...Joe Abercrombie might be the author you are looking for.
After finishing A Dance with Dragons, the last installment in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga, I gave Abercrombie a try, on a friend's recommendation, and read his Best Served Cold.
Confession: with the exception of JRR Tolkien (who stands in a class by himself, IMHO) and George Martin, I don't read fantasy: too much of the genre is, in my view, stereotyped, predictable and ultimately boring.
When I started on ASOIAF, Martin's saga, some ten years ago, I came across a new way of writing fantasy: harsh, realistic, with little or no magic and characters that show many shades of gray. And until a few weeks ago I thought he was the only author using that kind of style. But I happily discovered he's not.
Joe Abercrombie's prose is just as gritty, stark and shocking as George Martin's and my first exposure to his writing has turned me into an enthusiastic admirer. My plan is to work my way through his other stand-alone book, The Heroes, and his The First Law trilogy: they should carry me over the long hiatus before the publication of Martin's The Winds of Winter – hopefully NOT another six years, please Mr. Martin!
In short, this is the premise of Best Served Cold (no spoilers – what I'm telling you is contained in the first chapter): Monzcarro Murcatto – Monza for short – is a successful mercenary leader working for Count Orso: she and her brother lead the band named Thousand Swords across the continent of Styria, conquering it bit by bit for Orso's undisputed rule. Unfortunately, Monza's success goes hand in hand with personal prestige and Orso – himself a former mercenary leader – fears the possibility of being overthrown in the future, so he orders his men to kill Monza and her brother Brenna.
But against all odds, Monza survives, although broken in body and spirit, never free from the pain of her wounds and the loss of her brother, the only surviving member of her family. From that moment on, her only purpose will be to take her vengeance on Orso and the other six people responsible for the murderous assault.
To this end, she gathers a band of misfits who travel across Styria to pursue and kill, one by one, Monza's designated victims: the group, part Magnificent Seven, part Dirty Dozen, is as far as possible from any ideal of heroism and gives life to a gripping, amusing and at the same time terrifying tale that keeps you glued to the pages from start to finish - people like Caul Shivers, the northern barbarian who traveled to Styria to become a better, less violent man, and finds himself drawn into a deeper vortex of blood and brutality, instead; or the master poisoner Morveer and his shifty apprentice Day, the autistic ex convict Friendly, endlessly and maniacally counting everything in sight, or the fascinating scoundrel, former General Cosca, a cheater and a drunkard.
What fascinated me, in these characters, is that none of them – not even the "heroine" Monza – is a likeable person, and yet I've come to care for them while I learned more about their personal history as the story unfolded, often presenting me with stunning revelations and unforeseeable twists and turns. At the same time Abercrombie gives his readers an in-depth picture of war-ravaged Styria and of the customs and way of life of these people.
If you get bored with dragons and magicians, if you can't stand pure-hearted heroes that always do the right thing, this author is perfect for you. Enjoy....