Merciless Magic: Dark Fantasy Fiction

by Emily Z.

I appreciate it when fantasy novels embrace the idea that magic is not inherently friendly. Consider the titular Ring from The Fellowship of the Ring books; no matter how pure and noble the ring’s bearer was, over time it was going to bend them to its will and leave them a damaged husk. This goes for magical lands too. Give me Return to Oz over The Wizard of Oz any day.

Admittedly yes, part of me is still waiting for my Hogwarts letter and all that it entails, but the rest of me feels magic ought not to be so whimsical. If magic is truly this primal, physics-defying force, shouldn’t using it (or even getting close to it) come with more of a price? Shouldn’t it involve more than careful hand-gestures and Latin patois? That’s where I’d like to go today, worlds in which the otherworldly consumes, corrupts, and still leaves you yearning for it.

Whether you’re in the mood for modern magicians, Victorian warlocks, world-hopping wizards, deranged demi-gods, or just muggles who aspire to greater things, this list has a little bit of each. I’m only highlighting a few of the titles today to give you an impression of different kinds of “dark” magic, but check the gallery below for more titles.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Nancy doesn’t fit into our world anymore. She is but one of many young people who discovered a portal to an incredible fantasy land, came of age there, and suddenly found themselves back “home” again. Like everyone else ditched by Narnia/Wonderland/Pepperland/Candyland/Oz she’s been trundled off by baffled parents to an unusual boarding school designed for such magical rejects. The school might actually be a place of healing if someone weren’t murdering and mutilating the students one by one…as soon as Nancy arrives.

A gruesome mystery, vivid fantasy, and a lot of soul-searching make this novella feel full-sized. McGuire can deftly sketch out numerous lush fantasy landscapes as students are introduced, piquing curiosity without getting lost. She also skillfully involves the topics of abandonment, loss of identity, gender expression, and asexuality.

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey 

Sadima’s people have outlawed magic, which was once not only real but commonplace. What no one yet knows is that Sadima herself has innate magical talent. Her gifts are eventually discovered by Somiss, a driven nobleman scholar seeking to resurrect magic and one day found a magical conservatory. Together, they plan to experiment and scour the land, gathering up and documenting the old rhymes, song, and sayings their mother’s mother’s once used daily.

In alternating chapters, Duey also lets us peek into the future and witness life at Sadima’s and Somiss’s school. Hogwarts it is not. Instead, we see a bleak monastery where the second-born sons of wealthy families go to be forgotten. The curriculum is cruel as well. The first lesson is how to conjure food. If students don’t catch on, they don’t eat.

How did this happen? When did Somiss’s and Sadima’s dreams go so wrong? Is this the same Kathleen Duey who wrote all those books about horses and unicorns?

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

In the brutal, gritty fantasy world Fletcher has built, madness and magic reign over all. Though there are few true deities left, thousands of mortals are now capable of bringing their desires or delusions to life, with virtually no restrictions. These Gefahrgeist [geh-fahr-gīst] can also amplify their power by feeding off the adoration (or fear) of those around them.

High Priest Konig is a Gefahrgeist whose greatest desire is to forge a new man-made god by carefully molding and controlling a gifted Gefahrgeist child. Unfortunately for Konig, his window of opportunity is narrowing. Not only is he running out of suitable candidates to train into a deity (they keep dying), flesh and blood doppelgangers of himself keep appearing, intent on killing and replacing him. Such is the price of having the belief of an entire city sustaining your madness-based super powers.

Only three people have any plans to stand in Konig’s way

  • Stehlen the hyper-violent pathological liar, kleptomaniac madwoman
  • Wichtig the sociopathic, egomaniacal, womanizing master swordsman
  • Bedeckt the dilapidated, hulking, axe-wielding barbarian

It’s safe to say they’re not your typical heroes. This trio plans to stop Konig by kidnapping his latest child-god-prodigy, but only long enough to ransom him back for cash.

If you enjoy this book, it too has a sequel , which even won a Stabby award from Reddit.

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7 responses to “Merciless Magic: Dark Fantasy Fiction”

  1. Lindsey says:

    SO many of these books are on my TBR list! I’d say Every Heart a Doorway and A Darker Shade of Magic are at the top. I’d never heard of Beyond Redemption, though, and it sounds amazing!

    • Emily Z says:

      Lindsey, Beyond Redemption was amazing, though quite different in tone from the other two featured titles. I must admit while I was reading it, I kept thinking “Should I really blog about this? This is messed up.”, most often when the pyromaniac character’s story line came up.

      I only found out about Every Heart a Doorway because Tor was featuring it on their Facebook page as part of their new line of novellas. I don’t normally go for novellas, because I assume they’ll feel too short, but Every Heart a Doorway, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, All Systems Red, and The Warren (part of a future creepy scifi post) are proving that assumption wrong.

      After reading the Darker Shade of Magic series I’m pretty sure I need to go back and read Schwab’s stand alone book, Vicious, too.

  2. Isaac says:

    This is a great dark fantasy list! I really enjoyed both the book and live action series of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and The Magicians. The Library at Mount Char is probably my favorite fantasy book of the last few years, and Beyond Redemption has been on my get-to list since it was released.

    • Emily Z says:

      Thanks, Isaac! I’d been meaning to assemble this list since I first came across Beyond Redemption over a year ago. I think is has been under the radar for a lot of people because it was self-published originally.
      The Library at Mount Char utterly exemplifies the idea of Merciless Magic, doesn’t it? I might just need to read it again.

      The TV adaptations of Strange/Norrell and The Magicians are totally awesome. I have yet to catch up on season 2 of The Magicians, but I enjoy what they’re doing and how the story diverges from the books. The production company responsible for the Strange/Norrell mini series is also rumored to be producing a similar project featuring the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, which I am very excited about.

  3. KP says:

    Finally getting around to reading some of these, fantastic list–and thanks Isaac, I’ve been putting off The Library at Mount Char for a while now–time to get to it!

  4. Kaley says:

    Ohhh, have you read the next installment in Seanan’s series yet? It’s so much fun!

    • Emily Zimmer says:

      Yes! I’m also eagerly anticipating the third book. I really like how she’s planned out this series so you can read them in more or less any order. I still think reading Every Heart a Doorway first is helpful, but it sounds like the other books stand on their own. I hope she does a book for everyone’s world, especially the horrifying musical skeleton world.

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