An Analysis of the Genre: Grimdark, Horror & Dark Fantasy

NOTE: This post is a rewrite of an assignment I wrote for a graduate school course. If you would like to read the original essay, then click here. Also, this is written in APA Format.

Speculative fiction is the general term used when describing books which fall under the genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror, but contain elements of one or more of the genres, and/or contain elements from any of the subgenres. Speculative fiction can be described as: “fantasy, science fiction, and horror to their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres, including the gothic, dystopia, zombie, vampire and post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, weird fiction, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, retold or fractured fairy tales, and many more,” (Oziewicz, 2017). Nowadays, it’s common to see more genre-blending books (i.e. historical fantasy, fairy tale retellings, romantic thriller, etc.), but defining the subgenres these books fall under is essential because readers need to know what they are reading. Just because a book is popular does not mean the reader(s) will enjoy other books from the same genre or subgenre. 

            One of the more recent examples of this is the subgenre grimdark. This subgenre emerged during the 1990s thanks to both George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb, who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire and The Farseer Trilogy, respectively. Both authors “removed the idealism, cut out the pastoral myth and infallible heroes, and replaced them with mud, blood, shit, and a focus on the darker aspects of human nature,” (Fultz, 2018). The difference between Martin and Hobb is while Hobb used these elements during various points throughout her series in order to enhance her world-building and her characters, Martin used the same elements in order to drive everything within his series. Characters who are “good” die, “villains” continue to succeed, and everyone dies. When the adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire—Game of Thrones—ended in 2019, many viewers were angry with how the series ended. However, what they didn’t understand was the subgenre of the books the TV show were adapted from wasn’t based on “traditional” fantasy tropes. “Grimdark does offer a bit more realism than your traditional epic or high fantasy,” (Speyer, 2019). 

            There are several definitions of grimdark and it’s difficult to select one definition. In fact, there is confusion between the subgenres grimdark and dark fantasy, and with the genre horror. In order to distinguish the three, indie author T. Frohock provides her definitions. “Horror is a story where the protagonist is helpless in the face of a supernatural threat. The protagonist seeks to destroy the supernatural threat in order to save themselves or others, but only when they are forced into a confrontation,” (Frohock, 2018). Authors of the horror genre include: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, T. Kingfisher, Stephen Graham Jones and Tananarive Due. 

            “Dark fantasy is similar to horror in that it is a story where the protagonist is helpless in the face of a supernatural threat. Unlike horror, dark fantasy tends to have a thread of hope running through the story. While at times being helpless, the protagonist generally wins in the end; although the cost (loss of friends/family or even their own innocence) will be great,” (Frohock, 2018). In other words, dark fantasy is a combination of the genres fantasy and horror. Authors of the dark fantasy subgenre include: Seanan McGuire, Jay Kristoff, V.E. Schwab, Leigh Bardugo, Evan Winter and Alexis Henderson

            “Grimdark is a story where the protagonist faces a supernatural threat, but s/he isn’t helpless against their adversary. Rather than run from the supernatural threat, the grimdark protagonist actively seeks to subvert or control it,” (Frohock, 2018). One reason grimdark stands out from other subgenres in speculative fiction because, “the antagonist can be as relatable, or if not more so, than the protagonists. And, you never know if the villain is going to be defeated or the book will end with the world in a worse shape than when it first started,” (Speyer, 2019). In other words, grimdark is the opposite of fantasy books written by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling. Authors such as George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Glen Cook, Anna Stephens, Gareth Hanrahan, Michael R. Fletcher and Rob J. Hayes write, “a more relatable form of fantasy. Psychology replaced ideology. Brutality replaced honour,” (Fultz, 2018). In all, grimdark can be summarized as: “a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style, or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly graphic in its depiction of violence. In most grimdark literature the supernatural is a passive force, controlled by humans—unlike supernatural horror where the preternatural forces are most often an active entity with agency,” (Frohock, 2015). It should be mentioned that the violence depicted in grimdark include: rape, dismemberment, death, torture, all types of abuse, sacrifice, regicide, dark magic, vengeance, etc. This subgenre is not meant for everyone. If you cannot handle more than a few scenes of this sort of violence, then grimdark is NOT for you.

            If anyone is interested in this subgenre of literature (especially after learning about the sort of stories they’ll be reading), then the following books and/or series should be read:

  • A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-Present) by George R.R. Martin

Dubbed as the series that began the subgenre, George R.R. Martin presents his story in a world where the landscape can kill you, where heroes don’t wear white (and villains don’t wear black), and multiple viewpoints which allows readers to comprehend where all of the characters are coming from, allowing for morally grey plotlines to present itself as the series continues. Fans continue to wait for the next bookThe Winds of Winter—to be released. 

