Urban Fantasy – A Literary Minefield

Good old J.R.R had it easy, back then fantasy was fantasy…….and barely that. If you bought a fantasy novel you knew what you got, there would be wizards, there would be a young boy who struggled to accept who and what he was, there was a journey and there would most probably be dragons. And so it went on for many years, the world of fantasy literature was peaceful and somewhat prosperous. But then a terrible monster started to rear it ugly head, the monster was soon baptized “Sub-Genres” and it plowed like a whirlwind through the established literary world of wizards, dragons and fair maidens in need of rescuing.
It soon became apparent that Sub-Genres was there to stay, desperate measures by purist writers and reviewers were proving inadequate to stem the tide of change. Soon Sub-Genres was not only an established factor in literature, she was also threatening to completely overwhelm and surpass good old Gandalf & Co. Luckily a truce was reached and today we live in a kind of equilibrium where archmages of old can be seen hanging out with wizards working as private investigators in modern day cities, they may even buy each other a drink or two.
But enough of my random pseudo-literary ranting, today we will talk about:

Urban Fantasy

gjhgIf you search Wikipedia you will find a listing of 46 different subgenres under fantasy. Most of these are rather unknown and have rather few books in their belts (thankfully) but some have managed to gather quite a portfolio. One of these is of course the sub-genre called urban fantasy. Actually is not even a sub-genre, it is rather a sub-sub-genre under contemporary fantasy, but for all purposes the term urban fantasy is today used rather in a rather wide way, encompassing many works that strictly speaking would fall under the more general umbrella of contemporary fantasy. This is probably good, for no other reason than that is so much easier to say “urban” than “comtemp….contme……..contremp……uhh………”……you know what I mean.

So when traditional fantasy, sometimes referred to as High Fantasy, takes place in a completely fictional world (yes I know, we would all like Middle Earth to be real, but alas, that’s not the case), urban fantasy is usually placed in a modern setting in our own old boring world. Strictly speaking all it takes for a novel to be urban fantasy is for it to take place in a urban setting like a city or town regardless of it being set in a fictional world or here on Gaia. But as I tried to point out earlier the common usage of the term today mainly covers novels taking place in our own time, both in urban and rural settings.

So why is this long-winded reviewer going on about urban fantasy?” I hear you ask.
Good question, if all you wanted was a definition of this genre, there are several places on the wide internet where it is covered in much more detail and in a much more eloquent way. What I want to tell you is that Urban Fantasy is filled with junk, there are so many bad books in this genre that is is quite depressing really. The though that somewhere perfectly nice trees have had to give up their life to make paper for some of these books is making me cry. Luckily many of them are never put down on paper but live out their pitiful existence in the darker backrooms of digital self-publishing.
The really tragic backside of this is that many books that are well written, with good stories and characters gets lost in this myriad of garbage.

So as public service to you my readers, all three of you, I have put together a list of books and series from this genre that a most definitely not junk, as a matter of fact they are quite the opposite, they are gems.
Enjoy and don’t hesitate to comment or come with your own suggestions on what to read from this minefield of a genre.

The List

  1. The Dresden Files

    Harry-dresdenEven though this list is set up in a kind of random order, its not unfitting that The Dresden Files occupies the top slot. This is after all what urban fantasy is all about, or to be precise, what urban fantasy is supposed to be all about (I did mention that there is a lot of bad books out there, didn’t I?).
    Written by american author Jim Butcher the series surfaced in 2006 and introduced private detective harry Dresden to the world. Working out of down town Chicago, Harris is not your run of the mill private eye, he also happens to be a wizard, in fact the title on his card says “Consulting Wizard” and he claims to be the worlds only one. Through a total of 14 books (there will be more, I mean….there must be more…..right? Please say it is so!) we follow Harry and a very nice selection of associates as he battles vampires, fairy queens and the occasional human mafia boss. The story is often dark but Butcher has realized something that many other authors have not, you need some comic relief. Dresden’s self irony and sarcastic, often fatalistic, view of the world is often straight out hilarious. I mentioned his associates and these are also well written with nice character development, they are not just a static support cast for the main protagonist.
    And then there is the villains, the most important factors in any fantasy or science fiction novel. The bad guys in the series are nicely fleshed out, their motivations and goals are explained and set into context. The distinction between good and evil may blur and things are not always as black and white as it seems at first glance.

    If you somehow have missed this series I highly recommend that you rectify this at once. It is really very very good!

