25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch and Justin Landon of Staffer’s Musings are up to their old tricks again. A fresh listing challenge, like the epic fantasy challenge of a while back, is in the offing.

25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

– 25 works
– No more than one book or series per author/creator
– You can only list books that you have read
– How you define urban fantasy or “essential” is 100% up to you.

Participants and their lists:

Jared Shurin
Justin Landon
Tansy Rayner Roberts

…and your humble correspondent.

Defining Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, as well as fictional settings. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

“Urban Fantasy,” Wikipedia, retrieved 26 October 2013

I like this definition. It covers a great deal of ground, even while it excludes contemporary fantasies set in rural areas, such as Deborah Coates’ Wide Open, whose marketing ties them closely to the fantasies of the modern urbs. I would like to add an amendment: the urbs of “urban fantasy” should not be limited to the metropolis or large conurbation, but must include smaller cities and towns. What is most prominent in the fantasy of the urban, to me, is the combination of anonymity and the need for systems and compromises – a way of operating in the world that doesn’t rely on implicit reciprocity and mutuality – that arises when people live together in numbers exceeding the hundred-odd of the isolate village or the thousand-odd of the tiny towns of the past. Urban fantasy shares DNA with ghost stories, noir crime and the police procedural, as well as fairytale, folklore, and fable.

Do we, or should we, distinguish “paranormal romance” from a wider set of fabulae in urbibus accidentes? Although UF and PR are distinct, for the most part, as marketing categories, my definition of urban fantasy as the fantasy of the town… doesn’t really allow that distinction.

Defining “Essential”


: extremely important and necessary

: very basic

The following list comprises works of fantasy which are only very important to me, and do not necessarily have a bearing, historic or otherwise, on how I see the subgenre in general. The order indicates nothing in particular.

I have declined to spend much time talking about why I made the choices I did.

25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

There are fewer than 25 contenders in the area of urban fantasy as I have defined it, under the restrictions of one series per author/creator, about which I care strongly enough to number as “essential” (to me).

1. Rituals, by Roz Kaveney (2012).

This is part urban fantasy, part secret history, part I-don’t-know-how-to-describe-it.

2. The Onyx Court series, by Marie Brennan (2008-2011).

A faerie court, bound to the city of London.

3. The Promethean Age books, by Elizabeth Bear (2006-forthcoming).

Richly complex novels.

4. The Bone Palace, by Amanda Downum (2010).

This is a second-world fantasy set in a city. It is rather magnificent, to me.

5. The Chronicles of Elantra series, by Michelle Sagara (2005-forthcoming).

Second-world fantasy set mostly if not entirely in a city, involving element of both high fantasy and the police procedural.

6. James Asher series, by Barbara Hambly (1988-forthcoming).

Bleak and atmospheric novels involving vampires, set in Europe in the years preceding the Great War. Breath-taking books.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, television series (1997-2003).

Enormously influential. Not single-handedly responsible for the success of urban contemporary fantasy with vampires and werewolves as a subgenre, but I daresay it didn’t hurt.

8. Anita Blake series, by Laurell K. Hamilton (1993-forthcoming).

When one of my hockey coaches recommended this series to me sometime in or around 2002, Narcissus in Chains hadn’t been published out of the UK yet, and the Anita Blake novels hadn’t really moved from noir to full-on bad poly erotica yet. (What a trainwreck that was to watch… Albeit a very popular trainwreck.) For all these novels’ problems – and they are many, even before they get really into the badly written sex and ridiculous no-one-acts-like-an-adult relationship dynamics – they were probably my first introduction to the landscape of contemporary marketing-category UF. And the first four or five Anita Blake books were rather successful at marrying noir to fantasy.

9. The Vicki Nelson series, by Tanya Huff (1991-1997).

Adapted into the television series Blood Ties in 2007-2008. Set mostly in Toronto.