  • The First Law Trilogy (2006-8) by Joe Abercrombie

              This trilogy is the first series set in a world the author created using series of narratives, bleak and unforgiving plots, and the most relatable characters readers will come across throughout the series. Abercrombie is known as “the go-go author” (known as “Lord Grimdark” by fans) in grimdark. Not only are his books popular with grimdark fans, but also have crossed over into mainstream fantasy where readers of the genre can get an understanding of what grimdark continues to offer to the fantasy genre.

  • Empires of Dust (2017-19) by Anna Smith Spark

What starts off as a story following a band of mercenaries sent on a mission to kill a ruler of a wealthy, yet unconquered empire becomes a story about the harsh reality and the bleakness that comes with performing such a task. This series contains the same amount of political intrigue and maneuvering found in A Song of Ice and Fire, but matches the brutality found in Abercrombie’s books, which led to fans dubbing Spark the “Queen of Grimdark.” 

  • Raven’s Mark Trilogy (2017-19) by Ed McDonald

This series follows a hired killer who is sent to investigate the work left behind by a dead sorcerer, and protect a noblewoman. As they make their way across a wasteland containing ghosts, flesh-eaters and traitors, the duo attempts to learn more about the weapon the dead sorcerer left behind. Unfortunately, by the time the two arrive at the location where the weapon is kept, war breaks out, and the mercenary and the noblewoman must uncover who the traitors are before the war and/or the weapon destroys the world they live in. 

This trilogy is based on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), and while it starts off with the protagonist attending an elite school where she learns shamanism, which will remind readers of Harry Potter, the war brings a change in the narration, which presents war as violent and brutal. Not to mention, war can lead to the extinction of a race of individuals. And, this series provides an expansion of the grimdark subgenre in that the setting is based on Chinese history (during the 20th century). And, the recent announcement of a TV adaptation to the series will attract fans of Game of Thrones as well as fans of the books. This time, all of the books have been written and released before the media adaptation.

  • The Godblind Trilogy (2017-19) by Anna Stephens

When an uneasy truce comes to an end, the followers of a banished god seek to send the world into bloodthirsty chaos so that the veil which keeps the Gods exiled from the physical world can render and return the Gods in their carnal forms. The beginning of the series lets readers know what to expect throughout it: rape, sacrifice, regicide, cheating and more violence. The female characters are just as violent as the males. This series is NOT for everyone, but it is one to be read by fans of the subgenre. 

  • War for the Rose Throne series (2018-Present) by Peter McLean

Can a priest be a gangster as well? Well, the protagonist in this series is; and, after serving in the war, he learns that his crime empire has been stolen and his people are suffering the consequences of it. Filled with political intrigue from the viewpoint of urban society, the protagonist learns that the war isn’t over yet. 

  • Best Laid Plans series (2017) by Rob J. Hayes

The first book in this series, Where Loyalties Lie, was the Winner SPFBO 2017. Fans of pirate fantasies such as The Tide Child Trilogy and One Piece should give this series a read. However, these pirates are actual pirates and many of them don’t have any redeeming qualities. Not to mention, these pirates are fighting to survive in a world where other societies seek to destroy them once and for all. 

This trilogy follows 2 protagonists who represent the opposite ends of a brutal caste system. The female protagonist is a street sorcerer who uses her magic to make life better for herself and her companions. The male protagonist is a priest who grew up in luxury and who is tasked with keeping the peace in the outer ring of the city. Both have been selected by vengeful, bloodthirsty gods to fight for them in an upcoming war amongst the immortals. 

  • Malazan Book of the Fallen series (1999-2011) by Steven Erikson

The easiest way to describe this series is the density of Robert Jordan combined with a higher death count than George R.R. Martin. Filled with maps and a lengthy Dramatis Personae, readers learn quickly of the level of magic, world-building, battle sequences and narration to expect in this series, within the first few chapters of the first book. There are 10 books in the main series—all completed—and, everyone who has read this series claims that it is worth it.

            Please know that this is a short list of recommendations. There are several more authors who write grimdark fantasy whose works you should consider reading as well. And yes, that includes indie authors.

