The best science fantasy novels set in a dark, dystopian world or universe

Who am I?

I love dystopian science fantasy for the fact that it defines its own reality. The distant, magical aspects of every dystopian world create separation from the world we live in. The reader must cling to the characters, accept their motives and flaws, and finish the ride no matter where it goes. Not every plot needs to reform the status quo. Star Wars was the white-washed exception, and even that got dark at times. Combining flawed characters with flawed settings makes a novel compelling without the need for overly fantastic powers or world-altering events. Sure, I include those too, but futuristic dystopia offers plenty of challenges for simply surviving each day.


I wrote...

Psyker

By Rory Surtain,

Book cover of Psyker

What is my book about?

Fast-moving, edgy, and dark but not graphic or gratuitous, Psyker challenges readers to experience a far different reality from their own.

In the dark, distant future, densely populated hive cities rely on ancient technologies and rigid laws in order to endure. Paric Kilhaven, a scion of a noble House, navigates the sinister, alluring world of his city’s underhive, hoping to escape the fate of an outlawed psyker. Rival gangs and chaotic forces align against him in a fight for the planet’s survival.

The books I picked & why

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Eisenhorn: The Omnibus

By Dan Abnett,

Book cover of Eisenhorn: The Omnibus

Why this book?

A different kind of hero. Cerebral and self-contained. Eisenhorn is an Inquisitor who maneuvers within the system and operates within his own complex reality, fighting a never-ending war against all aspects of Chaos. He finds allies in impossible places and uses them to his advantage. Part mystery, part adventure, and expertly crafted to portray the darkest of futures, it is the quintessential dystopian science fantasy. While some may question the rigid morality of the future day, Eisenhorn chooses results over dogma, choosing the lesser of two evils. I learned that characters must choose their own reality, adapting to the dystopia in which they reside. It’s a compelling human trait that transcends any universe.  


Dune

By Frank Herbert,

Book cover of Dune

Why this book?

An Emperor behind the scenes, machinations, Houses instead of families, politics, and war define a reality of conflict, sacrifice, and intrigue. This book is foundational for many of the ideas borrowed by more recent science fantasy writers, me included.

Dune builds slowly both in terms of the universe and the main character, but it taught me that fantasy/sci-fi is far more than elaborate costumes, unexplained superpowers, or the monsters beneath the surface. I learned that human motivations and avarice could be far more compelling than the cover of any book.


Shadow & Claw: The First Half of the Book of the New Sun

By Gene Wolfe,

Book cover of Shadow & Claw: The First Half of the Book of the New Sun

Why this book?

Crafting a dark, mysterious, and mood-driven enigma, Wolfe paints on a future canvas that is a combination of horror and discovery. Instead of flashing back, the novel seems to flash forward and is impactful for that alone. The main character doesn’t seem particularly special but he inherits a world and grows with the knowledge he attains.

It’s a work that leaves the reader wondering what just happened and why. Who is Severian and why is he special? Is he a man or a god? Does reality shape him or vice versa? Questions draw the reader in. I learned that it’s OK to have an unreliable narrator and not spell out all the answers. Instead, at times, let the reader decide what makes the most sense to them. When done right, it is magical.


The Space Wolf Omnibus

By William King,

Book cover of The Space Wolf Omnibus

Why this book?

A man is chosen. A hero emerges. Deep, dark future action and adventure at its story-telling best. As a beast created to kill other beasts, what keeps Ragnar in check? What controls his path? Great questions, but who cares? These are adventures of the purest, most entertaining form. King offers the perfect balance of action and coming-of-age in a dystopian future. As the main character, Ragnar Blackmane can best be described as a noble savage, ascending within the pantheon of heroes that leave their mark on the galaxy. It’s this combination that makes it all work, and I wish King would have written more. 


Jade City

By Fonda Lee,

Book cover of Jade City

Why this book?

Switching to a more recent science fantasy novel, I loved Fonda Lee’s take on The Godfather meets Dune in a science fantasy setting. Sure, it’s not those same stories, but I love her inclusion of the gray side of society as having power and a semi-sanctioned place all their own. Lee leverages the concept of clans, honor, and neutral factions, weaving a prodigal child plot that is certain to grow thicker with the sequel. In a world where society is dominated by unseen levels of politics and mafia-like entities, the magical power of jade makes all the difference when conflict and violence are the measures of the day. Beyond all the maneuvering and doubt, a violent reckoning can be thoroughly satisfying and shouldn’t be overlooked.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in dystopia, sibling rivalry, and galactic empires?

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