Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Synthesis: the Best Worlds in Contemporary Fantasy

Creating a good fantasy setting in the modern world sounds like it should be easy, right? It's not like traditional fantasy, where you have to invent entire worlds, cultures, magical systems, traditions, and more. Just throw in a few witches, vampires, and werewolves and you're all set.

Hey Van Helsing, the Wicked Witch of the West called.
She wants her flying monkeys back.

You could do that, and any number of authors have done so very successfully. But the best urban fantasy authors have not only something to explain their worlds but also a story that ties them together and fits them into the world we live in. They're the ones that take any number of myths and legends and bring them all together in a way that makes you pause for half a second and think, "Hey, I could almost believe that." In no particular order, here are my favorite examples.

Kate Daniels
Ilona Andrews

The Kate Daniels series could actually qualify as a post-apocalyptic novel as well as urban fantasy. After millennia of technology being on the rise, the scales have finally tipped back in magic's favor. Periods of magic and technology alternate unpredictably, and many organizations compete for power. This series has myths and legends from all over the world, not to mention some things you've never heard of, and Ilona Andrews makes it work. The level of offhand detail in this world makes it seem more realistic, and it's a great story as well.

The Hollows (Rachel Morgan)
Kim Harrison

About fifty years ago, genetically modified tomatoes gone horribly wrong and killed off half of the human population. The magical denizens of the world, having been in hiding for years, took the opportunity to come out of the coffin/cauldron/crate, and have been a begrudged part of the world ever since. The way the magical groups interact is one of my favorite parts of this series: they have histories and hatreds that go back thousands of years. Plus there's the whole deadly tomatoes thing.

The Edge
Ilona Andrews

The Edge lies between the Broken, our magicless reality, and the Weird, populated by a powerful aristocracy and rich in magic. The Weird has replaced our technological conveniences with magical ones, and has its own rivalries and divisions, while the Edge is virtually lawless. Again, the details casually dropped in this series make it come to life, and the characters are brilliant.

The Dresden Files
Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files takes myths and legends from all sorts of places and sort of reinvents them. Three vampire Courts, a Council of wizards, fallen angels, a variety of shapeshifters, the sidhe, psychics, magic dogs, talking skulls, necromancers, ghosts, zombies, dinosaurs.... You'd think all that would get confusing, but Jim Butcher has a way of weaving everything together that makes it seem like the world couldn't be any other way. Also there are Star Wars jokes. I like Star Wars jokes. Ash ;)

October Daye
Seanan McGuire

Unlike most of the previous series, the only magical creatures in the October Daye are the fae. (Probably.) This series does an amazing job incorporating fairy tales, children's rhymes, and other little things you'd probably never even think about into a whole world that doesn't feel like a children's story at all. Seanan McGuire does an amazing job making fairies scary, creepy, inhuman, and disturbing, but they still also seem like people.

Rachel Vincent

I particularly like the Unbound series because it's different from most. A few Skilled people have very specific abilities, and they congregate in criminal syndicates that conspire to keep their abilities from public recognition. This makes for a pretty dark series, but one that's absolutely enthralling. Rachel Vincent comes up with some fascinating Skills to fit the world; they're based on a number of what you might think of as "traditional" magical talents, but reinterpreted in unusual ways.

Somehow the stories that have really interesting and well thought-out worlds seem to be the best ones, by what is I'm sure no coincidence. They have histories, legends of their own, and new ideas for old stories. They incorporate well-known myths in modern and innovative ways. And they do it all while fitting their stories into the real world, or at least something that looks almost like it. Now that's impressive.

What are some of your favorite urban fantasy worlds? What do you think makes a world believable? Join the discussion in the comments!


  1. awesome post Kate! I've actually only read one of those series. Guess I really need to get on the rest as I agree these are the best kinds of books

  2. I love the world in the Unbound series, it is really well done. I haven't read the others (well I did read magic bites, but the world in the first book was kinda confusing).

  3. My favorites are Mercy Thompson, Magic Bites, Faith Hunter's Jane Yellowrock, Spider Bites (I think that was the title), and Unholy Ghosts. It was fun to see your lists. Made me think. Judith

  4. Great post, Kate! I've been thinking about checking out the Unbound series. And, I agree with Judith - the Mercy Thompson/Alpha & Omega world is one of my personal favorites.

  5. I like a good Star Wars joke too, Kate, Jim IS one of my favorite writers after all! No surprise, I've read all of the series you picked, and completely agree with your choices.

    I'd add the Iron Druid. To me it's kind of a cross between Dresden and Kate Daniels. It feels very Dresden while at the same time combining the "faith" requirement from Kate Daniels to actualize the myths.

    Excellent, post!! :)

  6. I actually thought about putting both Mercy and Iron Druid up there, but neither of them feel quite as synthesized as what I was looking for. Instead, it's more like they just pulled everything out of the "myths and legends" bag and threw it on the table. I like both of those series a lot, they're just not what I think of when I consider the really good UF worlds.

  7. I've read some of these books, and I agree that the world-building in them is fantastic.

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