After years of writing and reading urban fantasy, it’s hard to be thrilled about the basic premise—which, as I see it, is supernatural creatures and ordinary humans interacting on a regular basis. But every now and then, when I open a book, I am delighted to find a world I could never have imagined myself. It’s a real joy to me to be astounded. When I got a chance to share this pleasure, I realized I had to limit my list in some way: so I decided to pick worlds created by women writers.
Naomi Novik’s Temeraire Series
When I met Naomi Novik, she told me she was starting a series that took place during the Napoleonic wars… with dragons. I’m sure that made me take a mental step back to ponder the scenario; but Naomi tells me I encouraged her, so I feel pretty smart now. What great books these are! The intelligence and fascination of these dragons—who talk, of course—is just as delightful as the relationship between the dragon Temeraire and his bonded companion, Captain Will Laurence. Aerial warfare in the 19th century? It makes absolute sense in Novik’s world. And Novik nails the diction, manners, and class distinctions of the time with pitch-perfect ease. Reading these books is entering another world.
Seanan McGuire’s October Daye Series
Seanan McGuire has been a favorite of mine ever since her first October Daye book, Rosemary and Rue. It’s not every protagonist who has spent a few years being a fish, and when she’s back in human form, October’s problems are only beginning. She’s half-human, half-changeling, and always in peril. In a complex system of fiefdoms and courts, the fey side of San Francisco is treacherous. But October (called Toby) is a genuine hero, and if anyone can investigate the fey world’s mysteries and come out alive, it’s Toby. Often her survival is a very close thing; Toby has as many enemies as friends.
I could just as easily have chosen McGuire’s Incryptid series to cite: it begins with Discount Armageddon. Verity Price, who wants more than anything to be a professional dancer, is also a cryptozoologist, dedicated to defending the world’s supernatural creatures from the humans (specifically The Covenant of St. George) who don’t even try to understand them. Verity’s apartment is inhabited by Aeslin mice, who consider all the Prices gods, and regularly sing Verity’s praises. Honestly, the mice alone would have convinced me that McGuire knows what she is doing. The cast of characters in the InCryptid books is always delightful, and they’re great fun.
Or I could have chosen McGuire’s books written as Mira Grant, the Newsflesh books, which take place in a world where zombies spread by infecting humans—or animals—and stringent disinfection protocols are mandatory. The world finds out what’s happening by subscribing to blogging groups. Georgia and Shaun Mason, adopted siblings, are the tentpoles of such a group, and they’re tracking down the cause of the initial Rising. I wish I could read the kickoff book, Feed, all over again, to experience the jaw-dropping admiration I felt the first time.
Or I could have cited Mira Grant’s Parasitology books… but you get the idea. McGuire is dedicated, hard-working, and an amazingly talented writer who seems to have more original plotlines in a year than some writers get in a lifetime.
Anne Bishop’s Others Series
Can you picture a United States in which only a few humans have settled? Not because they don’t want to seize it, own it, and drain it dry, but because the land is owned by the terra indigene, the original inhabitants. And they’re not “Indians”… they’re terrifying magical forces. Unscrupulous men have discovered that they can train young female prophets by tying their visions to cutting. These girls, abused beyond reason, can only cut so many times until they die. But one escapes, and she finds refuge in The Courtyard, a designated area where humans and the lesser terra indigene (werewolves, shapeshifters, vampires, and so many others) can do business together. The terra indigene are puzzled by the girl, who adopts the name Meg Corbyn, but they sense her seer talent, and they know she has been abused. Gradually, Meg becomes a valued member of the community and gains the respect of the elementals, the (arguably) strongest and most terrifying of the terra indigene. Meg can warn them of the upcoming war with the humans. I can’t tell you how rich this series is (initial book: Written in Red) and how enthralled I am. I enjoyed Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, though I never felt I had a full grasp of the world. But the Others series is such a deep pleasure.
Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts Series
Stacia Kane handed me the manuscript for Unholy Ghosts at a party. Kane’s world, in which the dead have risen and the Church employs witches to lay them to rest, enthralled me from page one. Chess Putnam, Kane’s protagonist, is a very talented witch, and a very attractive one. In her public life, she toes the Church line. But privately, Chess is a mess. She’s a drug addict, she owes her dealer money, and she’s attracted to exactly the wrong kind of men. When I enjoy reading about a drug addict who won’t reform, you know the writing is really compelling. Kane’s is an American world turned upside down. Ghosts are real and can be harmful, the Church rules everything, and even the speech patterns are distinct to the world Kane’s constructed.
Mishell Baker’s Arcadia Project Series
Finally, I just read Mishell Baker’s debut novel, Borderline. From the get-go, this book is Different with a capital D. Baker’s chief character, Millie Roper, is in a psychiatric hospital following a failed suicide attempt in which she lost both her legs. (On the first page, I was already challenged by this premise. Right?) Millie, a promising filmmaker, remembers nothing about her long fall. She is trying to learn to cope with her lost career and her own borderline personality disorder, and having some success. But she has no idea what comes next, and she has nowhere to go. One day she’s visited by the mysterious Caryl Vallo, who says she represents the Arcadia Project. Caryl offers Millie a place to live and a job with the project, though what Millie would do is oddly nebulous. Of course, Millie eventually accepts and goes to the house where other operatives live. They are all misfits, and also oddities whom no one will miss, which makes them perfect to police the traffic between the people of this world and the creatures of a parallel reality. After all, it’s a job with a high rate of attrition. Millie is a thorny individual, without doubt, but she won my respect and ultimately my allegiance. I am waiting for the next book with great anticipation.
So there you have my choices: a naval officer and his dragon, a former fish who is a hero, a self-cutter who manages to form her own community in a wild world, a drug-addicted magic practitioner, and a moviemaker who may or may not have jumped off a building. Reduced to bare bones, these premises may not sound that promising, but in the hands of these writers… they add up to some of my favorite times spent in books.
Charlaine Harris is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse fantasy/mystery series; the Aurora Teagarden, Harper Connelly, and Lily Bard mystery series; and the Midnight, Texas, novels Day Shift, Midnight Crossroad, and Night Shift, available now from Ace.