Medieval fantasy is an incredibly popular genre. Some of the most-read fantasy novels of all time are within this genre. There is definitely a lot to enjoy in a medieval fantasy, but perhaps it is time to consider a new genre. Dark medieval fantasy takes all of the great parts of medieval fantasy and puts them into gloomy and terrifying scenarios. If you are looking to branch out from classic medieval fantasy and you are ready for something a bit more heavy, look no further than dark medieval fantasy. Keep reading to find out more about this genre and if it might be one for you.
Dark fantasy is a small but increasingly popular subgenre of fantasy. This genre boasts elements of fear and horror alongside more traditional elements of fantasy. A dark fantasy novel is gloomy and dark, but unlike horror novels, it also contains magic and other supernatural elements. Demons, paranormal activity, and evil sorcery are common in dark fantasy, but magic can take any shape in a dark fantasy.
Good does not always triumph over evil in dark fantasy. The endings of these novels are not always happy, though it does happen. The main characters often fall into a grey area of being morally “good” or “bad.” Heroes don’t necessarily exist in dark fantasies. It is more common for the main characters of these novels to be normal people who struggle to make good choices all the time. They are often seen making bad choices, making it harder for the reader to root for them. The most important aspect of dark fantasy is a sense of fear and horror. These are not happy novels and they often deal with heavy subject matter. They are usually also adult novels, but there are dark fantasies for children and young adults too.
Medieval Fantasy is fairly simple to understand. It includes any fantasy novel that takes place in or is inspired by the middle ages. This is a broad time period of about 10 centuries, but the general feeling of these novels is typically very similar. Knights, kings, and damsels in distress are common in the genre. And there is often a hero who swoops in to save the day.
Medieval Europe is typically the setting for these novels, but they can also exist in fantasy worlds that resemble medieval Europe. Sweeping landscapes and green hills are common, but cliffs, mountains, and oceans also make their appearances as well.
Medieval fantasies often include some kind of epic journey or quest that the main character or characters embark on. If you are thinking of The Lord of the Rings, you have the right idea. This is without a doubt one of the most popular medieval fantasies in existence. In fact, many believe it sets the tone for the entire genre.
Dark Medieval Fantasy
Dark medieval fantasy takes aspects from both dark fantasy and medieval fantasy and combines them into one epic and depressing story. Fear and horror will always play a part in this genre, as will magic and a medieval timeframe. Though the setting may be fictional, medieval fantasies definitely resemble medieval Europe, and technology and communication mirror that as well.
Magic is also a significant aspect of dark medieval fantasy. Wizards are very common in this genre, but magic is not just limited to them. Magic takes various forms, but it is always an important part of the story. Dark medieval fantasies also typically have that sadder, scarier tone that we know from dark fantasies. Depressing and hopeless storylines are very common, and they are a hallmark of the genre.
Reading a dark medieval fantasy often requires some focus. The themes and subject matter are typically quite mature and require a mature reader. These novels typically come in series, but that is not always the case. There are excellent standalone novels within the genre as well.
Examples of Dark Medieval Fantasy
Dark medieval fantasies are fairly common. Medieval fantasy is incredibly popular. And dark fantasy is very popular as well. These two genres together make for some incredible stories. The novels and series below all have medieval settings, or they are inspired by the time period. They each incorporate darkness and fear in different ways, and they each have incredible stories. Look no further than the novels below if you are looking for something darker than the classic medieval fantasies we know so well.
The Blade Itself
The Blade Itself is a 2006 novel by Joe Abercrombie. It is the first novel in a trilogy of trilogies. This novel is a classic dark fantasy, and just about every diehard fantasy fan has read and enjoyed it. It certainly fits the criteria as a dark fantasy with its gloomy tone, mature themes, and hopeless nature.
This novel and following series follow a barbarian named Logen. He is constantly being caught in feuds and battles, but his luck may be running out. Through a war, duels with wizards, and endless amounts of betrayal, Logen is just attempting to survive. Readers will also meet many other characters with backstories just as harrowing and journeys just as enticing as Logen’s.
The Blade Itself is a dark medieval fantasy that readers around the world rave about. The world is complex and full of details and intricacies. The characters are so well developed that it can be hard to remember that they are fictional. You will inevitably be left thinking about them after you finish the novel. The dark tone and sense of fear throughout this novel give it a unique and interesting flavor not found in many other medieval fantasies.
The Black Company
The Black Company is a series of novels by Glen Cook. This series has nine novels in the main canon of the story with publication dates ranging from 1984 to 2000. There are several spinoff novels and short stories that exist within the same universe and they add great depth to the main story.
This series follows a mercenary unit for about 40 years as they travel through the country and deal with many harrowing events. There are many conflicts, wars, and battles that are fought. The military elements of this series are interesting and well-written. There are many things to enjoy about this series, but the characters seem to be the main draw for most readers. They are real and truthful, making for a captivating series of novels.
For readers looking for a dense dark medieval fantasy series, this is a great place to start. Though the series requires some commitment, it is well worth the effort. Readers who enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire will certainly enjoy this series as it has many similar aspects.
Book of the Ancestor
The Book of the Ancestor series is a trilogy of novels by Mark Lawrence. This series is certainly dark and definitely checks all the boxes for being a dark medieval fantasy series. The novels in this series are Red Sister, Grey Sister, and Holy Sister. This series follows Nona, a young girl who is accused of murder. She is guilty of things much worse than murder, however. She is being trained to be a killer and her presence sparks old feuds as the political establishment crumbles around her.
If the premise of a nine-year-old girl being trained to be a killer isn’t dark enough, there is also betrayal, demons, and an intense amount of fear in this novel. It is a true dark fantasy in every sense of the phrase. The magic, wars, and setting are exceedingly dark. There is very little hope or light in this entire series, and it makes for a depressing read, but a great one nonetheless.
I hope this article has helped clarify what this genre is all about and given you some ideas of books to read in this subgenre.
And if you want to read more about unique fantasy subgenres on this blog, check out:
Lastly, feel free to leave a message in the comments below if you have questions about this or another fiction-literature-related topic!
Good choice with The Black Company! Terrific reads. I’ll definitely check out the others.
Glad you approve, Jon!
And yes, Jenna has great recommendations!
The Witcher series is also a good example but for me the best example of a medieval dark fantasy is berserk manga, check it out and you’ll see why
Thanks for sharing, Omar! It’s always nice to have another dark medieval fantasy rec!