Urban fantasy books have become some of the most widely read books of the twenty-first century.
There’s a good reason for it. Urban fantasy is one of the most exciting, fascinating, and unique genres in modern literature.
While it usually involves fantastical plot, it’s vastly different from standard fantasy. Urban fantasy’s not set in a typical fantasy world, instead it plays out in our modern, real life world or one similar to it.
It’s a dynamic and diverse genre that often combines a variety of well-known tropes with new and unique ideas.
Urban fantasy books are filled with fantastical and mythological creatures like werewolves, vampires, witches, fairies, goblins and many others. Yet, many urban fantasy writers add their own touch to these elements. They distort them or mix them up in new and exciting ways. This makes urban fantasy books a delight to read for those who are looking for unique stories.
For this list, I selected a variety of different urban fantasy books. While some are standalone titles, others might be part of a longer series. All of them, however, are very worth reading.
Table of Contents
- Borderland edited by Terri Windling
- War of the Oaks by Emma Bull
- Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
- Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
- Fated by Benedict Jacka
- Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill
- Broken Elements by Mia Marshall
- Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
- Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
- Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
- City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
- Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch
- Storm Front by Jim Butcher
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Borderland is said to have started the urban fantasy trend.
Published back in 1986, it’s an anthology of short stories who all take place in Bordertown. It’s a chaotic, dystopian city which divides the human world from the mythical ‘Elflands.’
Things aren’t what they seem in Bordertown. Neither magic nor human engineering works as it should, and their unpredictable combination often proves fatal.
The town itself is inhabited by a cast of wonderful and strange characters. We get to know youthful outcasts and runaways, magical magicians and even so-called half-residents, descendants from the union of humans and elves.
All of them struggle to make sense of the world around them. Yet it’s a world that defies comprehension.
Borderland is a classic amongst urban fantasy books. While it caters primarily towards teenage readers, it comprises a variety of serious themes: disenfranchised youth culture, race relations, class conflict, generation gaps and much more.
Borderland is a great way to start off this list and any fan of urban fantasy books should read it.
War of the Oaks was first published in 1987 and it defined the modern urban fantasy genre in a similar note to the aforementioned Borderland.
It tells the story of a young musician Eddi McCandry. Her life takes a turn for the worse when her band breaks up and her boyfriend dumps her.
Things, however, are bound to get even weirder. One night, as she’s walking home through downtown Minneapolis, she’s drafted into an invisible war between two factions of the fairy folk. From this point onward, she’s about to struggle for her survival in this strange new world. All the while, she’s also trying to put together a new rock band.
War of the Oaks is a novel that’s written in lyrical fashion but also in a style that’s rather rough. It’s a book that’s as fantastic as it’s down to Earth. It tells a story of genuine love, loyalty, devotion, and, of course, real musicians.
War of the Oaks is another of the classic urban fantasy books, and any fan of the genre should check it out.
Patricia Briggs is one of the biggest names in urban fantasy and one of the most innovate writers the genre offers.
Moon Called is the first in the Mercy Thompson series comprising twelve novels.
The book includes a variety of fantastical elements and features a lot of mythological creatures such as werewolves, vampires, fairies, but also witches, shapeshifters and many others.
It tells the story of Mercy Thompson, a skilled mechanic who’s a shapeshifter, a so-called walker, who can turn into a coyote at will.
She and other mythological creatures live in their home of the so-called Tri-Cities. Everything seems to be all right and life’s harmonious. Yet, trouble’s been brewing below the surface for a long time.
Our story starts when a teenage boy arrives at her shop looking for work. Before long, it’s revealed that he not only turned into a werewolf recently but also escaped from a laboratory.
Mercy asks Adam Hauptman, the alpha of the local werewolf pack, for help. This act of kindness, however, has dire consequences, for Mercy soon learns that what happened to the boy wasn’t an isolated incident. From now on, she must set out to save those who are dear to her.
Urban fantasy’s a genre full of badass heroines, but Mercy Thompson proves to be one of the best ones. While Moon Called is an urban fantasy book that comes with a lot of familiar elements, Patricia Briggs is able to warp and change them into an entirely new and innovative story.
