Urban Fantasy Genre Guide

We’ve started a new kind of book club at my library: a genre book club. Each month, staff selects a sample reading list for a genre, patrons sign up for a book from the list, and then staff facilitate a discussion where each participant can discuss the book they read and how it relates to the genre as a whole. Ideally, everyone leaves with some books that piqued their interest, whether they were an avid reader of the genre or a total newbie.

Instead of having just one staff responsible for each meeting, the responsibility rotates and everyone is leading the discussion and compiling the genre guide book list for a genre they actually read and enjoy.

Even though I already lead a YA for grownups book club and my teens’ top ten book club, I couldn’t resist when I was asked to partner with staff from readers’ services to do the urban fantasy genre book club meeting. It’s a genre I love, but am also really picky about personally. It’s also a genre that I think is often overlooked or confused with paranormal romance.

Urban fantasy is a blend of the magic and the mundane, where the reader encounters the supernatural in a real-world urban setting. While often set in contemporary times, they can take place in any time period, past or future. The setting is a place that has, does, or might one day really exist. Urban fantasy blends elements from contemporary fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery and adventure, and can runs the spectrum from pure pulpy fun to the highly literary.

It was really tricky to narrow down the list of books to just these. Most of them I’ve read, some push the boundaries of what urban fantasy is, but overall, I think it represents the spectrum of what can be classified as urban fantasy. I did take pains to make sure that it was a diverse list, both in style and plot, but also that there were characters and authors of color represented. Thankfully, some wonderful people on Twitter offered suggestions.  A few made it on this list, but I have another more comprehensive list that includes titles that are difficult to get for a library (mostly because some were older titles or only available digitally) but that might be of interest to readers. I’ll post that round up of diverse urban fantasy later this week. 

Must Read Urban Fantasy | wrapped up in books

Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Dreams and Shadows is on the more literary end of the urban fantasy spectrum. This is a story of two boys, and a slew of supernatural creatures, including fairies, goblins, djinn, angels, and tricksters gods set against a magical realm superimposed on our own just outside Austin, Texas. With equal parts philosophy and gore, this will satisfy those who enjoy thoughtful reflections as well as readers who prefer plenty of action.

Dreams Underfoot: The Newford Collection by Charles DeLint

Charles De Lint has been called “the modern master of urban fantasy.” This collection is an introduction to his fictional world of Newford, where many of his stories take place.

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

In the first installment of the October Daye series, McGuire drops readers into a world of San Francisco where Faeries reign in the shadows. With complex characters who are neither purely good or evil, this is a unique urban fantasy series. Horror fans may be interested to know that McGuire also writes as Mira Grant, author of Feed and Parasite.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Maggie Stiefvater blends myth and magic in this series opener about Blue, a daughter of psychics fated to killer her true love with a kiss, and the enigmatic Raven Boys, four prep school students hunting for a lost Welsh king rumored to be buried along a ley line in Virginia and to grant a wish to the adventurer who awakens him. Maggie Stiefvater writes with humor and grace, and her characters are carefully crafted.

Bitten by Kelley Armstrong
Goodreads | Amazon

This is the first in the Women of the Underworld series. Elena is a werewolf–in fact, she’s the only female werewolf in the world because most don’t survive the transformation. She’s a Toronto journalist with a career and a relationship, but finds herself drawn into the supernatural world despite her resentment over her transformation. A good mix of action and romance, this is a standard-bearer in the urban fantasy genre.

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

This futuristic urban fantasy about a girl with a rare clairvoyant power who works as a kind of spy, until she is captured by an otherworldly race bent on making her a soldier in their army. This suspenseful thriller is the first in a long series from a debut author.

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

This addictive series is full of snarky banter and lots of action and romance. Clary can suddenly see all sorts of creatures invisible to normal people when her mom is attacked. Then she’s drawn into a world of shadowhunters who protect people from downworlders.

Beware the Wild by Natalie Parker
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Local author Natalie Parker’s debut is a richly atmospheric Southern Gothic tale about a swamp that comes alive and has the power to mess with the memories of the town residents.

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

This darkly comedic, noir-inspired revenge thriller stars a witty hitman hell bent on revenge. James Stark has spent the past eleven years of his life as Lucifer’s gladiator in Hell, only to then be ironically released to the “City of Angels” – L.A. – where he seeks out vengeance for the murder of his girlfriend all while hunting down the man who sent him to Hell in the first place. This Urban Fantasy title has a little bit of everything: an anti-hero protagonist, fallen angels, a brooding and immersive atmosphere, a rich and poetic narrative, and plenty of violence.

Darkfever by Karen Marie Moning
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Mac is just an ordinary college student in the American South, when she learns her beloved sister who was studying abroad in Dublin has been killed. On a quest to avenge her death, she discovers the dark world of the Fae. Moning typically writes paranormal romance, and the sexual tension in this series shows.

Hounded by Kevin Hearne

While many urban fantasy heroes are sassy ladies, this series is the story of a shape-shifting proprietor of an occult bookshop who possesses a magical sword, which makes them the target of a Celtic god.

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
Goodreads | Amazon

This story of an aspiring British paranormal detective features a diverse cast of characters. His ability to speak with the dead gives him an edge in investigating crimes involving magic, and he might get his chance for a promotion if he can solve a rash of brutal magical murders.

