the Little Red Reviewer

Fantasy that’s maybe not so grimdark

Posted on: December 6, 2015

It is just me, or has Epic Fantasy gotten really bloody lately?  More battles depicted, more violence, more people getting run through with varied weapons, more plots that revolve around action, battle scenes, and killing people. Maybe that’s just what is being advertised right now, maybe it’s the sign of the times, maybe publishers see how well Game of Thrones is doing and want to publish more stuff like that.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed a lot of grimdark, and I certainly don’t mind some violence. I don’t mean to knock battlefield fantasy, but like a brand new sword that’s seen recent use, the shiny has worn off for me.  Ultraviolence was a novelty for me, and now that I’m past it (or maybe I’m just getting old), I find that I prefer fantasy titles that are more in the vein of Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind , Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, etc. Fantasy that focuses on plot, characters, consequences, adventure, magic, relationships, changes in perspective and such.


That said, I recently put the following question to the Twittersphere:

looking for epic fantasy

Here are some of the responses.

Epic Fantasy suggestions



(all blabs from Amazon)

Well at the Worlds End

In the land of the Upmeads, King Peter’s sons thirst for adventure and the King agrees that all except Ralph, the youngest, may go forth. But Ralph secretly makes his way to Wulstead, and here learns about the Well at the World’s End, beginning a journey which will eventually lead him there.


Riddlemaster of Hed

Long ago, the wizards had vanished from the world, and all knowledge was left hidden in riddles. Morgon, prince of the simple farmers of Hed, proved himself a master of such riddles when he staked his life to win a crown from the dead Lord of Aum.
But now ancient, evil forces were threatening him. Shape changers began replacing friends until no man could be trusted. So Morgon was forced to flee to hostile kingdoms, seeking the High One who ruled from mysterious Erlenstar Mountain.
Beside him went Deth, the High One’s Harper. Ahead lay strange encounters and terrifying adventures. And with him always was the greatest of unsolved riddles — the nature of the three stars on his forehead that seemed to drive him toward his ultimate destiny.


dragonbone chair

A war fueled by the dark powers of sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard – for Prester John, the High King, slayer of the dread dragon Shurakai, lies dying. And with his death, an ancient evil will at last be unleashed, as the Storm King, undead ruler of the elvish-like Siti, seeks to regain his lost realm through a pact with one of human royal blood. Then, driven by spell-inspired jealousy and hate, prince will fight prince, while around them the very land begins to die.

Only a small scattered group, the League of the Scroll, recognizes the true danger awaiting Osten Ard. And to Simon–a castle scullion unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League–will go the task of spearheading the quest for the solution to a riddle of long-lost swords of power…and a quest that will see him fleeing and facing enemies straight out of a legend-maker’s worst nightmares!

Kingmaker Miller


Being a fisherman like his father isn’t a bad life, but it’s not the one that Asher wants.

Despite his humble roots, Asher has grand dreams. And they call him to Dorana, home of princes, beggars, and the warrior mages who have protected the kingdom for generations.

Little does Asher know, however, that his arrival in the city is being closely watched…



Maerad is a slave in a desperate and unforgiving settlement, taken there as a child when her family is destroyed in war. She doesn’t yet know she has inherited a powerful gift, one that marks her as a member of the noble School of Pellinor and enables her to see the world as no other can. It is only when she is discovered by Cadvan, one of the great Bards of Lirigon, that her true identity and extraordinary destiny unfold. Now, she and her mysterious teacher must embark on a treacherous, uncertain journey through a time and place where the forces of darkness wield an otherworldly terror.

The first book in a projected quartet, Alison Croggon’s epic about Maerad and her remarkable yet dangerous gift is a beautiful, unforgettable tale. Presented as a new translation of an ancient text, THE NAMING evokes the rich and complex landscape of Annar, a legendary world just waiting to be discovered.

Little Big


Little, Big tells the epic story of Smoky Barnable — an anonymous young man who meets and falls in love with Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes to live with her in Edgewood, a place not found on any map. In an impossible mansion full of her relatives, who all seem to have ties to another world not far away, Smoky fathers a family and tries to learn what tale he has found himself in — and how it is to end.


