In the best urban fantasy series, the cities where the stories take place become characters in their own right. Exploring the magical underbelly of Chicago or falling down the rabbit hole of an alternate history Houston is half the fun of these thrilling contemporary fantasy books. How many have you read?
Chicago: The Dresden Files
The Dresden Files is a long-running series by Jim Butcher, currently on number 17 of a planned 25. The series follows Harry Dresden, the world’s only consulting detective, as he deals with vampires, werewolves, faeries… and the most dangerous foe of all: his fellow humans. Harry fumbles through his early cases before gradually gaining more confidence in his abilities—but also making major sacrifices along the way.
Be warned that the first books in this series are a little rough, but the audiobooks read by Buffy the Vampire Slayer star James Marsters are worth a listen. Butcher created a world that feels thoroughly lived in, populated by quirky characters that sometimes steal the spotlight from Harry.
London: Rivers of London
It was tough to choose just one series set in London, but I had to go with Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books. There are currently nine novels in the series, which features policeman Peter Grant as he’s drawn into a world of strange magic and ancient deities. The rich, atmospheric writing and fascinating characters make this series a must-read.
Peter’s career takes a hard turn when he encounters a ghost rampaging through his city, and he’s transferred to a special branch of the Metropolitan Police Force that deals with the supernatural. In addition to the novels, there are also companion comics and short stories to tide you over while you wait for the next book.
Houston: Hidden Legacy
This won’t be the last time that Ilona Andrews—the powerhouse husband and wife team behind some of the bestselling urban fantasy books of all time—will appear on this list. The Hidden Legacy series is one of my favorites. It takes place in a world where the Osiris serum has given magic to mankind, and family dynasties rule thanks to their carefully cultivated powers.
Private investigator Nevada Baylor feels hopelessly outclassed when she’s hired to track down a renegade Prime—a magic user with off-the-charts power. She reluctantly teams up with Connor Rogan, a war veteran who can level cities. Nevada and Connor are the main characters of the first three books, but a companion series featuring her younger sister is currently being published.
Oh, and you can blame Avon Books for the cheesy romance novel covers above, which do not do this action-packed (but still sexy) series justice.
Prague: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Lainie Taylor’s young adult trilogy about Karou, an art student living in Prague, is a romantic, dreamlike, and sometimes heartbreaking reading experience. The level of creativity and intricate worldbuilding by Taylor is astounding—there’s a reason these books were major bestsellers.
It’s difficult to summarize these books, both for the sheer volume of lore and because I don’t want to give anything away. The story spirals far beyond its Prague setting into Marrakesh and strange fantasy worlds. Taylor loved Prague for its “moody Gothic atmosphere, its mazy ways and stunning beauty,” which she fell in love with while researching a graphic novel project with her husband. She had initially been leaning toward New York, but she found the fairy-tale-like yet grounded city in the Czech Republic to be a better fit. In the same interview, she also quipped that it gave her an excuse to go back and write off the trip on her taxes.
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San Francisco: October Daye
October Daye—who goes by Toby—just wanted a normal life. As a changeling, she thought she had a chance to escape the world of the faerie Courts for good, but it was just a foolish dream. Can she survive faerie politics and her own heritage, or will she lose herself for good?
As with many of these long-running series, I think Seanan McGuire’s work just keeps getting better with every book. Toby has been through a lot over the course of 16 full-length novels, and she has evolved as a character. Seeing how McGuire crafts her plot threads is like watching a virtuoso on a wildly complicated instrument.
The world-building here is top-notch; I especially love the nods to Shakespeare throughout the series, including the titles of each book. This series also features some of my favorite supporting characters in any urban fantasy universe.
New York: Mortal Instruments
It should come as no surprise that there are plenty of urban fantasy series set in New York. While I was tempted to go with another Seanan McGuire series (InCryptid, which begins with a heroine who wants to leave her cryptid-hunting family behind so she can be a world-class ballroom dancer), I decided to feature Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments instead.
