Oh urban fantasy… why can’t I quit you?

Just sloughed through the most recent pile of urban fantasy. It’s not so much bad as it is uninspired. There are a lot of white women, with sardonic, oddly perky tones engaged in extreme displays of femininity. Buffy’s shadow looms large in the genre, so it’s like every vampire slayer/vampiress/heiress with an attitude is deeply concerned about both saving the world AND her Jimmy Choo’s. I’m not trying to hate on girliness. I’m hating on cookie-cutter writing, heteronormativity, and whiteness because GOD isn’t this boring?

The below contains some major spoilers for each book. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

1. Bite Me! — Melissa Francis

Okay, it’s a mildly interesting premise. High school junior AJ is a vampire. Her mom, also a vampire, is getting married… to AJ’s boyfriend’s dad. Cue the Brady Bunch jokes. Anyways, AJ might’ve killed a classmate who was getting fresh (IE TRYING TO RAPE HER CAN WE RETURN TO THAT AS A PLOTPOINT?) and now he might’ve returned from the dead to stalk her as his maker. Good stuff.

AJ’s a funny, snarky girl. She’s a bit of a wise-ass, she’s a bit of a ditz, and the incorporations of modern life (like Facebook references) don’t feel forced. The dialogue is a little Juno-esque (AJ’s classmates mock her by calling her “Peppermint Perfect”), but that’s all right since it fits the tone. If it was the only one like it in the genre, I’d probably read it and like it, even as the sexual assault aspect irritated the shit out me.

Genre hits: Good girl who’s good without being TOO good; elision of deeply important issues related to sex; female adversary as peer; white with a dash of WTF; random inserts of girly-cues.

Splashes of originality: Some references to premarital sex; some emphasis on female friendship and academics; passes Bechdel test.

2. The Demon King and I — Candace Heavens

Gillian Caruthers is the muscle in quartet of heiresses whose secret duty is to defend our universe. They are the Guardian Keys, and basically they are wealthy, gorgeous, smart, and fierce. They also have star tattoos signifying their power, so it’s kinda like Sailor Moon had babies with Gossip Girl. Their nanny is probably Vogue, because honestly these women are like paperdoll heiress superheroes. Don’t you want to know more about their clothes??? Anyways, Gillian is the “Hercugirl” of the bunch. She’s all bad-ass and strong and specifically fights demons. She has visions of death, and now they’re coming true. She ends up forming an allegiance with a cutie-pie of a demon king, who it turns out is actually half-human and with him she plans on taking on a multiverse. YAY POLITICAL AND ROMANTIC ALLEGIANCES! I like it when my love-life is secretly part of my multi-tasking. 😀

Genre hits: Good girl who’s good without being TOO good;  female adversary as peer; white with a dash of WTF; random inserts of girly-cues. In fact, the girly-cues might be the damn point, what with the fetishization of their clothing, accessories, and the kind of body maintenance that rich women can afford… like having a martial arts master LIVE WITH YOU so you can train whenever you feel like.

Splashes of originality: Arath fingers her and there’s specific mention of the clit; somewhat realistic sibling relations; passes Bechdel test.

3. Doppelgangster — Laura Resnick

Another I really wanted to like. Esther Diamond is a struggling actress in NYC who witnesses a murder-by-curse of a prominent gangster. She calls on her friends Max the Magician, Nelli the familiar, and a host of other colorful characters to KICK. SOME. MAGIC. ASS. Along the way, they negotiate a semi-truce between two rival Mafia gangs, and Esther keeps almost hooking up with her hottie jalopy of a mixed-race boyfriend, Connor Lopez, who might be secretly magical but doesn’t know. Esther spends a huge chunk of the book worrying about her acting career, her appearance in the tabloids, and whether or not her and Connor will get to do it any time soon.

Genre hits: Good girl who’s good without being TOO good;  female adversary as peer; white with a dash of WTF; random inserts of girly-cues. The girly-cues here are both part of Esther’s character and her job, so she’s not only obsessing over her clothes for dates, but also her clothes for interviews… so at one point she’s really stressing out over what kind of impression she made on a casting director that she got offered the part of a bisexual drug user or whatever. One of the things that’s mildly surprising about this I’M INTO CLOTHES/SHOES/WHATEVER is how much work in text the author does to rationalize it, like how in the Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead series there’s a lampshade on how much Betsy likes shoes and how she’s got to hustle to afford designer ones. I think that hustling, though, is part of why Betsy “works” and Gilly Caruthers from The Demon King and I doesn’t — Betsy’s labor is part of the world-building, where she’s a character with a passion for fashion that’s defined by who she is, not a character defined by what she owns/has access to/does. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but it’s one of the reasons Betsy and the quirks of her world feel so much more real to me, whereas with Esther and Gilly I felt like I was reading a parody of a parody of a parody. Very post-modern, but really unsatisfying.