            Not only has grimdark been presented in novels, but also in other forms of media. Similar to all genres and subgenres in speculative fiction, grimdark “operates across the spectrum of narrative media, from print to drama, radio, film, television, computer games, and their many hybrids,” (Oziewicz, 2017). For decades, fantasy, science fiction and horror stories have been adapted for movies, television shows, graphic novels and video games. Grimdark is no different, yet before Game of Thrones, the subgenre had more of a cult following than mainstream attention. For example, The Walking Dead is a postapocalyptic graphic novel series steeped in elements of grimdark; but how many of those fans have heard of Claymore by Norihiro Yagi? This manga series is about “half-demon warrior women who are charged with defending the general populace from a demonic threat, but at the cost of their humanity,” (Vergara, 2018). While these warrior women are the strongest, they are under the control of the organization which ordains how they fight the demons. If any of them “go astray,” then they are executed by the organization. The question throughout the series is whether or not the actions of these half-demon warrior women should be determined by the organization. 

            Video games are just as eclectic as literature with numerous genres to choose from. However, during the last ten years or so, some of the more popular video games revolved around gameplay narratives in which, “some kind of built-in morality system that allows players to perform actions and make decisions that ultimately determine their character’s future in the game world. Many of these choices are difficult, influencing…These allow the player to perform actions and make decisions that manipulate the system one way or another,” (Szal & Cummins, 2019). Critically acclaimed games such as Fallout 3 (2008), The Witcher 2 (2011), The Wolf Among Us (2013) and any game developed by Telltale Games focus on the decisions players had to make during the early parts of the game, which would influence what happened to their characters later on. There were no right or wrong answers; players had to make a decision and watch how it influenced the rest of the game. “Morally grey characters are the quintessential core of grimdark,” (Szal & Cummins, 2019). 

            Unfortunately, just like how the series finale of Game of Thrones did not end the way many fans expected it to, the same can be said about the narrative in The Last of Us 2, which was released in 2020. This game is a direct continuation—not a sequel—to the first game. Meaning you must play the first game in order to understand the story within the second one. The Last of Us (2013) is an action-adventure game which occurs 5-10 years after an apocalyptic event, which is the opening cutscene of the game. The gameplay reflects a narration of a dystopian novel. However, given the ending of The Last of Us, the themes, the ideals and the narrative within The Last of Us 2 reflect a grimdark story. Many critics and players noted the game was “darker and more violent” than its predecessor. One of the reasons for this is because unlike the first game which was about surviving a worldwide disaster, The Last of Us 2 was about protagonists “murdering the people who ruined their families, only to bring holy hell down on each other’s lives as more people get involved in their vendetta,” (Phipps, 2020). The video game focused on characters who were performing acts of violence against those who’ve wronged them. The dilemma becomes who is right and who is wrong, and does the ends justify the means. Both protagonists are right in their beliefs and it’s hard to choose sides because the audience comprehends where they are coming from. This makes it difficult to determine the fate of these characters, which is the sort of story grimdark presents to the audience.

            Within a short time, grimdark has emerged into an established subgenre within the fantasy genre. Due to the success of recent TV shows and video games, grimdark has become more ubiquitous amongst readers, players and others. This doesn’t mean everyone is going to enjoy or to appreciate the themes, the tone, the style, etc. found within these stories, but they will admit grimdark is the bleakest subgenre in a genre where good defeating evil and happy endings have become the norm.  

What are your thoughts about grimdark? Which books have you read from this subgenre? What are your thoughts about the comparison to both horror and dark fantasy?

                                                                        Resources

Frohock, T. (2015, Nov 2). Is it grimdark, or is it horror? Tor.com. 

Frohock, T. (2018, Aug 2). Random notes: The differences between horror, dark fantasy, and the grimdark. T. Frohockhttps://www.tfrohock.com/blog/2018/8/2/random-notes-grimdark-darkfantasy-horror

Fultz, J.R. (2018, Apr 20). The mud, the blood and the years: why “grimdark” is the new “sword and sorcery.” Grimdark Magazine. https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/grimdark-is-the-new-sword-and-sorcery

Oziewicz, M. (2017). Speculative fiction. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.

https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78

Phipps, C.T. (2020, June 20). Review: The last of us 2. Grimdark Magazine. 