10. The Kitty Norville werewolf series, by Carrie Vaughn (2005-forthcoming).

Werewolves! Vampires! Talk radio!

11. Hawk and Fisher novels, by Simon R. Green (1990-2000).

Second-world city fantasies! Green really writes fantasy in shades of horror. But these are very good, if disturbing.

12. Lost Girl, television series (2011-ongoing).

It’s terrible. And hilarious. And queer-friendly.

13. The Shattering, by Karen Healey (2011).

A small seaside town hides a terrible secret.

14. Above, by Leah Bobet (2012).

Set in Toronto. Magnificent, dark, strange, affecting.

15. The Peter Grant novels, by Ben Aaronovitch (2011-ongoing).

Energetic police procedurals set in a London filled with fantastic beings and magic.

16. Agent of Hel series, by Jacqueline Carey (2012-ongoing).

These are really entertaining. I hope Carey writes many more.

17. Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson (2013).

Families. Magic. Cosmology. Set in Toronto.

18. Underworld, film (2003).

Vampires fight werewolves in the streets of Budapest, with appropriately doomed romance. An excellent film-of-its-kind, and one of the first films I ever saw with a female action lead.

19. Beka Cooper series, by Tamora Pierce (2006-2011).

The first two books of which are police-procedural second-world urban fantasy. And really kind of lovely.

20. Embers, by Laura Bickle (2010).

Set in modern Detroit, starring an arson investigator.

21. Blood Oranges, by Kathleen Tierney (2013).

A dark satire of the modern vampire novel.

22. Team Human, by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan (2012).

An interesting novel involving vampires and humans and teenagers.

23. Norse Code, by Greg van Eekhout (2009).

Ragnarok is coming. Watch out, Southern California…

24. Dragon Age II, videogame, by BioWare (2011).

I’d thought about putting Dishonored on this list – it’s interested in the breakdown of cities, after all – but when I considered it, it didn’t have quite as much interest in how cities work. You could perhaps take the basic outline of DAII out of a city… but it is a very civic-centred fantasy, when you get down to it. And it interests me, both for the kind of story it is trying to tell as a videogame, and for the genre-mixing possibilities it contains. It’s ambitious, and it’s not successful in all its ambitions – but it tries to do more with story. And the story it’s telling is a city-based fantasy.

There is nothing else I have read, remember, and care about sufficiently, and which sufficiently satisfies my criteria, to number under this heading. I was tempted to include Lackey’s racecar elves… but I don’t actually give a good goddamn about them anymore. I am still tempted to include Peter Higgins’ debut in this – but I don’t think Wolfhound Century is all that interested in the urbs qua urbs.

I have deliberately excluded superhero narratives. If I allowed of superhero narratives, I might make twenty-five; but superhero narratives owe as much to the handwavy science fiction of the pulps as to the intrusive presence of liminal, numinous fantastic shit. If it smells of SF, it isn’t urban fantasy.

How many books have you read this year?

According to my records, I’ve hit 180. Not counting rereads. Yikes.

I know I owe a review of the wonderful giant glossy OUP book about Pompeii. I haven’t forgotten. I’ve just spent six weeks bouncing from one bout of illness to another, which has played merry hell with deadlines and progress of ALL KINDS.

It’s coming. Eventually. In the meanwhile I’ve been reading books that require a little less in the way of intellectual engagement, for the most part.

Glenda Larke, The Last Stormlord. Orbit, 2009.

Epic fantasy. Interesting world-building, but the characterisation is inconsistent or occasionally odd, and the narrative drive and tension are not driving enough to make up for it. It isn’t doing enough with the space it has, which makes it feel slack and rather aimless at times.

Jeannie Lin, The Dragon and the Pearl, The Lotus Palace, Butterfly Swords and My Fair Concubine. Ebooks, various recent years.

These are entertaining romances set mostly in Tang dynasty China. Fun, really good incluing technique – as necessary in historical work as the genres of the fantastic – and the romance did not make me want to stab anyone in the face. Rather the opposite, in fact.

