Three Urban Fantasy Book Series to Try
I had never come across the term ‘Urban Fantasy’ before I started reading the Dresden Files book series. Since then I have found a number of books in this “magic in the real world” genre which kept me hooked from the get-go.
As mentioned above, the Dresden Files book series was my first introduction to the term ‘Urban Fantasy’, a term for genre that I much prefer to the previously-used ‘The Fantastic’, which just sounds a little awkward. Being a fantasy literature addict, I loved the occasional cross-over with reality I came across, but until recently these stories seemed to be few and far between. In this article I will give a brief overview of my (current) top three urban fantasy book series, beginning with the Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher. Dresden Files’ tagline, “Magic. It can get a guy killed” caught my interest, and I was duly hooked in short order.
The Dresden Files series (fourteen books and counting) opens with Storm Front and follows the trials and tribulations of Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional Wizard and Private Investigator. Author Jim Butcher introduces an easily relatable cast of characters in Lieutenant Karrin Murphy of Chicago PD, Bob the sarcastic spirit of intellect, Warden Morgan of the White Council and, of course, the titular Harry Dresden, Wizard. Each book follows a different one of Harry’s cases, whether he has been unwillingly thrown into it, or whether he is a client. As the series progresses, we the reader are introduced to further engaging characters and scenarios.
Butcher is a highly skilled storyteller; there are things happening in the later books only hinted at earlier, often causing me to go back over old books and go, “OH! I get it now!”, as well as a horrible penchant for beautiful plot twists and cliffhangers that leave jaws dropped. The books leave a reader feeling very much like this could be a reality, regardless of how fantastical it is; the characters are believable and likeable (or hate-able as the case may be), the scenarios – though somewhat far-fetched – are written with such ease that they almost become real. Harry is a very fallible hero; a lot of his success is dumb luck, and he rarely gets through a case without metaphorically hanging there by the skin of his teeth. Though he is a chivalrous man, very gentlemanly, he is also sarcastic and a smart-alec, and gets himself into trouble simply by opening his mouth when it would have been far wiser to keep it closed.
One of the things that makes the Dresden Files series so fascinating for me is the depth of lore Butcher utilises; he makes a point of using just about every variant of supernatural bad guys, and has logic for each of them. For example, there are many differing stories relating to vampires: They are charismatic and preternaturally gorgeous, or they are terrifyingly ugly, or they can change into bats. Each of these versions of lore are addressed in the Dresden Files, by having the use of different vampiric courts: White Court vampires are unbelievably attractive and charismatic, Black Court vampires are more like the Nosferatu legends, and Red Court’s main form is a bat-like creature, that they hide with a humanoid mask.
Butcher also involves various different Fae creatures, from the Sidhe to pixies, Faery Queens to Faery Godmothers, all with his unique twist.
Though fourteen books may seem daunting to the new reader, I cannot recommend these books highly enough; they will make you laugh (Harry can be a sarcastic so-and-so, especially when he’s scared), they will make you cry (more than once) and you will surely end up like me; putting off reading the latest book release to give you less time to wait for the next one.
The second book series I will be discussing is Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, opening with Moon Called. Like Dresden Files this is an urban fantasy set in the United States, but Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is not a wizard; she is a shapeshifter from Native American mythology, and on occasion becomes a coyote. Also unlike Dresden, Mercy is not a PI; she is a mechanic. This, in fact, is one of the things that attracted me to the series; the play on words of a Volkswagen mechanic by the name of Mercedes.
Mercy is, as far as she is aware, the only shifter around, and was raised within a werewolf pack. The series follows Mercy as her life begins taking unexpected twists and turns, and has to learn to live next door to a dominant Alpha werewolf. Though Mercy isn’t hired to solve mysteries, still she finds she is often tasked with doing so, if only in order to keep the knowledge of the existence of things like vampires and werewolves under wraps. In this reality, the Fae have ‘come out’, as it were, and their existence is common knowledge, though it has not gone well for all of them, and many have chosen to live within compound communities.
There are characters to love in this series, and characters to love-to-hate, but there are no characters that are bland or flat. Briggs offers a new insight into the werewolf mythos, even though they still follow the traditional lunar cycle change.
The series currently has eight novels, and as such is a slightly easier series to get into than Dresden Files. I would feel that the female-led narrative might be more appealing to the female audience, as unlike Dresden Files the issue of romance is made more of in the Mercy Thompson series.
Lastly, I would like to introduce the reader to the Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovich. Unlike the above two series, Rivers of London is set (perhaps unsurprisingly) in London, and takes a very different approach to the subject of fantastical happenings in the city. The protagonist is PC Ben Grant, who is very surprised to find he has magical abilities, and has to work exceedingly hard to utilise them to any degree of success.
Though, like Harry Dresden, Ben Grant is often called in to investigate crimes of a supernatural nature, he is working under the auspices of the Metropolitan police and the Folly. As an English reader, it is thoroughly enjoyable reading of supernatural occurrences in a city I am well-acquainted with, and adds that faint air of ‘it could happen!’ to the proceedings.
Whereas the former two series mentioned have characters who already have an air of mystique about them, the Rivers of London series really does not; Ben Grant often appears to not have a prosaic bone in his body, and is frequently trying to translate the magical occurrences into scientific variables. Because he does not have a mystical background, Grant invariably turns to his magical abilities as an afterthought, which to me adds more of a realistic twist to the series. I find the series to be more grounded and ‘earthy’; whereas Harry Dresden very rarely swears (his exclamations are often almost whimsical), Ben Grant swears easily. He is slightly flippant, but not nearly to the degree Dresden is, and he is not an almighty, all-talented magical practitioner. Having a character who isn’t automatically good at what he does makes for interesting reading as he is taught to go further.
Rivers of London, the first book in the series (Midnight Riot in the US) was published in 2011, and is currently only four books long (book five is due out in November, and I am not impatient in any way at all), making this series the easiest to begin with.