Speyer, J. (2019, Oct 10). What is grimdark fantasy? What to know and where to start. The Azrian Portal. https://www.theazrianportal.com/blog/what-is-grimdark

Szal, J. and Cummins, L. (2019, Nov 5). Grit in your controller: grimdark and gaming. Grimdark Magazine. https://www.grimdarkmagazine.com/discussion-grit-controller-grimdark-gaming

Vergara, V. (2018, Jul 3). 20 grimdark books to put some grit into your fantasy reading pile. Book Riot. https://bookriot.com/grimdark-books

The Midpoint of 2020: Favorite Speculative Fiction Books…So Far

Well, we made it to the halfway point of the year 2020, which will go down as one of the most pivotal (and the wackiest) years in living memory. Just like everyone else, I’ve been affected by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the murders which led to the international Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a few things in my personal life. I managed to adapt and I’m starting to catch up on everything that’s been going on. I am managing to keep up with all of my reading while expanding on my blog and my other projects. So, while my WIP remain in that state, I’m glad to say that I’ve been branching out and checking out new YouTubers and following fellow bookbloggers; and, I want to thank those who have asked me to be guests on their channels and on their blogs. Last, I want to thank everyone for reading my posts that are not reviews, but are personal essays and deep dives into literature, pop culture, and current events. It feels good to know that there are people who are interested in what I post online.

            As for reading in 2020, I’m reading, but I’m reading more than speculative fiction. You can look at my Goodreads page and you’ll see what I mean. In terms of speculative fiction, I’ve been catching up on some of what I missed, and I’m getting back into paranormal and urban fantasy. I have a stack of graphic novels that I need to read, too; but, I’ll get to them eventually. How many of 2020’s Most Anticipated releases have you read so far?

            So, what does that mean for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2020, so far? Well, I haven’t finished reading 10 books that were released this year, yet; but, I can talk about at least 10 speculative fiction books in 2020 that I’m enjoying, and ones I’m excited to read. In other words, this list will be different from last year’s, but I hope you find this list of reads as interesting, informative, and/or enjoyable.

Books I’ve Finished:

The Nine Realms: A Queen in Hiding; The Queen of Raiders; A Broken Queen; The Cerulean Queen

     by Sarah Kozloff

Wayward Children, #5: Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Daughter from the Dark by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey

The Black Iron Legacy, #2: The Shadow Saint by Gareth Hanrahan

The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, #1: The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

Books I’m Currently Reading:

The Daevabad Trilogy, #3: The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty

The Kingston Cycle, #2: Stormsong by C.L. Polk

Malus Domestica Trilogy, #1: Burn the Dark by S.A. Hunt

The Protectorate, #2: Chaos Vector by Megan E. O’Keefe

A Chorus of Dragons, #3: The Memory of Souls by Jenn Lyons

The Reborn Empire, #1: We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson

Books I Want to Read by the End of 2020:

The City, #1: The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

The Murderbot Diaries, #5: The Network Effect by Martha Wells

The Poppy War, #3: The Burning God by R.F. Kuang

Anasazi Series, #1: Between Earth and Sky by Rebecca Roanhorse

The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab

Burningblade & Silvereye, #1: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

Race the Sands: A Novel by Sarah Beth Durst

Docile by K.M. Szpara

Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

The Locked Tomb, #2: Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Rook and Ruin, #1: The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

City of Sacrifice, #2: Ash and Bones by Michael R. Fletcher

The Drowning Empire, #1: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Stealing Thunder by Alina Boyden

The Burning, #2: The Fires of Vengeance by Evan Winter

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Scholomance, #1: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston 

Malus Domestica Trilogy: I Come with Knives and The Hellion by S.A. Hunt 

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

The Hanged God Trilogy, #1: Northern Wrath by Thilde Kold Holdt

AND, A LOT MORE!!!

            I hope to read 100 books by the end of the year, with at least 30 of them being speculative fiction books that were released this year. Which books will be on my Top 20 (or 25) Favorite Speculative Fiction Books of 2020? We’ll have to wait and see. 

Why You Need to Read…My Selections for Best Speculative Fiction Books of 2019

2019 was an amazing year for everyone involved with speculative fiction. Picking up where 2018 left off, there were plenty of books released when caused our TBR piles to increase even more. It is unfortunate that more books were published than there are days in a year, but that means we always have something available to read, and we are able to share our reads with others thanks to social media. Sharing favorite and recommended books helped increase my range of books within the genre. I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read many of these books if it weren’t for recommendations and ARCs. 

            This year saw a year of both debut authors and endings to series. Not to mention the popularity of self-published authors thanks to public recommendations. I was glad I was able to contribute more to the fandom through my reviews and my participation in various fan groups. In fact, I read faster than I was able to write the reviews (which will be posted as they become available).

            All of the books I’ve read in 2019 are worth reading, but I can only list so many of them. So, I’m going to post my Top 25 in this post. Remember, this list are the books that were released in 2019! There are many books that did NOT make this list because they were released previously. If you’re curious about the other books I’ve read in 2019, then you can checkout either my Goodreads page, oy my mid-year (2019) post. Now, for my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019.

