Fantasy has always been a playground for social commentary. From Tolkien’s anti-industrial allegories in Lord of the Rings to Samantha Shannon’s deconstruction of the archetypal damsel in The Priory of the Orange Tree, magical worlds with dragons and wizards are almost never as escapist as they seem. Urban fantasy is no exception, being as defined by its penchant for cultural critique as by its city settings. More than any other subgenre, urban fantasy is often unambiguously about real life.
Take The Hexologists by Josiah Bancroft. It’s essentially a fantasy mystery novel, following magically talented detective Iz Wilby and her imposing yet soft-hearted husband (and de facto chef), Warren, as they try to identify who has hexed the king of Bancroft’s barely fictionalized analogue of early 20th-century London. Bancroft’s leads are staunchly anti-royalist and anti-capitalist, positions which are proven to be entirely justified over and over throughout the book. Bancroft’s point could have been made more subtly, although, to be fair, subtlety does not seem to have been his intent: He opens the book with an overgrown tree golem attacking Iz and Warren’s house and spends a surprising amount of time justifying the couple’s high libido by asserting that sex helps Iz think. But The Hexologists is effective and entertaining regardless, not least because it also includes Felivox, a gourmand dragon who lives in a handbag. He is utterly delightful, and debilitatingly British dragons with discerning palates should be in more books.
Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey’s The Dead Take the A Train, on the other hand, offsets its recognizable New York City setting with a relentless barrage of visceral body horror and deliriously twisted humor. So while their commentary—in their telling, Wall Street’s pursuit of money and power is literally devouring the world—is equally blatant, it feels more in line with the nature of the book. After all, we are introduced to the main protagonist, Julie, while she is amputating a bride-to-be’s arm in a nightclub with a penknife to extract a demon. After her plan to summon an angel to help a friend goes horribly awry, Julie tries to clean up her city-jeopardizing mess while also playing video games while high on possibly magical designer drugs, falling behind on rent and facing some creatively terrifying bogeymen. One antagonist is a seething mass of carnivorous worms, two others are twins who like to eat their sentient prey slowly, keeping it alive the whole time, and none of these is the one called The Mother Who Eats. This is most certainly not a book for the squeamish, the meek or the banker. (Remember: Wall Street is going to devour the world.)
Although The Hexologists is a mostly well-mannered British murder mystery and The Dead Take the A Train is a depraved carnival of nightmares and eldritch narcotics, they are both solid representatives of contemporary urban fantasy, addressing real-world injustices while also being very, very funny.