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Best Urban Fantasy Books

All Books That Fit into the Contemporary Fantasy Category

This is perhaps one of the more difficult sub-genres to place books in simply because it’s so open-ended in terms of what can be included. The one quintessential element of every urban fantasy novel is that it contains magical elements set within the real world.

Quite often, the magical elements present in the real world remain unknown to most of the world, except for a few select denizens of this “unseen” realm; these denizens may include witches, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, faeries, and other supernatural entities – all co-existing with the real world.

When it comes to incorporating magic into the urban fantasy setting, there are several ways:

  • Magic is mysterious and hidden and the protagonist suddenly discovers it exists
  • Magic is hidden; protagonist is part of that world (The Dresden Files)
  • Magic is hidden or never existed but was suddenly introduced to the world and its presence is felt or known to some degree (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, futuristic fantasies)
  • Magic exists and is known in the world (Anita Blake).

One trend recently has been the popularity of the detective/noir with urban fantasy; you’ll typically have some down-and-out protagonist who’s a supernatural detective/investigator who, perforce of his job, delves into the supernatural realm that exists within the real world. 

Vampire urban fantasy is also quite popular, with vampires co-existing (often ruling from the shadows) with normal humans, with either a half vampire/full vampire who identifies with the humans and becomes some sort of champion for the human cause.

Many of the urban fantasy tales are slotted into the vampire romance category, for which we've created a separate list.

There are so many urban fantasy books out there, we've tried to provide a balanced list of some of the best urban fantasy books in the genre; this list draws on a wide range of completely different urban fantasy: some good old classic vampire fiction, Celtic mythology, epic-fantasy-meets-urban fantasy, and even some good old horror.

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If you are looking at urban fantasy recommendations, you probably have seen Jim Butcher's Dresden Files mentioned before. It's a fan favorite and some seriously good reading with a lot of attitude. This one helped to pioneer the whole detective noir urban fantasy subgenre; he's been copied but not yet matched. Really, the novels are just so damn fun to read: as of the last book, The Dresden Files are the perfect mix of mystery, adventure, and romance -- all wrapped in a layer of dark grittiness, but still livened up with ample amounts of sarcastic humor. It takes 2 or 3 books before Butcher hits his stride (so don't give up too early!!), but when he does, oh boy, be prepared for a hell of a read. These books start fairly light-hearted but gradually stride into darker and darker territories; there is a dark sense of humor evinced by the protagonist.

Books in The Dresden File... Series (17)


Fevre Dream

(George R.R. Martin)
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Award Nominations:1983 LocusF, 1983 WFA

The one vampire novel to rule them all – and there are a lot of them to rule these days with the urban fantasy subgenre completely saturated with vampire romance novels. If there is one “vampire” book out there that you should read, Fevre Dream is it. The setting is completely exotic, the characters rich and complex, and the novel richly plotted. If you are looking for an outstanding and completely unique vampire novel, this one takes the cake, cookies, and donuts.

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This is one of my favorite fantasy books out there. It takes some of the typical fantasy conceits and subverts them. On the surface, this has every element of a classic fantasy novel: the school of magic for magically gifted children, magical lands with talking creatures, gods, demons, kings and quests. But Lev Grossman does something very different a short way into the novel; instead of the happy-go-lucky tale of a boy’s journey into a land of magic and wonder, it’s a horrifying look at achieving power only to find that it leads to emptiness. It’s a journey that’s both visceral and fascinating, terrifying and humorous. The characters in the novel are heroic, powerful, almost larger than life (basically, heroes from a fantasy tale), but they are not altruistic and good, but rather flawed and foolish, selfish and spiteful. It’s an altogether different sort of fantasy novel – an intelligent take on the genre and a disturbing look into human nature. The characters present in the story are well developed, fully fleshed out into real, living characters. You get to know them, get to understand what motivates them, what makes them tick. The relationships are standout too, though the driving factors behind most of the relationships are usually darker ones. This is not a happy story, let me make that clear. This is an outstanding novel – one that incorporates many of the classic fantasy norms (quests, magical lands, talking creatures, magicians, and magic schools) while at the same time subverting them. It’s not a book for everyone (indeed, you’ll find many people who just don’t “get it”), but for the intelligent, discerning fantasy reader, this is a book you absolutely should read. Fans of cheap pop-corn urban fantasy thrills (sexy vampires in tights who are as good in bed as they are in a fight, and harlequin style paranormal romance fiction) probably should avoid this book, but if you want some urban fantasy with some serious depth, I can’t recommend this book enough. There is a sequel called The Magician King that’s even better.

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With a Martin-esque plot and Jim Butcher pace, The Axe and the Throne is a definite "must read" for even the pickiest fantasy fans.

In his stunning debut, Ireman has built the type of world so vivid and engrossing that leaving it at the end is agony. In spite of leaning toward grimdark, where authors often enshroud every scene in depressing darkness, there is no lack of cheerful moments or brilliant scenery. Yet the pangs of near-instant nostalgia that come after you put down a book like this have less to do with the inspired setting, and far more to do with those who inhabit it. 

