The Women of Grimdark
In Part 1 of The Women of Grimdark Anna Stephens answered some searching questions, told us more about her experience of being a woman writing grimdark fantasy, and then utterly demolished the notion that “women don’t know how to write fight scenes.”
Every time I see a ‘Top 10 Grimdark Novels’ list or a forum post asking for recommendations of dark and gritty fantasy, there is one thing guaranteed to happen – apart from an occasional mention of Robin Hobb, you would be lucky to find any books written by women listed.
It’s usually the same familiar male names trotted out en masse. Are they good? Absolutely, and you will find no argument from me on that score. But so are the eighteen books I’ve listed below that deserve more recognition, all written by fantastic writers who happen to be female. It’s a self-perpetuating genre cycle of grimdark works by women not being recommended because less people read them, because they were not recommended, combined with a baseless fear by some male readers that the dark and gritty violent nature of the genre has been watered down and its wicked edge blunted. I reject that last item with extreme prejudice – the authors listed below are on the front line of grimdark fiction, smashing skulls and gouging eyes.
If you are like me and love to get your paws on some dark and gritty and dangerous fiction then the novels below are every bit as disturbing and brutal as you could hope for, though sometimes in interesting new ways. Give them a shot if you haven’t already – you are missing out! This is not about urging people to read female authors instead of male, it’s about me wanting to read ALL THE BOOKS. Tell us about all the great grimdark books by women that we need to add to our to-be-read lists! It’s easy to find novels written by men recommended everywhere, but I’ve only recently discovered some of the below even exist and WHY DID NOBODY TELL ME? How very annoying.
Anna Stephens – Godblind
Why you should read: Bloodthirsty gods return to resume an age-old war, betrayal, battle, and THAT hammer scene. *shudders*
Anna Smith Spark – The Court of Broken Knives
Why you should read: Exquisite, lyrical prose combined with a dark and bloody story of murder and death, regicide and madness.
J.V. Jones – A Cavern of Black Ice
Why you should read: A criminally under-hyped epic grimdark fantasy in a harsh arctic landscape. Bitter battles and slaughter to equal anything in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Celia Friedman – Black Sun Rising
Why you should read: A science fantasy set on a colonised but technologically devolved alien world featuring a fascinating magic system where an alien force called the Fae manifests human dreams, fears and faith.
Robin Hobb – Assassin’s Apprentice
Why you should read: Robin Hobb is the master of the emotional gut-punch. You will care about her characters, and then she hurts them, over and over.
Kameron Hurley – The Mirror Empire
Why you should read: Vast, complicated, and spectacular worldbuilding. An unapologetically brutal setting and flipped gender roles offer unique and challenging perspectives.
N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season
Why you should read: Apocalyptic fantasy featuring a land torn apart by earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions, and the shackled and feared earth-mages used to keep humanity from extinction.
Mary Gentle – Ash: A Secret History
Why you should read: An alternative history fantasy that is harsh, brutal and dripping with historical detail that brings the dark medieval world to life.
Deborah Wolf- The Dragon’s Legacy
Why you should read: This swords and sandals fantasy features sumptuous worldbuilding and includes giant weaponised cyborg spiders – what more do you need?
Teresa Frohock – Miserere: An Autumn Tale
Why you should read: Mark Lawrence calls it “…gripping, dark, swords and sorcery fantasy with one of the most stomach turning demon appearances I’ve read.” An exiled holy warrior, the lover he sacrificed to save his sister, and the sister that wants to open the gates of Hell.
Francis Knight – Fade to Black
Why you should read: A Noir-ish dark fantasy novel with futuristic dystopian elements featuring pain mages and their gruesome ways to gain power.
Timandra Whitecastle – Touch of Iron
Why you should read: A foul-mouthed, stubborn girl into swords and a boy more into books. Graphic gore, dark and sharp as a knife.
M.L. Spencer – Darkstorm
Why you should read: An impending magical cataclysm that will kill all magic-users and a secret cabal using demonic power to stop it that may unleash something even worse. Spell duels, intrigue and betrayal.
Rebecca Levene – Smiler’s Fair
Why you should read: Strong, diverse, and shady characters always travelling through fantastical landscapes – keep moving or be murdered by the worm men. Duelling, gambling, prostitution and merciless killing.
Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death
Why you should read: A hated and feared sorceress struggles to save her mother’s people from war, slavery, and genocide, blending quest, magic and the harsh reality of post-apocalyptic Africa. Emotionally devastating, but full of inner strength. It is brutal, but perhaps more grimheart (a grimdark world but a character with love and hope) than grimdark.
Melokai by Rosalyn Kelly
Why you should read: A legendary warrior and leader at the end of her reign, a people where women rule supreme, betrayal from within and intelligent wolves out for revenge and threatening to destroy everything.
Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey
Why you should read: This can be described as a reworking of Lord of The Rings, but from the Dark Lord’s point of view. Good is evil, evil is good, and characters are flawed and tragic – this is the morally grey of grimdark at its finest.
We Ride The Storm by Devin Madson
Why you should read: The novel opens with “It’s harder to sever a head than people think”, nicely setting up the reader for the bloody chaos to follow. Three separate and unique first person points of view from different cultures trying to survive war and slaughter.
Grimdark as a genre is a tricky one to define, but I think the books above make for a good beginning of a larger list. I’m sure that I, like many other readers, have missed other amazing grimdark(ish) novels written by women so if you have recommendations don’t be shy and add them in the comments below – share your joy in reading them far and wide.
If you like these books, give them some reviews, some shares, and bring them up when people ask which the best grimdark novels are. And if you think women can’t write grimdark fiction? Sweet mercy, you, my poor innocent soul, are in for a shock. Some of it is truly gruesome and ventures into territory most men fear to tread.