Now it’s your turn to join the conversation:

Are you also noticing a trend in more violent fantasy novels?  Why do you think they are so popular?

If, like me, you prefer your stories on the slightly less violent side, what titles do you recommend?


23 Responses to "Fantasy that’s maybe not so grimdark"

I’ve noticed it; I’ve enjoyed my share (and recently reread Richard Morgan’s Land Fit For Heroes trilogy, which is plenty dark) but I’ve mostly been looking for lighter fare.

My first rec is always Katharine Kerr’s Deverry saga (starting with Daggerspell) – they’re epic, they’re complex, and they’re full of consequences without the heavy gore – or anything by Guy Gavriel Kay (but I suspect you read his a long time ago!)


I’ve read quite a bit of Guy Gavriel Kay, Lions of Al-Rassan has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I’m sure I’ve read some Katherine Kerr over the years? Maybe? the title Daggerspell rings a bell, but i’m sure I’ve not read it. Thanks for the recommendation!

Liked by 1 person

I avoid grimdark novels, not only for the violence, but because the stories all seem the same. What I mean is, all problems are solved the same way–by killing. It seems…I don’t know…less creative, if that makes sense? But at the same time, I like things fast-paced. Jim Hines seems to always hit that sweet spot for me. Things happen quickly, but it’s not all blood and guts.


I’ve really enjoyed Hines’s Libriomancer books, and i just picked up his Fable book. Yeah, i know it’s a videogame tie-in, but it’s a videogame I played a ton of!


I recall following a certain author who’s answer to anything resembling a plot hole to simply insert a random battle scene to keep her readers occupied and happy. So I guess it’s a reader demand?

And for recommendations, there’s:

-China Mieville’s The Scar
-Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series
-Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
-Mark T. Barnes’ Echoes of Empire trilogy
-Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-In-The-Mist

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Oh how I love The Scar! the Lovers, the Might-sword, don’t even get me started on that book I will talk all day! Anything by Brennan is going to be good, of course. Thanks for the other titles, I’ve heard of those authors, but don’t think I’ve ever read them.


They are old and maybe dated now but have you tried the Pern series by Anne McCaffery? They are somewhat lighter, a good read and they have Dragons! Which can’t be bad.


I read the first two, and liked them okay. Nothing wrong with them, i just didn’t love them.

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I couldn’t tell if it was just me being more into “grimdark” the past couples years, or if there actually had been an increase in violent fantasy. Reading this post though, makes me agree with you that there is an increase in violent fantasy. Or, at least, there is an increase the publicity of them – which I credit to popularity of GoT TV show.

The reason I think they are so popular is simple: it’s wrong to be bad. No in real life (of sane mind) goes around like some of the characters we meet in ASOIAF, First Law, or Broken Empire. So people read these kinds of stories to indulge their dark side 😛

Have you read Riyria Revelations yet?


“there is an increase the publicity of them”

This. there is tons of every kind of fantasy being published, but it seems like the dark gritty violent stuff gets advertised more. I totally get what you’re saying, that we like to read the darker grittier stuff because no sane person would ever act that way in real life. I’ve certainly gotten that exact kind of satisfaction out of reading some of the grittier stuff. Lately though, I’ve found I get more satisfaction out of the not-so-grimdark stuff.

I’ve heard a lot about the Riyriai books, but haven’t read them yet. THanks for the rec!


Since I sometimes think in book titles….. This post made me think of:
“Gates of Fire” – Steven Pressfield (1998)
“The Face of Battle” – John Keegan (1976)

One historical-fiction and one non-fiction. In much of the ‘grimdark,’ I see hints of these two books. And I am getting pretty tired of the endless bloodbaths. But such things sell. I have no doubt the pedulum will eventually swing back the other way, though.

Many characters in such novels do solve everything with violence. But somehow, it isn’t the endearing and amusing solutions that Howard’s Conan always had. Now, its almost “go out of the way to make it really gory/nasty.”


“Many characters in such novels do solve everything with violence. But somehow, it isn’t the endearing and amusing solutions that Howard’s Conan always had. Now, its almost “go out of the way to make it really gory/nasty.””



