Urban Fantasy

One thing I’m planning to start on here is to write reviews of whatever book/series/author I’m currently reading. Since what I’m reading at the moment is the Alex Verus mage series, an urban fantasy series by Benedict Jacka, I’m planning to start with a post on that; however, it was getting pretty long as I planned it out, and this was partly because it started with an explanation of what urban fantasy actually is and why I love it as a genre. Since this is no doubt a subject I’ll be referring back to, I decided it was worth setting this up as a separate post.

(I am now going to burble on somewhat in trying to express all this, so consider yourself warned.)

Urban fantasy, simply enough, is a term for fantasy set in this world. The converse (as I discovered when I googled ‘urban fantasy’ to make sure I was actually getting the definition right before I started writing posts about it) is high fantasy, which is fantasy set in a fictitious world. They aren’t set-in-stone or exclusive categories, but, as a fantasy fan, I can vouch for them being useful concepts for thinking about fantasy.

Urban fantasy and high fantasy, of course, are both very broad categories which cover a multitude, and genre is only one factor among many that go into making a book good or bad, so I don’t think I could quite come out and say anything as categorical as ‘I prefer urban fantasy’. After all, there are plenty of high fantasy books out there which I love – Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series, Mercedes Lackey’s ‘500 Kingdom’ and ‘Valdemar’ series (serieses?), and Tamora Pierce’s various Tortall and Circle series(es), to name some key ones.

What is inherently awesome about urban fantasy, however, is the contrast between the astounding magical stuff that’s going on and the normal, everyday setting within which it takes place. There is just so much potential there for subtle humour and bathos and weirdness and… and messages about what it means to be human. Great fantasy is fantasy in which the characters are believable people whom you could imagine meeting. People dealing with/struggling with/enjoying all the things we know so well in day-to-day life. Friendship, rejection, bureaucracy, profound moral dilemmas, irritations. And a good urban fantasy series can use that backdrop of the magic/normal life contrast to highlight those things, because it shows us that, even if people did have magical powers or vampires to battle or whatnot, they would still be fundamentally people in all their ordinariness and messiness and glory.

Which is, of course, not to say that I’m going to enjoy every urban fantasy automatically, because, again, so much else plays into what makes a book good or bad. The kind of urban fantasy I particularly enjoy (although, again, this is hardly going to be a blanket rule) is the kind in which there’s a magical subculture within the ordinary day-to-day culture that’s around us, which has its own rules and customs in much the same way that normal life does, which the various participants all understand and automatically deal within, just as we do in day-to-day life. So you have this kind of double contrast; the contrast between the weird and fantastical and day-to-day human issues, and the contrast between the magic subculture and, all round it, the normal culture we know – with the characters taking both these cultures for granted in much the same way.

The Alex Verus series are a great example of this. Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series are another, and very nearly ended up being the topic of my first post in this series, but it so happened that last Saturday I was returning some other library books and thought, hmmm, let’s just see if there’s anything by Benedict Jacka on the shelves, and lo and behold there were ‘Taken’ and ‘Chosen’, and some rereading began. So, that series is what I’m reading right now, and thus, if I do get a book review post up any time soon, that’ll be the one I most likely review.

Any other fantasy fans here? Any other fans of anything I’ve mentioned so far?


  1. lanir says

    I mostly read or watch fantasy and sci-fi. I guess I lump superhero and similar comic book stuff in there too. I started with “A Spell for Chameleon” as my first novel in grade school and basically never looked back. I think one of the things I personally find most interesting about it is that fantasy and sci-fi settings tend to allow for the authors to express ideas about philosophy, psychology and sociology while also being entertaining and interesting at the same time.

    Sometimes this goes very poorly. My first exposure to Ayn Rand’s ideas was some weird word salad explanation of what separated the heroes from the villains in the Sword of Truth series… My mind boggled and I eventually just treated it as “selfishness is good and helping others is bad must be part of the magical weirdness of the setting.” Most of the time it’s far more interesting however.

