoned, this is Styxx’s only chance to set the record straight. He hasn’t always been on his brother’s side but now he could prove his loyalty … if he’s willing to trade his life and future for Acheron’s.
When loyalties are skewed and no-one can be trusted, not even yourself, how do you find a way back from the darkness that threatens to consume the entire world—one that you are afraid will soon devour your very soul?
What I Liked: Styxx, the man. He’s just the right amount of salty and sweet. The world-building and reframing scenes we’ve already come across in previous stories. I also loved Styxx’s devotion to his wife through the centuries. That’s the sort of love you don’t come across often in contemporary romances.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: Like Armand, the matter is quite heavy. We’re dealing with abuse, prolonged solitary confinement, and looking at the world through tinted glasses. If you’ve read Acheron, Styxx will give you the other side of the picture. Of cause, there’s still the truth unvarnished with human emotion to contend with.
What The Book Means to Me: This wasn’t the first of Kenyon’s books I’ve read, but it was the first that made me cry. (Not the first ever book that made me cry, that book’s later on the list.) It’s above Armand on my list of books I wish I’d written. I felt for Styxx, he made me emote.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2014 box-set edition
Clary Fray is seeing things: vampires in Brooklyn and werewolves in Manhattan. Irresistibly drawn to the Shadowhunters, a secret cadre of warriors dedicated to ridding the world of demons, Clary encounters the dark side of New York City – and the dangers of forbidden love.
What I Liked: Mostly the world-building, though the story itself is one you don’t come across often. The backstory of the villain even less. It’s another doorstopper of a book (Armand and Styxx are as well), but Clare really drew me into her world.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: Well, Karen, there are demons here. It’s for teens, yes, but older ones. There are parts of the story you think are heavy, like the backstory of the parents, and others which border on dark matter (book two, for example).
What The Book Means to Me: This is the world I wish I’d built. Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane are the characters I wish I’d created. Personally, I prefer The Bane Chronicles, but this was my introduction into the world I could create and not have to come up with a whole other continent to do it well.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2006 edition
This story of the passionate, adulterous, tragic love of Lancelot and Guinevere is at once the perfect expression of ‘courtly love’ and its inversion. Lancelot, the heroic stranger in King Arthur’s court, sacrifices all in service of his king, and yet also falls in love with Arthur’s queen, the most beautiful woman in Britain. That this spotless knight, who repeatedly saves Arthur and his world from destruction, should be the fateful underminer of the king’s self-confidence and, ultimately, a terrible weapon in the hands of Arthur’s great adversary Galehaut, is a contradiction that has fascinated the Western mind for hundreds of years.
The Arthurian legend that most of us know comes from Malory and “The Once and Future King”. But there are also several books, including the thirteenth-century “Book of Galehaut”, which gives a surprising and unfamiliar version. It is a double love story – the tale not only of Lancelot’s love for Guinevere, but also the love of Galehaut, the Lord of the Distant Isles, for Lancelot.
What I Liked: It’s a retelling of the Lancelot-Grail, but better because it doesn’t focus solely on how Lancelot destroyed Camelot by sleeping with Guinevere like many “retellings” do. If you can make it past the history of the tale masquerading as an introduction, you’ll find the authors have stripped out the stories which don’t pertain to the love triangle of Galehaut > Lancelot > Guinevere. They also stuck mainly with the French sources, so there’s less of a focus on Arthur. That’s the English for you. It’s all about the king and how great he is.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: Illicit affairs in a Camelot which isn’t the shining beacon of awesomeness, for one. It’s an Arthurian legend, so there’s magic in it. And not always the pleasant kind like Merlin and Arthur tend to be portrayed as.
What The Book Means to Me: Lancelot, just Lancelot. It was refreshing to read a retelling of Lancelot which didn’t paint him as either the epitome of a hero (that’s Gawain) or a lecherous homewrecker (because someone has to be the villain, and it’s never Arthur). It didn’t shy away from anything, which was the point. The authors wanted to reintroduce the world to Galehaut.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2021 edition
Before The Matrix, before Star Wars, before Ender’s Game and Neuromancer, there was Dune, one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.
