The best and grittiest dark-fantasy novels

Carmilla Voiez Author Of Starblood: The Graphic Novel
By Carmilla Voiez

The Books I Picked & Why

Imajica

By Clive Barker

Book cover of Imajica

Why this book?

I believe this is the greatest dark-fantasy novel ever written. Clive Barker is canon in the world of imaginative horror and fantasy, and this magical story balances both genres in exciting and revelatory ways. Gender, greed, and power are central themes in a work that weaves Christianity and sorcery together in extraordinary ways.

Pie ‘oh Pah is one of my favourite literary characters—assassin, magicians’ assistant, lover, sex-worker, and a devout and loyal friend to Gentle. Pie ‘oh Pah transcends any binary understanding of gender. It is their tragic love that drives the narrative and connects the main protagonists Gentle and Judith.

This is a book which has drawn me back to its world many times, and I am not ashamed to admit that Imajica partly inspired my Starblood series.


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Hermetech

By Storm Constantine

Book cover of Hermetech

Why this book?

The setting for Hermetech is a post-apocalyptic landscape. As with Imajica, the central quest is to heal a ruptured world. Futuristic science and magic coexist in the story as a group of disparate and dysfunctional travellers retrieve Ari and escort her (and the reader) through strange, broken lands and along unfriendly and dangerous roads.

It is a highly imaginative, speculative fantasy with another character who blends and transcends gender and steals a reader’s heart. Zambia Crevecoeur is deeply flawed and tragic, and it is hir journey (emotional rather than geographical) which drew me into this extraordinary novel.


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The Scar

By China Miéville

Book cover of The Scar

Why this book?

Armada is a pirate city, populated by both mundane and outlandish citizens, and built on decommissioned vessels connected to each other by bridges. The politics of the city are fascinating as are its enigmatic rulers, the scarred Lovers. Mieville’s densely poetic prose brings the city to life and while most of the populous are background figures, there are some notable exceptions, including the Remade Tanner Sack who takes us beneath the surface of the ocean.

Magic exists as a resource, fuelling political intrigue as countries and empires battle for supremacy. The quest to control a particular form of magic drives Armada across the oceans and underpins much of the novel’s intrigue.

Unlike the other books on my list. The Scar does not deal explicitly with gender. Although the main protagonist, Bellis, is female, the world of Bas-Lag feels like a place where gender has little relevance. Bellis is an unusual and frequently unsympathetic “hero” but complex and authentic. She is antisocial, and selfish, and finds herself reluctantly drawn to the centre of the action due to her skill in translation.


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Night Brother

By Rosie Garland

Book cover of Night Brother

Why this book?

It is set in the late 19th early 20th century in Manchester, England. A time of suffragists and a blossoming underground queer culture, both of which were violently opposed by state and police. Set in this time, place and atmosphere is the story of Edie and Gnome. The first chapter shows them in perfect, natural harmony with each other. As Edie grows up, her intersex nature (given a gloriously magical bent by Garland) is repressed and made a cause of shame via their mother’s abuse. Without full expression and acceptance, Edie/Gnome's relationship becomes destructive and toxic. The Night Brother is a journey of acceptance and balance woven into a wider narrative about feminine roles in society and the struggle to transcend them.

It is a delight to follow Garland’s beautiful prose both as it delves into the violent and gritty aspects of Victorian Manchester and when it soars into fantastical and magical scenes. The book is like a lover's kiss, communicating deep and hidden truths while giving intense pleasure.


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The Changeling

By Victor LaValle

Book cover of The Changeling

Why this book?

The setting is New York, and the central character, Apollo, is a young man with a Ghanaian mother and a white, ex-cop, father. Apollo spends his time searching for rare books. On the day of his greatest find, his wife attacks him and kills their son, or so it seems. But the story is far more complex.

The central themes are masculinity and the changing nature of fatherhood. It also looks at motherhood, childbirth, love, and paranoia, while dealing with cyber-stalking, immigration, witches, wishes, revenge, and trolls (both kinds). It is a deeply human tale about what can go wrong psychologically and emotionally when a couple becomes parents.

Tradition and high-tech-modernity mesh seamlessly in the story, bridging the mundane and the magical.


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