#25 The Bone Ships (The Tide Child Trilogy #1) by R.J. Barker

            This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and I won it in a giveaway. He messaged me and told me it was “different” from “other” fantasy stories I’ve read before. He was right! The Bone Ships is about the life of pirates—outcasts and criminals who are sentenced to the sea as a punishment—who travel the seas in order to trade, and to locate an endangered whale species. The worldbuilding is based on how the characters survive and operate the ship and readers learn about the society that chose to ostracize them. The Bone Ships is a realistic fantasy story about life at sea and all of the dangers and the excitement that comes with it. 

#24 The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

            As someone who still hasn’t read The Night Circus yet, it was easy for me to read the author’s latest novel with an open mind. This story is an homage to New York City and all of the bookstores located in (and below) it. The story follows Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a grad student, who finds an unusual book in his university library. The book is unusual because it’s about him and his life. From there, the story follows different narratives and writing styles as Zachary meets two individuals who know about the book’s origins and the library it came from. The Starless Sea is the perfect book about preserving stories and the people who play their role in the stories themselves.  

#23 The Survival of Molly Southbourne (Molly Southbourne #2) by Tade Thompson

            I didn’t get the opportunity to complete the Rosewater Trilogy, but I did get to read the follow-up to The Murders of Molly Southbourne. This novella picks up where the previous one left off and Molly Southbourne has to find a way to survive yet again. The author answers the questions both Molly and the readers had about what Molly is and why it happened. The story brings back all of the characters and they are all given appropriate endings. However, it makes you wonder whether or not they’ll be a companion story to this series. 

#22 The Ascent to Godhood (Tensorate #4) by J.Y. Yang

            I’ve read and enjoyed the entire Tensorate series, however it was the last book that really grasped my attention the most. In this book, the Empress—the mother of the twin protagonists from the first two books—has died. While everyone is questioning the line of succession and remembering her reign, one person recalls when the Empress was a princess who strived to do what was best for her subjects through the goodness of her heart. Unfortunately, it was through several series of hardship that transformed the Princess into the powerful, yet unforgiveable monarch she became. It left me mortified yet emphasizing with the Empress (to an extent). The Ascent to Godhood connects the previous books in the series with the story of the Empress, who was also a mother and a companion to those who knew her the best. 

#21 To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

            This is the first book I’ve read by this respected author and I understand why everyone rages about her books. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a hard science fiction story about space explorers who travel beyond of galaxy in order to study planets in other ones. The difference is that instead of forcing the planets to acclimate to them, the humans acclimate to the planet. It is an interesting take on space exploration and planet observation, and the harsh reality and repercussions of what being away from home for so long can do to those who have no choice but to fend for themselves. 

#20 The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2) by R.F. Kuang

            One war ends, but what does that mean for the “winning side.” Rin ended the Third Poppy War single handily. However, her country has suffered from the damage—physical, mental and emotional—inflicted on them as well. The Dragon Republic delves into the idea of purpose for soldiers who no longer have a war to fight, the idea of a country no longer united because of the suffering its denizens continue to endure, and the struggle for power and what leaders are willing to do in order to grasp it. This is a book about the brutality of the postbellum and how winning the war was the easy part.  

#19 The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy) by S.A. Chakraborty

            I’m glad I made the time to start this series. The City of Brass is an amazing story about magic and magical beings set in the Middle East during the Ottoman Occupation. In the first book, Nahri is spirited award to Daevabad where she learns of her magical origins and the oppressive society she finds herself in. In The Kingdom of Copper, five years have pass since the events in the first book, and all of the characters are suffering from the ruling tyrant and the beginnings of a rebellion. The story continues to explore the magical world and explores how the caste system continues to breakdown society, exposes the history of conspiracies and treacheries that resurfaces thanks to prejudice, vengeance, oppression and magical feuding.  

#18 The Rage of Dragons (The Burning #1) by Evan Winter

            One of the last books I completed in 2019, this debut novel is a story about military training, caste systems, and magic based on African history and mythology. What starts off as the “usually fantasy trope” grows into something else entirely and it will seize your attention until the end (with you wanting to read Book 2)! Tau is a young man who has lost everything he cares about and his goals are motivated by revenge. He trains with a military unit in order to become the best fighter he can be; however, as Tau realizes that military status doesn’t change the way society sees him, he uncovers a political conspiracy between his country and their longtime enemies. The Rage of Dragons is an enjoyable read for any reader who loves a great military story with its own magic users!

