I like urban fantasy. A lot. I write it, so it’s a good thing that I enjoy it, but I’ve been reading it since it really began to become a thing, and have a fairly broad knowledge of the genre. I was asked, after a Twitter thread about awesome urban fantasy authors, whether I would be interested in writing up a recommendation post. Well, sure; any excuse to talk about the books I love! But first, a few caveats:
- This is not a list of the very best, you must read this, absolutely essential urban fantasy books. This is a list of urban fantasy I would personally recommend.
- By the same measure, if something is not included, I didn’t forget it, I didn’t include it. Now maybe that means it’s something I didn’t read. Or maybe it means it’s something I didn’t enjoy. Since this is not “Seanan starts a feud within her genre,” I will not be specifying which is which. When reading and enjoying this article, if moved to comment, please don’t comment with “BUT YOU FORGOT…” I assure you, I did not.
And now, with no further ado, I present to you,
Seanan’s Personal Top Ten Urban Fantasy Books For Adults (Because There’s So Much Awesome YA That We’d Be Here All Week)
Tam Lin, Pamela Dean. This could be a contentious entry, since there’s some question as to whether Tam Lin is urban fantasy or modern adult fantasy. The two genres are siblings, no question, and exist closely enough together that sometimes works can slip from one into the other. To me, Tam Lin is the quintessential urban fantasy: it pre-dates a lot of the genre conventions that we have today. No leather pants or sexy shifters here. But there is a strong female lead (Janet), a beautifully thought-out parallel history, and a deep introspection into what happens when the world of the fantastic collides with the world of the every day. If you follow my essaying around, you’ll see me mention this book a lot. There’s an excellent reason for that.
Our second contender is also an adaptation of the old English ballad of Tam Lin, although mixed liberally with Thomas the Rhymer: Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones. This is another book that pre-dates the modern definition of “urban fantasy,” and so is incredibly whimsical and unpredictable to the modern urban fantasy reader. I think I read it five times before I fully understood the ending (and I’m not 100% sure I understand it even now). This book was foundational to me: I quote little bits and pieces of it in my daily life, and I would be someone else if I had never read it. (Being a foundational text isn’t the only requirement to be one of my favorite urban fantasy works—The Last Unicorn and The Stand will not be appearing on this list.) Deftly written, meticulously fair, and very aware of what it means to be kind, this book is what I aspire to every time I tell a story.
War for the Oaks, Emma Bull, is probably the first book on this list that most modern readers of urban fantasy would recognize as belonging to the genre, even as its tropes and story beats are shallowly drawn by today’s standards. Which isn’t to say that the story is shallow—just that those tropes had yet to be entirely defined, and in fact, this book was key in defining many of them. On such things are foundations built. This is a classic of the genre, a seminal work that defined the path the rest of us would be walking for years, and deserves to be held up and recognized as such.
Summon the Keeper, Tanya Huff. If I were asked to populate a panel with the fairy godmothers of modern urban fantasy, Tanya’s name would be the first one I put down. She wrote a vampire detective when that wasn’t a cliché. She helped to shape and establish many of the tropes we still work with today. And she turns them all on their heads in this deft, funny, unique, and uniquely Canadian urban fantasy setting. The cats who assist her Keepers over the course of the series are all based on real felines belonging to Tanya and her wife, Fiona; the death of the last of the Keeper-cats in the real world brought about the end of the series, which is sad but understandable.
The Jill Kismet series, by Lilith St. Crow, is one of those that never seemed to me to get the traction and attention it genuinely deserved. The fifth book, Heaven’s Spite, has possibly the bravest, most true to the character and story ending I have ever encountered in urban fantasy. It takes guts to do what St. Crow does here, and she makes it look and feel so effortless that I am still in awe. Make sure to have book six on hand if you decide to take the plunge, because that is not an ending you want to be forced to process any longer than you decide to.
Dimestore Magic, Kelley Armstrong. This is technically the third in her Women of the Otherworld series, and you should probably start with book one, Bitten, if you want the story to play out the way the author intended. But damn, I love Paige. Straddling the line between urban fantasy (focused more on the adventure and the drama at hand) and paranormal romance (a sibling genre adhering to several romance conventions, including a guaranteed Happily Ever After), this series shifts narrators every few volumes, which brings us to my beloved Paige, witch and coven-leader and beleaguered problem solver. The whole series is worth your time and attention, being beautifully, brilliantly written.
A lot of my selections have been made on the basis of “this sets you up for a wider appreciation of the genre,” since when I’m talking about urban fantasy, I want people to understand just how we got to where we are today, and just how big our tent is (it’s a pretty big tent). And it is with those things in mind that I add Laurel Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures to this list. Anita Blake was among the first police investigators to show up at our party, and she paved the way for a great many more. She was sharp, cynical, and gloriously unique, even as these days, she looks like just another kick-ass heroine in leather pants. The later books include a lot of graphic, extremely detailed erotica, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but which still doesn’t tip the series over into paranormal romance—make no mistake, we have never been promised a happily ever after.
Rivers of London, published in the US as Midnight Riot, is the first book in stellar Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. These books are fascinating and wholly unique in their magic system and cosmology, pulling very heavily on the folklore and folk tales of London, and the massive network of tributaries formed by the River Thames. Our main character, Peter Grant, is an officer with the Metropolitan Police who falls into the seedy underworld of magic that runs through the city. He won’t be the last police officer on our list, either, considering…
London Falling, by Paul Cornell, is the next book on our list. Superficially, this book looks a lot like Midnight Riot, being about the interaction between the police, the supernatural, and the city of London. In execution, however, these two books (and two associated series) couldn’t be more different, and that’s why I am more than happy to recommend them both as exquisite examples of what the genre is capable of.
The last book on tonight’s list is a departure from the police procedurals and detectives that have come to dominate the genre: a librarian. A librarian from an order of magical librarians tasked with protecting the world from danger. Specifically, Isaac, the hero of Libriomancer, who may be all that stands between humanity and the dangers of the written word. This is another one that pushes the definitions a bit, which is, I think, a good thing; once a genre or sub-genre really settles into its conventions, it can be difficult to break its self-imposed rules. This is a fabulous series, light, humorous, and very aware of the problems with the genres it stands in conversation with.
So there: my top ten. I didn’t forget anything, although I may have left a few things off. Urban fantasy is a big, complex circus, full of diverse and entertaining acts, and if you haven’t already been to see our midway, I hope you’ll make time for a visit.
Originally published in July 2019.
New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire is the author of the October Daye urban fantasy series, the InCryptid series, and several other works, both standalone and in trilogies. She lives in a creaky old farmhouse in Northern California, and was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear fives times on the same Hugo ballot. Her latest standalone novel, Middlegame, is available from Tor.com Publishing.