Melange, or ‘spice’, is the most valuable—and rarest—substance in the universe. And it can only be found on a single planet: the inhospitable desert world Arrakis.
Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice. And whoever controls the spice controls the universe.
When stewardship of Arrakis is transferred to his House, Paul Atreides must travel to the planet’s dangerous surface to ensure the future of his family and his people. But as malevolent forces explode into conflict around him, Paul is thrust into a great destiny beyond his understanding.
And his journey will change everything.
What I Liked: I mean, I can see where Star Wars got some elements of their plot from, I can tell you that. It’s the sort of grim story I love to see, and it gripped me from the get-go. (“What’s a gom jabbar?” Fear is the Mind-Killer.). The expanse of the world and the effect people have on it, especially the space nuns, thrilled me.
Why It’s (Not) Dark Fantasy: If it were set in a medieval-esque empire rather than a far-future galactic one, it would be dark fantasy. And it’s far too easy to forget Paul starts this whole thing aged only fifteen years old. What were we doing at fifteen? There’s sword fights, murder plots, evil forces creating a destiny for innocent pawns they control. All that’s different is the wrapping.
What The Book Means to Me: I rarely see evidence of this sort of space opera, most of it’s Star Wars or Star Wars adjacent (Star Trek, anyone?). To read a novel where there isn’t a cheerful ending with the main couple shacking up at a celebration, where the world is as grim as the plot, is a breath of air I didn’t know I needed.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2004 edition
Imagine you are one moment ill in bed, and the next transported to a world that is awash with deception, intrigue and glamour. This is exactly what happens to Lucien. In a spine-tingling discovery, Lucien finds out that he is in fact a ‘Stavagante’—someone who, with the help of a talisman, can transport himself in time and place. But that is not all—in his newfound world it appears that he is integral to saving the city, Bellezza, from disaster…
Swishing velvet, glittering masks, political intrigue and treachery, a demanding and imperious Duchess—Mary Hoffman has combined all of these and more to create the wonderful world of sixteenth-century Bellezza. Inspired by Venice, the city is filled with an extraordinary richness that touches all the senses—thrillingly spiced with danger.
What I Liked: I cried when I first read this back in the late-2000s. Lucian is someone who wants to see the good in everything, and he’s bedbound because of cancer. He travels to a parallel Venice (I LOVE Venice) and discovers he doesn’t have cancer there. THIS IS A BOOK FOR TEENS, LUCIAN IS A TEENAGER.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: It’s a teen book telling the story of a boy with leukaemia. He travels to another world where Remus won the fight with Romulus over who became king of the city. In our world, this is why Rome is called Rome. There’s political drama and stuff, but still. Cancer, that taboo subject. What children’s book have you read that’s about a boy with cancer and parallel worlds?
What The Book Means to Me: I read it once as a teen and remembered it ten years later until I gave in and bought a copy in my mid-twenties. It’s a beautiful mix of death and politics and magic, and it’s for children. It moved me, and I didn’t even cry when Dumbledore died. That’s how powerful this book is.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2012 edition
Blue has spent the majority of her sixteen years being told that if she kisses her true love, he will die. When Blue meets Gansey’s spirit on the corpse road she knows there is only one reason why – either he is her true love or she has killed him. Determined to find out the truth, Blue becomes involved with the Raven Boys, four boys from the local private school (lead by Gansey) who are on a quest to discover Glendower – a lost ancient Welsh King who is buried somewhere along the Virginia ley line. Whoever finds him will be granted a supernatural favour. Never before has Blue felt such magic around her. But is Gansey her true love? She can’t imagine a time she would feel like that, and she is adamant not to be the reason for his death. Where will fate lead them?