From savage, unremorseful heroes, to deep, introspective villains, the cast of this story is comprised of believable characters capable of unthinkable actions. And it is these characters -- the ones you wish you could share a drink with or end up wanting to kill -- that forge the connection between fantasy and reality. Keethro, Titon, Ethel, Annora. These are names you will never forget, and each belongs to a man or woman as unique as they are memorable. 

No book would be complete without a its fair share of intrigue, however, and there is no lack of it here. Each chapter leaves you wanting more, and Ireman's masterful use of misdirection leads to an abundance of "oh shit" moments. Do not be fooled (or do -- perhaps that's part of the fun) by storylines that may appear trope-ish at first. This is no fairytale. 

Available on Amazon & Audible, Barns & Noble, iTunes, Google, and Kobo.


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

(Susanna Clarke)

This takes the entry for “period” urban fantasy, as the setting is the Napolean Regency era focused on the gentry English countryside. It’s a slow, ponderous book that gradually builds up the tension. Readers fall into two categories here: those who plow through the first several hundred pages to get to the heart of the story, and those who quit before reaching the point where things get interesting. Don’t be one of the latter here – Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fascinating novel – rich with English lore, baroque language, and an entire alternative English mythology that seeps from every page. For those who love reading for reading’s sake, you’ll relish this book.

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What if myths are given life and exist somewhere? This is the question posed by Mythago Wood – a novel that delves into the collective soul of mankind. Mythago Wood is an ancient primeval wood somewhere in the English countryside -- a wondrous place of magic and mystery, where legends and myths from every people and every time period are given life, breath, body and soul, in the form of mythagos – beings created from human myth that, while not entirely real, breath, love, fight, kill and are killed. Robert, the protagonist, falls in love with a mythago Celtic princess; when she is kidnapped, he will travel into the heart of Mythago Wood, into the realm of ancient myth and beyond to save her. The novels (there are a few of them) have a very dreamlike ethereal quality to them, almost as if you are descending into a world of dream and possibility. They’re novels, but they’re so much more, novels with real depth. Out of all the books on the list, Mythago Wood gets the “most literary” award – something you could show your college English professor and be proud.

Books in Mythago Wood Series (7)

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The Anubis Gates

(Tim Powers)
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Awards Won:1983 PKD
Award Nominations:1984 LocusF, 1985 BSFA

Featured on quite a few of the best lists and with good reason. This standalone is a blend of a number of different genres: time travel, alternative history, fantasy, mystery, and science fiction. I have yet to find someone who didn’t love this novel when they read it. The setting is contemporary and mixes in some of the standard urban fantasy traits (magical world – in this case, ancient gods – co-existing with the contemporary).

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(Neil Gaiman)

Most (all?) of Gaiman’s works are urban fantasy. The crowd favorite is Neverwhere, which is an interesting take on the whole multiverse conceit found in science fiction. The premise is that people can fall through the cracks on the ground and find themselves in an alternate London (called London Below). This is a world of talking rats, of shadows and saints, monsters and unlikely heroes. And into this bizarre world of London Below falls the unlikely hero of Richard, an ordinary man with an ordinary life who, in an act of Samaritan kindness, find himself caught up in a world of mystery, magic, and danger. A fantastic novel and his most highly rated. His American Gods is another standout novel and the one that put him on the map as one of the top urban fantasy writers. Similar Recommendations

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Award Nominations:2005 LocusYA

Charles de Lint is one of the founders of the Urban Fantasy movement – his influential works have helped shape the entire genre as a whole. And as one of the progenitors, how can he not be mentioned? He also writes beautifully, really having a solid grasp on how to write good quality prose. Charles de Lint has written plenty of novels, but The Blue Girl may just be his best and is a good Segway into his greater Newford tales as a whole. The story itself departs a bit from the typical young adult story of angst, fitting in, and finding who you really are. Charles de Lint throws a few wrenches into the cogs of the typical teen angst story by throwing in a ghost story into the mix. It’s an interesting departure and one that works. What makes Charles De Lint’s novels so readable is that underneath all those universal truths we identify with there’s a supernatural layer to world that influences things. It adds a sort of atmosphere to his novels.

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Dirty Streets Of Heaven

(Tad Williams)
(Bobby Dollar)

This one by Tad Williams, a master at writing well plotted, rich fantasy tales.

This is his second foray into urban fantasy territory (first being War of the Flowers – another well recommended urban fantasy tale) and looks to be one of his best works in a decade.

Dirty Streets of Heaven follows in the dectective-noir tradition of The Dresden Files, but it's no clone at all. Williams puts something new into the genre and my feeling here is that Butcher has some serious competition for the Urban Fantasy crown with Williams' new series. Out of all the various contenders for the throne, this series has every potential to be "the next" Dresden series.

Books in Bobby Dollar Series (3)

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War For The Oaks

(Emma Bull)

There are many urban fantasy authors but few of them can claim to have started an entire subgenre, a claim to which Emma Bull’s debut novel War for the Oaks can adequately make. As I’ve seen one person describe it “Fey, death, and Rock ‘n’ roll”.

