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25 Urban Fantasy Favourites

Listing time! Following in the footsteps of the Science Fiction and Epic Fantasy lists, a group of us - Liz Bourke, Justin Landon, Tansy Rayner Roberts and I -  have banded together to take a stab at Urban Fantasy.

The rules:

  • No more than one book or series from each author. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien could go in for The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings series, but not both.
  • No anthologies.
  • You can only list books that you have read. 
  • Definitions of "essential", "favourite", "urban" and "fantasy" are left to personal interpretation.

And a few differences from the past:

  • Only 25. I'm not even pretending this is a proper survey of the genre. This list has two dozen-ish of my personal favourites, and that's it.
  • Open to all media. 
  • I tried really hard not to repeat with previous lists.

As always, please use the comments to tell me about the books I forgot, should read, overlooked or otherwise failed!

So, before I get stuck in, what is "urban fantasy"?

Twitter was helpful, and, best of all was this blog post from @kiplet - which basically spelled out Farah Mendelsohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy for me, and gave me some nice definitions to play with. The best starting point is "liminal fantasy" - that is, where the [fantastic] was "here all along" - as opposed to the other options, where everything takes place "there" (immersive), we go to "there" (portal) or the "there" comes "here" (intrusive).

Using that as a starting point, I've got a working definition of "urban fantasy" as:

  • The story is set in our world.
  • The fantastic element is integrated into our world - it hasn't come from elsewhere; it has always been there. It can be revealed, but it isn't elsewhere.
  • The story is contemporary to the author.

That last one is cheeky, but to me, that's what makes "urban" fantasy work - it isn't about taking place in a built environment, it is about contemporary relevance; authors adding a new layer of interpretation to the reality that they experience every day.

The "contemporary" point also allows us to work backwards and add a pre-history to a genre that wasn't actually labelled until the 1990s. AND it addresses a concern raised, also on Twitter, by Alexis Kennedy: the past is a secondary world; there's already a layer of removal there [for both author and reader). So contemporary it is.

So what's this all mean? For one, it really helps narrow things down - although in the process I lose some of my favourites (Zoo City, for example - the recent arrival of the fantastic is a key part of the setting, even if it doesn't take place during the course of the book. Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell are both written about the past, so they get cut as well. Brutal.)

Anyway, ready for a list?

Let's do this.

DraculaBram Stoker's Dracula (1897) 

You know, Stoker didn't just write the archetypical mummy novel in The Jewel of Seven Stars, he also published this little known volume about an immortal, blood-sucking fiend, which he called a "vampire". This Dracula fellow has a certain tenacious cult popularity, and vampires have, on rare occasions, been found in books of urban fantasy. (Dracula is also a great book - cleverly written, astoundingly powerful and beautifully tense. Stoker nailed it, yo.)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger books (1912 - 1929)
[or: Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series (1913 - 1959)]
[or: Michael Crichton's Congo (1980)]

I'm lumping these together as they're of an 'ilk', and it also lets me cheat a bit. They're all a fusion of the latest contemporary "science" (be it 1980s satellite comms or 1920s spiritualism), but none of them extrapolate forwards like science fiction - all three dig up hidden facets of the world as it is. In Rohmer's case, his square-jawed, white-skinned protagonists uncover conspiracies and social structures that have existed (in secrecy) for milennia. Doyle and Crichton explore 'lost' corners of our globe by using the latest advances in pseudo-science.

HP Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926)
[or: Delta Green (1997)]

Annoyingly, the one I wanted to include was the Call of Cthulhu RPG, but that's not contemporary - that's a modern RPG set in the 1920s. Still, the original story ain't too shabby. Lovecraft's Cthulhu is a jellified Godzilla (and, let's be honest, not all that horrifying), but his notion of eternal, hostile entities that have always been here, waiting... that's scary. Delta Green is the modern adaptation of the RPG and does a stellar (unmatched, perhaps) job of making Lovecraft's mythos both contemporary and relevant. (Ghasts n' guns.) Shame Lovecraft was such a dick.

Mary Norton's The Borrowers (1952)

Like Lovecraft, Ms. Norton builds a world where ancient creatures lurk beneath us, and always have. Biding their time... stealing our, er, paperclips. The Borrowers, the tale of a race (?) of wee people that live in our floorboards, "borrowing" our crap to repurpose, is a strange sort of inclusion, but not all fantastic creatures have fangs or tentacles. Although very much a product of its time, The Borrowers is also a rare case of urban fantasy from the "monster's" point of view - what is it like being the other? This book isn't nearly as quaint as it may seem, either - although not quite Lovecraftian terror, it has an enigmatic ending that really upset me as a kid.

