Top 10 Dark Romance Novels I Read This Year | Erica Vining

Friends, if you are easily offended, turn back now. Immediately exit this browser, turn on some Real Housewives, and douse yourself in holy water. Should you choose to continue on this journey, well, you’ve been warned.

When life feels heavy and my brain needs an escape, I read. There’s nothing that screams “real life problems” more than arranged marriages with a Mafioso or being accidently kidnapped by a rebel motorcycle gang and rescued by (several) dark knights who just happen to also look like the Hemsworth brothers. Totally believable. My taste in books has evolved over the years, from Sparks-esque romances and dystopian doomsday dramas to Schatzberg’s Manual of Clinical Psychopharmacology (9th edition) and Common Core Math for Dummies. This last year, though, I found myself gravitating towards the more risqué and less classical romance novels. Describing some of these books as “taboo” honestly doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of depravity, stuff that made my 10-plus-years-in-healthcare brain think “oh, so that’s how that got up there.” We know you didn’t fall on it in the shower, but now I have some idea of how it got there!

Dark romance has been a trend on social media this year, but navigating the hashtags looking for a new recommendation can be daunting. So, as my end of year gift to all of The Arts STL readers, I’m bringing you my top ten reads of 2023! While most of these fall in the dark romance or taboo genre, there are a couple…okay, one…that is a fairly vanilla stand alone. Always check trigger warnings if you need to, and be warned going in that some of these books feature very heavy themes and violence. These aren’t books you read to gain knowledge, at least not the academic kind, but they are entertaining and a distraction from reality. I hope you find your next all-night reading binge in this list, and think of me fondly as your jaw drops while perusing Urban Dictionary at midnight looking for the definition of “figging.” I’m going to give each book a WTF rating next to their title, 1 being the least off-limits and 10 being the most messed up thing I’ve ever read. Cheers to 2024!

[Editor’s note: all titles are self-published unless otherwise noted, and all are available via Kindle and other popular e-reading platforms. –JG]

10. Huck by Jessica Gadziala (2020) – 3/10 WTF’s

Starting off strong with Huck, I really enjoyed this one and it was a fairly quick read. Huck is a motorcycle club (MC) novel, the first standalone in the Golden Glades Henchmen series. Huck follows Harmon, our heroine, who just happens to buy a house next door to the MC. Harmon is fun, a streamer with colorful hair and a colorful personality to match. Heroines in romance novels often are meek and rely on the hero to save them, but Harmon holds her own and I respect that about her. This isn’t a super heavy read, but it does have some violent themes.  

9. King by T.M Frazier (2015) – 5/10 WTF’s

Brantley King, my favorite book boyfriend. I’ll share a small secret with this one: I actually read it a couple years ago for the first time. King was my first MC book, and there’s a reason I come back year after year and it stays in my top 10 despite hundreds of books that have come since. Our heroine, Doe, is another strong female character and a testament to the resilience some have in the face of adversity. King is, well, an asshole. This is book one of a series, and when I tell you I devoured the entire set in a few days, I could not put it down. Doe is homeless and fighting to survive, King is recently out of prison. The perfect match, right?

8. Does It Hurt? by H.D. Carlton (2022)3/10 WTF’s

This one went viral on BookTok and filled my feed for weeks before I finally caved and picked it up. Viral fame is not new for Carleton, having previously found a massive following on TikTok with her novel Haunting Adeline. This one started a bit slow for me, but once it picked up I could not put it down. We have Sawyer and Enzo, prior strangers, trapped alone at a remote lighthouse with a strange caretaker. Sawyer is reckless and running, and Enzo is just…Enzo. No slow burn or playing hard to get for Sawyer, she knows what she wants and she takes it. I really enjoyed the last 30% of this book, the plot was fairly easy to figure out but there were a few surprises thrown in.