Sophia Kell Hagin, Whatever Gods May Be and Shadows of Something Real. Ebooks, various recent years.

Near-future stories starring a lesbian main character. The first is a war story, and the second less easily categorised. They’re surprisingly good, with real confidence in the prose.

C.S. Friedman, In Conquest Born. DAW, 1986, 2001 reprint.

Science fiction. Empires. Psychics. Space battles. Disturbing, unpleasant; depiction of a culture where male-on-female rape is normal, practically a requirement; characters all on the antihero end of the spectrum. Not My Cup Of Tea At All.

Jacqueline Carey, Dark Currents and Autumn Bones. Roc, 2012 and 2013.

Delightful, entertaining, interesting urban fantasy set in a small American town. More like this, please.

Tamora Pierce, Battle Magic. Scholastic, 2013.

Once again Pierce delivers a grand adventure involving young people. Although her not-Tibet and not-China has me side-eyeing a bit: the strokes are a little too broad, and the war is a little too easily won.

Lesley Davis, Dark Wings Descending and Pale Wings Protecting. Ebooks, recent dates.

Bad lesbian romance, with a side-order of cops and angels and demons.

Mira Grant, Parasite. Orbit, 2013.

Seanan McGuire really likes mad science, biological apocalypses, conspiracies, and simple organisms. I mean, really really really likes.

I’m going to need some time to think about this novel, really. There is a shit-tonne of info-dumping (through various methods, but a lot through excerpts from news sources and autobiographies), and the voice doesn’t seem particularly distinct from the rest of McGuire’s oeuvre, Discount Armageddon and sequel aside. On the other hand, I rather like the soft apocalypse conceit.

It’s not mind-blowing. It’s rather like John Scalzi’s novels – moderately interesting concepts, middle-of-the-road execution – which clearly isn’t exactly a niche market. I would like it to excite me more than it does. But it’s also very… American? It nests itself within – or perhaps it nests within itself – so many assumptions about how the world works, and how central America is to the world, that it creates in me a sense of disconnect and alienation.


Gail Simone, New 52: Batgirl Vol. 1. DC, 2013.

So I am converted to the idea of comics as an interesting medium now. Also Gail Simone is awesome.

Greg Rucka, Private Wars and The Last Run. Bantam, 2005 and 2010.

Rucka writes the best spy thrillers. No, really. The best. And I’m not just saying that because I would kill to see his Queen and Country stuff made into a good television series.

Greg Rucka and various artists, Queen and Country, collected volumes one through three. Oni Press.

I am extra converted to the idea of comics as an interesting medium. Rucka’s facility with writing flawed, ethically compromised, yet immensely compelling characters is brilliantly on display. Fantastic work.

Kev McVeigh is starting a new column over at the SF Gateway Blog

One which means to focus on marginalised authors.

One more thing about SFF in the 21st century is that it is, and arguably always was, a global phenomenon. Just as we need to keep talking about women in SFF, so too we need to keep talking about LGBT and other Queer writers and characters, about people of colour in SFF, and about non-Anglo, European and colonial settings. From The Attic is only one venue for this, and hopefully not a voice in the wilderness.

I do hope McVeigh and Gollancz/the SF Gateway Blog will make it easier to tell

– the author of the post
– the fact that it’s part of series, and
– where the rest of the series may be found

going forward, though. The SF Gateway Blog’s tag archives are a thing of utter hideousness to navigate.

Sleeps With Monsters: Reading, Writing, Radicalisation

Live at Tor.com:

I didn’t set out to stop reading work by men. And I haven’t, entirely. But writing Sleeps With Monsters has, slowly but surely, altered the way I choose my reading material, and altered the way I respond to many forms of entertainment across a variety of media. When the good people here at Tor.com were brilliant/mad enough to invite me to write a column on feministy things, I had no idea how utterly it would change my reading habits.