Splashes of originality: Esther’s Jewish, which was refreshing, and it’s mentioned several times without being heavy-handed, which was more so. Resnick draws on several Mafia flick genre conventions (like the outrageously bereaved widow and the conniving priest) in genuinely humorous fashion. Esther’s clear that her body is her meal ticket, so there’s none of that OMG I’M ACCIDENTALLY A FUCKING HOTTIE I DON’T KNOW HOW THAT HAPPENED that can be so annoying in fanfic.

4. You Are So Undead to Me — Stacey Jay

Megan Berry’s a Settler, meaning she calms the spirits of the undead, meaning she talks to zombies. Neat! Unfortunately, she spends the majority of this book sniping at every girl her age, except her BFF Jess, who turns out to be a black-magic-using lesbian witch. At times, I felt like this text was specifically misogynistic, with Megan’s self-absorption played for unsympathetic laughs. For example, there’s a moment in-text where she’s describing Jess’ grief over the death of Jess’ mother four years ago, and says that afterwards Jess was really messed up, to the point that she got upset watching Dumbo, which Megan expresses astonishment at, since Dumbo doesn’t involve people. Teenagers aren’t emotionally illiterate, and while that might have been meant to be funny, it really highlighted to me that the author either doesn’t know or doesn’t like teenage girls. Plus, if Megan and Jess became BFF four years before the start of the novel, when they were 11, weren’t they both a little old for Dumbo? Like, how did that even come up? What especially sucks is that this is such a randomly homophobic and misogynistic text that I don’t really feel comfortable donating it to a local school, which is normally what I do with books I review for Hathor. Gah.

Genre hits: Good girl who’s good without being TOO good;  female adversary as peer; white with a dash of WTF; random inserts of girly-cues. BONUS ROUND: Megan’s mysteriously clumsy, except when she’s unusually graceful, a la Bella from Twilight.

Splashes of originality: Uh. This is a toughie. Uh. Megan and Jess are both really into hip-hop and jazz  and are both dancers. Megan refers to her hobby several times, and practices it in text, unlike Isabella Kopas in Chill. I was a little weirded out that the only technical terms Megan uses were from ballet, like pas de bouree and grande jete, which I don’t think was actually the move she meant there, but hey, I take what I can get.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve been working on this post a while. As I’ve been writing it I’ve been trying to think about how I define urban fantasy as a genre, because I REFUSE to believe that the above genre conventions define it, even though they are so common. So, what I’m gonna do now is highlight some awesome urban fantasy, so you can get a sense of what I’m looking for when I want my shit to be exciting.

1. The Turning Book 1: What Curiosity Kills Helen Ellis

I just want to throw out there that this book is set in a private school in NYC, and that its two main female characters are survivors of the US foster care system, and are acutely aware that the parents they have now are basically the result of them having hit the foster care jack pot. And! These two sisters are survivors. Our main girl, comes, I think, from Appalachia, and regularly gets teased for having been poor white trash. The other, her foster sister, is BLACK, and also came from a poor, RURAL background. Both have experience with neglect and their time in the foster care system have deeply changed them. When our main girl starts turning into a goddamn cat in her spare time, her SISTER (not her boyfriend, not some hottie she’s got a crush on, not a vampire with a conscience) gets it together enough to help her. Sororal loyalty FOR THE WIN! I can’t believe that a good, healthy, supportive FEMALE sibling relationship is so rare in fantasy that I practically wanted to cheer when I realized that Mary (the white sister who’s turning into a cat) was looking to Octavia (her black sister) to help her research that shit. PLUS, when it turned out that Octavia was gonna fucking figure that shit out? Without any fake “oh, she’s gonna betray you because the possibility of betrayal is a constant in female relationships?” I immediately began trying to think of what kids I knew would dig this. I mean, yes, there’s a love interest or whatever, but he’s so not the point. Mary, Octavia, and Octavia getting it together to help her sister? That’s the point. Love it.

2. Kaimira: The Sky Village — Monk and Nigel Ashland

Basically, this book takes place in TWO cities (globalization FTW!). One’s a floating sky village in China, whose citizens have formed strategic allegiances with birds for their own survival. The other’s Las Vegas… AFTER the desert’s reclaimed the city. Years ago, there was a war — animals and mecha (intelligent machines) decided they were DONE with humanity and also with each other. It became dangerous to live on the surface (hence the sky village) and it became dangerous to use machines (hence the decline and fall of the US). The war’s not over yet, but it’s mostly stabilized. You still have to be afraid of roving packs of mecha or animals, but at the same time, the force driving the rage of both groups seems to be dissipating.