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This is perhaps not Mieville’s best work but it’s certainly the most “urban fantasy” of his novels. Typical of  every Mieville novel, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on with bizarre characters and an equally bizarre setting. The city itself becomes a sort of character in this novel. This is one of those novels that you will love or you’ll hate. But it’s a good entrance into Mieville’s strange worlds.The story centers around Sual Garamond, a regular Joe who gets dragged into a world he never knew existed and must confront the forces that seek to use him for their own power games.

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A superb mix of suspense, humor, fantasy, horror, and romance. A blend of Raymond Chandler and Jim Butcher. This one is a detective noir along the lines of a Harry Dresden novel (Jim Butcher actually provides a referral for the Nightside books) , but with an altogether different premise. John Taylor is a down-and-out detective with a knack for finding things, including people. Now hes got his hardest case yet: to solve the disappearance of a missing woman. To do so, he must descend into the Nightside an otherwordly secret realm in the dark heart of London, where time and place have no meaning; a place where its always 3 am, a place where something dark is always lurking around the corner; a place that even rats flee; a place where reality and horror merge.

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This one has quite a few genres stuffed into it, but we can shove it under the urban fantasy umbrella. The author melds a high-tech futuristic earth with the regions of Hell. This combines Chinese fantasy, SF, detective fiction, and fantasy. The mix of genres is so wacky that it all just works, somehow. It’s a hilarious series where the author has opened up the floodgates of her imagination, and combining it with Chinese mythology has made Snake Agent pretty much irresistible to read. Just.Read.It.

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I quite liked this one. I think it's probably the best next It’s dark, gritty, and it dose new things in the genre. Yes, it’s got some of the elements of the Dresden novels, but there’s enough here that it’s no simple clone. What’s particularly refreshing is that protagonist is not some super powered magical freak that features in most of the supernatural detective-noir books out there. He’s basically a normal guy who gets caught up in power games that are far beyond his ability to deal with and he’s just trying hard as hell to walk away in one piece. He’s basically a lower power version of Dresden without all the magical tricks. It makes the novel interesting knowing the hero can’t simply pull out yet-another-magical trick out of the bag to one up the bad guys. Highly recommended. there.

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Un Lun Dun

(China Mieville)

Mieville writes primarily in the New Weird subgenre (his most famous being his debut novel, Perdido Street Station) though he occasionally branches out into the more familiar realms of urban fantasy as is the case in Un Lun Dun. The world of Un Lun Dun is just as much a character as the actual characters, with Un Lun Dun being an alternate version of London that’s behind the veil of the modern London. The book features some of the standard fare present in the genre – messianic hero, genies, quests, and heroes, but it subtly subverts many of the typical tropes. The fantastical and zany city of Un Lun Dun is vivid and every bit as much of a character as are the actual characters – from flying buses with cannons, sentient umbrellas, and gigantic libraries with an organic ecosystem. Unlike some of Mieville’s other works, this one is easy to understand without the wonderfully bizarre metaphors-brought-to-life that his other more complex works exhibit as characters and plot devices. This is probably due in part to Un Lun Dun being his foray into Young Adult fiction – but it’s a book that every adult can read too.

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There’s not really much need to discuss Harry Potter – a significant percentage of the world has read the books. I would describe this as epic, urban fantasy. Harry Potter takes place in the real world, but the magical world is a world that most people don’t know actually exists. For the most part, you completely forget about the contemporary setting of the books, and focus on the magical world present around the school – outside of Harry’s school vacations to the real world, you could entirely forget about the urban setting. However, it’s present and still an important part of the story.

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Post-apocalyptic urban fantasy. The world has changed – the lights don’t work, cars are no longer functional and magical creatures now roam the landscape. The world is no longer the same place. Pete Garey, a young boy, has been left to fend for himself. But now, he’s met a unicorn and his life will never be the same again. This is an older novel (it came out in the 80s) and a classic favorite. It’s an intelligent and mature read – don’t let the “unicorn” premise scare you away. It’s a magical tale that’s still down to earth with a lot of heart and soul to it and one you’ll soon be recommending to friends. It’s a coming-of-age book in a world gone wrong, a world vastly different, yet every bit as real as our own.

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What Twilight really should have been. Think of this as a more adult, more complex vision of Twilight. Basically, on every single level, this series supersedes Twilight.

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Sookie Stackhouse series

(Charlaine Harris)

(Sookie Stackhouse)

A large portion of the Urban Fantasy scene is composed of books that feature a sexy woman who's really a secret witch/vampire/druid/demon and fight's against the supernatural powers that seek to control the world from the shadows.

It we have to throw one of these series on list, my pick goes to the Sookie Stackhouse series, which breathes a bit (only a bit, mind you) of fresh air into the genre.

So if we are going to have a romantic vampire series on this list, then my nod would go to the Sookie Stackhouse. A blend of small-town southern America mixed with the dark macabre vampire world – it’s an interesting premise and one that’s really gripped the public imagination (as witnessed by the True Blood series, based on the books). Hands down better than Twilight and most of the other vampire romance out there.

Books in Sookie Stackhous... Series (13)

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