What I Liked: The Welsh myths, for one.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: We’ll start with the fact we witness a procession of ghosts in chapter one, and move onto Noah’s backstory, shall we?
What The Book Means to Me: It’s not your typical book for young adults. For one, the main couple can’t kiss without one of them killing the other. For another, the way the series sends is bittersweet. You don’t find endings like that often.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2014 eBook edition
Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same ambition in each other. A shared interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl with a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the arch-nemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?
What I Liked: Victor Vale, dude’s like me but worse. (I think Schwab said this protagonist was almost autobiographical). I like the realism of the powers, the way the characters lose their morality when they develop them through a near-death experience. A lot of other superpower stories gloss over it, but I like that Schwab doesn’t. Also, Victor’s asexual, which you never see in fiction and it’s nice to see.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: It could be sci-fi, with the science behind the superpowers, but Schwab’s known for writing fantasy. I mentioned the dying to become superpowered, didn’t I? There’s a lot of death, drama, and morally ambiguous characters—how isn’t this dark fantasy?
What The Book Means to Me: A lot of fiction glosses over the why and the how of superpowers when they shove them in, but this book gripped me as the origins of the powers are wrapped up in everything else. Here’s a modern Victor Frankenstein, and I love him for it.
Back Cover of My Copy: 2021 edition
HE EXPECTED NOTHING.
BUT THEY GAVE HIM EVERYTHING
Linus Baker leads a quiet life. At forty, he has a tiny house with a devious cat and his beloved records for company. And at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, he’s spent many dull years monitoring their orphanages.
Then one day, Linus is summoned by Extremely Upper Management and given a highly classified assignment. He must travel to an orphanage where six dangerous children reside, including the Antichrist. There, Linus must somehow determine if they could bring on the end of days. But their guardian, charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, will do anything to protect his wards. As Arthur and Linus grow ever closer, Linus must choose between duty and his dreams.
What I Liked: For one, V.E. Schwab describes the book as “like being wrapped up in a big gay blanket,” which is a nice change of pace for me. For another, it’s about older people falling in love. That they’re men is irrelevant, the important thing is the emotions, and I was wrapped in a big gay hug. I didn’t know I needed that until I read the book.
Why It’s Dark Fantasy: I read that the book was based on the practice of taking indigenous children and raising them Christian in the name of Christianisation. You can’t tell off the bat, because the book is, as Charlaine Harris describes, “a modern fairy tale . . . beautiful.”
What The Book Means to Me: Oh, Lord, where do I begin? I read romantic fluff and liked it. The representation of two gentlemen, two men being soft with each other, my heart grew two sizes. TJ Klune hit me right in the feels.
What Makes a Good Dark Fantasy Book?
There are many definitions of what a dark fantasy story is. The one thing these books have in common is that they’re all dealing with matter darker than the usual fantasy book dares to go.
The books I’ve mentioned have emotional resonance. It’s rather difficult to get me to emote, and yet these managed that on some level. I was invested in the characters and their goals, I wanted them to succeed. I was right there with the characters in their worlds.
These books also feature some darker aspects of this world, whether or not it’s set in this world. For a book to be classed as dark fantasy, it must comment on some social taboo or other and dramatise it for the world to see. Whether it’s infidelity (Lancelot), death (Dune, Vicious, City of Masks), or demons and/or magic (City of Bones, Good Omens, The Raven Boys, Armand, The House in the Cerulean Sea, Styxx), and it must comment on it well. Stories make readers question things, and in some ways, the villain must always be justified in their actions. That’s what makes a book good.
I re-read these books because everything comes together into a cohesive whole. The worlds are just as real as the characters themselves, bringing a darker edge to the stories the authors are telling. Each of the characters contributes to the plots, from the background characters demonstrating the theme, to the immediate circle around the heroes, giving another spin on the theme.
A good story is one you can’t put down until the end, and for dark fantasy, it’s tricky when the world you’re dealing with is another element you have to get right. But these authors nailed it.