But, the record is not over yet. There are these books linking Las Vegas and the sky village — they respond to the hands of Mei, a girl with mysterious ancestry, and Rom, a boy in the same boat. Using these books, they can read each other’s stories and talk to each other… but it gradually becomes clear that there’s another intelligence inside the books that wants to get free. While the writing style is more suited to a young, advanced reader versus someone who’s a bit older, I gotta say that it’s been a while since I’ve read such an intriguing premise for a three-part war.

3. The Unicorn Sonata — Peter S. Beagle

Josephine “Joey” Rivera is a musical prodigy. She’s 13, lives in LA, and follows an intriguing strand of music across the border between our world and Shei’rah, where the Old Ones, unicorns, play music that defines and sustains this fantastical realm. Only something is starting to blind them. Joey’s soon caught in a race against time — she’s trying to preserve the unicorn’s music as well as figure out a way to save her grandmother from a lonely death.

This, and the Kaimira series are true YA/youth fiction novels. They’re simply told, tightly written, and feel like tools meant to help a younger reader grow up, since the lessons they deliver about love, family, trust, and loneliness are the kind of harsh eventualities you learn as you age. That’s not to say they’re not good books — Bridge to Terabithia, for example, is painfully beautiful, and Unicorn Sonata follows that tradition. It does mean, however, that I got something really different from Bridge when I read it was a tween than I do reading Kaimira and Unicorn Sonata now.

4. Prospero in Hell — L. Jagi Lamplighter

Y’all remember how much I loved the first book in this series, right? This second book is even better. Basically, Miranda (who’s the daughter of the magician Prospero) is starting to realize that several mysteries about the world IN GENERAL are coming together in her journey to save her father, not the least of which is how she can ever hope to become a Sibyl (the next rank in devotion to her goddess). After all, she’s worshipping the personification of freedom, and has basically enslaved the spirits of the air. Plus, dude, what happens to tithed elves??? The quirks of this world are delightful, but even more satisfying is Miranda’s role of as the head of a multi-national and multi-world business superpower. Prospero, Inc. might have been NAMED after her father, but it’s Miranda who runs and defines the company… and she actually refers to doing so, unlike those heiress fantasy books where there’s a lot of talk about being a great ruler or managing a company, but no mention of actually doing so. Plus, this highlights one of the core differences between Miranda and her feckless sibs — she’s the kind of person you can trust to defend the world. They’re not. They resent her, they love her, and they hate her for being the one person who can maintain their lifestyle. After all, Miranda might be a goody-two-shoes, daddy’s favorite, and the purest of the pure, but if she ever fell from that exacting definition of goodness, she would no longer be able to journey the year and a day necessary to get the Water of Life they need for many of their supernatural transactions and on which they depend for their immortality.

What I love about Lamplighter as a writer is that unlike, say, Laurell K. Hamilton, Lamplighter is mean as shit to her characters. In Prospero in Hell, everything Miranda has held dear for centuries gets assaulted. The elf-lord she might love turns out to be demonic. She realizes she’s been mis-remembering the face of the one man she ever truly loved and who left her at the altar. Her father might have been trucking with devils. Her beloved younger brother Mephistopheles most certainly is. Then, on top of all this? She’s raped, and the silent constancy of her one-horned goddess abandons her. What I love about this sequence is that Lamplighter has consistently emphasized that Miranda is an awesome, but unreliable narrator. At this moment in text? I’m like, “Miranda, sweetheart, Eurynome has CLEARLY NOT ABANDONED YOU. You’re still doing handmaiden magical shit and she’s clearly still with you! She’s just waiting for you to forgive YOURSELF, so that she can be your unicorn goddess again. Your “purity” had more to do with your heart and will then with your hymen.” I love this so hard. It’s such a hard knot of reality in such a fantastical world.

Now, go forth, my minions! Read good books, then tell me about them, so that I may make my “fun” reading list for the next few months based on your suggestions.


  1. M.C. says

    Have you read the YA novels by Holly Black? Sure, there are faeries, but the teenagers in those books are so realistic, there’s akward sex and drugs and running away from home to live on the streets and all that shit you were going through when you were growing up. But there’s also beautiful things like true friendship and love. And did I mention that there are a few gay characters?! In Valiant the heroine’s bff is a lesbian, who doesn’t have a crush on her, and ends up being her most loyal friend!

    Another series I would recommend are the Artemis Fowl novels be Eoin Colfer. The hero is actually a villain, because he’s a 12-year-old criminal mastermind. And his adversary is Holly Short, the first female captain of fairy police. The series is a crazy “fairies meet Die Hard” mix that’s actually better than it sounds.
    Each novel passes the Bechdel test with captain Holly Short and Juliet, the beautiful 16-year-old who later becomes a professional wrestler. And the very complicated relationship between Artemis and Holly is so damn interesting. They clearly start out as enemies with Artemis kidnapping Holly for ransom and her vowing to kill him. But over the course of 7 novels they are forced again and again to work together and develop a grudging respect for each other, they even become friends when Holly dies and Artemis shoots a laser back in time to save her!! No, they never become lovers, but there is some sexual attraction and a make-out session (which would probably never have happened in an American novel, since Holly is a grown woman and Artemis is then a 14-year-old).

