Urban Fantasy Recommendations

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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November 21, 2012

So last week I talked about a lot of things I don’t like about urban and paranormal fantasy. But there are a a goodly number of books that fit this genre that I do like and I thought I’d mention them. I’m going to break them up into two categories, Old School and New School, for reasons that I hope are obvious.

Book CoverWar for the Oaks, Emma BullMythago Wood, Robert HoldstockElfland, Freda Warrington

Old School

  • Charles de Lint, Moonheart. This is one of the very first urban fantasies I read in the early 1990’s and while it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, I have very fond memories of it. There’s a good chance I’ll pick it up and re-read it fairly soon.
  • Emma Bull, War for the Oaks. Oh, EDDI. And your rock and roll singing and the strong sense of place and your growing knowledge of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. This really is one of the most important books in the genre.
  • Diana L. Paxson, Brisingamen. I’m not going to lie: this isn’t a good book. But it’s a book that I spent many years trying to track down in the early 1990’s and if nothing else, I have a bit of nostalgia for that pre-world wide web time when trying to find an out of print book was an adventure (as far as I know, it’s been out of print since shortly after its publication). It’s set in San Francisco and the main character finds herself possessed by Freyja by way of a magic necklace. It is quite likely as ridiculous as it sounds and I swear, I am going to reread it soon. Along with everything else I’m going to reread.
  • Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood. Not precisely urban fantasy, but if you take it to mean the intersection of a magical world with the more mundane world, then this book and its sequels more than fit the bill. Holdstock’s style is ridiculously easy to mock (me and my best friend have long-running joke about proto-Celtic gray-green chalk-faced people), but it is definitely an original story that has a lot going on in it.
  • Freda Warrington, Elfland. This, surprisingly, is a fairly new book. Warrington isn’t very well known in the US and based on this book and its follow-up, MidsummerNight, that’s a damn shame. These both have the dreamy otherworldly feeling of early Charles de Lint but with characters who are a bit more grounded than de Lint’s tend to be.

Rosemary and Rue, Seanan McGuireBlood Engines, T.A. PrattMidnight Riot, Ben AaronovitchBook Cover

New School

  • Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue. The first of the October Daye books. Toby’s newly returned to human form after spending 14 years as a fish (I often wonder if her daughter will ever have cause to say, “My mother was a fish.”) and is avoiding both the human and faerie sides of her heritage. Toby’s a great character and she grows and changes over the course of the series and the stakes are real.
  • T.A. Pratt, Blood Engines. The first Marla Mason book. This is one of my very favorite urban fantasy series–Marla’s complicated and she knows she’s not a nice or good person and she knows that there will be repercussions to the actions she takes to protect herself and her city. And she kicks ass in sweatpants and sensible shoes.
  • Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot/Rivers of London. The first Peter Grant book. OMG how do I love these books? They’re basically police procedurals with magic but the heart of these books really is the detective work–Peter has to work for everything and at the end of the third book, he still only knows four measly spells. The setting is wonderfully diverse and Peter is himself a person of color. (The original US cover is awful; my understanding is that they’re going to be swapping them for the much superior British covers in subsequent editions.)
  • Ilona Andrews, On the Edge. This is the first of the Edge novels. I’ve only read the first two, but I really liked them and I’ll tell you why: they’re rural and the main characters are poor. I think the genre has really gotten hidebound in some ways, so it’s great to see books that focus on rural people who don’t have a lot of material assets. These books do have a very strong romantic element, which I enjoyed but which I know isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. My understanding is that Steel’s Edge will be the last one in this series for a while if not permanently and that makes me sadface.

One thing that really pops out at me as I write this post is how different the two sets of covers are–and I think that speaks to the different audiences for these books and how the genre changed so drastically in what seemed to be a very short period of time.

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  1. Brie

    Steel’s Edge will be the last Edge book. They said on a recent blog post that they just didn’t feel like writing them anymore and that the romance in them wasn’t a hit among UF readers, so they probably should repackage them and market them differently. I thought it was fair enough, why write something you are starting to hate, right? But it also felt slightly dismissive of their romance readers, especially considering how much the romance community has embraced them and helped promote their book. There”s also a possibility that I’m really sad to see such a wonderful series go and that I’m just angry at them because of that. I’m usually happy when series end (who wants a neverending series?), but this one feels like it’s getting a premature ending.

    Thanks for the recs!

    • Natalie

      I think they’re probably really hard books to find the right audience for but they really are my kind of thing so I’m sad the series is ending–and that’s why I still haven’t read Fate’s Edge because as long as I don’t read it, there’s still more books for me to read (this is why I still have unread Kage Baker books–as long as I don’t read them, there are Kage Baker stories I haven’t read).

    • Selki

      Given your liking for rural poor characters, I recommend Charlaine Harris’ Shakespeare … series. Not fantasy, but a mystery series starring a cleaning woman. Trigger warning (trauma in her past)!

    • Natalie

      I read those about a million years ago when I read almost nothing but mysteries. I should re-visit them!

  2. Rosary

    Hmm, I’m going to have to delve more into the deLint, but the Freda Warrington sound interesting. Oh for when Iget some free time. And get caught up on my reading–oh who is kidding who, I’ll never be caught up LOL.

    • Natalie

      I really really really liked Elfland. And Midsummer Night. I think there was supposed to be a third book but I have no idea if it’s currently scheduled or not. I’ve been tempted to try to get some of Warrington’s UK-only titles.

  3. Tom

    Not to be pedantic or anything, but I’m not sure how rural, poor characters = urban fantasy. (Hi, Natalie!)

    And, not to be too pedestrian, how about the Harry Dresden novels? I looked back at your intial post, and I think this fits into your urban fantasy theory. Particularly interesting is the treatment of technology in the books, and how magic intersects with, and disrupts (even destroys), tech. Technology is the locus of change, and magic serves as a method of slowing the progression of time–that it actually keeps magic users separated from the progress of the world (or at least severly impairs them).

    • Natalie

      I know, I know–that’s why I tend to prefer to call the newer stuff paranormal fantasy because it allows for a greater range in the kinds of settings allowed for this type of story. So NEENER, you pedant.

      I have very mixed feelings about Jim Butcher’s work. The Chicago that the Dresden books are set in has very little similarity to the real Chicago–it’s like he couldn’t even be bothered to get a map. There are also, frankly, racist undertones to his work that I really dislike. A few books ago, Harry basically committed genocide of a people who were uniformly described as being (more or less) Mayan and he did it while dressed up like a conquistador. It was pretty gross. (There are things that I think Butcher does well–I like the different kinds of vampires and I like a lot of the moral complexity; if he’d handled the genocide thing with a bit more finesse and tact, I wouldn’t have had as much a problem with it as I did.) I do like your idea about the intersection of magic and technology–Ilona Andrews does something similar in her Kate Daniels series.


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