YA Dark Fantasy Books That Are Actually Dark

by - October 29, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly list meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. Learn more about it here!

I love dark novels. And dark fantasy has a special place in my heart. Unfortunately, scouring the internet for YA dark fantasy rec lists always disappoints me. It seems like a lot of article writers don't understand what dark fantasy is. In Adult, it's more straightforward; you have no shortage of grimdark and ASOIAF-level darkness. In YA, it's a little harder to find, and so many novels are called "dark" just because it has the smallest shadow.

But real YA dark fantasy does exist in all its glory!

YA Dark Fantasy Novels that are ACTUALLY Dark 

1. House of Salt and Sorrows

Dark fantasy was originally considered a marriage of fantasy and horror. Nowadays, the horror is not required, but House of Salt and Sorrows is so deliciously horrific. It's a fantastical retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses... except the sisters are being murdered one by one, and our protagonist Annaleigh has to find the killer before he finds her. The atmosphere of their seaside mansion is deliciously creepy, and by the end there's enough gore and cosmic horror (yes, cosmic horror!!) to qualify it for this genre.

2. Never Contented Things

This is not your average fae story. The faeries here are downright evil, sadistic, and inhuman. They cannot love; they are not redeemed. But Never Contented Things isn't just dark because it has monstrous creatures. It's dark because it explores incestuous love, sexual assault, toxic codependent relationships, and manipulation. Everything in this story has a glittery sheen: the lovely prose, the quirky characters, the weirdness of the fae realm. But the beautiful glamour is quickly peeled back to reveal an ugly underbelly. Even the good characters aren't as good as they seem. I think it's so unfortunate that this book was marketed wrongly; it's nothing like The Cruel Prince (imo it's better). But it's also not for everyone. It's a strange, brave, disturbing gem of a novel, and I'm so glad it exists in the YA space. Even if I didn't entirely like it, I respected it. Reading this book felt like the equivalent of facing your fears head on, like having an itch that you can't reach because it's burrowed too deep beneath your skin.

3. Cruel Beauty

This is not your average Beauty and the Beast retelling. Nyx is betrothed to Ignifex, the evil demon lording over their kingdom. But she's a cruel girl who's been trained all her life to eventually kill her husband. These two have a violent romance; they're constantly trying to kill each other. I love how Nyx doesn't ever hide her darkness, and Ignifex loves her for it. They're just as vile as each other, and it's luscious. If you're an enemies to lovers fan, you should read this book too.

4. Not Even Bones

This book is pitched as Dexter meets This Savage Song and wow, that already tells you everything! All the characters are villains. There is a lot of gore and violence. Nita dissects supernatural creatures to sell their body parts to the black market... until she gets betrayed and sold herself. She has no qualms about sacrificing others to save herself. I haven't read this yet, but I'm very excited to.

5. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Some books are dark because of their settings, but this one is dark because of its protagonist. Xifeng is a selfish villainous main character who uses her femininity to manipulate the court and seize the throne. She uses her beauty and brains to take out her enemies without having to lift a blade. But sometimes she does kill... because her magic grows stronger when she eats hearts. Evil queen, indeed.

6. Wicked Saints

I confess I haven't read this novel yet, but even I can tell that it's the poster child for dark fantasy. This gothic dream has all the right tropes: forbidden blood magic, an enemies to lovers romance, a protagonist who can wield the power of gods and gets chased by an assassin prince... and many monsters that hide in the wintry wooden landscape of an Eastern European-inspired world. According to the author, the sequel also has some cosmic horror, so she knows what she's doing.

7. To Kill a Kingdom

Another dark fairytale retelling, this time of The Little Mermaid. Lira is a siren, a monster that gleefully rips prince's hearts out of their chests. She's been raised in a cruel dog-eat-dog world, so she's got the savagery to match. Prince Elian is on a quest to destroy all of siren-kind. One day, they're forced to work together... and they get along like a house on fire. Witty banter, enemies to lovers, cruel characters, violence... and yet a slow burn romance... this book is a masterpiece.

8. Give the Dark My Love

“If you do this, Nedra, if you choose necromancy… I cannot follow you into that darkness.”
“Oh, Grey,” I said, shifting my bag onto my shoulder. “What do you know of darkness?”
This is a story of a protagonist's rise to villainy. Nedra starts with good intentions: she wants to become an alchemist and cure the deadly plague sweeping across her country. But as the cure grows more elusive, Nedra realizes she must turn to something more powerful: necromancy and dark magic. Does the end justify the means?

9. The Bone Witch

Tea discovers she's a bone witch, a necromancer, when she resurrects her brother from the grave. I admit that the sequels are better than the first book, but what makes this series interesting is that it's also a story of her rise to villainy. The bulk of the story is about a young Tea who learns how to become a bone witch and all that usual YA fantasy plottiness. But a second narrative, this one cataloguing an older, more destructive Tea, shows her future. I didn't appreciate the storytelling arc until I read the final book in the series... which really brings things full circle.

10. The Shadows Between Us

Okay, this book comes out in 2020, but I'm already excited for it! It was pitched as a Slytherin romance. The blurb is basically: 1) Woo the Shadow King. 2) Marry him. 3) Kill him and take the throne for herself. It seems like our protagonist is going to be ruthless, cunning, and vicious... and with a name like The Shadow King, I doubt our king is your average kind prince charming. Let's hope this book is as exciting as it sounds! ;)

What about you? What are your favorite YA dark fantasy novels?

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  1. Oh my gosh, yes, yes, yes! You clearly wrote this list just for me, right?! I can't help but giggle at reviews of people who pick up dark fantasy books and then are annoyed when they're dark and I'm just like ... duh? I'm still stuck on a wait list for House of Salt and Sorrow. T_T I'm so looking forward to reading it, though! I haven't read Wicked Saints yet, either, but I bought it a few months ago, and I can't wait to pick it up because it sounds like it'll be wonderfully dark!

    Here's my TTT post.

    1. HAHAH I knoww!! Those reviews don't make sense to me. If you don't like dark books then don't pick them up!

      House of Salt and Sorrows starts quite slow but the third act BLEW ME AWAY. Hope you enjoy it!

  2. You're making me so curious about Forest of a Thousand Lanterns.

    My TTT.

    1. It's a really great book! It subverts a lot of the usual YA fantasy expectations. It starts quite slow but once Xifeng enters the court, things go downhill (for the others) real quick ;)

  3. Such a great list! Never Contented Things has been on my TBR for a while and I hope to read it soon.

    1. Thank you! I personally haven't finished Never Contented Things yet but it's such an ORIGINAL book that I'm glad I started it. Hope you enjoy it!

  4. Just the titles and covers of these are scary!

  5. I'm glad to see you listed Never Contented Things. That novel really messed me up and I think a lot of people were giving it a bad rep because they were expecting something else. (Ala, The Cruel Prince or The Iron Fey, maybe.) It was such a painful, dark read and I'm still aching from it almost a year later. In a good way. Such a dark read and honestly so many of the other books you've listed are on my TBR so I'm stoked to get to them in the future. Great picks!

    1. Yess, I think that's why they disliked it too! Such a great shame. I haven't finished reading it either because it's so disturbing... but wow I am in awe. Hope you enjoy the others :)

  6. It’s so hard to find YA that’s actually dark. I’ll have to check out some of these books.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. I knowww, but dark YA exists; it's just buried beneath the rest. Hope you enjoy the rest! :)

  7. I can't recommend Not Even Bones enough! :)

    Lauren @ Always Me

  8. ooh love the sound of house of salt and sorrow and wicked saints. And to kill a kingdom is a great book for this!