Think urban fantasy is all leather-clad heroines and male sidekicks with big guns? Think again. Urban fantasy has become one of the most varied of the speculative genres. In fact, it’s no longer necessarily urban, and the fantasy elements can be light and whimsical or deep and dark. Don’t even think about delving more deeply into the world of UF until you’ve completed this core reading list.
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
Published in 1976 as the first in a series of novels that became known as The Vampire Chronicles, this book is more horror than urban fantasy as we think of it today. But the series laid the groundwork for modern urban fantasy, setting its immortal beings in the modern world undetected among humans—that intersection of fantasy and reality which lies at the core of urban fantasy. It also took the emotions of vampires outside the monster realm and into a territory with which human readers could sympathize.
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
Arguably the first modern urban fantasy, 1993’s Guilty Pleasures introduced the kickass heroine, vampire slayer (and later federal marshal) Anita Blake in a futuristic St. Louis where the vampires live openly among humans. Anita’s world also introduced a multiverse that eventually extended far beyond vampires into a dizzying variety of were-critters, and helped establish the much-used urban fantasy trope of the human law-enforcement team established to investigate “unusual” crimes.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
What, you don’t think the Harry Potter series is urban fantasy? Fantastical and magical creatures? Check. Living in the modern world among humans? Check. Harry Potter, beginning with 1997’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in the UK) re-energized the world of reading for pleasure, gave a good shot in the arm to paranormal fiction, accustomed generations of readers to enjoying fantasy and urban fantasy, and started an empire of Young Adult fiction that is just now beginning to slow. Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t the best in this wonderful series, not by a long shot, but it was the first.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher
In 2000, urban fantasy took another big step in its evolution with Jim Butcher’s first Dresden Files novel, Storm Front. In Dresden, we have the true modern UF protagonist. He has a lot of power at his disposal but doesn’t always know how to use it. Harry is kickass, but he isn’t afraid to run if the odds are against him. He works as an investigator for hire in Chicago but moonlights with the cops. He lives in a true multiverse with vampires, weres, fae, and other wizards like himself. He makes mistakes. He has a dry wit and a sidekick who’s a sex-obsessed invisible spirit living inside a human skull. What’s not to love?
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
With the current popularity of the True Blood TV series (which bears only the slightest resemblance to the novels), it’s easy to forget that Sookie Stackhouse first spilled out of her sundress twelve years ago, in 2001’s Dead Until Dark. In what was officially called the Southern Vampire series, Harris took Sookie’s story outside the urban area to an imaginary rural crossroads town called Bon Temps, Louisiana, near Shreveport. She also gave the whole paranormal world a sexied-up, homespun humor, even when the telepathic “Sookay” is running for her life. Which happens frequently.
Something from the Nightside by Simon R. Green
Take Dresden, shoot him up with crack, cast him into an alternative version of London where it’s always nighttime, and surround him with the craziest cast of oddities imaginable, and you get Simon R. Green’s Nightside series, which began in 2003 with Something from the Nightside. This now-complete twelve-volume series features magical investigator John Taylor, who tracks down cases in the shadowy Nightside version of London. This series draws heavily on mythology and history to illustrate just how far and how far-out urban fantasy can stretch itself. Merlin is buried beneath a bar called Strangefellows, the God of the Hunt is a homeless dude with antlers, Angels are bad, bad news, and John Taylor himself has some major family secrets stretching back to Eden.
Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison
The not-quite-kickass protagonist took another twist with 2004’s Dead Witch Walking, first in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series featuring Rachel Morgan. Rachel’s a witch living in a futuristic Cincinnati after the Turn—when a genetically engineered virus distributed through tomatoes killed a great many humans but left the Others, aka the Inderlanders, unscathed. Suddenly, the humans are outnumbered and the difference species are left vying for power. In addition to the modern not-quite-kickass heroine, the Hollows series expanded the urban fantasy multiverse to include demons and elves, pixies and gargoyles, and a complex balance of power that, eleven books in, has yet to be unraveled. Relationships also became a big part of the urban fantasy story in this series—Rachel is not a loner but has a full cast of friends, partners, and sometimes-allies with which to interact.
Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
Werewolf and Native American skinwalker culture takes a realistic turn in 2006’s Moon Called, first in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Using knowledge of real wolf-pack dynamics and the native culture of the Pacific Northwest, Briggs’ series takes urban fantasy out of the urban area, and introduces a novelty to urban fantasy: a stable and slow-building relationship. Though not without their problems, skinwalker Mercy and alpha werewolf Adam are still a novelty in the genre. Briggs also introduces the fae and vampires in unusual, non-urban settings.
Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost
The already fuzzy lines between urban fantasy and paranormal romance blurred with Jeaniene Frost’s 2007 Halfway to the Grave, first in her Night Huntress series. Cat and Bones became another urban fantasy super-couple, but unlike previous urban fantasies, their relationship holds almost equal weight with the external drama. Not quite, or it would be paranormal romance. But close. It might be a groundbreaker for a future in which less distinction is made between UF and PNR.
Reading this Urban Fantasy 101 list will give you a solid grounding in this versatile genre. What else is a must-read?
Urban fantasy author Suzanne Johnson writes the Sentinels of New Orleans series, which kicked off in 2012 with Royal Street and River Road.