I adore urban fantasy. Cities are so interesting places they drive innovation, they are diverse in a way small towns can never be, they hold the unknown as an integral part of their makeup, they have options of entertainment and nightlife that smaller rural areas just can’t have. They also contain so many contrasts and contradictions. The poor and the super rich exist in the same space, walk the same streets. Cities can hold secrets and hidden places that in the rural areas are only secrets to outsiders. But I do not only like the urban setting in fantasy set in our world – in modern times – I also really like cities as a setting in straight up fantasy. This is a list of the fantasy stories that I can recommend that is not urban fantasy as such, but is fantasy set in cities, where the city is quite important for the story. These are not books were the protagonist travel all over the place on a long quest. These stories primarily take place within the confound of a single city.
Edit: I have added City of Stairs
Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Series: Creature Court Trilogy
This book does not adhere to the classic tropes of fantasy. It is set in a city that feels a lot like an Italian renaissance city, but also have a lot of modern elements. It is quite its own and different. It is complicated, poetic and beautiful. The protagonist is very talented dressmaker living with her two good friends. The book is also about the “creature court” that defend the city against an ongoing attack from somewhere else. The court is full of power play between the members who were all taken in a children and who never really had any adults to socialize them. It is a savage place and our young dressmaker will have to learn how to navigate it. The book is on the edge of weird all the time, flirting with the it. Which is part of what makes it work but also part of what makes it almost impossible to explain. If you are tired of stock fantasy, this might be one to pick up.
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
If you have not yet read a Discworld book, stop reading and go pick one up. This is not necessarily the best one. There are some guides online so you can find a jumping on point that you think sound interesting. The Colour of Magic is very much city fantasy. The setting is the huge (rather icky) metropolis, Ankh-Morpork. The book is about a rather bizarre pairing of a magician and a turist. They have a rump of an adventure in the big city. It is very much a comedy and is at least in part a parody of the fantasy genre as it looked in the early 1980s.
Magic Steps by Tamora Pierce
Series: The Circle Opens
The second series in the Emelan universe is very much city fantasy. While all four books take place in different cities those cities are an integral part of the story. Actually cities is the typical setting for the books in the Emelan universe. Unlike Tamora’s other setting this seems to be a setting where much of life is lived inside the city walls. The series is about a group of young magicians who is finding their way as very young professionals. They fight to be taken serious by their surroundings and are all thrust into the role as teachers. These books have so much heart. While the protagonist’s are teenagers they also very much feel like youth of another time – before the concept of teenagers was invented. They have responsibilities and are regarded as adults. They books hold quite a bit of humor, drama and action. They are fast paced with quite moments and are very much focused on the human moments. Read my review of book 1 here.
The Accidental Sorcerer by K.E. Mills aka Karen Miller
Series: Rogue Agent
There are not a lot of funny books on this list, but this one is definitely funny. It is a humorous fantasy in the vain of Discworld. This is another epic urban fantasy book. Gerald Dunwoody is a not very competent wizard who gets involved in a huge plot to take over the world – which he of course tries to stop in his own bumbling manner. It is entertaining and it plays with the tropes of the genre while still keeping with in them. There are some kick ass female secondary characters who tries very hard to outshine poor Gerald. It isn’t shelved as young adult, but I don’t see any reason younger readers couldn’t enjoy this series.
Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin
Series: Raine Benares
The setting is more in the vain of a modern roleplaying fantasy world than what you find in your traditional epic fantasy book. The cities are huge, with nightclubs, theaters and schools of magic. The world is interesting, the action is good, the story is not too see-through or complex. It feels very much like a great roleplaying campaign with the best game master ever. The heroine is competent, funny, sexy and gets to have a ton of fun but is in constant danger. The writing style is describing enough to let you imagine what the world looks like without bogging you down with page long descriptions of everything and it’s cat. There are no boring traveling sections wondering though mashes or anything like that. It is fast paced and funny. Read my review of book 4 in the series.
Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
Series: Phèdre’s Trilogy
This is very much an adult story. Phèdre nó Delaunay grows up in a country where the courtesans are priestess and revered in the society. She has been turned over to one of the houses who trains the courtesans as a child and is training to become one. That sounds cheap sleazy doesn’t it? Well it isn’t! The world building is solid and the plot is captivating. Phedre is a very strong character who has so much power without being a warrior. There are some rather hard s/m scenes in the book, so if you are squeamish about that kind of thing, this is not for you. I very much enjoyed the book and I strongly recommend it. The first book is especially good and can be read on its own.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Series: The Crescent Moon Kingdoms
Not all fantasy is set in a faux medieval european setting and some of the most interesting books aren’t. Throne of the Crescent Moon is set in a huge arabian inspired city. The setting is full of creatures out of 1001 nights and the story is quite action packed. The storytelling style shift perspective from chapter to chapter – a bit like Game of Thrones. Other than the setting this is very much classic epic fantasy with good fighting evil, big action scenes, love, old wise men and young hot heads.
The Magicians’ Guild by Trudi Canavan
Series: The Black Magician Trilogy
The protagonist Sonea is an extremely magically gifted young woman who gets drafted into starting at the magic academy that is run by the Magicians’ Guild. Once she starts at the school she is an outsider from the get go and a talented one at that with teachers who are uncomfortable with her level of power. The plot is twisting and turning and playing with the reader along the way. The series is extremely good and satisfying. A number of my friends has read it as well and so far everyone has liked it, so perhaps you will like the series as well. And no it isn’t just a darker Harry Potter.
The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks
Series: Night Angel
Azoth seeks to become an assassin because he wants to become so dangerous that nobody will ever dare to bully him ever again. The first book is both about his training, about him living with having the skills he earned and about the political games that gets him mixed up with. At the same time he is still a young man, who wants what most young men wants, friends, a girlfriend to have fun, to relax. To have a life. But being one of the most dangerous men in the region means that you earn yourself some enemies and like in any superhero story that puts his dear ones in danger. This is not just gratuitous violence, the book very much deals with the consistencies of wanting to be a ninja. The characters are not likeable from the get-go, but the action kept me interested and the characters does develop. The book kept me up all night reading more than once.
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Shara is a spy and a government agent working in the colonies, not the British colonies mind you, but rather the country that her country rebelled against a few generations ago. It is quite an unusual situation the oppressed country is now the oppressors of the former oppressors. This is very much a spy thriller but one with tons of meat on. It is a story about religion, freedom, loyalty, duty and oppression. Somehow it still manages to be funny and fast paced. The world building is great and so are the characters. It is well written all around and I would be very surprised if it is not on next years award nomination lists. If you want to see a well developed female character who break a lot of the current tropes for strong female characters when this is a read for you. Oh and the book got a good romantic supplot. Read my review.
If you have read a good fantasy book taking place in a huge city that you want to recommend me, please leave a comment or write to me on twitter!