In decades past, if one asked readers of fantasy to picture a magic-user, most would envision a figure in medieval garb, wielding a wand or a gnarled staff capped with an orb, and perhaps wearing a pointy hat. Though long a staple of the swords-and-sorcery niche, spell-slingers have proved to be just as much at home in the urban-fantasy subgenre.
There are, of course, as many ways to depict magicians in modern-day settings as there are authors to write them. There are monster-hunters, vampire-lovers, world-jumpers, and countless other variations on the concept. My personal favorite? Big-city magicians as stone-cold badasses, living life beyond the law, in the shadows, and forever skirting the rough edge of self-destruction. Here are five that I love.
Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
Smart, vulgar, and funny, the eponymous first volume of Kadrey’s urban fantasy series is the epitome of an ass-kicking sonofabitch sorcerer. When we meet magician James Stark, he’s naked and still smoldering in a heap of trash, having returned to earth after an involuntary sojourn in Hell. He has landed in modern Los Angeles, which he deems not necessarily an improvement. Embarking upon a mission of revenge, Stark racks up enemies and makes some very strange friends while navigating Hollywood’s perverse magical underworld. Sarcastic, irreverent, and cynical, this book (and the rest of the series) is a gut-punch of fun. Apropos of a series set in Hollywood, Sandman Slim will soon be coming to a screen near you.
An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard
New York City is ruled by magical societies known as houses, and regularly scheduled dueling contests known as Turnings determine which house reigns supreme over the metropolis, as well as allowing for the creation of new houses. Now, on the eve of the latest Turning, something is going wrong. Spells are misfiring to deadly effect, or not working at all. With the entire system of magic in jeopardy, a new sorcerer arrives in Manhattan: Sydney, recently freed from captivity in the House of Shadows, is the wild card in this high-stakes game. But unbeknownst to the other players in the Turning, Sydney hasn’t come to win control of the Unseen World—but to smash it down, once and for all. Gritty action, complex plotting, and a compelling strong female protagonist make this one of the standouts of the badass-magician variety of urban fantasy.
Nightwise by R.S. Belcher
If you like your underworlds seedy and your heroes soul-damaged, look no farther than Laytham Ballard. His legend precedes him at every turn. Some say he raised the dead at the age of ten, and that he is “wise in the hidden ways of the night.” He’s also long past giving a shit what people think, and if you ask him if he’s “a good guy,” he’ll either laugh in your face or punch it. But he still believes a promise is sacred, and a vow made to a dying friend sends him on the hunt for a Serbian war criminal who is also an acolyte of black magic and blood sacrifices. To track down this villain who has fallen off the face of the earth and slipped beyond even the Devil’s reach, Ballard risks his life as well as what is left of his soul. But don’t you dare call him “a hero.”
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
When most fantasy readers think of Grossman’s best-selling The Magicians series, they think of it first as a portal fantasy. But its second volume features a major and hard-hitting urban fantasy element. The character of Julia Wicker, who was rejected by Brakebills despite her natural talent, refuses to abandon her pursuit of magical knowledge. Her search leads to her affiliation with a coven of urban “hedge-witches,” renegades who reject Brakebills’ stifling limitations. Though the book’s main character ostensibly is Quentin Coldwater, Julia is this book’s true heavy-hitter, because ultimately it is her illicitly obtained magical skill—and the loss and heartbreak she endures to get it—that saves the day and propels the story, albeit with dire consequences.
Child of Fire by Harry Connolly
Being a tough-guy mage isn’t always about being the best or the strongest. This is doubly true for down-on-his luck car thief turned driver Ray Lilly. He’s got a bit of magical talent, but he makes his living as a driver for Annalise Powliss, a member of the Twenty Palaces Society, which hunts down rogue mages. She has it in for Ray because he betrayed her once before, and she’s looking for an excuse to kill him—or to turn a blind eye while someone else does. But when her latest mission goes wrong, it falls to Ray to finish it for her—meaning he will have to take down a sorcerer with powers far beyond his own. This is a classic David-vs.-Goliath tale with a high rate of collateral damage, one in which raw power must be overcome through cunning, courage, and sheer guts. Urban fantasy adventure doesn’t get much better than this.
David Mack is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty-six novels of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure. The Iron Codex, his new novel of badass mages engaged in Cold War espionage, is available now from Tor Books.