Moon Called is definitely one of the best urban fantasy books out there and a fantastic start to a brilliant series.
Wicked Lovely is another well-known urban fantasy novel. It’s once again the first in another, longer series of urban fantasy books.
It’s set in a world in which faeries live hidden amongst humans. They have terrible power and are of a cruel nature, especially against non-faerie folk.
Aislinn Foy is a teenager with a special power. She’s a so-called Sighted, which means she’s able to see faeries. For most of her life, however, she’d been afraid of them and chosen to ignore them.
This changes when the faerie Summer King Keenan believes she may be his new Summer Queen. Yet, at the same time, Aislinn got feelings for her best friend Seth. Before long, things get out of control and, even worse, dangerous.
What’s most interesting about the novel, however, is the intertwining of 18th century fairytales and folklore with the modern day expectations of teenagers.
While the book can be teeny and hormone fueled, it makes up for it by being a fantastic read.
Fated is the first novel in the Alex Versus series, set in Camden London, which comprises fourteen urban fantasy books.
Our protagonist Alex Verus runs a magic shop, but of course not an ordinary one. Instead of selling wands, cards and magic sets, he sells mysterious artifacts, some of which hold incredible power.
Yet, Alex himself is not an ordinary person either. He’s a mage with the power to see into the future. His life, however, is mundane, and he spends his days simply running his store.
All that changes when his apprentice Lune comes into the store with a mysterious crimson glass cube. Alex knows right away that his life’s about to change. While he doesn’t know why and how, he knows he’s in danger and there’s no way of avoiding it.
Fated is a fantastic urban fantasy book and a great introduction to one of urban fantasy’s best series.
In this urban fantasy book, we get to know Caroline Evelyn Merit. She was a normal twenty-eight-year-old graduate student.
One day, however, she’s attacked by a rogue vampire. Before he can finish the deed, he was scared away by another vampire, allowing Merit to survive the Caroline to survive the encounter. This other vampire is Ethan Sullivan, the head of Cadogan House.
From this day onward, however, she’s a vampire herself and now has to handle her new life. This includes hiding her identity from her roommate, getting together with the other vampires of Cadogan House, but also coping with her attraction to Ethan. Yet, he’s not merely her master, but he’s also got feelings for her of his own.
While Some Girls Bite might sound similar to other urban fantasy books, it’s worth reading. It features an interesting, female narrative, and outlines the many problems our protagonist faces in her new identity in our normal, modern day world.
Broken Elements is the first of three books in the Elements series. It’s a mixture of urban fantasy and murder mystery.
Aidan Brook is an elemental. This means she’s got the power to manipulate water with her mind. When her powers fail her one night, however, the consequences prove fatal.
Unable to cope with what she’s done, she tries to flee her old life and what she’s done. While she’s trying desperately to forget the past, the grisly murder of an old friend draws her back to the scene of her crimes, Lake Tahoe.
Before long, the FBI, too, is on her case and her quiet life ends. Even worse, a deadly killer soon sets his sights on her. Aidan now has to relearn her powers to survive. Yet, can she use them for good, or will she bring even more death?
With a great, tragic protagonist, lots of magical elements and a murder mystery, this book has it all for fans of urban fantasy books and innovative stories.
Sandman Slim is the first entry in the Sandman Slim series comprising over ten books.
The book centers on a trope as old as time, the battle between heaven and hell. Yet, this series of urban fantasy books twists this idea, makes it fresh and tells its story uniquely.
We get to know a man named James Stark, who’s known as Sandman Slim. He spent his teenage years as a magician, but before long, his powers were noticed by a demon. This demon took Sandman Slim to hell itself, and for eleven years, he was forced to perform a sideshow to entertain Satan’s minions.
When he’s finally able to escape, he sets out for revenge. He now hunts down the devil, who took him to hell and the mysterious group surrounding him.
Before long, however, he realizes there’s more to all this, and the truth is much more terrifying than he could’ve ever thought. For he soon finds himself dragged into a battle that’s been going on for much, much longer, that between heaven and hell.
Sandman Slim’s a fantastic series featuring a great antihero protagonist. It showcases that the path to retribution and revenge is never an easy one and there are often powers beyond our understanding which might influence and mess with us.
