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”

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.

5 thoughts on “25 “Essential” Urban Fantasies

  1. No Miéville? No Gaiman? Neither “King Rat” nor “Neverwhere” smell at all of SF (though a friend of mine very reasonably claims SF as a sub-genre of fantasy).

    I’m in the middle of “Sister Mine” at the moment. I’m not sure it’s the best example of Hopkinson (I’m hating most of the characters so far, but then I think I’m supposed to), and most (if not all) of her work is urban fantasy.

    I just can’t take Hamilton and “Anita Blake” as “essential”, though I admit to starting somewhere in the middle.

    Charles de Lint!

  2. Oh my god, I love Lost Girl. One of my favourite guilty pleasures. (Anne can’t stand it, so I watch it with our friend Bex when Anne’s not paying attention / out of town / distracted.)

    I’m glad that I’m not the only one with a fondness for the Hawk & Fisher mysteries. I like your UF defining a lot, especially since you got to sneak that one in.

    Is Team Human any good? I’ve been leering at it for a while, not sure what to do about it…

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  4. Jared: Lost Girl is so bad. And yet. And yet. I’ve yet to meet another SFF media thing that is as good at including queerness.

    Well, for me, the important thing about urban fantasy is its interest in the systems of the city, the combination of anonymity and closeness that city living brings to human interaction. In cities, you don’t know the doctor who treats you after an emergency, or the cop who comes to take the report of a break-in; they don’t know you, and there’s no expectation that they ever will. I think a lot of what goes on in urban fantasy is an interest in the breakdown of trust and certainty that urban living lends itself to: the monsters in the shadows of the town, terrible or attractive or both or neither, aren’t the same monsters you meet in country villages. The city makes certain kinds of stories possible.

    I probably shouldn’t have left Terry Pratchett off this list. Some of the City Watch books do something very complicated and multi-layered with this – but I love Pratchett too much to pick just the right one.

    I liked Team Human a lot. I do not remember specifics so well, but I liked it a lot.

  5. I think Brown Girl in the Ring is the more essential Hopkinson for this list, but yay for any Hopkinson regardless! She’s my favourite Canadian writer at the moment.

    I would have certainly included Jack the Giant Killer by Charles de Lint and Neverwhere. Swordspoint has a fascinating city at its centre and moves through all layers of urban society. As for video games, Thief is more deserving than Dishonoured, what with its gaslight urban decay aesthetic mixing feudal fantasy and Victorian industrialization.

    While I’m sure many would see Perdido Street Station as “essential”, I just didn’t like it that much and found New Crobuzon the least interesting thing in the Bas-lag books.

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