The 300 Spartans (1961)

This is an amusing spectacle of a film with an awful lot of ridiculously boring bits. Alas, the guy playing Leonidas has no acting chops at all, and set against the rounded vowels and British consonants of the gentleman playing Themistocles (who actually can act), his tendency to pronounce “earth” “oyth” and rush out his lines as if speed is all that matters… is hilariously jarring. The costuming is a little obviously pasteboard, and at least one of the sets is a terrible cardboard wall.

This film is actually aware of Herodotos: it has no clue at all about how to choreograph a battle involving Greek hoplites (protip: short shorts go stabby, not slashy, and CLOSE UP YOUR LINES), but it does speechifying to a very Greek length. Alas, not really willing to go full-on GREEK HISTORY: Xerxes is distracted from war by sexytimes with a (sadly unattended by her own entourage) youthful and pale Artemisia, and there is some subplot involving a young Spartan and his affianced bride who follows him from the Lakedaimonian plain to the Hot Gates – afoot, without change of clothes or supplies – and much manly beating of chests and disclaiming responsibility among the Persian generals. It does have the Thespians, though, which is nice. It wasn’t just Leonidas’ bodyguard at Thermopylae, you know… although, as usual in cinematic depictions, the lightly-armed auxiliaries have been left out of the picture.

The division the film makes between “East” and “West,” “tyranny” and “freedom,” also echoes Herodotos a little (tho’ for the author of the History, the division was less “East” and “West” and more “barbarian” and “Greek”), although its expression here to my mind has as much to do with its Cold War context as any attempt at faithful historicity.

But it bears comparison with the Frank Miller/Zach Snyder 300, because – poor dialogue, bad acting and all – it tries. And cruelly whimsical as it shows Xerxes to be, it demonises none of its characters: all of them are men, not inhuman monsters, though some of them are over-proud tyrannical men.

Les femmes de l’ombre (2008) a film by Jean-Paul Salomé.

The English release is known as Female Agents, which is a much less striking title than The Women of Shadow. Starring Sophie Marceau, Julie Depardieu, Marie Gillain, Déborah François, Moritz Bleibtrau, Maya Sansa, and Julien Boisselier, it is the story of a group of women recruited by the SOE and sent in to France to rescue an English agent and assassinate a German SS colonel.

Salomé allegedly took his inspiration in part from the life of Lise de Baissac. The film itself is afflicted by several dozen things which make no sense for history but make rather a lot of sense in the compressed time/space of a film – although it relies on coincidence a little too much on one particular occasion. It is visually striking, although there are one or two shots that lend themselves to confusion/over-emphasis – the director has reached for the most striking, most iconic image, and reached a bit too far. At times it sways towards hackneyed emotional beats, but on the whole it resists them in favour of something much more raw.

(I’d love to see what someone with more critical chops in cinema made of it.)

It is not a perfect film, and its has a lot to do on a moderate budget. (Including some understated but nasty torture scenes.) But it is a damn good one, and I recommend it wholeheartedly – especially to anyone who read and enjoyed Code Name Verity and/or Rose Under Fire.

Sarah Silverwood’s The Nowhere Chronicles: A Biased Reponse to Textual Bias

A new post over at Tor.com:

Prejudice can be loud or obvious, and it can be quiet, unmarked, part of the sea in which we swim. Silverwood’s Nowhere Chronicles uphold a biased view of the world, which is to say: they’re bloody sexist.

I read these books and wrote this many months back, in June. I don’t go looking for things to be angry about. In fact, I don’t really like being angry: combining rage and (self-)righteousness is a thing that makes me uncomfortable.

But. Thoughtless, all-but-invisible (because part of background assumptions) bias is a thing that really gets my goat. I hate it in myself. I hate it in the world. I hate it in books. I expect more. I expect better.

Books (Fiction) I Have Not Yet Finished Reading

Some of which I may never finish.

Zachary Jernigan, No Return. Night Shade Books, 2013.