  2. curdle says

    Thankyou for the Alex Verus series recommendation-the name rings a bell, but seeing you like some of my other favourites ( Mercy Thompson, 500 kingdoms, Terry Pratchett) I will revisit them.
    Emma Bull looks interesting too.
    A lot of high fantasy is sometimes a bit to much sword, sandals and sorcery- I think what appealed to me about the Discworld series and 500 Kingdoms was the blend of human experience as story, mythmaking/deconstruction and humour.
    Whereas I can pretend that Urban fantasy is more rooted in the present? not sure really, I’m still trying to work out why I prefer it. Sadly a lot of the stuff floating around at present seems to be based on the romance market (ok as a substory but really drags when its the main plot driver, not to mention the kind of icky sexual politics that the romance market goes with ).

  3. occy says

    The Kate Daniels and Innkeeper series by Ilona Andrews are excellent.

    The Russell’s Attic series by S L Huang.

    The Trickster series by Rob Thurman.

    The Victory Vaughn series by Nancy Holzner.

    The October Daye and Incryptid series by Seanan MacGuire.

    The Agent of Hel series by Jacqueline Carey

  4. DonDueed says

    I hadn’t heard the term “urban fantasy” before, though “high fantasy” seems to ring a bell. I suppose it makes sense that the latter has a flip side.

    So I guess the Harry Potter books fall into the urban fantasy category. And Tolkien into high fantasy, even though his “fourth age” is supposed to be our world (even including hobbits, though they are seldom seen these days).

  5. Gen, Uppity Ingrate and Ilk says

    I absolutely love Urban Fantasy, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find books on this side of the line between UF and Paranormal Romance (which isn’t a bad category in itself, I guess, I just like less erotica and more magic mayhem). I’ve found that this little nook of the literary world is the one least likely to set off my SJW alarms, though of course there are still problematic areas. Plus I do still have a bit of a soft spot for traditional High Fantasy (and I put Sir Pterry in a category of his own awesomeness) and even some sci-fi, at times, if I’m feeling patient enough. But all in all, about 90% of the books on my Kindle are UF, with or without the YA prefix.

    Favourites include the Mercy series, and also Patricia Briggs’ series about the Marrok’s son, Charles, and the goings on there (Alpha and Omega). Also the Women of the Otherworld series by Kelly Armstrong, and The Edge series and the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. On the YA UF front, I’ve loved most of what Maggie Stiefvater has written, and I like the world Richelle Mead created for the Vampire Academy and Bloodlines series (serieses?), but there are really too many that I love to remember on the spot like this.

    I haven’t read the writers you wrote about here (with the exception of Patricia Briggs), so I’ll be sure to check them out. If you’re going to be doing more of this, consider me hooked!

  6. Gen, Uppity Ingrate and Ilk says

    Just a technical note: I’m not sure if it’s just me, but your header isn’t showing up for me.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Drop everything and track down John M. Ford’s elves-&-gangsters yarn The Last Hot Time.

  8. Dr Sarah says

    Wow – thanks for all the recommendations, guys!

    @ Gen. Uppity Ingrate and Ilk: Interesting you mentioned the Alpha and Omega series, because that’s another one I want to blog about. It’s good (not as hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark awesome as her Mercy Thompson series, but then, how much ever is?) but what kind of bugs me about it is how she wrote the Anna/Charles romance, and I’m interested to know what you think about that. Because it’s a setup that should ring ALL THE ALARM BELLS but which, of course, *does* all work out as True Love within the storyline, and it just seems to me that that is a potentially dangerous thing to be portraying. But, then, I’m not totally sure how she could have done it differently within the plot premise.

    So, yeah, I totally have a blog post in me about that. But it’ll have to wait – I want to blog about Mercy Thompson first, not to mention about a thousand other things before I even get to that. Oh, well, all things in their time.

    (BTW – no, it isn’t just you, it’s that I haven’t got round to making a header yet. Yet another thing I need to do!)

    To everyone else – thanks for all the great recommendations, and I look forward to a time in which I actually have enough time to read them!