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
Goodreads | Amazon

Older wrote this book as the answer to, “What would Harry Potter look like if it featured a diverse cast?” The result is an engaging and creative story of magic set in the Bronx. Recently published, this novel has found much critical acclaim.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Sam dropped out of college and works at a fast food job, but he’s got friends and is living on his own and life is okay. Then, a weird guy visits him at work, his friend ends up as a reanimated head, and things get weird. This Morris Award winning novel is full of sarcastic humor and a unique cast of supernatural creatures.

White Cat by Holly Black
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Holly Black writes mesmerizing urban fantasy for teens with intricate plots, complex characters, and unique systems of magic. White Cat is the first of a series that blends magic and the mob with a noir feel.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

We *technically* have this cataloged as fantasy at my library, but it’s one the blurs the lines between urban fantasy and traditional fantasy. A young magician is admitted to an elite college in upstate New York. If you’re thinking Harry Potter for adults, you wouldn’t be the first.

Half Bad by Sally Green
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

This young adult novel has a literary thriller with a fascinating and complex magical world. In England, there is a council of White Witches that defend the world (including “fains” or ordinary humans) from nefarious Black Witches). Nathan is under constant scrutiny because while his mother was a White Witch, his father is the most notorious Black Witch there is, and it’s unclear which way he’ll go during his coming of age ceremony when he receives his powers. While the plot is a typical heroes journey, the complex structure and incredible voice of the protagonist make this a standout YA urban fantasy.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker is the first book in a genre blending, fast-paced, steampunk series that provides a speculative historical account of 1880s Seattle. Zeke, the son of a famous mad scientist who is reputed to have destroyed Seattle when his gold prospecting invention went horribly awry, tries to discover the truth and clear his father’s tarnished reputation. The only problem is that a mysterious gas has been turning everyone into zombies, which makes Zeke’s quest all the more dangerous. Boneshaker is a real page-turner, especially when the action ramps up, and is a fun book with an immersive world in which to get lost.

A Discovery of Witches by Deb Harkness
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Deb Harkness doesn’t just write books. She’s also a professor of history who began this novel as a way of answering the questions “if vampires and witches were real, what would they do all day?” Diana doesn’t know she’s a witch until she’s drawn into an ancient mystery while researching medieval alchemy texts in Oxford, England (and of course, has a forbidden romance with a vampire doctor). This series is more literary than others with similar premises, but still delivers on the action and romance.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

When people from all over the globe traversed great oceans to settle in the New World, they brought with them more than just the hope for a better life. They also brought ancient dreams in the form of gods and mythological idols, each with a history and story of its own. Gaiman’s supernatural road trip novel explores the lasting influence of this dark and mysterious force of the imagination and its impact on modern American culture. Full of the dark magic and spellbinding dream-weaving that the author’s fans have come to expect, American Gods is considered a modern classic of urban fantasy.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

Written in Red, the first in The Others series, follows a young woman named Meg who has prophetic visions when she cuts her skin. In a world run by supernaturals (called the Others), humans are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and Meg is hired as the go between. Written in Blood is full of entrancing, likable characters, gruesome, action packed scenes, an undercurrent of super charged sensuality between the protagonists, and a fascinating examination of the culture and world of supernatural creatures.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden is a wizard detective with a deadpan sense of humor and a long duster. Pro tip: the audiobooks in the Dresden Files series are narrated by James Marsters, who played Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Soulless by Gail Carriger
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Soulless is a laugh-out-loud funny, gaslight novel set in Victorian era England. When spinster Alexia Tarabotti stakes an ill-mannered vampire at a high society party, her fate becomes intertwined with an ridiculous sexy werewolf as they attempt to solve a mystery surrounding the recent disappearances of well-to-do vampires. This book expertly blends romance, intrigue, and steampunk elements in an adventure that will hook you immediately. If you love strong female protagonists, a slew of eccentric shapeshifting characters, and have a weakness for treacle tart, then you will enjoy Soulless.

Magic Bites by Illona Andrews
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Kate Daniels is a mercenary in futuristic post-Shift Atlanta, where technology and magic battle for dominance. While investigating the death of her mentor, she meets the Beast Lord, and is drawn into power struggles as different factions of the magical community battle for dominance. Andrews drops readers into this fascinating world and gets right to the action. Kate is a compelling character who is fierce yet vulnerable. Over the course of the series, she learns more about her past and origins and grows in her power, and the stakes always grow higher. A truly unique and fascinating urban fantasy series.

Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
GoodreadsAmazon | My Review

Mercy Thompson is a mechanic trying to lead a normal life, even if her boss is a gremlin and her neighbor is a werewolf and she counts a vampire as a friend. This series opener feature a great protagonist, a mystery, and is a fan favorite of the urban fantasy genre.

What books do you think should be on a genre guide for urban fantasy? smallgraydots

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Header image: “A Foggy Empire” CC licensed from Flickr User Chris Ford

4 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy Genre Guide

  1. Robert Holdstock series including Lavondyss, the Bone Forest, Mythago Wood- oldies but goodies.

  2. Particularly for urban fantasy, I feel like there’s a lot of crossover appeal for YA titles even for readers who typically only read adult fiction. Thanks!

  3. Hi Molly, Thanks for sharing all these recommendations – it’s so nice to see such a broad range of the one genre. I loved Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches such a wonderful journey into the historical/literary world with the blend of supernatural that my favourite books always contain :) Equally captivating is the Mortal Instruments series – plenty of action, adventure and teenage angst! Will definitely check out the others on your list and thanks again!

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