Simply a fantastic novel and part of a fantastic series of urban fantasy books.
Before he wrote American Gods, Neil Gaiman was already a titan of urban fantasy. It’s thanks to Neverwhere, which enthralled millions and was adapted not only into a radio play but also a TV series.
Under the streets of London lies a place that its citizens would never have dreamed of. It’s a city of monsters, saints, murderers, angels, knights in armor and pale girls in black velvet. It’s essentially a city of people who’ve fallen between the cracks.
We get to know Richard Mayhew, a young businessman who recently moved to London and who’s soon going to find out more about the other London. When he helps an injured girl named Door on the street one night, he’s catapulted into this other chaotic, magical place known as London Below.
After losing everything, he now travels London Below to make sense of it all and to find his way back to the normal world, London Above.
Neverwhere is an urban fantasy classic. It showcases Neil Gaiman’s imagination and his talent as a writer. It’s an absolutely fantastic novel with a lot of interesting ideas that doesn’t need to hide behind Gaiman’s other, more popular works.
Dead Until Dark is the first entry in the Sookie Stackhouse series of urban fantasy books. It has proven to be one of the most popular and well known urban fantasy series and served as the inspiration for the show True Blood.
It follows a young woman, Sookie, who lives a seemingly normal life. Yet, there’s more to her than meets the eye. Sookie’s got telepathic abilities. Instead of taking them for normal, however, she thinks she’s going crazy.
In the world of Dead Until Dark, the existence of vampires is common knowledge. They are of a serious and reserved character, which always proves to create fun interactions with the quirky Sookie. These are especially prevalent when she’s interacting with her boyfriend Bill, who’s, of course, a vampire.
The novel’s plot truly gets going when a series of murders happens and vampires get blamed for them. Yet, Sookie and Bill aren’t so sure that’s the truth and set out to solve them.
Dead Until Dark is an interesting and unique mixture of small-town southern America and dark, macabre vampires. It comes with a cast of fantastic characters and an intriguing premise in the form of a murder mystery. It’s a mystery which serves to be far more complicated than originally thought.
While Twilight and other series in the romance vampire subgenre might be more popular, the Sookie Stackhouse series is considered one of the finest entries.
Ilona Andrews is another popular and prolific urban fantasy writer. Magic Bites is where it all began. It’s the first in the massively popular Kate Daniels series comprising ten novels and several novellas.
Magic Bites is set in a world which fell victim to a magical apocalypse. One day, magic appeared. Rogue mages rose to power because of their spells, and monsters appeared.
This appearance of magic changed everything and made everything unpredictable. Soon technology started to fail. Guns didn’t fire, cars didn’t start and many other devices didn’t work as intended. Even worse, should either magic or technology work, the other will ultimately fail.
In this unpredictable, dystopian world, we get to know Kate Daniels. She lives in the city of Atlanta amongst vampires, were-creatures, necromancers and many other fantastical creatures. She herself is a sword-wielding mercenary who earns a living cleaning up magical problems.
When her guardian’s murdered, she sets out for answers and revenge. Soon enough, she finds herself involved in a power struggle between two opposing factions. As tensions rise, she becomes pressured by both sides and, before long, things get out of hand.
The most interesting element of Magic Bites has to be the unpredictability of not only magic, but also technology. It allows for quite a few strangely comedic moments, but also for the breaking of established rules.
Magic Bites is a fantastic debut novel of one of urban fantasy’s most popular writers. It’s a great novel with an interesting setting and most of all, a fun read.
Cassandra Clare is another massive name in the urban fantasy genre and her novel City of Bones helped bring the genre to mainstream attention.
City of Bones is the first of six books in The Mortal Instruments series. It received international acclaim in the young adult urban fantasy genre and was even adapted into a TV series.
Clary Fray is a normal, fifteen-year-old teenager. Her life changes when she witnesses a terrible murder committed by three tattooed teenagers carrying bizarre weapons. Before she can call the police, however, the victim’s body disappears without leaving behind a trace.
The perpetrators are Shadowhunters. They are powerful warriors sent to defeat evil demons that roam the earth.