Fifty pages in, this is a very interesting SFnal fantasy novel which is a)very much not my cup of tea, and b)has debut novel problems with line of direction and voice. I do not disrecommend it, but as for myself I may not finish it for a long time yet: I like to feel a strong pull, and I’m just not feeling any urgency here.

Started it when I was deathly sick, though. That might have something to do with it.

Stephanie Saulter, Gemsigns. JFB, 2013.

I’m twenty pages in. I have to read and review it for Strange Horizons. Already it tends towards the self-indulgent in terms of prose, a little bit too in love with saying the same thing in three different ways or the too-clever sentence or image. (I’m starting to think that JFB’s vision as an imprint and my idea of what I’d prefer to read, in terms of style – and also on occasion in terms of content, although that’s too early to say here – are strongly divergent.) On the other hand, already flashes of interesting character. I make see-saw hands.

And I have to finish it anyway.

Max Gladstone, Two Serpents Rise. Tor, ARC, 2013.

About sixty pages in. I love Gladstone’s debut. This would be a great book for me if I had more reason to care about the characters: it feels sufficiently like a debut novel here that I have begun to wonder if Gladstone didn’t write this one first.

ETA: Muddled the title, folks. Sorry. SERPENTS, not DEAD.

Francis Knight, Fade to Black. Orbit, 2013.

Forty pages in. I feel no connection to the main character, and without that the setting details on their own don’t really hold me. It probably doesn’t help that it has a quasi-noir voice, and I have ever found most kinds of noir predictably boring.

N.K. Jemisin, The Killing Moon. Orbit, 2012.

Fifty pages in. Setting is fascinating. Have encountered three viewpoint characters, though, and am bored by two of them. Prose is not gorgeous enough to keep me constant until the two lads start (I hope) becoming interesting. Will probably finish, eventually, but feel no particular urgency.

Karen Traviss, Halo: Glasslands. Tor, 2011.

Fifty pages in. Have appreciated Traviss’s SFnal military tie-intales before, but this novel has failed to do good characterisation on the opener, and I don’t have any investment in the Halo universe to carry me through in the absence of someone fun to hang out with. Cast of dozens: not open for newbies.

Rachel Bach, Fortune’s Pawn. Orbit, ARC, 2013.

Forty-five pages in. Tone so far is at right angles to the Military Space Opera Type Boom promised by the cover copy: not so much with the boom, lots with the lusting after pretty boys with Mysteries Attached. Tonally, reminds me a lot of Generic Urban Fantasy but In Space: the Only Girl, who is Super Competent At Killing, has Smart Mouth, and Doesn’t Have A Lot Of Friends – it’s a type, okay? And our protag is basically a Space Mercenary instantiation of the type, within Standard Deviations of Bland, which doesn’t fill me with warm fuzzy optimism about how well the rest of the novel is going to go.

I’ll probably finish it, at some point, but only to see if I’m right when I call every single move in advance.

(This makes me sad. I wanted Proper Boom with Female Protagonist. Instead forty pages of Lusting Over Pretty Cook Boy.)

Possibly I’ve begun to suffer from the Critic’s Disease. You read enough, it gets harder and harder to find stuff that stands out as appealing, because even Good Things Of Their Kind start feeling stale and predictable because you’ve read (and attempted to analyse) so many Things Of Their Kind. Only the truly excellent – or the strange and experimental – becomes capable of kicking your interest up a notch…

…And thus the critic’s tastes fall farther and farther out of step with the tastes of the Average (so-called average) Reader.

Anyway. What do you think?

Some recent books

I cannot do answering comments lately. Please excuse: excessive amounts of being swamped going on in life.

Timothy Zahn, Star Wars: Scoundrels. Del Rey, 2013.

I have always loved Zahn’s Star Wars novels. Scoundrel is Star Wars meets Ocean’s 11, with Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian the only original trilogy characters really appearing – and with Han in the role of the man organising the Grand Heist. It takes place some time before the Battle for Hoth, between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.

