I’ve been an avid reader in the past few months and have had the pleasure of enjoying some very immersive fantasy novels.
Four series in particular that I have very much enjoyed are:
the Black Company omnibusses by Glen Cook
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
the Malazan Fallen empire books by Steve Erikson
I am looking for more stand-alone novels as well as series which could be compared to these novels.
Aspects I like to see in the books I read:
heroes which don’t have as many lives as cats and (can) actually perish
preferably no black and white, but grey characters, each with their own motives and no absolute good and evil (of course some characters can be that or some enemy faction etc., but I’d like some grey areas)
can be low or high-magic worlds, but in my experience these aforementioned aspects are mostly found in the lower-magic fantasy works
Razarok, read the first 5 Amber books (the “Corwin cycle”, as it were) by Rodger Zelazney. Plenty of grey there (lots of machinations, and Corwin rules). Technically I guess I would call it high magic, except that calling it high magic will make you immediately think all sorts of things about it that aren’t actually true.
This is a very different kind of fantasy than any of the above, but I think you would likely enjoy Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels (starting with The Devil You Know). Also, if you’re willing to branch into comics, Carey’s Lucifer and (before Lucifer, as it’s technically a spinoff) Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
I liked Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, collected in Tales of the Dying Earth. The darkness isn’t from grim warriors tripping over piles of corpses. It’s from a feeling of resignation. The cool people had emigrated the planet, come back, left again, etc., as technology became sufficiently indistinguishable from magic. By the time these stories take place, the cool people have left for good and the meek have inherited the Dying Earth. The remainders have no incentive to be selfless. Humanity is just marking time before the sun finally gutters out (or alternately are being eaten by ineffable horrors). Vance’s writing style is inimitable.
You might have to hunt through used book stores to find this other one, but Richard Adams (the dude who wrote Watership Down) wrote an epic doorstop named Maia. Terrible things happen to the eponymous heroine. She is more of a Pollyanna than a Mary Sue, but there’s darkness in the world. The political system is the basic Evil Empire, rife with slavery and treachery. Much of the sexytime (and good lord, there’s a lot of it in this book) is filled with both sadism and masochism. There are a few grim warriors in this one. I don’t remember if the corpses came in piles, though.
I was about to recommend Vance, in particular the Cugel stories (which are collected in Tales of the Dying Earth). Cugel is the ultimate anti-hero, and best of all, he doesn’t brood over it. It lacks grittiness by modern standards, but eh.
Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains should also fit the bill. It’s plenty gritty, too :-)
My lord, can’t believe nobody has mentioned David Gemmell yet!
Steer clear of the late stuff, his writing declined towards the last several books, IMO, but most of the early books are great. Low magic, gritty and dark. Some books and characters are more greyscale than others. There are a few different ‘worlds’ in which the stories take place, but each book is pretty much self contained. If you like Abercrombie, I suspect you would like these.
A couple of recommendations:
Legend - his first book, pretty much a must read
Wolf in Shadow (post apocalyptic/fantasy hybrid)
Knights of Dark Renown
Echoes of the Great Song
Sword in the Storm
If Vance is fair game, his predecessor Clark Ashton Smith should qualify. As should Vance’s successor, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which perhaps has fewer of the stock horror elements of other dark fantasy tales, but whose setting and overall content fit the bill.