    And at last I think you should check out Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. Yes, it’s another YA vampire series, but you know what’s the most important relationship in those novels? The friendship between Rose, the heroine, and her bff Lissa. There might be some tragic love stories in those novels, but it always comes back to how much Rose&Lissa love each other in a platonic way.

      • M.C. says

        I just realized that I forgot to mention that neither of those novels is white-washed.

        Vampire Academy: Rose, the heroine, is half-American half-Turkish. Her love interest is Russian.

        Artemis Fowl Series: Holly is described as having brown skin and Juliet has asian features.

        Holly Blacks Modern Faerie Novels: Well, I would spoil Tithe if I told you the heroine’s race. 😉

  2. Anne says

    These are not necessarily great books (though for the most part I like them) but they do serve as examples of urban fantasy that fall outside the narrow conventions you describe. That said, there’s a currently very popular sub-sub-genre of which the Laurell K. Hamilton books are probably the best-selling example, and maybe that’s what you meant.

    Emma Bull’s “War For the Oaks” – the fae secretly live in the interstices of our cities; in this city (Portland? not sure which, it’s been a while, but there’s a very definite real-world city this is about) there is a war brewing between the light and dark fae, and a mortal woman gets embroiled.

    Charles de Lint’s “Trader” – Set in an Ottawa with, again, the fae secretly living in the interstices. Two men, one a master luthier, one a ne’er-do-well, suddenly awake to find they have traded lives. The book follows the master luthier trying to get his old life back; the outcome is more subtle than you might expect.

    Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Ysabel” – set in modern Aix-en-Provence, two teenage American visitors get caught up in a very old drama between three immortals condemned to re-enact the same conflict over and over.

    Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys” – set in modern London and Florida, Fat Charlie Nancy has to come to terms with his father’s death. Since his father was, to his surprise, a god, this is complicated.

    There are more books out there that could reasonably be called “urban fantasy”, but these are all set in a particular modern city and involve fantastic elements just out of sight of ordinary folks. They all have their problematic aspects – Kay’s and Gaiman’s are both rather short on interesting female characters, and even de Lint’s probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, for example (in fact I hated the way Kay sidelined the otherwise-interesting heroine). But they’re all fairly well-written, and rather different from the ones you describe. That said, they’re not really trying to appeal to the same audience as Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake stuff or Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books. A friend suggested that this sub-sub-genre exists so that you can have a powerful female lead fall in love with an even more powerful man, in fact be forced to choose between a darkly dangerous vampire and a ferocious alpha-male werewolf. If that’s the basic trope they’re aiming for, well, the very narrow genre conventions begin to make more sense.

    • Maria says

      I don’t remember being impressed by War of the Oaks — I think it’s set in either Portland or Seattle and there’s a paucity of characters of color.

      It’s been years since I’ve read something by de Lint — he did something funky involving native/Meti mythology and I was kinda done with him. I can’t honestly remember what, though — maybe in his Newark series? This is going to drive me crazy!

      I really liked Ysabel — I also really liked Lions of Al Rassan and thought it was interesting that his historical/urban fantasy stuff seems to feature more independent female characters and characters of color than his contemp stuff does.

      Anansi Boys is a GREAT audio book — it’s narrated by Lenny Henry, who is simply divine. <3

      I’m not sure a super-secret love story does make sense tho — if it’s about romance, that doesn’t mean there can’t be more POC, or that it necessarily requires a fetishization of luxe items/money, for example.

      Then again, Merry Gentry IS a faerie princess, and recently Jean Claude HAS been bankrolling Anita’s fashion decisions…

      • Anne says

        It’s been a while since I read “War For the Oaks”, but I think you’re right about the shortage of non-white characters. More generally, I sort of feel like Emma Bull is not a great writer, but she’s part of a writers’ group (“The Scribblies”?) who read her books and call her on cliched ideas and the other usual failings. Though I really liked “Freedom and Necessity”, an epistolary novel with Steven Brust set in the nineteenth-century.

        I haven’t read much de Lint, and I tend to gravitate towards his Ottawa stories just because I’ve actually lived in Ottawa. I don’t know if I would recognize a manglement of First Nations mythology if I saw one, though.

