As I mentioned in a previous post, when I started reading urban fantasy, it meant something a little different than most people take it to mean these days. As a result, my recommendations don’t always show up on most folks’ lists.
The works of Peter S. Beagle, particularly Lila the Werewolf (A straightforward boy-meets-girl tale. Mostly.), A Fine and Private Place (a heart-wrenching love story that takes place in a cemetery) and The Folk of the Air (a novel featuring a historical recreation society that disguises some fantastical goings-on). These are gentle, deceptively simple stories about magic seeping into the mundane corners of everyday life, and what are we going to do about it? Beagle is the master.
Agyar by Steven Brust: I often hesitate to recommend this one, because merely recommending it gives away a big chunk of the pleasure that is this book, which is that it never overtly states its supernatural nature. It just is. I first read this without knowing anything about it, and it hit like a freight train. And that’s why I’m not going to say anything about it. Just read it.
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars by Steven Brust: A group of young artists struggle to make their way in the world, caught up in issues of the very meanings of art and success. The fantastic elements are light—there’s a folktale that weaves through the story in alternate chapters. But I think that’s one of the underpinnings of urban fantasy—that these little hints of magic are everywhere, if you look for them.
Little, Big by John Crowley: Monstrously huge and dense. I’m a slow reader, and this one daunted me, but the reward was beyond reckoning. It’s a family saga about modernity, tradition, fairy tales, different eras and attitudes bumping into each other, and it all slips together as neatly as the meshed teeth of cogs. It’s like unfolding a strange map and realizing, once you’ve smoothed out all the wrinkles, that you’ve known this place all along.
Solstice Wood by Patricia McKillip and “A Pool in the Desert” by Robin McKinley: These stories both do really interesting things in which the authors revisit their own previous traditional fantasy novels but through the eyes of a modern (or enough like) protagonist. They’re about traveling between worlds, and they build up stories in which the act of reading fantasy—to escape into another world—becomes literal. These are probably best if you’ve read the novels they refer to (McKillip’s Winter Rose and McKinley’s Damar books, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown.)
Sunshine by Robin McKinley: McKinley is my favorite author, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include her take on vampires. She’s created a world where the supernatural has burst into the open, all quite shadowy and frightening, and vampires are inhuman creatures who are not to be trusted. One might consider this to be another take on Beauty and the Beast, a story that McKinley has written several versions of over her career.
Finally, I’m going to sneak in a movie recommendation that will get me laughed off the internet: Troll. Seriously. When this came out in 1986 it was marketed as horror, capitalizing on the success of Gremlins, Critters, etc. etc. As a horror movie, it’s really bad. But as YA urban fantasy, it’s awesome. It stars Noah Hathaway as a kid named Harry Potter Jr. (Seriously!) who hates that his family has moved to a new city. But there’s something really weird happening at the new apartment building. He’s absolutely sure that his younger sister Wendy has been possessed by an evil troll. He confides to the crazy lady upstairs, Eunice St. Clair (June Lockhart! Seriously!), who turns out to be an immortal witch. She even has a pet talking mushroom. And it turns out Harry is right—an evil troll, in the guise of sweet angelic Wendy, is transforming each unit in the apartment into a different realm of Faerie, and when he’s finished, the Fae world will burst upon the real world and humanity will be destroyed. Does this sound familiar or what? (Oh, and skip the sequel, please. I know Troll 2 is supposed to be some kind of crazy cult film with a huge following, but it really sucks. Like, really sucks. It doesn’t even have any trolls in it.)
Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of a series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, as well as numerous short stories in various anthologies and magazines. She’s also a contributor to the Wild Cards series edited by George R. R. Martin.