#17 The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

            This novella is worth all of the hype it received! The Deep is a what if tale about mermaids who are the surviving descendants of pregnant Africans who were captured and then thrown overboard the slave ships while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. While the women died, their children were born and survived in the ocean depths. 400 years later, the wajinru are a community who continues to thrive under the sea. The story focuses on the group’s “historian” who is responsible for keeping and sharing the memories of the wajinru’s past. The responsibility of being a historian is painful—especially given our history of the African Slave Trade. The Deep isn’t just a title of the story, it’s metaphorical in every sense and in every way the story is told. It’s one of the most poignant books of 2019. 

#16 The Killing Light (The Sacred Throne #3) by Myke Cole 

            To me, The Armored Saint had a slow beginning, but it made up for it in The Queen of Crows. The author presents a realistic view on military, especially the real-time events. The Killing Light is the perfect ending to The Sacred Throne trilogy, not only because it reflects back to the events of the first book, but also because it presents the reality of war and how and why people are motivated—and then lose that same motivation—to participate in it. Heloise is a protagonist that has everything to gain from the war after losing so much. The ending will leave readers satisfied because of the way the author portrays war and military strategy. 

#15 The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons) by Jenn Lyons

            I wasn’t sure what to expect from this story, but once I started reading (listening) to it, I couldn’t stop. The Ruin of Kings is a story about the power struggle between incarnated immortals and power-hungry mortals. The story focuses on Kihrin, a young man who goes from street urchin to the heir of a noble family, and he hates every moment of it. However, that is only a fraction of Kihrin’s story because there is another character who provides Kihrin, and the readers, a full account as to all that is happening within and to Kihrin and his family. The worldbuilding alone will keep readers interested and the power struggle between mortals and immortals alike will have you wanting to read Book 2, The Name of All Things, and finding comfort from the Lannisters (yes, THOSE Lannisters)!  

#14 Smoke and Stone (City of Sacrifice #1) by Michael R. Fletcher

            2019 was the year I read more self-published fantasy books than in previous years. I opted to read Smoke and Stone on behalf of Fantasy-Faction, and I’m glad I did. This book is a great introduction to grimdark fantasy. There are two protagonists who are one opposing ends of a brutal caste system, and they are determined to prove themselves to those they care about by appealing to their patron gods. However, the gods have their own agenda and they—like any god—use the mortals to meet their goals. Smoke and Stone is a story about a harsh society, harsh gods, and harsh consequences. It’s a great book for fans of grimdark!

#13 The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

            How many worlds exist besides our own? There have been several portal fantasies written before this one. Then again, The Ten Thousand Doors of January make it known that Doors have always been and continue to exist to those who know where to look for them. The story is about January Scaller, the daughter of an explorer and the ward of his benefactor, who desires to travel with her father. Instead, she is left behind with Mr. Locke, a collector of artifacts from around the world. One day, January is inspecting the artifacts and she finds a book about the exploration of “other worlds” and about two individuals who know about them. From there, readers learn more about January and the other individuals, who turn out to be explorers of these other worlds and the connection January has with them. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a debut novel about other worlds, love and sacrifice, and it’ll leave readers wondering whether or not someone can and will explore ALL of those worlds. 

#12 Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

            If you haven’t already read anything by this author, then Middlegame is the best book to read first! A metaphysical and dark fantasy story—with an homage to both L. Frank Baum and John Wyndham—is about twins Roger and Dodger—siblings born with extraordinary powers and intellect—who were separated at birth and raised at opposite ends of the United States. However, distance means nothing to the twins as they find ways to communicate with each other throughout their childhood and college lives. The more time they spend with each other, the more they realize that they have extraordinary abilities which they struggle to understand. Conversely, there is someone who understands, and he wants Roger and Dodger’s abilities in order to unlock forbidden knowledge so that he can harness it for himself. 

#11 The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

            This epic story is worth the reading! Over a thousand years ago a prophecy was made and now that prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Destruction in the form of a dragon is coming and only a select few—a queen, a dragon rider, a scholar, and a member of a secret order of mages—know what is coming and have to find a way to save the world. Based on historical and religious events, The Priory of the Orange Tree is a story about the origins behind the stories of “heroes” and how lies and religion shape societies to the point where knowledge is lost, and the lies become the truth. At the same time, an ancient evil is reawakening, and the various parts of the world have to acknowledge the truth beneath the lies and come together to fight a forgotten enemy. The author has written an unforgettable epic standalone story about the power of females and the way to save the world is to get the world to come together to fight the enemy. 