        I liked Ysabel, but not as much as some of his historical fantasy. I think “The Last Light of the Sun” is my favourite of those. His newest, “Under Heaven”, is a fun read, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the way he’s so negative about Tang Dynasty society. It doesn’t offend me, but then I have no Chinese background; I wonder whether someone more knowledgeable might feel it smacked of “orientalism”, if I understand that word correctly. Kay is generally pretty good about making female characters interesting in settings that were very limiting to women.

        American Gods is a sort of companion book to “Anansi Boys”; they don’t exactly share characters, but the mythological setting is the same. Gaiman has clearly read a great deal of world mythology and loves to mix it into his work – both the novels and the Sandman graphic novels. Writing about other people’s mythology and culture is something that has to be done carefully, though, to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and I’m not really in a position to judge whether Gaiman pulls it off. His queer characters, few as they are, are fairly conventional. For example his transsexual character Wanda in the Sandman is treated positively, but has the stock parental disapproval, extremely feminine presentation, and fear of surgery; she is also killed off as soon as her role is done. Not necessarily advancing the cause, but not offensive either.

        Oh, I agree, you can do the sub-sub-genre poorly or well; in fact I’d argue my two examples are exactly that. Laurell K. Hamilton’s books are very heteronormative, very white, and very, well, um, Hathor has been over them before, I think. Patricia Briggs, on the other hand; Mercy Thompson herself has a First Nations parent (though her race doesn’t seem to much affect her mundane life), she’s straight but some of the werewolves are gay (and this has real consequences), and Mercy’s femininity is not very conventional (does Jimmy Choo make work boots?). Plus the books strike me as being much better written.

        Have you read Octavia Butler’s “Fledgling”? I’ve been looking for it but haven’t found a copy yet; it seems like it might be urban fantasy, but obviously, given the focus of her writing, not centered on a white woman and her difficult romantic decision.

        • Maria says

          Fledgling is fucking fantastic, but it will break your heart because it’s the first book in a series she died before completing. :( It’s brill though, and a great genre crosser — it’s an SF/F technothriller with some kink and vampires!

        • Maria says

          American Gods, imo, isn’t as FUN as Anansi Boys — it’s a pretty conventional journey story centered on a white male hero, isn’t it? The world’s interesting, but there are so many tropes that are just boring, like the Magic Pixie Dream Girl, etc.

          I think my roomie reads Mercy Thompson — I’ll raid her bookshelf tonight. 😀

          Jimmy Choo DOES make biker boots but NOT work boots. 😉


          What sucks about the fashion fixation is that it’s like, okay, you can wear shoes like that and probably still be awesome. You don’t HAVE to name drop the stilletos.

          • Maria says

            :massive blushing:

            Really?? It’s been years since I read that book, but I totally did not pick up on that!!

            Haha can I defend myself by saying that as a half-black American I’m embarrassed at not noticing a mixed person in fiction?

          • says

            It’s pretty subtle, and Shadow *does* come across as white, because that’s the default assumption-and there’s one or two scenes in the book that quietly reference his ethnicity. But it doesn’t seem to make an impact on his life. I’m not sure if his wife is supposed to be white or not, though.

          • Maria says

            I do remember a moment where I was like, huh, if I didn’t know better, I’d think Gaiman was almost describing kinky hair, and then forgot about it.

        • Shaun says

          Neil Gaiman tends to write “male” and “female” stories in alternation, though. American Gods (which I didn’t like) is definitely a male story, as is Neverwhere (which I did). Only addressing gender, The Doll’s House, A Game of You, Brief Lives, and the Kindly Ones are all female stories in Sandman; as is Death: the High Cost of Living (whiteness aside); as is Coraline and Stardust (which is nothing like the movie). All of these are pretty fucking fantastic (although I did lose interest in Stardust halfway through).

          Hathor’s been over Anita Blake before? I’d love to read that, actually.

  3. The Other Patrick says

    If you also read YA, China Mieville’s UnLunDun is pretty awesome. And I can’t even talk about the most awesome thing because it’s a spoiler :)

    Kraken was cool, too, but it’s not specifically feminist or full of poc.

    I guess Warren Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein counts as urban fantasy, but it is very out there. Really.

      • The Other Patrick says

        Sorry, bad phrasing. It’s just that I noticed throughout the book that Mieville didn’t really acknowledge the race of his characters, so I couldn’t really write there were not poc’s in it, except maybe for the Egyptian living statue (or the ghost of one, at least). And re: Un Lun Dun: Oops!

      • Shaun says

        It’s not urban fantasy, but you might check out the Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. It’s sci-fi. I just finished the third/fourth book (depending on whether you want to acknowledge the existence of World’s End), Tangled Up in Blue.

        No promises for the cover art though. Despite the fact that one of the three main characters didn’t (that I remember) have a clearly defined appearance, one of them can look like whatever she wants, and one of them is very explicitly (in this and the previous books) a brown person, the publisher stuck three blonde white people on the cover.

