The northwestern portion of the United States is known for its ubiquitous coffee stands, frequent rain, and forested backdrops, but fantasy books in the setting also incorporate magic and incredible beings—and not just the famously hirsute Big Foot. Genre authors are inspired by legends from native tribes as well as stories brought by new immigrants to the region. Thunderbirds soar high in the sky here. The Wild Hunt races through the urban labyrinths of Seattle. Kitsune may very well prowl beneath water-laden pine boughs. The undead stagger onward, restless as ever, though perhaps they want a nice, hot latte along with a serving of brains.
The Pacific Northwest often becomes a character itself, with its dreary stretches of weather punctuated by brief, delightful sunbreaks. Gray as the skies may be, the history is downright colorful, allowing some authors to draw on a pioneer past that required particular gumption in order to survive.
Here are my top five fantasy novels set in the Pacific Northwest, with some undeniable bias toward steampunk and strong leading ladies. In the case of series, I provide the title of the first book.
Dream Eater by K. Bird Lincoln
Koi Pierce just wants to finish her degree at Portland Community College so she can take care of her aging father as he descends into Alzheimer’s, but her public interactions are complicated by, well, people. Physical contact causes Koi to experience that person’s most vivid dreams. When the touch of a creepy professor causes her to see even creepier images of a dead girl, her life takes a decidedly dangerous turn.
Dream Eater explores the city of Portland, and brings a fresh twist to the urban fantasy genre with its use of Japanese mythology.
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Bear mashed together 19th century versions of San Francisco, Vancouver, and (most prominently) Seattle in her setting of Rapid City, home to Karen Memery, a “seamstress” of a high class bordello.
Rapid City is a vivid place, a town enduring growing pains as the Alaskan gold rush spurs change and pushes through transients–via naval vessels and airships–on their way to the far north. This is Weird West steampunk embodied with Pacific Northwestern mustiness and mud. Karen’s distinct voice tells a tale of action, intrigue, and extraordinary inventions.
Finn Fancy Necromancy by Randy Henderson
Henderson’s dark, quirky urban fantasy visits places across Washington state after poor Finn’s soul is returned to his body after a quarter century of imprisonment. He was just a teenager when he was convicted of a crime of necromancy that he did not commit, and his mind and pop culture obsessions are still firmly entrenched in the 1980s. This is part murder mystery, part oddball comedy, part nostalgic ode to the era of 8-bit. Finn is a character to cheer for as he dodges death, and tries to survive the perils of entities such as the gnome mafia and his rather eccentric-yet-endearing family. Readers familiar with Washington will recognize places like Port Townsend, Bremerton, the Kingston ferry, Everett, and the EMP right in downtown Seattle. This book will fulfill your sasquatch needs in a delightful way, too.
Urban Shaman by C. E. Murphy
Joanna Walker is a Seattle cop whose beat becomes a bit more intense after her shamanic skills begin to manifest… and it turns out that the Wild Hunt of Celtic lore is a threat that is very real, and very nasty indeed.
This book starts off the nine-novel arc of the Walker Papers. While the story eventually journeys as far away as Ireland and North Carolina, Seattle is Jo’s beloved home, and a place she fights to save time and again. The entire city is explored–and often scorched or otherwise altered–which includes some particularly memorable events at the Space Needle and Lake Washington. Jo doesn’t simply deal with the Wild Hunt, either, but with demons, bizarre illnesses, a particular cauldron of lore, and a wide assortment of other perils.
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
In the early days of the Civil War, the test-run of the mighty Boneshaker drill goes awry in Seattle, and a vein of gas is released that turns people into the living dead. Over a decade later, as the Civil War continues to drag on across the country, Seattle is a walled-off death trap. The city’s horrific reputation won’t stop Briar Wilkes from finding a way inside those walls; she needs to retrieve her missing teenage son, and the roving undead–and the possibility of joining their ranks–will not scare her away.
Readers who know Seattle history will recognize names and places, though this is heavily-altered setting–one rendered post-apocalyptic in its earliest years of settlement. This is zombie-filled horror combined with steampunk, and provides an excellent kick-off for Priest’s Clockwork Century alternate history series.
Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth trilogy from Harper Voyager. Her newest novel is the second in the trilogy, entitled Call of Fire. She’s a Hanford, California, native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @BethCato.