Following up on the Epic Fantasy list we did a while ago, a group of us — Liz Bourke, Jared Shurin, Tansy Rayner Roberts and I — are taking a stab at Urban Fantasy. I know what you’re thinking, doesn’t Justin want to stab Urban Fantasy? Sometimes. But, there’s some really good stuff too.
- No more than one book or series from each author. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien could go in for The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings series, but not both.
- No anthologies.
- You can only list media you have consumed.
- Definitions of “essential”, “favorite”, “urban” and “fantasy” are left to personal interpretation.
The question, of course, is what the fuckity fuck do we mean by “urban fantasy”?
The delicious part is I don’t really care what any of you think it means. To me “urban fantasy” is all about structure and narrative. It has nothing — I repeat, nothing — to do with milieu. Urban Fantasy has a snarky narrator, almost always first person. It requires a thriller structure. Anything else is what I call liminal fantasy or magical realism or mainstream fantasy. Why do I do that? Because if you don’t draw the line where I do, “urban fantasy” becomes a catch all for anything that doesn’t have elves in it. It becomes a meaningless definition. There’s a distinct difference between ROMANCE as a genre and BOOKS WITH ROMANCE, right? The genre requires certain narrative structures and character types. I believe the same is true of Urban Fantasy.
Unfortunately, if I use my definition of Urban Fantasy we end up with a pretty short list because I just haven’t read that much of it. Also, a lot of it is shit. So, I’m going to expand my list into five segments. Bear with me. I get to be the expert for 25 books. What this list won’t contain, in any capacity, is some historical context of the genre. What I’m going to be offering is a lot of recent year titles. I just haven’t read enough to do otherwise. I don’t have a special attachment to it like I did to Epic Fantasy, but that’s OK. We’ll probably get that from the other people.
In the words of Darkwing Duck, let’s get dangerous.
Urban Fantasy By My Definition
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
Totally the most fun I had reading in 2013 so far, Lives of Tao is full of wit. It’s more of a Bildungsroman than most urban fantasies, but it sticks pretty close to the kind of narrative I expect. Sure it’s aliens instead of magic, but aren’t alien parasites that live inside a person and speak to them pretty much magic? Yup.
Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach
Yeah, it’s also science fiction. But, snarky narrator who falls in love with a dreamy dude while trying to figure out a mystery. Just because there’s lasers and hyperdrives doesn’t make it any less urban fantasy. It’s a narrative type. If Star Wars can be Epic Fantasy, then Fortune’s Pawn is UF. I think I love it because it comes at the same themes from a new and unexpected direction. It takes you by surprise.
Libriomancer by Jim Hines
Finally something ACTUALLY shelved as UF. I’m so proud of myself. I’ve never read a UF book more full of joy than Hines’ Libriomancer. It’s really one big wink to the ‘genre community’, but in that way it’s completely vital reading for fans. Must. Read.
The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
Technically more of a young adult novel, City’s Son does what a lot of UF doesn’t do. It gives you the standard UF narrative, but does it with beautiful prose and mind blowing metaphors. Pollock takes London and recreates her by anthropomorphizing the urban jungle. It’s completely original and all together engaging on several levels.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Another one people might call science fiction, but animal familiars is pretty magical if you ask me. Written in first person present with snark and wit, Zoo City is a straight detective style narrative set in a near future South Africa with hints of magic all around. I don’t really see any way to call this anything BUT UF. It’s also really really really good, with some of the most incisive description I’ve ever read.
Our World Fantasy Set in Contemporary(ish) Times
The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett
Easily one of the best books of the last few years, The Troupe is about saving the world from returning to chaos. Your heroes? A Vaudeville troupe of malcontents with daddy issues. The cover blurb reads, Steinbeck meets King. It’s apt. This is an absolute achievement of a novel in every way. I could probably slide this one down to the historical category, but I don’t want to… so there.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Hey Harry Potter, suck on this! Or at least that’s what Grossman’s protagonist, Quentin, would probably say to Rowling’s earnest fledgling wizard. There’s no more subversive book than The Magicians. I would argue Grossman does for urban fantasy what Joe Abercrombie did for Epic Fantasy. He turns it on his head and giggles all the way through.
Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Beautiful prose. Beautiful milieu. Beautiful structure and narrative. It’s a gorgeous novel about two magicians competing with one another in a traveling magical circus. Special novel that defies easy classification.