7. Wolf by Penelope Black (2020) – 6/10 WTF’s

Your estranged Mom calls to tell you she’s marrying the head of the Irish Mafia and she wants you to spend the summer with them. What could go wrong? Enter Wolf, Sully, and Rush. Our heroine’s new step brothers are the antithesis of charming but she can’t stay away. This one is a why choose, and a very slow burn. It was almost *too* slow of a burn for me which is what knocked it down on the list, but Black’s writing and plot made up for it. Wolf is book one of a three book series.

6. Pucking Around by Emily Rath (2023) – 4/10 WTF’s

I’m not one for sports romances, but I was in a mood and couldn’t find anything else so I gave this one a shot. Super enjoyable read, another why choose so we have one heroine with a few heroes. In a completely believable storyline, we have Dr. Rachel Price, who shares a random night with a mystery man and can’t stop thinking about him months later. Lucky for her, mystery guy just happens to play on the hockey team she is assigned to for her fellowship. The writing was well done and this was a smooth, easy, enjoyable read.

5.  Trigger by J.L Drake (2021) – 5/10 WTF’s

Oh, Trigger. We head back to the MC with my number five pick on the list. Tess is running from her past, and Devil’s Reach houses her best friend, Brick. Brick helps Tess get a job at the MC bar where she meets club president Trigger. This is book one of a series, and does have a little cliffhanger at the end. I wouldn’t call it a deeply emotional book on any level, but it was a fun and quick read. There is a lot of violence and gore, hence the higher WTF rating, but outside of the blood and guts it’s fairly tame on the taboo.

4. Credence by Penelope Douglas (2020) – 6/10 WTF’s

Credence was my introduction into “dark romance,” and boy is she a good one. This book has been around for a while but didn’t hit my radar until early 2023 and at the time I remember thinking it was the wildest thing I’d ever read. Oh, to go back to those days. Credence is a standalone with our heroine Tiernan, whose parents die in the beginning of the book. She handles the loss well as she was not close with her parents, but being just shy of 18 she is assigned a guardian until her birthday: her fathers stepbrother, Jake. Jake, and his two children Noah and Kaleb, live in a remote cabin in the mountains. This one gets pretty spicy, keeping in mind these are step relations so no blood relationship. Tiernan also had only met Jake once or twice so they really had no prior interaction before she moves in for the winter. There are a lot of trigger warnings with this one so be sure to check those out if interested. Douglas is the queen of dark romance and Credence was the perfect way to ease into the genre.

3. Hate by Tate James (Foxy Publishing, 2020) – 4/10 WTF’s

Madison Kate is no one’s victim. Hate is the first book of a series and takes us back to a MC setting. The book jumps straight into the drama with a misidentified body, near assaults, and complete destruction of the future Kate had meticulously planned out. There was a bit of childish prose in this series but overall the action and the spice were top notch. Another why choose, with three heroes to our sassy heroine.

2. The Refiner by Kristy Marie (2022) – 2/10 WTF’s

This book battled for the top spot, and nearly took it. The Refiner is an emotional and enlightening read that sucked me in when I wanted to hate it and it still haunts me. This book is very different from the others on the list, there’s a bit of spice but it is not the dominant theme of the book. Keagan is sassy and strong, and when her pregnant sister is critically injured she is left with an impossible decision. The Refiner is one I would recommend going in blind for, so I’m going to keep the blurb short on this. A lot of twists and a beautiful ending. I cried. Such a girl.

1. Debt by Nina G. Jones (Goji, 2015) – 500/10 WTF’s

Drumroll please, we’ve made it to my number one read of the year. This book. This book made me question if I needed to be hospitalized somewhere for a mental health reset. Even if you think you’re not someone who needs trigger warnings, I beg of you, read the trigger warnings. To date this is the most taboo and dark novel I’ve read, and also my absolute favorite read of 2023. Mia is a good girl, but she lets curiosity get the best of her when she comes across a service offering consensual non-consent encounters. Letting her curiosity get the best of her, she signs up for the service, and shortly after has one of the most memorable nights of her life with the man chosen for her encounter. Mia is on cloud 9 until the next day when the real man she hired shows up. Who was the stranger she let in her room the night before? This book is packed with twists and turns that kept me on the edge of my seat, surprising me at every turn. | Erica Vining

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