You may have already read the Mither Mages series by Orson Scott Card, it has both a contemporary and otherworldly setting and while there is some violence it is plot driven and just just to be grimdark. His writing is excellent and the third book just came out this fall, I still need to get my hands on it.


You might try Melanie Rawn.


I really liked The Diviners, by Rawn. I’m sure I have some of her other books. Diviners was exactly what I’m looking for – great characterization, epic world, far reaching consequences, great ending.


I’m always more a fan of character-driven stuff than anything that’s heavy on the gore. A lot of the books I tend to like do have battles and such, but the focus is more on smaller conflicts and there isn’t as much blood for blood’s sake, if that makes sense. (And then of course it all gets thrown out the window when I change over to crime fiction, and just loooooove the gore. Oddly enough.)

Of more recent stuff (that I didn’t see mentioned in the comments here)- how about VE Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic?

I never pass up an opportunity to recommend Lynn Flewelling, too. There are battles in her books, but the main characters are usually on the sidelines being sexy spies.

YA on the whole doesn’t have as much of the relentless grim, either, dystopias aside. It’s hit or miss with YA fantasy for me, but sometimes you find a good one.


McKillup’s Riddlemaster Trilogy is one of my very favorites. The new Aliette de Bodard book is amazing. Did you read The Goblin Emperor? Can’t remember if I saw your review or not. Riyria books are kind of cookie cutter. Have you read Zelazny?
Those are a few off the cuff reactions.


Definitely Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor which was actually written kind of in response to Grimdark – not only is quite unbloody it also has hero who is trying his very hardest to be a good guy; and while Addison does not gloss over how hard that is, her protagonist is one of the most deeply likeable ones in recent memory.
Also, Zen Cho’s utterly delightful Sorceror to the Crown or indeed Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, but I’m assuming everyone has already that, anyway.

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I don’t read that much “violent” fantasy myself, but it does feel like there are a lot of “dark” and “gritty” ones coming out these past few years and also appearing on-screen as film or tv adaptations. Probably due to GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series being such a hit and hinting to authors that dark stuff sells. In YA, too, there is a trend towards more dark dystopian-like societies featured in the fantasy. It must be a sign of the times, reflecting how people are thinking and feeling about the world today. We know the world isn’t a happy, perfect, neatly-wrapped up sort of place, but we still want to find hope and a good story!


The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. Last Song before Night by Ilana C. Myer. Anything by Kate Elliott. The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

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I know that in the fantasy novels I’ve been writing and self-publishing, I’m trying to steer clear of not just excessive violence but violence as a whole. As a radical pacifist, I think stories that involve characters trying to think, work, and talk their way through conflicts is more interesting, less cliche, and challenging.


I’ve been noticing the same thing myself recently. A few things I was thinking on – I enjoy grimdark but, I kind of feel that a similar thing has happened in this way that did with vampires and Meyer. We had a few grimdark stories – they were so original and so powerful that they kind of blew our socks off and we loved them. And then, of course, the bandwagon was swamped – in fact the wheels have now broken off the wagon and it’s no longer moving! It kind of feels a little at the moment that authors think they have to go to harsher and harsher measures to get a rise out of readers. Almost like they think we’ve become desensitised in the same way that some viewers of tv/movies have. That’s not the case for me. I still like to use my imagination and frankly, sometimes, and probably more often than not, not only do I want to have somebody to really cheer for but I want them to win out! It’s probably an old fashioned idea but I still like the idea of having a character that makes me want them to succeed. Maybe even a good ending.
I have just read a book where everybody was dying all over the place, the baddies kind of turned into ‘the something in betweens’ which was actually a tad annoying and there was a lot of violence and frankly I just came away feeling very ambivalent for a story that actually could have won me over it had been a little bit more character focused.
Lynn 😀


Seconding the Goblin Emperor, which is a delightful read. 😀 James Nicoll wrote a great review:

Penric’s Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold, is also worth a look – a gentle novella in pleasant company.

I agree with your broader point. I am so sick of the grimdark wave of fantasy that became so popular in the 2000s. 😡 Dear authors: you can tell a violent and mature story without descending into nihilism. While it’s a movie, Mad Max: Fury Road is a case in point.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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