The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar
I just finished this a few weeks ago and it blew me away. I described it as Night Circus meets Bitter Seeds (Tregillis). Like the latter it features superheroes going to war, but contains the kind of challenging structure and themes that the former tackles. Tidhar does for World War II what the Watchmen did for the Cold War, but does it in a way that’s much more revealing about human nature and the patterns of cultural history. Essential reading.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I’m really just putting this here because I don’t want to hear the comments about why I didn’t include it. I’m not really that jazzed by this novel, but I guess it’s pretty important to the overall discussion of contemporary fantasy.
Magical Realism and Liminal Fantasy
Blindness by José Saramago
Just read it. I’m not really up for trying to discuss its merits. Dude won a Nobel Prize.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Obreht’s novel is about a girl coming to grips with her grandfather’s death while trying to understand his life. The interconnected threads that she weaves through his life, and into the present, are timeless and resonate in a bleeding edge emotional rawness. There’s little if any magic, but there are certain ideas of myth that lack explanation. It’s a classic case of urban fantasy that really should never be called that.
Bullettime by Nick Mamatas
School shooter David Holbrook is a disturbed teenager: bullied and ostracized with no support at home. The narrative itself is all over the place, jumping through time and space. Not unlike the Peter Howitt film Sliding Doors, Bullettime takes the reader to different decision points. Mamatas shows the branches that could take David anywhere, except where they can’t. The ‘fantasy’ to the novel can be explained by the fact David is constantly tripping on cough syrup, or it can’t. Make of it what you will. Mamatas has an extremely strong voice and it shines though in this oddly charming and woefully under read novel.
The City & The City by China Miéville
Probably my second favorite Miéville novel, City & the City never explicitly says what kind of novel it is. Two cities exist in the same space with people on both sides unseeing those on the other. Is it two dimensions over laying one another? Is it two ethnic groups cohabitating a city? It’s an incredible novel about the capacity of humans to ignore what’s right in front of them. Bad ass piece of fiction.
. . . OK this list is really only twenty four books because I didn’t have a fifth here that I felt was worth listing. Some that probably are worth listing, but I haven’t read would be Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s, Rushdie, Murakami, Morrison, Hopkinson, etc.
Historically Fantasy in an Urban Setting with Thriller/Mystery Narrative Types
The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton
Gender bending! Investigating! Petticoats! Need I say more? This is an incredibly good traditional period urban fantasy. If every urban fantasy was written with this kind of thought and care I’d be a much bigger fan of the genre.
Thieftaker by DB Jackson
No better way to describe this than Harry Dresden in pre-Revolution America with lots of cool historical detail. Very strong series of novels.
Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle
Set in historical Elizabethan England, Alchemist of Souls shows what might have happened if the Virgin Queen had children, secured her rule, and made an alliance with a heretofore undiscovered alien race from the New World. The plot centers around the protagonist trying to discover who’s trying to kill the ambassador he’s charged to protect. Traipsing around a historically accurate London, Lyle gives us a pretty classic UF kind of experience.
The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones
I’ve probably written more about this book than any other the last few years. I love it and I’m trying to beat people into agreeing with me. Most would call it sword and sorcery, but it’s also very much a detective story. Since I’m pretty much spitting in the eye of what the general definition of urban fantasy is so far, why stop now?
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
This does a lot of the same things the four books above it do, but it also gives a really interesting romance. The romance is between a dragon and his rider. Novik does a tremendous job with it and I think there’s something to be said for this being the novel that really cleared the way for what has become a really vibrant subgenre of a subgenre.
Second World Fantasy That’s Really Urban Fantasy with Made-Up Shit
All of the novels listed below fall into one particular category. They all use first person narrators and they’re all built around mystery and/or thriller narratives. I could go into each of them individually, but I won’t. They could all pretty easily be called Epic Fantasy too. Suffice to say that just because something’s milieu isn’t what you expect, in this case a made up world with all kinds of distracting things going on, doesn’t make it any less something, in this case Urban Fantasy.
This is no way some kind of comprehensive view of the urban fantasy genre. My colleagues who are doing similar posts today did a much better job of that. What I hope I’ve done is give some food for thought about what URBAN FANTASY really means. I think we need to be a lot more thoughtful about genres when we discuss them. Personally, I find them almost useless, but if we’re going to use them let’s make sure they MEAN something. The way we use the term today is meaningless. I think that should change.
The first of the five lists above demonstrates what I think URBAN FANTASY should be. What do you think?