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Urban Fantasy is a literary subgenre of Fantasy Fiction, but rather than focusing on big swords, magic rings, and squabbles over who gets to be King, it’s an entirely more modern focused affair. Set in cities and the modern world, the genre largely sets out to explore the folklore and strangeness that might surround us, without heading into Horror territory (though the two genres are closely linked if only because they share a cast of monsters). We’ve chosen some of the classic Urban Fantasy stories that define the genre, and the nature of the city as an environment, or that underline part of our modern way of life in a way that later works simply don’t. Not all of these classics are set in cities, but they all reference them in some way.
War For the Oaks by Emma Bull: Set in Minneapolis, War for the Oaks is about the Fae, in particular the war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts (representing light and dark), as they enter a summer of battles and conflicts. The problem is, they can’t die unless a mortal is recruited into their ranks and as a resultm a young woman called Eddi McCandry, a musician, is drafted into the Seelie’s forces. She becomes their weapon against the Unseelie, not knowing at first that her ex-boyfriend, with whom she’s only just broken up with, has been chosen by the other side. From there, she’s beset with the problem of building a new band, preparing for a war she neither wants to fight nor understands, and dealing with a bothersome guardian in the form of a Phouka. This character proves to be the novel’s second protagonist, a love interest who’s both annoying and endearing in pretty much equal measure. As the Unseelie try to destroy her life, Eddi is forced deeper into the fairy world and to embrace the power it gives her through music. Eventually, only she can tip the war and ensure the Seelie win, preventing the Unseelie from destroying everything she holds dear. Reading as fresh and breezy, Bull’s characters are well formed and believable, even when they’re not human. She plays with ethics well, depicting the struggles between Eddi and the Phouka as they argue over the best course of action adroitly enough that you never find yourself completely siding with the other.
Greenmantle by Charles de Lint: A hit man on the run from the Mob is the main character at the heart of de Lint’s seminal piece about guilt, duty, and freedom. As Tony Valenti flees New York after he’s framed as a traitor when his Mafia boss is killed, he is forced to settle in the shadow of a dark forest, one so large and eerie it’s almost primeval. There, he discovers magic and wonder in the form of an ancient primal power that looks like the Horned God, and which is pursued by a pack of hounds and their masters, who resemble the Inquisition. As Tony is led into the forest, and the mystery, by a mysterious girl’s piping, he finds himself caught between the Mob as they close in to kill him and the ghostly Inquisition that wants to destroy the horned figure that haunts the trees. What really sets the novel aside from the rest of the genre is de Lint’s skill at handling not only his protagonist (how many fantasy novels focus on a hit man?) but also the fact that his villains are an embodiment of Christianity.
Kraken by China Mieville: One of the strangest novels you’ll ever read, Kraken is amazing. Set in the mystic underworld of London, it follows a museum curator investigating an impossible theft, that of a giant squid, from London’s Natural History Museum. His search leads him into a world where nothing he knows is actually true and forces him into the company of characters that uniquely terrifying, as Mieville demonstrates the dangers of magic and living outside the normal world. These range from a living tattoo, a church of squid cultists, and a wizard who’s haunted by himself, as his Star Trek-based occultism means that every time he uses his Transporter he really does die. This heady version of the UK’s capital is compelling and exciting and draws the reader in like nothing else. Kraken does a fine job of showing that even in places we think we know, there’s always something lurking under the surface.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: A 1990s classic, and a television series to boot, Neverwhere is largely situated in "London Below," a strange world composed of London Underground stations, hidden nooks and crannies, and the willingness of humanity to ignore the things going on around them. When a young accountant, Richard Mayhew, stops to help a homeless girl, Door, he’s dragged into a world he doesn’t know, and has to set off on a quest to find her and get his life back. Their search for who killed her family, plunges them into danger and into the strange whimsies of London Below. Gaiman’s world is tamer, somehow, than Mieville’s but the characters feel more grounded, and more charming, in some respects. Croup and Vandemar may be time travelling assassins who seem to be a fox and wolf personified as humans, but they also feel more familiar and less ‘out there’ than a mob boss made of ink. The plot is a little simplistic, but Gaiman’s writing keeps the reader’s interest all the way through.
