When times get trying there's something appealing about escaping to a world that’s very similar to our own, but with a fantasy layer. Welcome to urban fantasy: stories with urban, usually contemporary settings and a supernatural twist. Settings are vital to good urban fantasy; the city often becomes a key character, and serves to better develop the protagonists.
If you're ready for a crash course, I’ve selected 10 essential urban fantasy reads sure to put a spell on you.
Mercy Thompson is a coyote shifter and a VW mechanic. She’s a loner who finds herself caring a whole lot about others, and works alongside a werewolf pack to protect and rescue the defenseless. Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series is fast-paced, with well-rounded characters at its heart.
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The Kate Daniels series brings together some of the best elements of urban fantasy. Ilona Andrews’ version of Atlanta can change on a dime if the magic is up (rendering technology useless) or down (much like our world). The heroine Kate Daniels is a quintessential kick-ass who tries not to let her past stop her from moving forward. She works with shifters like the intimidating Beast Lord, and never flinches from danger. Magic Bites is required urban fantasy reading.
Anita Blake is an official vampire hunter. She investigates cases alongside the police, and engages with the supernatural community. This book is a great title with which to start reading urban fantasy, and is filled with murder mysteries and complex vampire politics.
Laurell K. Hamilton is the unofficial godmother of contemporary urban fantasy, which is a little amusing because lots of her hardcore urban fantasy readers are probably cursing me for including her! The 'Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter' series has been going for a long time, and it’s changed as it has progressed and moved away from the traditional P.I. plot. Still, without Hamilton's voice, many wouldn’t have discovered a love for the genre. The first nine books in the Anita Blake series will hit the right urban fantasy buttons. If you continue to love the characters, you’ll have more than a dozen additional books to read.
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Harry Dresden is both a private investigator and a wizard. He uses a wand like that other wizard Harry, but that’s where the similarities stop. In Butcher’s Chicago, the supernatural is known and real, but no one wants to believe it’s real. Dresden is willing to offer his skills as a consultant both to private clients and the police department. Each book in this series becomes a little more complex and kicks up the plot pacing. Bonus points for a secondary character that’s a medieval wizard trapped in a skull.
Dead Witch Walking
We’ve got another P.I., but a very different world, in Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series. Main character Rachel Morgan, a witch, used to work for the police, but let’s just say it didn’t pan out. The supernatural world is widely known to mortals, and in Cincinnati, the supernaturally inclined dominate an area called The Hollows. Rachel takes on cases from private clients, and works with her friend Ivy, a vampire. As this series progresses, Rachel’s magic skills become more powerful and increasingly interesting, and the secondary characters grow even more endearing.
Many of the urban fantasies on this list feature loners: heroes or heroines who have to push others away either to keep themselves safe or to protect those they care about. Sara Wilde from Jenn Stark’s Immortal Vegas isn’t that way. She does everything she can to protect her people—who happen to be children with psychic powers coming into their own. She’s like a low-level Professor X, but where Charles Xavier has mega cash, Sara doesn’t. She’ll use her tarot cards to make a buck, she’ll seek out magical artifacts for big money, and she’ll even get involved with the Arcane council if it’ll get her what she needs.
Getting Wilde gets the show on the road with plenty of magic and a headstrong heroine with heart, all set against the backdrop of Las Vegas.
Rosemary and Rue
October Daye is a changeling and a P.I., and in Rosemary and Rue she is struggling to adjust to being human again. The Toby Daye series brings vibrant worldbuilding that continues to grow with each book, and offers an engaging take on the Fae.
Keeping our world from being taken over by the fae realm is a big task. Darkfever heroine Mac doesn’t even know she’s getting involved in saving the world when she travels to Ireland. She just wants to find out how her sister died. While trying to get justice for her, she becomes a part of something much, much bigger and becomes considerably stronger in the process.
Some Girls Bite
In the Chicagoland Vampires world, vampires are known. They have a tenuous relationship with the human population, but do their best to drink bagged blood and coexist peacefully with humans. Many people choose to become vampires—except for Merit, that is. She’s turned against her will—and to save her life—transforming her from grad student to sword-wielding vampire. Chicago comes alive on the page behind the mysteries the members of Cadogan House solve. Expect lots of foods to make you hungry and lots of badass fight scenes.
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Dead Until Dark
Charlaine Harris puts a unique spin on the genre by taking it out of the city. Her rural Bon Temps, Louisiana, is very much at the heart of the Southern Vampire Mysteries. While this series was adapted to television (HBO’s True Blood ), the novels are very different and focus closely on telepath Sookie Stackhouse and the supernatural mysteries she helps solve—all with a heaping dose of Southern charm.
This article was originally published on August 16th, 2017.
Chelsea Mueller writes gritty contemporary fantasy (Borrowed Souls out now). She founded the speculative fiction website Vampire Book Club, blogs about TV and romance novels for numerous websites, and is co-chair of SF/F charity Geeky Giving. She loves bad cover songs, dramatic movies, and TV vampires. Chelsea lives in Texas, and has been known to say y’all.
Featured photo via cover of "Wilde Card: Immortal Vegas" by Jenn Stark