Wed
Aug 4 2010 11:02am

Urban Fantasy Recommendations

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.

19 comments
Joseph Blaidd
1. SteelBlaidd
Jim Butcher "The Dresden Files".
Think Phillip Marllow playing Gandalf the Grey, or (Jim's favorite 3word description) "Dirty Harry Potter"
Alex Brown
2. AlexBrown
Sunshine is my go-to recommendation for just about everything. Like/hate Twilight? Sunshine. Like Buffy and Angel? Sunshine. Urban fantasy? Sunshine. Ad infinitum.
Kevin P. Reid
3. Kevin P. Reid
The supernatural hasn't “burst” into the open in Sunshine; it's always been there. (The most explicitly old part I can think of without having the book at hand is the bit about the protection of motion; “If a horse couldn’t maintain a nine-mph clip for a useful distance, it was shot.”) What is recent is the Voodoo Wars and the precariousness of humanity, not the knowledge.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars seems to be a book that works much better for creative folks than others, much like Sean Stewart's Night Watch.

I adore Agyar. It makes me believe that it was really written as a diary like very little else.
Ryan V
5. JesterJoker
Someone got to Dresden first!

It isn't a book series, other than the comics that trail it, but Angel (The Series/Investigations) is amazing.

I read the third Felix Castor book from Mike Carey recently and it completely knocked me over.

Emma Bull's War for the Oaks is astounding, too. If you want to know Minneapolis's mood, it's the book to read.
Steve Burnett
6. steveburnett
Amazingly to me, there's a documentary that came out last year about the making of Troll 2, called _Best Worst Movie_:

http://bestworstmovie.com/
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1144539/

I haven't seen it yet, but it's on my list of videos about trainwrecks to watch :).
Chris Meadows
7. Robotech_Master
You know, Mercedes Lackey was writing urban fantasy before anybody even coined the term. Her Diana Tregarde books, spun off of tie-in fiction for the old-school urban-fantasy RPG Bureau 13, essentially helped define the genre, paving the way for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the spate of other works that followed. And she wrote all that stuff about elves racing cars and bardic musicians…

And what would you call Diane Duane's "Wizardry" series if not urban fantasy? It's fantasy, and it takes place in urban environments…

(And by the way, I interviewed Lackey, Duane, and Peter S. Beagle (though not all in the same show!) in my now largely defunct podcast, The Biblio File. I'm especially fond of the Beagle one, which went on for nearly four hours.)
Sandi Kallas
8. Sandikal
I'm going to throw in a mention for Charles de Lint. My favorites are "Forests of the Heart" and "The Mystery of Grace". However, I haven't read anything awful from him.
Kevin P. Reid
9. redrob
I definitely second the recommendation for Agyar, and for all things McKinley.

For those who like "War for the Oaks", a very different take on the intersection of music, musicians, and the fey, try Gael Baudino's "Gossamer Axe"

And finally, given the tone of all the original recommendations, I highly recommend "Tam Lin" by Pamela Dean. A young woman is off to college, living in the dorms, and meets a number of strange characters. She finds herself slipping from the mundane world into one that resembles the old fairie tales. And we all know how those turned out.
Lannis .
10. Lannis
I second Sandikal's recommendation of Charles de Lint. He's excellent. My personal favourite has always been Memory and Dream, though he is a master of the short story. I believe he has a best of collection coming out soon...
Steven Halter
11. stevenhalter
The Felix Castor series from Mike Carey is very well done and quite different than most Urban Fantasy in its feel and premise.
Rachel Hyland
12. RachelHyland
JesterJoker @ 5

Sure Angel's a book series! Pocket released 29 tie-ins, including a few cross-overs with Buffy. Some of them are even pretty good. (A review here.)

Robotech_Master @ 7

Mercedes Lackey is indeed among Urban Fantasy royalty, though I don't know if I'd classify the Bardic Voices books as UF; they're regular ol' Fantasy, surely? Definitely Diana Tregarde and all the SERRAted Edge books, though. Drag racing elves!

At the moment I am loving Chloe Neill's Chicagoland Vampires series (even if the most recent book, Twice Bitten, did do nasty things to her poor beleagured heroine Merit's heart), and Julie Kenner's Demon Hunting Soccer Mom series is a fun twist on the genre.

On a weightier, more literature-ish note, are we taking Neil Gaiman as a given here? Urban Fantasy doesn't get much more urbane, nor fantastical, than his sumptuous Neverwhere.

And let us not forget the exuberant adventures of Carrie Vaughn's own Denver-based were-DJ, Kitty Norville! For those who've yet to give her a try, you can read the original Kitty short story, "Doctor Kitty Solves All Your Love Problems" here. I guarantee you'll want more.
Carrie Vaughn
13. Carrie_Vaughn
Thanks for the recommendations!

My own list was not intended to be an exhaustive survey by any means -- just books that I really like that often get overlooked, especially because they aren't always identified as urban fantasy.

Kevin, it's been awhile since I read Sunshine, but I seem to remember a sense of "before it all happened" and "after." Maybe I'm thinking of the war...
Kevin P. Reid
14. N. Mamatas
I'm going to mention Strange Toys by Patricia Geary again, so nyah.
Steven Halter
15. stevenhalter
The Garrett books by Glen Cook fit into this category in an odd way. They are fantasy and they are usually in an urban setting. That setting just doesn't happen to be in this world.
So there's an interesting question--do books have to be set in a world roughly similar to this one in order to fit into this category?
Kevin P. Reid
16. dwndrgn
@RachelHyland - Robotech_Master wasn't referencing the Bardic Voices series but her other Bard series - but Bedlam's Bard, the first of which she wrote with Ellen Guon. Great series and definitely Urban Fantasy IMO.
Kevin P. Reid
17. zombyboy
@katenepveu said:

"The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars seems to be a book that works much better for creative folks than others, much like Sean Stewart's Night Watch.

I adore Agyar. It makes me believe that it was really written as a diary like very little else."

First of all, I adore you for mentioning a Sean Stewart book. Second of all, I agree with that you've said. And, third, if we're going to mention Stewart, can I just say that Galveston and Mockingbirds are both beautiful books and A Perfect Circle is, for me, one of the finest I've read in the genre.

He also happens to be a phenomenally nice guy. I find it amazing that a man with his talent didn't have more success in the industry--and I wish that someone like Tor would pick him up and give him the kind of support he deserves.
Kevin P. Reid
18. ofostlic
More Sean Stewart enthusiasm here -- he has a number of great examples of non-standard urban fantasy, particularly 'Mockingbird' and 'A Perfect Circle'.

I'll obviously have to try 'The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars' again, since 'Night Watch' is my favorite Sean Stewart. I tried it a long time ago and didn't get anywhere.
Rachel Hyland
19. RachelHyland
shalter @ 15

Great question! Would never have considered Garrett UF, but I see your point. Still, if we considered Fantasy novels set in cities to all be Urban Fantasy, then wouldn't we have to consider, say, all the Ankh Morpork-set Discworld books UF too? That certainly opens up a troublesome classification issue.

(So excited, by the way, about the new Garrett book: Gilded Latten Bones, out in November. Cook's running out of title-worthy metals, methinks.)

dwndrgn @ 16

Ah, of course! You're absolutely right. How could I have forgotten those? Apologies, Robotech_Master.

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