          • Shaun says

            YES! The Summer Queen is the next book, and it takes place on MULTIPLE WORLDS of the Hegemony simultaneously! And it’s seriously an escalation of the stakes in the first book, and it introduces characters who are utterly rolling in badassery.

  4. says

    As an Urban Fantasy junkie myself, I understand your pain on the overwhelming infusion of….(for lack of a better descriptor)… chick vampire lit. It was different in a kinda fluffy fun way. At first. Now it’s aggravating.

    Let’s try to get you into some more versatile series, eh?

    Moonshine by Alaya Johnson is urban fantasy set in the 20s. The main character is a starving suffragette and non-human rights activist. How awesome is that?

    Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. Personally I recommend starting with Magic Burns (book 2) because I loathed book 1, but found all the others addictive. Series is set during the magicpocalypse in which waves of magic flow through the world wrecking havoc on technological civilization. The main character, again working class, is a master swordswoman with a dark family secret (they can’t eliminate all genre conventions).

    Ilona Andrews also has a new series out starting with On the Edge that leans towards paranormal romance, but is more rural. Bluegrass fantasy? These books are built on the premise that magic and technological worlds exist parallel to eachother, and there is an area, The Edge, where both exist simultaneously. Downside to The Edge? You are essentially living in the magic version of Palestine – illegal immigrants even in your own home, you have no status to work or legal protections, no legal access to electricity, magic or education….even though everyone knows you are there.

    Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate is a steampunk urban fantasy set in Victorian England. The leading lady is soulless (a state the author and main character spend much time investigating the exact nature of), and thus cancels out the supernatural powers of werewolves and vampires. She begins the series as a bluestocking spinster because British society (particularly her family) cannot handle her tan complexion (courtesy of Italian father).

    I second the recommendation for Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks.

    If you are looking for a unique take on vampires in urban fantasy, I suggest Robin McKinley’s Sunshine.

    Cathrynne M Valente’s Palimprest is essentially a book about a sexually transmitted city. I haven’t decided if I like it or not yet, but it is very different. Surrealist Urban Fantasy.

    Eketerina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone is steampunk set around the time of a Marxist Revolution, and tackles oh so many gender issues regarding the main character, a female automaton.

    And I’ve run out of ideas. I’m sure others will come to me as soon as I get home and see all my beautiful books.

  5. avirr says

    I really like your critiques, both pro and con. As I have a tween girl, I am buying those last two, via your affiliate links. I’m sure she will love them.

  6. says

    Svetlana Chmakova’s new OEL manga saries, Night School, is pretty decent, although I’m not really sure where it’s going. Alex is a young witch studying the art of controlling her “astral,” a kind of magical minion. For reasons only darkly hinted at so far, she’s being homeschooled instead of going to the local “Night School” for local things that go bump in the night, even though her older sister Sarah works there. But when something happens to Sarah, Alex has to enroll to find out what’s going on.

    It’s a little too muddled for me to recommend wholeheartedly, as right now it feels like there’s too much going on and not enough actually happening. But what we’ve got of the plot is intriguing, and I really want to know where it goes. It passes the Bechdel Test quite handily, with female students, female teachers, a female principal, female demon hunters… And the large cast includes MANY people of colour, whom Chmakova does a pretty good job of drawing as both ethnically distinct and different from each other within the limits of manga stylization.

  7. says

    I really wanted to like Lamplighter’s books–but then I remembered that she’s married to John C. Wright, of Massive Asshole Homophobic LJ Post “fame”, and the knowledge just meh-ified my whole reading experience: like, I couldn’t read about Miranda’s whole purity deal–which, admittedly, does tend to turn me off books in general–without wondering if it was a reflection of creepy RL sexual politics. Which is unfair, on the one hand, but on the other, if you’re willing to publicly associate with bigots…I dunno how much I should give you the benefit of the doubt.

    You Are So Undead To Me and the sequel…bleh. Yeah. Also, I’m not thrilled by the constant use of “slut” and “skank” in YA fantasy, I gotta say. I know RL high school girls talk that way, alas, but…ick.

    I totally want to read the others you recommended, and I admit that The Demon King and I also sounds like a fun read, in a fluffy kind of way. (Am giant sucker for star themed stuff. Also rainbows. I blame being ten years old in the eighties.)

    I second the Ilona Andrews rec, with the caveat that some of the shapeshifter emotional baggage gets to me: I am, shall we say, se-fucking-verely not a fan of possessiveness in a relationship, and so the “I am a were-guy and have claimed you as my mate rar” thing makes me all twitchy and turns me off big time. But the books are otherwise awesome, so yay.

    • says

      And “you” in the first paragraph is directed toward Lamplighter in specific and authors in general, rather than you-Maria. Sorry about the phrasing there: I need sleep.

