If you’ve yet to meet Sal the Cacophony, you’re in for a treat. The anti-hero star of Seven Blades in Black, the doorstopping start to Sam Sykes’s The Grave of Empires series, is a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, good-hearted riot.
Sal is an outlaw magician. The Cacophony is the magic gun with a fiery temper she carries from town to town on her quest for vengeance against band of powerful mages who wronged her. Sal roams across the Scar—her wasteland realm of a home—racking up a body count and enlisting several (semi-)willing allies in a story that alternates between cracking jokes and unpacking a helluva lot of emotional trauma.
The vibe is bleak and boffo, fueled by flawless gallows humor and an immense amount of gore. And it made us want more. So we thought of some other dark, funny fantasy favorites to keep us occupied until Sal the Cacophony rides again.
Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames
What do you get when you take the concept of aging, semi-retired rock bands and swap it out for aging, semi-retired bands of mercenaries? Eames’s glorious series-starting debut. Clay Cooper and his band Saga used to be feared and famous far and wide. Now, Saga’s members are old, mostly drunk, and doughy around the middle. But when one of their own comes knocking on Clay’s door with a cry for help, well, it’s time to get the band back together. A perfect read for fans of both humor and metal.
The Ruin of Kings, by Jenn Lyons
The first book in the A Chorus of Dragons series begins as a prison-cell conversation. It’s a dire situation from the start: imprisoned thief Khirin’s luck (what little he had of it) seems to have run out and he’s about to be put to death. But Lyon’s debut is also filled with gallows humor at its finest. Through alternating chapters, Khirin and Talon, his not-quite-human jailer, retell Khirin’s life story, mulling over the events that led him into a cell. What makes it so darkly funny? Talon knows so much about Khirin because she absorbs memories of those she knows intimately—including those she’s eaten. (Well, it’s amusing in context, anyway.)
A Crown for Cold Silver, by Alex Marshall
The first line of this opening novel in the Crimson Empire series explains it all: “It was all going so nicely, right up until the massacre.” So much of what gives this epic saga its bloody, cheeky appeal is its central protagonist, a middle-aged, bisexual retired rebel general and one-time queen named Cobalt Zosia. Years after she laid down her weapons, disillusioned and longing for peace, Zosia is drawn back into the fray by the slaughter of her entire village—her thirst for vengeance means she and her gang of ne’er-do-wells, the Five Villains, must ride again.
The Prey of Gods, by Nicky Drayden
Drayden’s gonzo debut has a foot in the worlds of both science fiction and fantasy, but with a first chapter that features hallucinatory crab-on-dolphin sex, it can’t very well be excluded from this list. This mile-a-minute head trip into a near-future South Africa is disorienting and stuffed to the gills with wild plot devices (sentient AI, aggrieved demigods, mass murder, a fearsome plague of dik-diks, and so on). It forecasts a dark future and deals with troubling issues of the present, with a bonkers, go-for-broke sensibility throughout that makes it a novel like no other.
Master Assassins, by Robert V.S. Redick
The title of this book is accurate, yes, and also deeply ironic. Kandri and Mektu Hinjuman are brothers, rivals, and soldiers in the service of a religious zealot, the Prophet. Assassins, however, they are not. Until someone the Prophet loves winds up inadvertently dead by Kandri’s hand. Mistaken for purposeful killers, the Brothers Hinjuman go on the run through a beautifully named desert—The Land That Eats Men—as accidental pawns in a grander scheme for control of the continent. The brothers’ relationship is complex and richly developed, and the hi-jinx they get into along the way are as memorable as they are amusing.
Food of the Gods, by Cassandra Khaw
Khaw knows how to pack a disturbing five-course meal into a book that reads like a tasty appetizer; for evidence, look to her Lovecraftian Persons Non Grata novellas. Here, though, with poor, unfortunate Rupert Wong, she finds the space to go big, bold, bloody, and absolutely bananas with a real feast of an absurdist dark fantasy. You could call Rupert Wong a career man; he has two. By day, he’s a cannibal chef for powerful ghouls. By night, he’s a bureaucrat in Diyu, the hell of Chinese mythology. His efforts to please an ever-growing cadre of gods and ghouls are gruesome and grin-inducing.
What’s your favorite not-too-serious fantasy novel?