Ira Levin's Rosemary’s Baby (1967)
[and: William Blatty's The Exorcist (1971)]

Another two of a kind. Angels and devils are hot stuff in urban fantasy, but they've now become oddly secularised - another way of doing vampires and werewolves. In Blatty and Levin's books, demons are the monsters of Christian mythology - creatures that are intended to be physical manifestations of Satan's will. These authors make devils exactly as terrifying as they are supposed to be: Biblical evil. These two books, more than any other, might be the defining books of 20th century American urban fantasy - unsettling tomes that explore the revelation (pun!) that Judeo-Christian scripture is literally real

John Bellairs' The House With a Clock In Its Walls trilogy (1973 - 1976)

While on a road trip in college, we took a detour so we could swing by the house that Bellairs based The House on. It was awesome.

Anyway, if anything, House is a young adult extrapolation of the two books above - the "monsters" in it are largely based on Judeo-Christian folklore, with some generic "magic" thrown in as well. But House also layers in themes that are now common in young adult fiction: sorcerous empowerment as a metaphor for coming of age, for example. Urban fantasy, unlike epic fantasy, seems to rely on imperfect, relatable protagonists. Bellairs' characters were also comfortably flawed - they weren't "chosen" as much as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and "right" never came to them effortlessly. (Great article on Bellairs over on Tor.com)

Peter S. Beagle's "Lila the Werewolf" (1974)

As much as I respect the Mira Farrow unicorn story and secretly enjoy his pre-Gaiman Death-shipping in "Come Lady Death", "Lila the Werewolf" may be Beagle's best work. What would dating a werewolf be like? It is a bit 1970s BoHo angsty, but, overall, a really charming romance that overlays the utterly weird (she's a werewolf, you know) with the utterly banal (but, but, commitment problems!).

Interview with the vampireAnne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1976)

There's a lot about this book I don't like (that is, most of it), but, as a concept, Interview is a contemporary updating of Dracula, with a weird balance of empathy and distance (carefully calculated to make for the brooding sexiness). 

Nancy Collins' Sunglasses After Dark (1989)

The above, but on speed. Less talkytimes and period dress, more facepunching and shags. On one hand we've got Blade/Spawn-style fangdarksadgrump rebellion against the Powers That Be. On the other, shameless sexytimes. There are a lot of books in this particularly visceral subgenre of this greater subgenre, but Sunglasses might be both the first and the best.

Tim Powers' Last Call (1992)

With my troll hat on, I often refer to Last Call as "American Gods for adults" - which is partially due to my continuing bafflement that people haven't read this book, one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time (any genre, any reason, any anything). This is one of those rare and insidious books that makes you look at the world differently - instilling a sort of carefully programmed paranoia; convincing you that there's something beneath the surface of our reality. The system of magic, the agonising empathy of the characters, the themes of temptation and loss and desperation and... (rushes off to re-read it)

Neil Gaiman's Death: The High Cost of Living (1993)

Just because I don't adore American Gods doesn't mean I'm disrespecting the Prince of Stories. Death feels an urban fantasy must-read for a few reasons. First, it is pretty hard to ignore the all-pervading impact of Gaiman's hipster cosmic power - in comics, books and fashion. Second, this slim collection is really lovely: sure there's the supernatural whatnot about how there are secrets and magic and stuff, but there's also a lesson that all life is magical. Which is pretty charming. 

Roger Zelazny's A Night in Lonesome October (1993)

This book is madness and delight. Literary and supernatural figures all gather when the time is right and compete to open (or not-open) a gate to the Great Old Ones. No one knows which 'Player' is on which side and the game follows lethal and unpredictable rules. Oh, also, the 'Players' include druids, witches, vampires, Rasputin, Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. And the whole thing is narrated by a dog. And illustrated by Gahan Wilson. Because... because. 

The X-Files (1993 - 2002)

Being kind of a bad geek at times, I didn't watch the X-Files when it first aired. After having Anne shovel a few seasons down my throat, I get the appeal (but don't really like it very much - so sue me). Still, as far as THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE, does any show do it better? (Don't say Fringe to me, that show is terrible.) I'm more a fan of the 'monster of the week' stuff, as it shows how the creepy is integrated into everyday life. The overarching conspiracy bollocks is, well, just that (and wildly untenable).

Men in Black (1997)

Aliens as urban fantasy? Why not? Men in Black has that "holy cow, the world is really strange!" moment, superbly captured by Will Smith (doing his basic extremely-attractive, superbly charismatic 'everyman' thing). Also, there's a lot to be said about the slapstick comedy of it all: the idea of complicated conspiracies is funny.

BuffyBuffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)

Three media properties in a row, but I wouldn't drop any of them... Buffy, like Death (above) helped define huge swathes of geek culture, fashion, style and identity. And the way it mixed metaphors between supernatural tropes and teen angst is still unparalleled. I'd argue that it lost its way in the later seasons (when Buffy became less about using the fantastic to explore real world issues and more about using, uh, Buffy to talk more about Buffy). But yes, Buffy.

