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All Urban Fantasy Coverage

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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.

The Hexologists and The Dead Take the A Train blend social commentary with sensational genre thrills.

Luke Arnold’s debut novel has both claws and fangs. The Last Smile in Sunder City introduces us to wily private investigator Fetch Phillips, seemingly a brazen and confident jack-of-all-trades, but a wounded and traumatized veteran at his core.

Fetch is a Human, a race despised and mistrusted due to their choices in the great civil war, in which they caused the Coda, a gruesome and disastrous event that stripped magical beings of their power. Sunder City is now a wreck of a town—poverty, corruption and seedy activity run rampant—and Fetch often finds himself on the wrong edge of the argument in whatever dive bar, brothel or slum he wanders through. Once brimming with magic and power, the city’s citizens are now crumbling (some of them quite literally) and losing their abilities, which range from flight to everlasting youth to the ability to healthily transform at every lunar cycle into a Were-canine or -feline.

But a flicker of hope for the now non-magical inhabitants of Sunder City is revealed when a new case concerning a vanished Vampire professor and his young Siren student leads Fetch to suspect that magic may be, somehow, returning. Fetch must grapple with the ghosts of his past—a failed romance with the love of his life and his guilt over his actions in the the war—to discover if the magic really is coming back, and at what unspeakable cost.

Arnold’s gothic-infused noir introduces mythological characters seamlessly and with just the right dash of dark humor, including an excitable Cyclops bartender, an ageless nonbinary demon historian, a snuffling Magum (wizard) principal and a sensual, egotistical Elf benefactor. Fast-paced, action-packed flashbacks reveal Fletch’s haunting backstory, and fleeting glimpses of emotions  humanize him in a land of monsters. The crafty detective-soldier stays ahead of the reader every step of the way, and unanticipated twists and turns down hallways of decrepit mansions and stacks of musty library archives turn the usual fairy tales of good and evil, maidens and monsters, on their heads as we slowly but surely uncover the secrets of Sunder City.

Luke Arnold’s debut novel has both claws and fangs. The Last Smile in Sunder City introduces us to the wily private investigator Fetch Phillips, seemingly a brazen and confident jack-of-all-trades, but at his core a wounded and traumatized war veteran.

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Rune Saint John isn’t from a dying house: he’s from a dead one. Two decades ago, Rune’s fellow Atlanteans attacked the seat of his family’s power, destroying their court and leaving only Rune and his companion, Brand, behind. The two survived by becoming guns for hire, scrounging where they could and taking what jobs came their way. When Rune and Brand are saddled with caring for a teenager as a result of one of their odd jobs, their new charge Matthias is the least of their worries. Their latest employer, the Lord Tower, tasks them with finding the missing scion of House Justice, Addam Saint Nicholas, and their world is quickly turned upside down. As they search for Addam, they are pulled into a labyrinthine plot that threatens not just Addam’s life, but all of New Atlantis.

The Last Sun is K.D. Edwards’ debut novel, and if this first installment is any indication, her Tarot Sequence is going to be a breathtaking ride. A hard-boiled mystery told with breathtaking speed, The Last Sun is something unexpected in urban fantasy. Edwards forces readers into the not-quite-human narration of an Atlantean and insists we adapt. Other staples of the genre are set in well-known cities primarily inhabited by humans, like The Dresden Files’ Chicago or Neverwhere’s London. The Last Sun describes a city that is wholly new and utterly fascinating—a world alien from what we have come to expect from urban fantasy.

An easy criticism to make is that there is very little gender diversity within The Last Sun. The majority of the speech comes from men, and all of the action within the book is driven by men, with few exceptions. However, for all of its fights, high-speed chases and monsters rising from the grave, this story is as much about the many ways men express their love for one another as it is about the conflicts between them. There’s the protective love of the Companion Bond between Rune and Brand, Addam’s love for his brother Quinn, and Matthias’s teenage infatuation with Rune. In a genre that so often focuses on romantic love to the exclusion of all else, a book that manages to have so many non-romantic, complex and loving relationships between men is both revolutionary and long overdue.

Any fan of urban fantasy will enjoy this moving and sardonic magical mystery. Edwards has set up a fantastic ride—one that we can only hope will continue to surprise and delight in the second book in the series, The Hanged Man, which is due out next year.

Any fan of urban fantasy will enjoy this moving and sardonic magical mystery.

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