Fantasy books are some of the most popular works of literature for their ability to transport readers into worlds filled with magic, monsters, supernatural beings, and other sources of inspiration authors have taken from fairy tales, folk lore, or mythology, as well as the creative realms of their imagination.
Typically, fantasy stories lean toward the more lighthearted, idealistic side. But what happens when the bright and sparkling worlds of fantasy take a turn for the sinister?
Dark fantasy is a subgenre of fiction and fantasy where the narrative’s tone, worldview, and subject matter are on the bleaker and cynical side. These stories may desconstruct idealistic portrayals of common fantasy tropes, or they may focus on heavier themes and concepts, such as death, evil, violence, consquences, or loss. Content-wise, dark fantasy relies on the same mystical aspects of fantasy literature, but has a much higher concentration of disturbing situations or scenes than the average fantasy book.
In this article, we’ll provide a clear description of dark fantasy as a genre and explain how, despite their similarities, this genre differs from fantasy enough to warrant its own title as subgenre. You’ll also learn how dark fantasy books aren’t quite the same as other comparable genres, like supernatural horror.
Dark Fantasy as a Fantasy Sub-Genre
Many avid readers don’t realize that “fantasy” as a genre is very much a blanket term that merely means the book (or other content) contains fictional characters, settings, plots, and other elements that revolve around the existence of magical or supernatural phenomena and lacks extensive scientific themes or explanations (otherwise it would be deemed Sci-Fi).
Dark fantasy books incorporate common elements and inspirations from the fantasy genre as a whole, but intentionally take a darker, grittier angle to the fantasy tale. Whether through graphic imagery, an ominous tone, or something else, these stories have a tangible lack of uplifting or optimistic content.
If you couldn’t tell from the name alone, dark fantasy books shouldn’t be your first choice for an inspirational, feel-good story.
Characteristics of Dark Fantasy Books
There’s no one silver bullet that pegs a fantasy story as ‘dark fantasy’ or some other genre. However, there are a number of typical characteristics of dark fantasy books that can help any reader identify them. The more of these characteristics a fantasy story has, the more likely it is – or at least will give the experience of – a dark fantasy book.
Common themes and obstacles you’ll find include:
- Anti-Heroes: Dark fantasy’heroes’ tend to be extremely gray in terms of their personalities and decisions. Others may be outright villainous characters. These protagonists might be thieves, mercenaries, assassins, torturers, and so on. If there are protagonists who are noble, it’s common for them to be forced to make difficult decisions that place their overall character in question.
- No guaranteed ‘happily ever after’: Rather than the usual “good always triumphs over evil” ending, it isn’t uncommon in dark fantasy literature for evil to conquer. You might also find that there is no clear sign of good anywhere in your dark fantasy book.
- Death: Characters, including main characters or heroic characters, may die.
- Corruption: Whether politicians, ‘knights in shining armor’,the overall populace, or the so-called heroes themselves, corruption is often rampant. If not that, authority figures may be utterly apathetic to their duties rather than actively malicious. This frequently applies to institutions, as well. Overall, characters and instuitions lack the nobility and pursuit of goodness associated with, say, high fantasy.
- Violence: Tends to be graphic, with the book pulling no punches in terms of who might be a victim.
Authors of these books may use suspenseful atmospheres to keep readers on edge, but their goal isn’t to outright scare readers as a horror author might aim to do. A dark fantasy book’s content might certainly be graphic and horrifying, but creating fear or unsettling readers isn’t their primary goal.
How is Dark Fantasy Different from Supernatural Horror?
Fans of dark, frightening, or foreboding literature might recognize a number of similarities dark fantasy books seem to share with supernatural horror. It’s true that these two subgenres have a lot in common, but they aren’t exactly the same.
The overarching differences between dark fantasy and supernatural horror are supernatural horror’s emphasis on supernatural creatures and themes (ex. ghost, demons, the afterlife) in a realistic setting, and the author’s intention to frighten the reader.
Intent to Frighten
As we mentioned previously, dark fantasy books contain extremely grim and macabre content, but the author is not primarily trying to scare the reader throughout the story; the focus is more on creating a foreboding atmosphere and focusing on the story’s dark aesthetic. Scaring the reader with their language, tone, and imagery might be a bonus than a priority. One could argue most dark fantasy books are considered closer to thriller books than horror books for this reason.
In supernatural horror, scaring the reader is everything. If the reader’s heart wasn’t racing at least once and the book’s content didn’t frighten them enough to put it down, take a break, and contemplate life, then it didn’t do its job.
These books will use many of the same tactics as dark fantasy to achieve this goal, particularly in their atmospheres and tone, but you’ll notice an increased emphasis on violence, gore, and psychologically disturbing events than in dark fantasy.
Inclusion of Supernatural Elements in a Realistic Setting
The other major difference between the two genres is the use of supernatural forces and figures and the setting they are present in. Both dark fantasy and supernatural horror books can, and often will, include common supernatural beings, such as:
However, it is where these creatures are located that make sets the two genres apart. Dark fantasy books are set in fantasy atmospheres, meaning the author has created a world that is unlike anything you could find today.
Comparatively, supernatural horror books can be set in realistic atmospheres that could feasibly exist, such as a person’s home, a church, a graveyard, etc. Apart from the supernatural creatures, there is often little to no evidence that these stories are occurring anywhere but in the world we live in today.
Granted, it could be set in modern day or centuries ago, but usually, supernatural horror authors will twist the familiarities of reality to reach their goal of scaring the reader. As a result, these books are rarely set in fantasy worlds, as that would further detach the reader from feeling as if the book’s horrific contents could happen to them.
Dark fantasy is one of the most thrilling and immersive genres you can read. They pair the escapism and malevolent creatures of fantasy with the grim settings and tones of horror and thriller books without an outright emphasis on scaring the reader. If you’re a fan of anti-heroes, twisted and morally ambiguous characters, and psychologically disturbing events all set in another world, this is the genre for you.
Are you curious what are some fantastic dark fantasy books to read? If so, this list of top dark fantasy books could have exactly what you’re looking for.