            Yes, I know what I did for #10 and #9, but hear me out! Both stories, while different, are a lot alike. They are bildungsroman stories which focuses on the growth, the development, and the education of a young female protagonist. Throughout the series, the female protagonist matures and learns what is expected of them and how they go about doing it. At the same time, friendships are formed, loved ones die, and the truth is revealed to them. When the final battle occurs, the female protagonist must use all of their knowledge and abilities learned throughout the series in order to conquer the enemy and to protect those they care about. Both authors have written amazing stories about their young female protagonist in their own way, but one cannot deny the similarities they have; yet, the differences are enough that they merit their own stories, and both are worth reading!

#9 Darkdawn (The Nevernight Chronicle #3) by Jay Kristoff

            This book, which is based on Ancient Rome, tells of the end of Mia Corvere’s life and how it all came to an end. Starting from where Godsgrave left off, Mia and her brother, Jonnen, travel throughout the Itreyan Republic to avoid Consul Julius Scaeva. Meanwhile, Mia learns more about the Red Church, the Mother Goddess, and her identity. None of them are what Mia thought she knew. Now, given the chance to “set the world right” and to “help the Maw,” Mia has to decide whether or not her life is worth giving to save the Itreyan Republic. Mia Corvere has become the most lethal assassin in the Republic’s history, and she does not hesitate to spill blood as she makes her way back to the heart of the Republic and killing everyone who gets in her way. The author delivers on both the blood and the vulgarity! And yes, the footnotes are back and should NOT be overlooked! 

#9 Holy Sister (Book of the Ancestor #3) by Mark Lawrence

            In this book, war has arrived, and everyone is expected to fight to defeat the enemy. Holy Sister is the epic end to the author’s trilogy, which is a blend of violence and magic. The narrative is split into two parts: the immediate events after the end of Grey Sister, and two years later when the armies have invaded Abeth. The author not only wraps up the narrative about the protagonist, Nona Grey, but also he manages to tie up all of the loose ends—everything mentioned from the opening pages of Red Sister, all of the plots, the subplots, the characters and the prophecy—within the pages of this book. This action-packed story concludes with an ending that leaves readers satisfied. 

#8 War Girls (War Girls #1) by Tochi Onyebuchi

            War is a terrible thing, and yet we cannot stop ourselves from having them. War Girls is a story that starts at a refugee camp for female soldiers. Two sisters—Onyii and Ify—are surviving with the limited resources they have while remaining hidden from the two war fronts. Unfortunately, they are discovered and are separated. For four years, each sister lives with the opposing side until circumstances forces them to confront each other as enemies. The author writes this poignant story as a cautionary tale to readers that war takes victims and turns them into unwilling accomplices. Readers won’t even realize that they’re reading a story meant for a YA audience, it’s that good. 

#7 Seven Blades in Black (The Grave of Empires #1) by Sam Sykes

            The protagonist is one pissed off woman, and she has every right to be angry. Sal the Cacophony is a hybrid of John Wick and Lara Croft, she’s that easygoing, clever, and trigger happy. Seven Blades in Black is the first book in The Grave of Empires series, and it follows Sal the Cacophony’s quest for revenge in a location known as “The Scar,” a world in which magic users become deformed as a result of their magical properties. The protagonist and her companion, Liette—a character we learn more about in the novella, The Gallows Black—make their way throughout the continent so that Sal can cross off the names on her list of those who wronged her. This book was my surprise read of 2019 in that I had never heard of the author, and I did not know what to expect from the story. My limited expectations were blown away and I’m looking forward to reading the next book by the author. 

#6 The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden

            The Winternight Trilogy is a beautiful series with a beautiful ending. Vasya, now an adult, has been accused of witchcraft and finds herself in exile. However, war is on the horizon and Vasya has to find a way to unite Russia—humans and chyerti—in order to defeat the invaders. The Winter of the Witch presents readers a look into the world of the chyerti, which is beyond the vision of most human, and the tasks Vasya must perform in order to accept her destiny and save everything she cares about. The story is based on both Russia history and folklore and it provides a lovely, yet action packed tale. 

#5 The Sword of Kaigen: A Theonite War Story by M.L. Wang

            This is another self-published book that I picked up (actually, the author mailed it and another book to me for reading and reviewing) because it was receiving a ton of praise by everyone who read it. The Sword of Kaigen is a standalone novel that is the first of the author’s Theonite (world) series. The story follows Mamoru Matsuda, the first son of the second son of the Matsuda family, and his mother, Misaki. Mamoru is fourteen years-old and when a new student transfers to his school and criticizes the lifestyle of the region, he is forced to question everything he’s learned from his community. What he doesn’t know is that his mother knows that Mamoru is right to question his beliefs. But, before mother and son can have a full-length discussion, an invading army arrives, and they are under attack. The author presents a story about the consequences of isolation and blind loyalty while exploring family dynamics and unwanted familial expectations. The Sword of Kaigen is a finalist for the SPFBO 2019 and it’s easy to say why. And, while the author is taking a hiatus from the Theonite series, it is safe to say that whatever else she writes will be just as good and as touching as this book. 

