The best dark fantasy books to read right now

To call a book 'dark fantasy' has had several different meanings over the years. Here, David Green introduces some of best dark fantasy books to read now, whatever your favoured definition. 

With a definition that is constantly evolving, dark fantasy is a genre that’s difficult to pin down – and that’s what makes it so exciting. 

Dark fantasy’s roots are in gothic horror, and in writers applying these sensibilities to the kind of epic storytelling familiar to fantasy readers. More recently, the field has ripened to include contemporary tales of secret societies and academia. But one thing has remained consistent: an overriding sense of danger and despair. 

From supernatural perils to epic battles of good versus evil (with a healthy helping of the grey in between), and from forbidden romances to mysterious cursed artefacts, this is a genre where anything can happen. Which is pretty fantastic. We all need to succumb to the darker side of life sometimes.

If you want to delve into dark fantasy for the first time, or you are already a fan and are looking for more, let me guide you through the eras and different flavours of this changing genre. You never know what might tempt you.

She Who Became The Sun

by Shelley Parker-Chan

Book cover for She Who Became The Sun

Set in an alternate fourteenth-century China, two poverty-stricken children are handed out their fates: one, the family’s youngest brother, is destined for greatness, while the clever and capable daughter is seemingly overlooked by destiny. It all changes, though, when the children find themselves orphaned, and the child destined for greatness succumbs to despair and dies, leaving space for an unforeseen future for the lone survivor.

A story of desire and exploring what lengths a person would go to for survival, Parker-Chan’s dark and brutal tale contains intricate characterisation and is a great example of dark fantasy seen through a historical lens. Its sequel, He Who Drowned The World, is out now.

The Unspoken Name

by A. K. Larkwood

Book cover for The Unspoken Name

Csorwe knows the exact day she will die, and how. But, at the foretold time of her fated demise, a mysterious and powerful stranger offers her a new destiny: the chance to become a mage’s sword-hand. Turning her back on her home and god, Csorwe descends into a life of murder and intrigue.

An epic sapphic fantasy with compelling world-building, The Unspoken Name is an exploration of identity and fate. The scope and stakes continue to build into an explosive and rip-roaring finale that leads into a spectacular sequel, and both perfectly encapsulate the dark fantasy sub-genre’s darker take on traditional fantasy.

The Atlas Six

by Olivie Blake

Book cover for The Atlas Six

Each decade, six uniquely talented magicians are selected to join the ranks of the Alexandrian Society, the caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilisations of antiquity. Enlisted by Atlas Blakely, the new recruits are told a devastating truth: only five will succeed, and one will be eliminated.

A character-focused tale of deliciously dark academia, The Atlas Six, and its sequel, The Atlas Paradox (book three is due for release in 2024), are wonderfully-written stories spanning time and space featuring trauma, adventure and survival. And they're filled with romance, rivalry and betrayal. Blake shows dark fantasy’s flexibility by demonstrating how well dark academia sits within this sub-genre’s dangerous and brooding atmosphere.

The Tiger and the Wolf

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Book cover for The Tiger and the Wolf

Maniye is a woman of two halves. An outcast, even though her father is the Wolf clan’s chieftain, part of her lineage belongs to the hated Tiger clan, whose queen was her mother. All can shift into the animal form of their clan, but Maniye has a secret: she can take the shape of both wolf and tiger.

Dark fantasy of the epic and classic kind, Tchaikovsky’s tale is one of impending war and ill omens. Tense and immersive, The Tiger and the Wolf won the Robert Holdstock Best Fantasy Novel in 2017, and the story is continued in its two sequels.

The Priory of the Orange Tree

by Samantha Shannon

Book cover for The Priory of the Orange Tree

War is stirring in a divided world. Assassins threaten the isolated Queen Sabran, while Ead Duryan, the mysterious outsider at court, strives to protect the queen with her forbidden magic. Across the sea, Tané, trained to be a dragonrider since birth, is faced with a life-altering choice, and a decision that needs to be made. And in the shadows, an ancient evil awakens.

Political skullduggery, taboo magic and dragons clash in this epic tale of good, evil, and everything in between. Bringing romance and sapphic representation, Shannon explores the differences between nations with stunning writing and a breathtaking plot, while proving dark fantasy can be as sweeping in scope as its epic cousins.

Babel: An Arcane History

by R.F. Kuang

Book cover for Babel: An Arcane History

Babel, otherwise known as Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the world’s centre for translation and magic. Silver-working has made Babel, its students, and England the foremost power in its unrivalled quest for colonisation. Until Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, enters the story.

Brooding and immersive, Babel is as much a deep-dive into etymology as is it an ambitious and intelligently-created dark fantasy set in an alternate Victorian England. A must for fans of dark academia, Babel is a perfect take on modern dark fantasy’s penchant for alternative history.

From Blood and Ash

by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Book cover for From Blood and Ash

Poppy has never had a life of her own. Chosen from birth to be a Maiden and to put her kingdom first, existence has been one of solitude and longing. Her day of Ascension approaches, but Poppy would rather be with the guards, fighting against the darkness that took her family. But being judged worthy by the gods is all that matters, especially when a forsaken kingdom rises, and a new conflict looms. A true epic romantic dark fantasy, From Blood and Ash is a heralded series blending classic tropes with modern twists and bringing romance firmly in the sphere of the genre.  

Don't miss Jennifer L. Armentrout's new book, Fall of Ruin and Wrath.

The Book Eaters

by Sunyi Dean

Book cover for The Book Eaters

Devon is part of the Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters: a secret line of people for whom novels and text are food, and eating them means all the tome’s content is retained. Maps are learned by devouring, and romance is sweet and delicious. But Devon’s son is born with a different hunger that doesn’t come with a happy ending.

Set in the English Yorkshire Moors, Dean’s expansive and dark imagination is on full display in this ravenous tale of secret societies and oppressed women that brims with originality and horror in equal measure as it sinks into dark fantasy’s gothic beginnings.