(A couple of my favourite extended universe characters – Kell and Winter – also appear here.)

It is a really well done heist narrative, with complications and recomplications, although I think one of the withholding-information tricks Zahn used in order to work another familiar character in did not, in final analysis, actually pay off.

Still really fun.

Martha Wells, Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge. Del Rey, 2013.

Another novel set after A New Hope and before Empire Strikes Back. Wells is an excellent writer and tells a good story – but for a novel purporting to focus on Leia, her character carries nearly none of the story’s emotional freight. So that was a little disappointing.

Not disappointing at all, however, is how filled with interesting female characters Wells’ vision of Star Wars is.

Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine. Grand Central, 2013.

A delightful urban fantasy with weird gods and weirder family dynamics set in Toronto. Well recommended.

D.B. Jackson, Thieves’ Quarry. Tor, 2013.

Urban fantasy set in Boston in the 1770s. Entertaining, but not especially my cup of tea. Characters felt a bit flat, and the central mystery felt more People Running Around At Cross Purposes than actively compelling.

Diane Duane, Star Trek: The Wounded Sky. Titan, 1989.

Duane’s Star Trek novels are always interesting space opera.

Kelly McCullough, Blade Reforged. Ace, 2013.

Entertaining second-world urban fantasy with assassins and a coup and Deeply Laid Plots. Fourth in series. Recommended.

Jeanne Lin, The Sword Dancer. Ebook.

Romance set in historic China. A bit odd (but that is a function of it being a romance), at points a bit slow, but entertaining.

Helen Lowe, The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost. Orbit, 2010-2012.

Oh dear sweet overblown Grand Epic Fantasy. These books have serious structural problems and occasional line of direction fail. And yet. I would have loved these when I was thirteen, and they still curled into the Fond Of Overblown Destiny and COOL SHIT corner of my heart.

Madeleine E. Robins, Sold For Endless Rue. Forge, 2013.

Historical novel based on the bones of a Rapunzel story. I am a sucker for female doctors and Salerno, but I don’t think the structure worked as well as it might have. Still, very good book.

Alex Bledsoe, The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing. Tor, 2011-2013.

One of these is a very good book: The Hum and the Shiver is an excellent work of small-town fantasy, playing up its liminality and strangeness. It does not resolve all its threads, but it resolves many…

Wisp of a Thing, on the other hand, is full of manpain, has some dodgy SPECIALNESS, and resolves with an extra dodgy nod at a happy ending which SKEEVED ME THE FUCK OUT, okay. Thanks for ruining The Hum and the Shiver for me, Wisp of a Thing.

Andi Marquette, Friends in High Places, A Matter of Blood, and Edge of Rebellion. Ebooks.

Fun, pulpy, not excessively well-written (but on the other hand far from terrible) space opera. With lesbians. That is not a lesbian romance in terms of its focus. With a feel somewhere between Star Wars and Firefly.

Gaie Sebold, Babylon Steel and Dangerous Gifts. Solaris, 2011-2012.

I do not know how to talk about these books. I love them a lot: they are like a cross between noir and sword-and-sorcery in the Conan mould – except centering women. It is sword-and-sorcery for the girl who wanted to grow up to be Conan (except better), and I’m very happy with that.

Elizabeth Bear, Book of Iron. Subterranean Press, 2013.

A brilliant standalone novella in the same world as Bear’s Range of Ghosts and Bone and Jewel Creatures. Read it.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess. Review copy, 2013 reprint.

I want those hours of my life back.


Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After.

Which I spoke of previously.

Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526. English translation by Andrew Ayton. I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Which I also spoke of previously.

Daniela Dueck, Hugh Lindsay, and Sarah Pothecary, Strabo’s Cultural Geography: the making of a kolossourgia. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

An interesting collection of papers on Strabo’s work.