JK Rowling's Harry Potter (1997 - 2007)

[A thousand reasons, pick your favourite.]

Warren Ellis' Hellblazer (1999, 2010)

Tricky! There's a lot of Ellis that makes for great urban fantasy (take, for example, Planetary) - and a lot of Hellblazer that belongs as well. But Ellis' run on Hellblazer, although brief, feels the most appropriate - because, unlike any of the other writers, Ellis is incredibly vague as to whether or not John Constantine can even use "magic'" He's just a guy that knows things, and that's his power. Imagine that: this is a world where demons, angels, cosmic entities and superheros all jostle for position (FINAL JOSTLE! CRISIS ON INFINITE JOSTLES!). And here's Constantine - armed with wry wit, embarrassing stories and a pack of cigarettes.

Carlos Fuentes' Vlad (2010)

Vampires again - but one of the things I like about Vlad is that it is evidence of an (extremely well-trodden) trope being used in fresh ways. Dracula moves to Mexico City in search of a new life, and Fuentes uses this as a brilliant metaphor for colonialisation, imperialism and the struggles of Mexico's middle class. It goes a bit off the deep end, but the first half (and entire premise) of this book is exceptional. (That's our last vampire, by the way.)

S.L. Grey's The Mall (2011)

The start of one of, if not the, best modern horror series. Beneath/beside us is the Downside - a perverse version of our own world, where trends, habits and behaviours are taken to horrific extremes. On one hand, yay for thematic excellence! On the other, also a throwback to The Exorcist - an example of how the fantastic isn't always fascinating or empathetic. Sometimes the secret worlds we uncover aren't filled with sexy vampires... they're packed with wet-breathed shambling monsters that want to eat your face instead.

Stray SoulsKate Griffin's Stray Souls (2012)

I think the Matthew Swift trilogy may have a more heightened sense of drama, but Stray Souls remains my favourite of Kate Griffin's books (and an excellent starting point!). There's something wonderfully human about the way that magic and monsters work in her world: filled with flaws and idiosyncracies. Like Men in Black, there is an overtly comic element that rings true, but there's also a deeper note: Stray Souls is about how we are connected to our cities, physically and spiritually.

Rebecca Levene's “The Knowledge” (from Stories of the Smoke) (2012)

This isn't shameless self-promotion as much as it is mean - Smoke is out of print. But "The Knowledge" is, to me, one of the quintessential urban fantasies. A struggling cabbie seeks out increasingly esoteric sources of help for passing the "Knowledge", the test of urban geography that every driver needs to pass. As a mechanic of revealing the city-within-the-city, this is brilliant, and as a discussion of sacrifice - how far will we go to achieve our dreams/please those we love - it is incredibly touching. There's also something wonderful about how blase the story is. It becomes ever more fantastic as it proceeds, almost without us even noticing...

Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker (2012)

[Ten thousand reasons, pick your favourite.]

J.Y. Yang's “Old Domes” (from We See a Different Frontier) (2013)

I just had a good ol' rave about this over on Tor.com - but "Old Domes" was my favourite story from a cover-to-cover brilliant anthology. I may be stretching my own definition of the genre a bit, but "Old Domes" is essentially about a Singapore in which 'groundskeepers' are trailed to execute the spirits of buildings in order to make room for new structures. Urban fantasies often deal with the idea of history, but generally as a problem of exposition (e.g. what has Angel being doing for the past two hundred years, besides scamming on 16 year olds?). "Old Domes" takes a different approach, exploring how the past and present intersect.

Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century (2013)

I completely subscribe to the theory that superheroes are urban fantasy* - they fit neatly into my definition (waaaay above), and the boundaries between the science-fictional and fantastic blend perfectly in their four-colour worlds. The Violent Century is a truly unique exploration of superheroes because, unlike any other (including Watchmen), it concludes that, well: humans are human. Other comic books have tries to modernise superheroes and give them mortality, but The Violent Century goes a step further, in arguing that the overall forces of history would go largely unchanged (also, 'the real world is already plenty weird and creepy').

*Especially Batman. A sexy, nocturnal, leather-clad billionaire who spends his times wrestling in dark alleys, caught in a love triangle with a vampire and a were-creature? That's straight-up paranormal romance, with a healthy dash of Fifty Shades to boot.

And... that's a wrap, my 'favourite' '25' 'favourite' 'urban fantasies'. (That's a lot of quotes!) Don't forget to check out the lists from Liz BourkeJustin Landon and Tansy Rayner Roberts as well.

What'd I miss? What are your favourite urban fantasy books, films, games and shows?

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