Unless you’ve been hibernating in a wi-fi-proof bunker for the last 15 years—in which case, welcome! Everything is terrible out here—then you’ve probably at least heard of these books. Clare’s work is massively popular, and City of Bones is where her reign as an angsty YA queen began. The series follows Clary Fray, a teenager who stumbles into the world of Shadowhunters. Thus far, Mortal Instruments has been adapted as both a movie and a TV series—do yourself a favor and skip the movie, though.
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Cincinnati: The Hollows
Cincinnati might not be the first city that comes to mind when you think of urban fantasy, but one very popular urban fantasy series takes place there. The premise for this series is bonkers: After a plague caused by genetically modified tomatoes wipes out a large percentage of the world’s human population, supernatural creatures finally feel safe to come out of hiding. In “the Hollows” of Cincinnati, vampires, witches, and other supernatural beasties are free to pursue their dark delights.
Rachel Morgan is our heroine, a bounty hunter whose partners are a vampire and a Pixy. As with many urban fantasy series, the leading lady is gifted in both magic and sarcasm. As you might guess by the cheeky references to classic Clint Eastwood films in the titles—The Good, The Bad, and the Undead or A Fistful of Charms—these books emphasize action and combat. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of romance, too.
Atlanta: Kate Daniels
I couldn’t resist talking about another Ilona Andrews series as we swing through the South. Kate Daniels lives in an alternate Atlanta where waves of magic make life interesting—and incredibly dangerous. She’s a mercenary who carries a big sword and a chip on her shoulder. When her mentor is horribly murdered, she is drawn deeper into Atlanta’s supernatural society. She faces off against Curran, the Beast Lord and head of Atlanta’s shifters, but he’s somehow not her biggest problem…
To be honest, I’m not sure that the early books in this series have aged quite as well as I wanted them to. Kate’s aggressive attitude and constant sarcasm felt edgy fifteen years ago, but since then, so many other UF series have modeled their heroines on Kate that it feels a bit stale. The first book, in particular, is a bit of a slog, but I promise that it gets better. In fact, you have my permission to skip Magic Bites and go straight to Magic Burns.
Tempe: The Iron Druid Chronicles
Urban fantasy skews heavily toward female readers, writers, and protagonists, but there are some really good series featuring male heroes. Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles takes place in Tempe, Arizona, possibly the last place you’d expect to find a real live druid. Atticus O’Sullivan is an ancient being who owns an occult bookshop and just wants to be left in peace. Naturally, that was never going to happen.
Over nine books and a large number of short stories, Atticus clashes with the deities from his own pantheon as well as witches, fallen angels, vampires, and a dizzying cast of gods from around the globe. This is definitely a series that you need to read in order—no jumping around! It’s absolutely packed with mythology and humor, too. It can get pretty violent, and the interpersonal relationships between Atticus and the women in his life can be… complicated. Still, these books are worth your time if you have an interest in Celtic or Norse mythology.
New Orleans: Jane Yellowrock
There are quite a few urban fantasy series set in New Orleans, which makes perfect sense given the city’s spooky vibe. The Jane Yellowrock books by Faith Hunter pit a Cherokee skinwalker and bounty hunter against the things that go bump in the Big Easy’s long nights. Caught between rival factions of vampires, Jane has to deal with the rogue vamps of Louisiana–along with her mysterious past.
One of the things I like best about this series—other than the setting, of course—is the interplay between Jane and Beast, the spirit of a mountain lion that possesses her soul. It’s obvious that Faith Hunter loves and appreciates cats in all their maddening glory. Check out this conversation between the author and Beast to get a taste!
There are a lot of similarities between Jane Yellowrock and Mercy Thompson, at least superficially, but I think it’s more than possible to enjoy both series. However, it’s worth noting that both Faith Hunter and Patricia Briggs are both white—so if you want to enjoy some #ownvoices, consider picking up some of the books on this list instead.