Adam Christopher is a novelist, the author of Empire State, Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic, Hang Wire, and the forthcoming The Burning Dark. In 2010, as an editor, Christopher won a Sir Julius Vogel award, New Zealand’s highest science fiction honour. His debut novel, Empire State, was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year for 2012. In 2013, he was nominated for the Sir Julius Vogel award for Best New Talent, with Empire State shortlisted for Best Novel. Born in New Zealand, he has lived in Great Britain since 2006. Adam’s latest novel, an urban fantasy called Hang Wire, is out now. You can keep up with Adam on his website, on Twitter as @GhostFinder and Facebook.
by Adam Christopher
Urban fantasy is one of my favourite genres, for two reasons. Firstly, it represents the ultimate juxtaposition of the fantastical and the mundane, placing the weird and wonderful, magical and supernatural right on our doorstep, in a setting that everyone can recognize and relate to. This in itself presents both danger and escapism – what if our city was the host of a covert war between vampires and werewolves? What if the nice old man who lived next door was an ancient warlock – and what if we, the reader, became his apprentice?
The other wonderful thing about urban fantasy is the huge range and diversity of stories that can be told. All it needs is a mix of the real and the unreal, allowing traditional fantasy, magic, the supernatural, romance, crime, horror, and countless other tropes and genres to blend together into something new and exciting.
With that in mind, I’ve chosen five of my favourite urban fantasy novels that run the spectrum from literary, even historical, fantasy fiction through to more traditional examples. By no means is this any kind of definitive list, nor is it the five best urban fantasies. But it is five books that I think are worth a look for what they demonstrate the genre can achieve and, for a couple of them anyway, for how far you can stretch the definition.
This book is almost impossible to describe – ostensibly a grand literary novel, Winter’s Tale is 800 pages of small type describing the adventures of Peter Lake in an alternative version of late Nineteenth Century New York City. Lake, abandoned by his parents and growing up in the wilds of the Bayonne Marsh, arrives in the city and takes up burglary, earning the wrath of the Short Tails gang while falling in love with the terminally ill Beverly Penn. Throw in a magic horse, time travel, a mythical village on a frozen lake that very likely exists outside of time, life after death, and an audacious plan to build a rainbow bridge to heaven. Winter’s Tale is very weird, very fantastical, and quite possibly the most beautifully written book I’ve ever read. It’s an historical literary fantasy that would most likely fall into the category of “magical realism” – if anyone could actually figure out what that means – but essentially it is urban fantasy, mixing magic and mind-bending surrealism in New York City.
I’d be hard-pressed to chose between this and Winter’s Tale for my favourite book. Veronica is another literary fantasy set in New York City, in which the hero Leo meets the titular character, apparently by accident one snowy night, and gets caught up in a complex plan to help Veronica draw her father, a magician trapped in the past, back to the present day.
The remarkable thing about Veronica is that no matter how weird it gets – and believe me, it gets very weird indeed – absolutely everything has a meaning and a place in the intricate plot, with the entire story wrapping up and everything neatly explained. Considering some of the psychedelic concepts introduced by the author (no relation, I should add), this is no mean feat.
I adore the work of Diana Rowland. My Life As A White Trash Zombie is the first of a series – followed up, so far, by Even White Trash Zombies Get The Blues, White Trash Zombie Apocalypse, and How The White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back – about Angel Crawford, a trailer park resident who is killed and resurrected as a zombie. So long as she has access to fresh brains, she remains intact and cogent – and finding herself mysteriously, and rather conveniently, employed as a mortuary assistant, Angel is soon caught up in plot involving zombie hunters and shady secret organisations.
I have to admit, zombies do not really hold much interest for me – which is why Rowland’s new take on a tired concept is so delightfully refreshing. With a quick pace and prose sparkling with wit, plenty of action, and a dash of romance, the White Trash Zombie series is pretty much a textbook example of what most people would consider urban fantasy today.
Another series that fits the urban fantasy tag perfectly. Mur Lafferty’s debut novel focuses on Zoe, a travel writer who moves to New York City and gets a job writing a travel guide for the secret monster (sorry, coterie) population of the city. Lafferty throws every mythological creature you can think of into the mix – there are zombies, vampires, fairies, witches, demons, ghosts, the lot. And it works. Like the White Trash Zombie series, The Shambling Guide to New York City – soon to be followed by a sequel, The Ghost Train to New Orleans – is fast paced, funny without being a comedy, and perfect urban fantasy.
Another left-field choice, perhaps. The Night Circus is a literary historical fantasy about a magical circus, Le Cirque des Rêves, which appears and disappears without warning or announcement, and the decades-long battle between two magicians who use their own unknowing children, Celia and Marco, as pawns.
The Night Circus is dreamy and dazzling gorgeously written, as any literary fantasy should be, but I’d argue that it also qualifies as urban fantasy while still sitting alongside such modern classics as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It might be set in Victorian England, but that doesn’t really make it any less urban fantasy, marrying as it does the real and the unreal, the fantastical and the mundane.
What are you go-to examples of urban fantasy? What books do you love that push the boundaries of this wide-ranging genre? Let me know in the comments!