What is Dark Fantasy? A Book List of Diverse Dark Fantasy

Hi bookish friends! I’m totally late on posting anything spooky. I meant to post this list on October 1, but here we are. Please enjoy a list of dark fantasy books to enjoy for the rest of spooky season! Or if you’re like me, you can read these all year and pretend that it is spooky season! Grab a cup of coffee and join me in browsing some incredible dark fantasy books!

Table of Contents

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Origins of Dark Fantasy

There have been a few key people in the history of dark fantasy. Gertrude Barrows Bennett has been called the “woman who invented dark fantasy”, but there are a few other authors who have helped shape the vague lines of the subgenre we know today. Gertrude Barrows Bennett was publishing her books between 1917 and 1923. It’s been said that Bennett even influenced HP Lovecraft (more on this dude one day, he warrants a whole other post) and A. Merritt. Fun fact, Bennett was the first American woman to have her fantasy and science fiction widely published, therefore she is considered a pioneering female fantasy author. She has also been called by critics the “greatest woman writer of science fiction in the period between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and CL Moore”.

Though Bennett is credited as the woman who invented dark fantasy, Charles L. Grant and Karl Edward Wagner are both credited with coining the term dark fantasy, even though they both wrote about very different books and styles. This is perhaps some of the reason we see the definition of dark fantasy a bit hard to nail down.

Charles L Grant described his brand of dark fantasy as “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding.” He often uses the term interchangeably with horror. He also describes dark fantasy as a story used to describe events from the monsters perspective. We get a lot of stories from the villains perspective being called dark fantasy because it gives us a more sympathetic view of the monster or villain. This differs from horror in that horror often focuses on the victims.

Karl Edward Wagner defines dark fantasy a bit differently. He used the term for his writing, which is a much more fantasy focused context. This is the reason that we will start to see the term used in more high fantasy fiction that uses morally ambiguous protagonists or anti-heroes. This is how we will get fantasy from the perspective of the villain labeled dark fantasy.

Dark Fantasy Definition

The definition for dark fantasy is admittedly very vague. Taking into account the origins of dark fantasy and those who have shaped the genre, it’s no surprise that this definition isn’t as rock solid as it could be. When multiple people define art a certain way, it is so easy for a genre to spin off in multiple directions while retaining key elements. But that’s the fun of art!

Because of the relatively vague definition, I personally feel like dark fantasy can best be described as more of an aesthetic or mood than a subgenre. It incorporates dark and frightening themes into a work with fantasy elements. The tone is generally gloomy and dreadful and is often used to describe a fantasy novel that incorporates elements of horror into the story (shout out Charles L. Grant for that definition!). Darker themes are woven into fantasy to create a foreboding and eerie atmosphere.

The most consistently consensus of this genre is that it has something beyond the realm of human knowledge, whether it be magic or supernatural, and has a very dark, gloomy, eerie, spooky atmosphere. These books can be gory, creepy, and violent but are often not what we think of as properly scary.

Diverse Dark Fantasy Books

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong Book Cover

Quick Take

As a plague of madness rips through Shanghai, two past lovers, each the heir of rival gangs, must join forces to end this deadly madness before they don’t have a city to rule over.

  • 🩸 Gore
  • βœ‚οΈ Retelling
  • πŸ’€ Dark Content
  • πŸ₯€ Flawed Characters

Goodreads | Amazon |  Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Chloe Gong is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she double majored in English and International Relations. She was born in Shanghai and raised in New Zealand, but now lives in New York. These Violent Delights was an instant New York Times bestseller and received starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, ALA Booklist, Publishers Weekly and Shelf Awareness.

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Quick Take

Domingo, a normal street kid, is just trying to survive when he crosses paths with Atl, descendent of Aztec blood drinkers. As they travel together to escape Mexico City, and bodies pile up behind them, the cops and crime lords start to close in.

  • 🎒 Thriller
  • πŸ‘Ύ Monsters
  • πŸ‘» Supernatural
  • πŸ₯€ Flawed Characters

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Why pick up this book?

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels, including Gods of Jade and Shadow (which won the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic and an Ignyte Award), Mexican Gothic (Locus Award, British Fantasy Award, Pacific Northwest Book Award, Goodreads Award), and others.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Quick Take

When the emperor calls for necromancers, The Ninth Necromancer, Harrowhark, is ready to heed the call, but not without her swordswoman, Gideon. But Gideon is about to (try to) run away (again) when her childhood nemesis, Harrowhark, won’t let her leave without a service.

  • πŸ’₯ Dramatic Ending
  • πŸ’« Atmospheric
  • πŸ”Ž Mystery
  • πŸ“š First in Series

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Why pick up this book?

Not only does this book have a bit of a cult following, it also has many accolades! Winner of the 2020 Locus award and Crawford Award, and finalist for both Hugo and Nebula Awards, this USA Today Best-Selling Novel was one of the Best Books of 2019 according to NPR, the New York Public Library, Amazon, BookPages, Shelf Awareness, BookRiot and Gizmodo Australia!

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War by RF Kuang book cover

Quick Take

In desperate attempt to not be sold as a wife to further her adoptive parents illegal opium business, Fang Runin bribes a tutor to teach her how to pass the Keju and get into the country’s most prestigious military academy, Sinegard.

  • πŸ“œ Historical Fantasy
  • 🩸 Gore
  • πŸ₯€ Flawed Characters
  • 🏫 Dark Academia

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy and the forthcoming Babel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.

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The Keeper Of Night by Kylie Lee Baker

Quick Take

Half Reaper and half Shinigami, Ren has always kept a part of herself hidden for her safety in the land of Reapers. When she lets her Shinigami power show in self defense, she knows the only place to run is to Japan and the land of the Shinigami.

  • πŸ’€ Dark Content
  • 😭 Emotional
  • 🌏 Biracial Asian Rep
  • πŸ‘» Supernatural

Review | Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Kylie Lee Baker has a BA in creative writing and Spanish and writes based off of her lived experience being a student and a teacher abroad. She absolutely loves Halloween and you can tell in her spooky and dark writing in The Keeper of Night. The Keeper of Night is an unapologetic OwnVoices portrayal of an angry biracial Asian protagonist, the first book I’ve ever read with this representation.

The Young Elites by Marie Lu

Quick Take

Adelina is a survivor of the blood fever, an illness that swept through the nation and killed most that it affected. Though she survived, she was left with strange markings and is treated poorly because of the markings and fear of the fever, but rumor has it that the markings are not the only thing left by the blood fever… Survivors are also rumored to have received mysterious gifts…

  • 🎭 Dramatic
  • πŸ₯€ Flawed Characters
  • πŸ“š First in Series
  • πŸ•―οΈ Slow Burn

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Why pick up this book?

Marie Lu is the #1 NYT Bestselling author of the Legend trilogy and The Young Elites. She graduated from the University of Southern California and started her career in the video game industry. After releasing multiple NYT Bestselling novels, she began writing full time.


Honorable Mentions

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A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

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Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

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Angelfall by Susan Ee

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The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

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Monstress by Marjorie Liu

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Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

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Jade City by Fonda Lee

Let’s Chat!

πŸ’€ Have you read any dark fantasy lately?
πŸ’€ What is your favorite dark fantasy?
πŸ’€ Have you read any of these diverse dark fantasy picks?!


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So many dark fantasy books to add to my TBR from this list!


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