After a series of increasingly bizarre events, Clary slowly finds herself pulled towards the Shadowhunters’ world. When her mother’s kidnapped, she’s got to team up with no other than the Shadowhunters to find out who’s taken her. Before long, she learns the truth about the Shadowhunters, their world and also the things her mother hid from her.
Now Clary, who used to be just a normal teenager, finds herself amid a supernatural battle between good and evil.
City of Bones is a fantastic young adult urban fantasy novel, one I highly recommend to any fan of urban fantasy books.
Midnight Riot is the first book in the Rivers of London series.
One has to wonder what makes London such a perfect setting for urban fantasy books. It’s a complex city with a rich history and a multicultural population.
Aaronovitch uses all these elements and another staple of urban fantasy, the police, to tell a fantastically, innovative story of magical mysteries. All this is spiced up with a healthy dosage of wry humor.
The novel introduces us to Peter Grant, a rookie cop. He’s assigned to the Case Progression Unit and his primary task is to fill out paperwork. Yet, Peter has a supernatural ability, he can see ghosts. When Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale recognizes these powers, Peter gets sent to magical training and is moved to a different unit.
From here on out, he works with Nightingale to solve various magical cases in London. The direst one, however, is a series of violent attacks that always end with the perpetrator’s face falling off.
Before long, Peter finds himself in over his head and has to solve an age long dispute. He’s now in a new world, an underworld populated by gods, goddesses and a dark entity with an evil plan.
Midnight Riot is a fantastic start to one of urban fantasy’s most beloved series. While the book can be a bit too packed with plot points and events, it more than makes up for it by its fantastic characters. It’s overall a witty and highly enjoyable read.
Storm Front is the first book in the massively popular urban fantasy series The Dresden Files. It’s a series that changed the face of modern urban fantasy forever.
Storm Front tells the story of Harry Dresden, a paranormal investigator and wizard. He’s the best at what he does, especially since he’s the only one at what he does. This makes him a person of high demand at the Chicago Police Department, for which he solves paranormal crimes.
Whenever cases are beyond what the police can handle, they call Harry. His newest case concerns a missing amateur magician and two dead civilians whose hearts have been ripped out. Strapped for cash, he takes the job, but soon finds himself in too deep.
While he tries to figure out what’s going on, the Chicago P.D. soon suspects no other than him. He’s now got to find the missing magician and expose his role in the grisly case.
Yet, behind it all lingers another, more dangerous and dark entity.
Storm Front is an absolutely fantastic novel and the start of a fantastic series of urban fantasy books.
Harry Dresden is a great protagonist, but what makes the book such a delight is the combination of private detective work and the unique, paranormal mysteries at play.
The Dresden Files is one of the most popular and well-beloved urban fantasy series of all time and for a good reason. I highly recommend any fan of the genre to check it out.
One can’t talk about urban fantasy without mentioning the name Neil Gaiman and his novel American Gods.
While his novel Neverwhere mentioned before on this list was popular, American Gods is what changed everything. It’s one of the most popular and well-known urban fantasy books, if not the most popular. It’s by many called one of the best novels of the twenty-first century.
First published in 2001, it became an enormous success, won multiple awards and was turned into a successful TV series.
Shadow Moon’s an ex-con who’s locked behind bars for three years. He bids his time for all he wants is to get back to his wife Lauren and start a new life.
Yet, days before his release, his wife and best friend die in a car accident. Even worse, he finds out the two of them had an affair. He’s devastated, but upon his release reluctantly accepts an offer by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday to become his bodyguard.
Mr. Wednesday, however, isn’t who he’s supposed to be. He turns out to be Odin, the Norse God of War. He’s on a mission around America to recruit the other Old Gods and form an army to battle against the New Gods.
The New Gods are the modern gods, the gods of progress that have begun to dominate modern society and filled the gap left behind after the fall of the Old Gods. They represent such things as media, technology and commercialism.
Yet, soon enough, Shadow Moon questions his new employer. Why this battle? Something strange is going on and the more mysteries he unearths, the more he finds himself in over his head. Yet, what can a single man do when he’s surrounded by divine beings?
American Gods is nothing short of masterpiece and amongst the greatest urban fantasy books ever written. It’s a novel I highly recommend not only for fans of the genre but for all readers out there.