Urban Fantasy

I’ve written about this a couple of other times in the past on other blogs, but after a few new discoveries I thought it was worth writing about it again. I really struggle to find good urban fantasy. I should clarify, by good urban fantasy I mean books within that specific sub-genre that I enjoy. I didn’t think I was particularly picky, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that perhaps I am because I’ve been underwhelmed or very disappointed by several high profile authors. I’ll come on to character in a bit, but for me there needs to be the right balance of humour in a book. If it doesn’t take itself too seriously, if it is written for laughs then I’m just not interested, I won’t connect or care about the characters and their fate. Equally if it is the most depressing and horrific read ever with no levity, I won’t read it as that isn’t why I read urban fantasy.

There are a lot of UF books out there and it is a genre that definitely seems to be growing, which is great, as it means it becomes increasingly likely that with every year I will find another author or two that I can add to my list of people to follow. I’m not going to name any authors or books in particular that I didn’t enjoy because it would be petty and pointless as many other people enjoy those books. Some of the books are so popular that there are several in the series, so people are buying, reading and enjoying them. My opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s and I think the internet is already choking with too much negativity. So, I’m going to try to make this a positive post about good urban fantasy books and why I enjoy them.

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
This series is one of my favourites of all time across all genres. It is also the longest series of books I have ever read. I know there are series of novels out there with more books than the Dresden Files, but I’ve not read them or enjoyed them enough that I felt compelled to keep reading. Writing one great book is hard. Writing twelve is actually kind of a miracle. I’m not going to claim that all of them are perfect, but I had a lot of fun reading every single one of them. I’ve also read and listened to interviews where Butcher talks about his process for building the stories and I respect the amount of effort he puts into each. The Dresden Files started from a very small corner and over the course of the series it has grown it into a rich supernatural world that is full of remarkable wonders and terrors. His characterisation is also incredibly strong which makes it easier to buy into some of the amazing things that happen because there is always a seed of disbelief or shock. This is still my favourite urban fantasy series and for once I really don’t want it to end. I know it has to but I’m dreading the day when Butcher announces that his next Dresden Files will be the last.

Felix Castor series by Mike Carey
These books are much darker than the Dresden Files and are set in London rather than Chicago. They’re almost gothic horror in some places and although there is magic and supernatural beings, it’s all handled in such a no-nonsense British fashion, it somehow seems more realistic. They have a real dirty, seedy feel to them and part of this comes from the main character who is very grey and definitely not a white hat. I’m not someone who needs or wants every aspect of magic explained to me, but Carey has done something quite unique and special with how it is handled in this series. Finding out about the mechanics was interesting but I would not have complained if he had not included this. There are five books in the series so far and I believe a sixth to wrap it up is planned. Something larger has been building behind the scenes for some time and the final book will go partway to explaining the mystery. I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this series and really enjoy the broodiness and dark humour that prevent it from being a depressing read.

Morris and Chastain series by Justin Gustainis
Unlike the previous two this series has several links to real world events as well as fictional historic events and characters from literature. This gives the series and characters a very different taste and feel. Without giving away too much, I only need to mention Salem and Van Helsing and you get an idea about part of it. The magic in the series is also less overt than Dresden. It is also in keeping with the principal of magic being a force than can be used for good or bad by the practitioner, which is inline with ‘real’ magic, if you believe in such things. There is also a certain bluntness to the books that I enjoy. The style of writing is pared down, it’s tight and fast, but the author does not sacrifice character moments for pace and plot. Also his peripheral characters feel very real and distinct from one another so you always know who is speaking.

As with the other two series the decisions characters make are not always the right ones, but they are realistic. I’ve previously thrown books across the room for being ridiculous where people suddenly act out of character in order to serve the plot or to titillate. I don’t have to agree with a character’s decisions and choices, but if can’t understand them, respect or relate to them in some way, especially if they are the main character, I will put a book down and never go back. I don’t have to like every aspect of a character, but personally I have to find something in them that I can relate to or understand. Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay, is a serial killer. He is a brutal murderer which is something I just can’t get my head around or relate to, but I can understand a little of what made the character the way he is, such as his upbringing, scars from his childhood, sibling relationships, and so on.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a rant, but I think this is one of the critical elements about why I’ve really disliked some urban fantasy series. Some readers are fine with reading about awful people with whom they have nothing in common, but I’m not one of them. I can’t read a story about a character who is a wet flanel with no backbone. Someone who is used and abused  by everyone in the story as they stumble from one disaster to another and yet somehow I’m supposed to support and like this person. Equally I can’t read about a murdering psychopath who carves up people for fun or his own amusement, twirling his moustache as he goes. The story might be very strong, but I need more than that, or else I will put it down and walk away.

Courts of the Feyre by Mike Shevdon
I’ve come to this series late but have been very pleasantly surprised and I really enjoyed it. So far I’ve only read Sixty-One Nails, the first in the series from Angry Robot, and it is steeped in a blend of real world history, ritual, English customs and folklore. There was a lovely freshness to this series, which sounds odd, but when you read a couple of UF novels in a year, even a few months apart, they can sometimes feel very similar. Shevdon’s approach to UF is as unique as all of the others I’ve mentioned which meant I couldn’t be a lazy reader. Lazy reading breeds odd and pointless questions and comments such as ‘That’s not what an elf/faerie/troll etc looks or acts like.’ or ‘How does the magic system work?’. It’s perfectly natural to want to know more about an aspect of a story, be it magic or the Feyre Courts, but it is something else to expect or demand the author to explain every detail just because in another UF book it was laid out in great detail.

Reading Sixty One Nails meant I had to slouch off my preconceptions about what an UF book should be. Anything I was carrying in my head from other series about magic, wizards, Fey, and so on had to be shoved to one side and ignored. This initially makes it more challenging but equally more rewarding when I did find out about magic and the Feyre in this series. It shouldn’t be compared like for like because it’s a totally different world and is not connected in any way to a UF novel by a different author. I’ll stop there because that’s a much bigger discussion and a bigger rant.

New stuff – Fated
A new book that was just released this March is Fated by Benedict Jacka from Orbit Books. As I mentioned I’m always keen to try new urban fantasy authors and this has a cover quote from Jim Butcher, so now I have two reasons to read it. Butcher also provided a quote for Gustainis, so it is an encouraging sign that I might like it.

What else is good?
So, given all of the above, the tone of the stories, the style of the writing, characterisation and so on, can anyone recommend something similar I might enjoy but might have missed?

5 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy

  1. Seeing as you’ve flagged up a couple of our authors already, can I humbly suggest another two?

    Chris F.Holm has been getting some great reviews for Dead Harvest, the first in his Collector series (http://angryrobotbooks.com/our-authors/chris-f-holm/dead-harvest-chris-f-holm/) and we’ve got Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds (http://angryrobotbooks.com/our-authors/chuck-wendig/blackbirds-chuck-wendig/) coming up in May, again with some great reviews already.

    If you like your UF with a noir edge then these two really ought to float your boat.

    (And of course we’ve got the new Justin Gustainis and the new Mike Shevdon on the way as well…)

    Darren
    Angry Robot Books

    • Hi Darren, thanks for the other suggestions. I definitely like UF with a bit of noir, and Hard Spell by JG was on my radar, so I’ll be checking that out in the future.

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