  9. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    I second the Dresden Files recommendation, its one of my all time favourites. The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne are alright. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is great too, and American Gods as well.

  10. Dr Sarah says

    Woo-hoo, did someone say Neil Gaiman? Yes. I discovered Neverwhere – goodness, must be seventeen years ago or more now, I remember I was on a trip across the States – and fell in love instantly. Read Stardust, as well, and then my husband later introduced me to the ‘Sandman’ series – was a bit dubious about trying those at first as comic books weren’t normally my thing, but, oh, boy, were they ever worth the try. And, yes, American Gods and Anansi’s Boys… in fact, pretty sure I’ve read everything by Gaiman. But if I’ve missed one then I’m trying that as well.

    (Actually, come to think of it, the first thing I read by Gaiman was ‘Good Omens’, which he collaborated on with Terry Pratchett. It’s interesting because I can’t see Gaiman in that book at all. In Pratchett’s other collaborative work – the ‘Long Earth’ series with Stephen Briggs – there is a definite sense of Pratchett’s style mixed with another style. But ‘Good Omens’ always reads to me like pure Pterry. If you’ve read it, I’d be interested to know what you think.)

  11. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    ‘Good Omens’ was my introduction to both Sir Terry and Neil Gaiman, both of whom quickly climbed to the top of my list of favourite authors, a three-way tie with Douglas Adams. Its been a while (I’m overdue for a re-read), but I feel like the bones of the book, the plot and how it all turns out, is more Gaiman and Pratchett fleshed it out. The people and their interactions is distinctly Pratchett (Agnes Nutter walked straight in from the Ramtops). The ending, particularly, feels like Gaiman to me. But they share a similar style, so its hard to say specifically where one ends and the other begins.

    Thanks for the ‘Long Earth’ reminder, by the way. I checked and there’s one out that I haven’t read yet.

    The ‘Sandman’ series were my first graphic novels, and they are definitely brilliant. I find the Endless fascinating. I think you’ve listed most the Gaiman novels I know of, with the exception of ‘Coraline’ and ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ (which I haven’t yet read). The rest of what I’ve read from him is in short story collections like ‘Fragile Things’, ‘Smoke & Mirrors’, and ‘Trigger Warning’.

  12. Dr Sarah says

    @Dave: Interesting. The ‘Good Omens’ plot always sounded very Pratchett to me; that kind of approach of ‘Suppose we take this traditional thing and really explore all the possibilities inherent in taking it seriously as a plot’ is exactly how he created the Discworld Death. Which, of course, completely and interestingly contrasts with Gaiman’s approach to creating a Death character, where he goes off in absolutely the opposite direction and creates someone who is utterly different from our traditional conception of Death. I’ve always found it interesting that these approaches are absolute opposites, and yet both work brilliantly to create unforgettable characters. But the Good Omens approach to the plot of Revelations does seem to me to match much more with Pterry’s approach. Still, there you go, I’m sure Gaiman must be in there somewhere…

    Ah, yes – I’ve read ‘Coraline’ (which is very good) and ‘The Ocean At The End Of The Lane’ (which I actually found weaker than his other stuff, but still worth a read). Read a few short story collections by him, but ‘Trigger Warning’ doesn’t ring any bells so maybe I’ve missed one! Have to check it out for my husband’s birthday…

    Oh, cool! I was just looking up ‘Interworld’ because writing about Gaiman made me remember it, and he and whoever his co-author was (I don’t even remember) finally finished the series! Must get round to reading those sometime…

    On a tangent, have you tried Charlie Fletcher’s ‘Oversight’ trilogy (which admittedly isn’t a trilogy yet as the third book isn’t coming out till later this year)? There’s something about it that really reminds me of Gaiman’s work (‘Neverwhere’ being the obvious comparison, although the Victorian aspect reminded me of ‘Stardust’), so I think all Gaiman fans should give it a go. 🙂

  13. JameeBRomani says

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  14. says

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