Three Days to Never by Tim Powers: Set in California at the start of the 1990s, Three Days to Never is about Albert Einstein and his time machine. When Daphne Marrity, a young girl, and her father come into possession of her grandmother’s "Kaleidoscope Shed," they stumble into a covert operation being conducted on one hand by a Kabbalah branch of Mossad, and on the other by a group of Rosicrucian Occultists. Things are complicated by the presence of a figure who appears to be djinn of some description, and manifests through broadcasts on television sets and radios with a view to harming, perhaps even killing Daphne. Slowly, the characters unpick the mysteries surrounding the Kaleidoscope Shed and make alarming discoveries about themselves, their relative, and about Einstein. This is a complex novel, one full of twists and turns, and with many surprises. It isn’t very pleasant in places, and readers should be prepared for that, in my opinion. However, it’s a very interesting read and one that’s intensely satisfying when you reach the end.
Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle: The only one of these books to be set outside of Earth in a fantasy world, Rats and Gargoyles is, nonetheless, a piece of almost relentlessly urban fantasy. Set in a huge city, one ruled by humanoid rats and the Gods they serve, it is of rebellion, subterfuge, politics, and magic. When a Prince goes to the University of Crime for his education, he gets more than he bargained for. Plunged into the city’s intrigues against his will, he has to survive, as one of the Gods explores Black Alchemy, a form of magic that can destroy the soul, and the rats set into motion a plan that will destroy their deities’ ability to live on the planet. Filled with references to Hermeticism, Romanticism, and the power of Architecture, Rats and Gargoyles is a novel that enthralls and, to some extent, educates as Gentle draws on real-world occult beliefs to build her world. Her writing is full of endearing characters, as well as some truly terrifying ones, and she makes them feel full and real, even when they might be bipedal rats dressed up in Regency-era fashions.
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling: This is a magical novel, a largely undiscovered gem, which is overlooked among the many quasi-police procedurals that litter the Urban Fantasy genre, despite being by a World Fantasy Award winner. The story concerns surrealist art, faerie, and the desert, The Wood Wife is set in New Mexico, and concerns, Maggie Black, a writer who has moved out there to write the biography of a poet who had lived in the area. Doing so begins her own quest to find her muse and transform her life, tapping into magic as old as the hills, though new to her. Walking a difficult balance between European and Native American mythologies the novel manages to do that rare thing of acknowledging both while condemning neither. As Maggie grows to see the faerie creatures and learn the secrets of the desert, she learns what had drawn the poet in the first place and how the land changed him, as she herself, and the love interest Windling provides for her, are changed.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: A spoof of The Omen, Good Omens must be one of the most famous books in the Urban Fantasy genre. An angel and a demon, allied shortly after Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden, have developed a truce of sorts, trying to stave off Armageddon and working out tiny victories for each side that won’t actually swing the fate of humanity significantly one way or the other (though neither will take responsibility for Milton Keynes). When the Antichrist is born and ends up in the wrong family, the two struggle to work out what’s going on, and how they can recover the child before anybody notices. Written with stylish verve and its tongue firmly in its cheek, the novel navigates everything from what the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse do while they’re waiting for to go to work, what runs nuclear power stations, and what aliens really want with the human race. It’s a hilarious ride through monumental silliness and some fairly dark territory.
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross: Written as a spoof spy novel, The Atrocity Archives is a tongue-in-cheek take on that genre and on Urban Fantasy. It follows a slacker called Bob, who ends up undertaking active service out of boredom and starts to find that he’s become involved in an operation when he’s sent to assess a Scottish Professor for extraction from the United States. Unbeknownst to him, a group of terrorists is also tracking her, to try and bring through a relic of the Second World War from another version of Earth, where the Nazis won the war, but destroyed their planet in the process. Written in a pithy style that neatly captures the idea of the new, nerdy, member of a group being forced into a fusty, antiquated organisation and the clash of cultures that follows. Stross’ style is easy to read, the action enjoyable, and the situation entirely too believable in some respects.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes: A crime novel, from the perspective of the criminals, Zoo City follows Zinai December, a young woman whose main profession now is to write phishing emails and scam people out of their money as she tries to repay her drug dealer. In Beukes’ world, criminals are marked by having an animal familiar that they can’t get too far away from. Zinzi’s animal is a sloth, hardly the most convenient creature to have to carry around when trying to hide what you are. Sloth is more than a prop, he’s a character in his own right, and interferes with what Zinzi’s trying to do as she becomes a protagonist. Her other work is finding lost objects, something her connection to Sloth allows her to do. Hired to find out what happened to the female half of a male/female pop group, she finds herself getting over her head as she tries to navigate Johannesburg's underworld. This novel feels wonderfully fresh, taking an entirely different perspective on Urban Fantasy and running with it.