    • Maria says

      The Demon King was the most fun of the “bad” books in this post, and the only one I’m not giving away. It’s LOLtastic.

      :goggle John C. Wright:

      Holy fuckthewhatnow, Batman! “Homosex?” REALLY? At one point I WAS wondering why none of the Prosperos had at least had a same-sex hook-up, since they were doing it with all kinds of supernatural beasts, but I was kinda hoping that’d come up in the third book, since all the sibs are on screen now. And I was hoping Miranda would get laid. Oh man, now I’m all, huh, when she expressed regret about being a handmaiden, it was about not being able to have sex in the context of a loving marriage leading to babies, not not having sex because it’s fun. DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT.

      And now that I’m goggling Lamplighter, she’s apparently showed her ass re: race a couple of times now. GODDAMMIT I WAS HAVING SUCH A NICE DAY.

      • says

        Yeah, sorry to be the bearer of bad news there. D:

        In consolation, may I offer Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading ? Fun essays on the Blume/L’Engle/Cleary era of books, and how they work for teen girls. (Although also makes me aware of just how freaking white those classic heroines were. Dude.)

    • says

      ” Also, I’m not thrilled by the constant use of “slut” and “skank” in YA fantasy, I gotta say. “

      Oh, THIS. I get pulled up short with pepperings of “lame” and “retard”, Westerfeld being (to me) the most obvious culprit.

      • Anne says

        I still can’t get used to the idea of Westerfeld as a YA author. I know that seems to be his thing now, but the only book of his I’ve read is “Polymorph”, which is I suppose urban fantasy as well. But the main character’s shape-shifting is some sort of metaphor for fashion and New York night life; she (sometimes he) spends lots of time in lesbian (and other) sex clubs, and spends years with her only human contact one-night stands. Kind of an interesting take on shape-shifting; she has a detailed anatomy library, and puts on faces, races and genders like other people put on clothes, for a night of clubbing. But definitely not the kind of book high school libraries are going to stock.

      • says

        Ugh, yeah.

        And again: okay, authors are going for some semblance of authentic teenage-girl dialogue, and authentic teenage girls are often pretty horrific in their casual slut-shaming/ablism/etc–I am still, I admit, trying to break myself of “lame” at twenty-seven, fucking ingrained speech patterns goddammit ARGH–but…maybe a positive character calling them on it? Something?

        • The Other Patrick says

          Yeah, I find it a little lazy to just say, “but that’s the way teenagers speak”. Written dialogue is not a transcription of actual spoken dialogue, anyway, otherwise we’d read “It’s fucking like, you know, well, fucking awesome. Fuck yeah!”

          • Maria says

            Honestly, I don’t buy the teen dialogue schtick unless you as an author also capture the moments teens are fucking brilliant, deep, and kind.

    • JMS says

      There’s a blurb from Wright on the back of Lamplighter’s book, and it does not mention that they are married. This made me laugh so hard I couldn’t stop.

      • Shaun says

        Wait, you mean her husband reviewed her book, in the glowing praise kind of way, like it was a completely random review from another author?

  8. Alara Rogers says

    I think there’s actually a distinction between urban fantasy, as an overarching category, and a specific type of urban fantasy that really boils down to “female main character with magic-based superpowers is living a lifestyle that brings her into action-oriented conflict with supernatural beings and enables her to meet hot supernatural guys.” They’re almost always female (Harry Dresden, one of the very few exceptions, is also one of the most famous… why does this not surprise me?), almost always young or young-ish, usually white, usually obsessed with clothes, and usually have a profession that explains why they keep encountering conflict with the supernatural, such as cop, courier, bodyguard, PI, etc.

    Sometimes they call this paranormal romance, but I’ve found a distinct difference between stuff that’s marketed in the fantasy/sf section, where the romance exists but is secondary to the action, and stuff that’s marketed in the romance section, where the paranormal aspects and the action seem to be secondary to the romance. Not being a romance fan, I prefer the former. Also, many of the books don’t actually focus on romance at all… especially in some of the series, where a character can have developed a strong enough relationship with her platonic friends that an entire story can be done where she has basically no love interest, and the emotional excitement is driven off the connection to friends.

    This stuff was really cool when it first came out, but it’s flooding the market now and damn, how many variations of “Mary Sue is a half-vampire, half-werewolf assassin hired by a mage to kill a demon” can there possibly be? Some of them are coming out like a laundry list of supernatural beings… and the supernatural beings are almost always the ones from traditional European fantasy, despite the stories taking place in the US. One popular series draws from Arabic fantasy to give us djinni and ifrits, but there is no acknowledgement of the Arabic source or in fact any Arab or Muslim characters (it’s kind of implied that one of the main characters might have been an ancient Hebrew man before dying and being turned into a Djinn, but it’s not clarified.) Most of the time, we get vampires, werewolves, demons, mages/witches, elves or faerie, and maybe one unusual one per book.