#4 Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) by Megan E. O’Keefe

            This debut novel was my reintroduction to hard science fiction. A world has come under attack and the last thing Sanda Greeve remembers is being shot in space. When she comes to, she learns that she’s aboard an enemy AI ship, who calls himself Bero, and that 230 years have passed since she was shot down. Meanwhile, her brother, Biran—who has just joined the Protectorate, a group of politicians who protect the universe—breaks every rule in order to find his missing sister. At the same time, a group of thieves come across some forbidden technology and have to go into hiding from the Protectorate. Velocity Weapon starts off as a story of survival and a rescue mission but evolves into a fantastic science fiction story about political ambitions, hidden technology, space war and science experiments. The author reminds her readers as to why they love science fiction and AI ships.  

#3 Realm of Ash (The Books of Ambha #2) by Tasha Suri

            I was waiting for this book since I read its predecessor, Empire of Sand, and the author teased readers with a couple of sample chapters! Ten years after the events of Empire of Sand, Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister, is now an adult and recently widowed in a massacre in which she was the sole survivor. Believing she lost her purpose for living, Arwa decides to pledge service to the royal family, who are suffering due to the events a decade before. Arwa not only learns how to find a reason to live, but also about the brutal history of her (birth) mother’s people and how the Empire is built on false power and oppression. Realm of Ash is a story about enduring and remembering, and how one continues while experiencing grief and tragedy. 

#2 Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

            The easiest way I can describe this story is that it’s a non-traditional Cinderella story that takes place in Mexico during the Jazz Age and involves the Mayan deities. Gods of Jade and Shadow is part fantasy, part magical realism, and part historical fiction. The novel will have to consulting maps and atlases so that you can follow along with the protagonists throughout the narrative. The story focuses on Casiopea Tun, who is the granddaughter of the wealthiest man in town, but because her mother married a poor man—who later died—both mother and daughter live as servants in the family home. Casiopea is bullied by her cousin, Martín—the traditional spoiled heir—to the point where neither cousin can stand each other. One day, Casiopea is left home alone as punishment and she opens a mysterious chest under her grandfather’s bed and she unknowingly frees Hun-Kame, Lord of Shadows and the rightful ruler of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. From there, Casiopea is spirited away on a quest through Mexico by a Mayan deity so that he can regain his throne. The author blends everything about human society and culture—history, pop culture, folklore, familial expectations, etc.—into a narrative that can be explained as Rick Riordan for adults! Gods of Jade and Shadow is part folklore, part bildungsroman, and a hundred percent entertainment. 

#1 The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy #1) by Gareth Hanrahan

            Sometimes peer pressure can be a good thing. This debut novel was released at the beginning of 2019, and it was all everyone was talking about. In groups on social media, critics’ reviews, other authors, etc. were all talking about how The Gutter Prayer, the first book in The Black Iron Legacy series by Gareth Hanrahan needed to be read by all fans of the fantasy genre. I decided to determine whether or not the hype was deserved, and I was not disappointed! The Gutter Prayer is a dark and twisted fantasy story that is both new and different from what I was used to reading. This novel is part heist, part conspiracy, and part magic all the while the “bad guys” are the ones who save the world from Armageddon! The author finds a way to tell a story that twists readers expectations of fantasy tropes, presents the reality of what magic users—mages, alchemists and gods—can and will do with the power they have over others, and provides enough backstory of all of the characters so that readers have a comprehension of all the characters as rounded individuals who are surviving the circumstances of life in their world. The Gutter Prayer is an example of a story that stands out from other books of the genre (and subgenre) while remaining faithful to the elements and the tropes of what makes it a work of speculative fiction. This debut novel not only provided an entertaining story, but also balances fantasy and reality in a way that is both improbable and believable. For all of these reasons, The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan is my favorite speculative fiction book of 2019!

            It was hard narrowing my list of reads to 25, but these were the books I enjoyed the most and discussed the most with other readers. Reading these books (and other ones) puts into perspective how the range of the speculative fiction spectrum continues to expand beyond our limits and expectations. With 2020 around the corner, readers know that the follow ups and the sequels to 2019’s books already presents promises and we know they’ll deliver! 2020 is going to be epic!