    Visit Jim Butcher’s webpage page here.
    Follow Jim Butcher on Twitter: @longshotauthor

  2.  The Iron Druid Chronicles

    tricked_bigThis installment on the list is probably what will get the purists among you to scream and curse me to the seventh hell. Not because you think it is a bad series, but due to the fact that is mainly take place outside an urban setting. Well I just have to live with your condemnations, knowing that you will learn to love me in the end.The Iron Druid Chronicles is written by american writer Kevin Hearne and the first book, Hounded, came out in 2011 and quickly gather a large fan base. This base has grown exponentially together with the progression of the series. The story centers around Atticus O’Sullivan is a conveyor of occult books and strange herbs. So a good old new age hippie there…….well not exactly. Mr O’Sullivan also happens to be earth’s last living druid, and he is more than 2000 year old. The life of a druid is not always easy, especially if you have pissed off some really high-ranking supernaturals through the years and Atticus’s past is starting to catch up to him and he soon finds himself fighting for his very survival. The story then takes us through a fascinating ride, we traverse the fairy world, we battle the old norse gods, we fight alongside werewolves and we get to know the deep love that Oberon, Atticus’s pet wolfhound, has for sausages. Well, I guess Atticus is more Oberons pet druid than the other way around. All in all this is a very good read, well written, nice characterizations and some really big laughs.

    Visit Kevin Hearne’s website here
    And you should really follow him on Twitter, he rocks there too: @KevinHearne

  3. The River of London Series

    rivers-of-london-289x300And now we come to London the birthing place of so many great stories, both real and fictional. As a matter of fact I just now realize that the last three recommendations on this list are mainly set in London. Strange. Well be that as it may, the advice to read them is still valid.
    The Rivers of London Series is written by the British author Ben Aaronovitch and introduces us to DC Peter Grant, a young officer with the Metropolitian Police. Peter is a rather normal young man who to his own knowledge has no magical talent, I mean how could he have, after all there is no such thing as magic, right?  Well is he in for a surprise? On a quiet and boring watch he suddenly meets a ghost and one thing leads to another (no, not that kind of “another” you pervert!) and he soon finds himself recruited into a very special branch of the force that deals with the supernatural. Under the tutelage of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale our hero soon discovers his own hidden magical abilities and must struggle to learn how to use them, becoming the first English apprentice wizard on over seventy years. The series delve into the old history of London and the Thames valley and Aaronovitch nicely mix myths and facts. The series is a delight to read with humor and suspense together with believable multi-dimensional characters and plain good storytelling.

    Visit the website here.
    Follow Ben Aaronovitch on Twitter: @Ben_Aaronovitch

  4. The Alex Verus Series

    kjkjStill rummaging through London we now come to the Alex Verus series by British writer Benedict Jacka. In this story magic is more widespread than in The Rivers of London series, but it’s still not something the common people like us know anything about. We meet Alex Verus who asides from running a magic shop in Camden also happens to be a wizard, more precisely a diviner. While being able to see into the future sounds rather nifty it is fraught with so many limitations that the rest of the magical community dismiss it as more or less useless. Diviners are consequently looked down upon by the more fireball-oriented magic-users out there. But as it turns out, divining combined by a quick and constructive mind, can be quite effective, not to say deadly. As we meet Alex his past has started to gang up on him and it’s a rather dark past that he has worked hard to get beyond.
    The Alex Verus series is a great read, witty and innovative without trying to hard to invent magic anew. They won’t challenge your mind overmuch, but we are not looking for that are we? We want to be entertained and in this respect the series delivers in abundance, the story is fun and exciting, plain and simple as that.

    Visit Benedict Jacka’s website here.
    Follow Jacka on twitter: @BenedictJacka

  5. The Nightside Series

    51RYZZ9H9KLOk, I admit it, three series set in London may have been a bit much, but to my defense I must point out that they are really good series. And this last one, The Nightside Series written by Simon R. Green, does not take place in London as such. Admittedly the geographical location happen to coexist with that of the British capitol, but we are far from Oxford Street and shopping at Harrods. The story takes place in The Nightside, the secret netherworld of London, a place where magic, super-technology and the occasional god co-exist. Here we also find John Taylor working as a private investigator. Taylor has the magical ability to locate any object through what he calls his “private eye”, a rather handy ability to have for a PI. Throw into the mix that Taylor also happen to be the son of Lilith, a fearsome demoness who was one of the original creators of the Nightside, and you can probably imagine all the possible problems Taylor must face. On second thought, you probably have no chance at all to imagine it, but believe me, it fun, gory and exiting galore!
    I really loved this series and it was a sad day in 2012 when the last book was published, ending the series. The writing style is easygoing and even though John Taylor’s constant wisecrack jokes can be a bit much at times I still love the guy. Read the first book SOmething from The Nightside, and if you like it (and you will) then you have 11 more books to look forward to!
    Life doesn’t get much better that that right?

    Visit Simon R. Green website here.
    Mr. Green is not the most active Twitter user, but you can follow him here: @TheSimonRGreen


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