    And most of these are highly heteronormative. I can’t think of one single one where the main character is a lesbian or even bisexual. There is *one* very popular series where the main character is, we are repeatedly reminded, a straight woman, but she has tremendous sexual tension with her bisexual female vampire roommate and business partner, and I wouldn’t be utterly shocked if eventually the character said “Screw it, I guess I’m bi because I love you” and ended up with her vampire friend, but so far that’s not what’s happening. There are lots of them where my best gay pal is a significant sidekick character, but no lesbian or gay main characters.

    I don’t know what you could call this genre. It’s so formulaic, I think it needs its own distinct name. Perhaps “urban fantasy action/romance”? Except that the urban part is usually not that important, except to establish that this is the modern era. Um, maybe “contemporary fantastic adventure/romance”? Damn, that’s long. I dunno, but the important elements that set a story in that genre include the action/adventure, so I’d really want to capture that in the name.

    • Maria says

      But what I’m wondering is, is it semi-romance because it’s female characters? I mean, Dresden’s got his lady problems, doesn’t he? I’ve only read two of the books, but there were allusions to some grand romance and a reporter?

    • says

      I’ll tell you something-if anything, Jim Butcher, the author of the Dresden series, manages to keep the story going, has a huge rotating cast of secondary characters, all distinctive, and he writes an over-arcing plot and keeps all his juggled balls in the air. I’ve yet to see him drop one. And he’s got ten more books planned in total for his series.

      Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a series (yet) with a female protagonist that doesn’t eventually devolve into a sex-fest, or tease-fest, like the Morgan series (mentioned above) or the already mentioned series by LK Hamilton. Brigg’s series started out fine, but again, there’s a powerful romance Alpha-male component that I am so completely tired of.

      It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out-sure, love and romance are integral to life, but seriously: does an entire genre have to have female characters who are completely dominated by males in their own stories? And if they don’t, why is it so hard to write these female characters without eventually spiralling down into romance or sex obsessed stories?

      I’ll have to try The Parasol Protectorate. I’ve read only one steampunk genre book so far, and it wasn’t so great (reviewed on this site). The premise sounds intriguing.

      Maria: Dresden does have his involvements with a few women throughout the series, but they’re complicated, and while they’re important to his character, and sometimes help drive the plots, they don’t dominate his character(no Alpha Wolfs here) and they have *their own lives*. The most recent book goes back to the Reporter, with grave consequences to the overall story.

      • Maria says

        Well, that’s good to hear. The constant reiterations of chivalry, etc., were getting a bit tiresome. It’s nice to hear, though, that a character can be vaguely sexist without the WRITING ITSELF being so

        • says

          Heh. I agree with the chivalry thing. But he keeps getting told off by Karin Murphy, the tough blond cop, as well as other male friends to stop with the chivalry and hiding the facts. It’s his main flaw.

          Anyway, I guess part of the reason I enjoy these books so much, even with a male protagonist, is that the series doesn’t feel it has to cater to the [paranormal] romance crowd. And that’s probably why there’s a sizable contingent of women readers who truly can’t stand female protagonists, but are willing to read male protagonists doing their thing.

          • SunlessNick says

            It’s his main flaw.

            And the writing reflects that; there are times when he’s made a “chivalrous” decision that’s made extra trouble for the character he thinks he’s protecting.

    • SunlessNick says

      a specific type of urban fantasy that really boils down to “female main character with magic-based superpowers is living a lifestyle that brings her into action-oriented conflict with supernatural beings and enables her to meet hot supernatural guys.”

      Kelley Armstrong’s books definitely hit that formula, though her various leads generally appeal to me (and the stories are about them, not the guys they land). Plus I like the thriller/investigative side of them.

      • says

        I agree! With a few exceptions, the Women of the Otherworld books are fabulous examples of urban fantasy. I do believe the first couple came out prior to the subgenre-boom….so that might be the key. As one of the progenitors of the action/investigative urban fantasy, your books get to be original and lacking in cliche. Everyone else is just a poor imitation. (See: Anita Blake the piss-poor rip off of Sonja Blue as further evidence)

  9. Sarah says

    Have you ever read anything by CE Murphy? She has a series that starts with Urban Shaman that centers around a character who has to come to grips with having shamanic powers and her ancestry (her mother was Irish and her father was Native American). I think that books are great light reading and Jo less worried about being girly than most (although her mentioning frequently that she isn’t feminine might fall into the same camp of complaints since it does emphasize that dichotomy).

    • Maria says

      I glanced at it — I thought it was a little misogynistic, with all the anti-girly-ness I’m not like other stupid women going on.

      But I’ve also heard really good things about it, as well, so it’s on my list.

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