What makes a book great?
That question has plagued many intellectuals and avid readers alike over the years, and remains largely unanswered. Greatness is subjective, yes.
But, there is something arcane and elusive about being elevated through a consensus of your peers into a pantheon of writers impervious to the normal effects of time and reality. While many debate individual merits, the truth is that one can have some semblance of objectivity when assessing a novel or work of literature for greatness.
A Compelling Story Is A Must
A compelling story must possess relatable characters we as readers can relate to or identify with. Their struggles must be our struggles, in some way. Greatness is in essence a mirror. People will elevate an author into the eternal when, and only when, that author tells their story in a way they never could.
Beyond character, an awesome tome or tale requires conflict. The more, the merrier. When a charismatic, brilliantly flawed protagonist wants or needs something, but some evil force stands in their way, we want to root for the good guy. We have to.
Because, as humans, we need order and justice in our lives. One of the most fundamental of paradigms is the need for security. If you don’t believe good will triumph over evil, what do you have left?
If you don’t believe me, ask Maslow.
Great Writing Too
Of course, in the field of literature, one should also look to the writing itself to reach a determination of greatness. Some stories force us to feel, but the language, the diction, the syntax…something we may not even realize as we peruse a novel tells us that the tale could be better. Most of us have had at least one experience with a book we felt disappointed by.
Many of us have sacrificed time from our busy lives to delve into a tome, only to realize at some point, probably early on, that we just did not enjoy the writing. In this area, perhaps more so than in any other, there is great room for debate. Good writing in particular is hard to fully define. But, we often know it when we see it. Even if it may be difficult to explain why.
All of this leads me to the real point of this article, which is to offer my picks for the top 10 urban fantasy books. While I admit to a level of bias, since this is my list, and acknowledge the subjective nature of assessing quality in literature, these novels not only met all of my desires for fiction, but exceeded them.
Writing A Lifelong Calling
The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is write, and I’ve done it for decades. Until joining the ranks of the indie community, people even often paid me for the pleasure of turning words into stories. Thus, I may have some reason to believe I can adequately judge quality in fiction. Nonetheless, not trusting my own instincts fully, I read myriad other similar lists to see what I found.
Often, the books limned below found their way, in different orders and for different reasons, onto lists of the greatest urban fantasy novels. Thousands of people gave their opinions, and a consensus began to emerge. When a large, diverse body reaches a similar conclusion over several years, and on various media, then that may be a good indication that the conclusions hold merit.
With all of that said, allow me to present you with the 10 best urban fantasy novels, from least to greatest:
Blood Noir, Laurel K. Hamilton
This book barely made the cut. The prose seemed insipid as stale lettuce at times, and often dragged. Sex and romance became predictable tools in a vain attempt to spice up what might be otherwise marginal works.
Yet, in this powerful novel, I experienced what it is like to be Jason. I found myself identifying with a werewolf. Since I am not a werewolf, and since it seems reasonable to believe werewolves do not actually exist, the fact that I was able to suspend my disbelief and relate to this creature is a testament to Hamilton’s mastery of the craft.
Anita Blake offers an exciting heroine, too.
The characterization proved entertaining. I felt immersed in the conflicts, especially when it came to Anita and Marmee Noir. Though the gratuitous sex and sometimes stale writing detracted from the tale at times, it was not bad enough to make me forget the moments of sheer brilliance.
Child of Fire, Harry Connolly
This may be the outlier pick. After a friend on one of my social media pages suggested this work, I took a look. I confess, up until a few months ago, I’d never heard of the book or its associated series. The fact that I had not heard of it gave me some hesitancy and pause.
Writers and readers can retain a certain level of pride and arrogance as much as anyone else, and, since I’ve made it a habit to read lots of books and follow publishing for some time, it made me wonder if a book I’d never heard of could actually be…well, good.
It was not good.
It was great.
In full disclosure, this work does not fulfill many of the tropes typically associated with urban fantasy. Hamilton and Connolly both suffer in this list partly for that reason. There are no werewolves, fairies, vampires, or the like.
But, we do have a cynical, realistic world where good may not always triumph, and where morality may be reduced to a constant struggle to find the lesser of two evils. The characters we see frequently are well-defined, and imminently relatable.
Ray Lilly is an ex-con who works with a cabalistic claque of sorcerers calling themselves the Twenty Palaces Society. With the help of a woman whom secretly wants to kill him, Ray fights against The Empty Spaces and avaricious predators whom would exploit these parallel universes- and the demons they contain- to steal and hoard power.
The writing took me on a magic carpet ride. The story possessed pizazz. That something we may not be able to fully explain.
My main complaint may be that the ancillary characters were not depicted fully enough.
8. Summer Knight, Jim Butcher
7. City of Bones, Cassandra Clare
6. Blood Bound, Patricia Briggs
5. Magic Bites, Ilona Andrews
Kate Daniels, the protagonist, works as a mercenary in this exciting tale. Her niche is…esoteric. She fights magic. When her guardian dies, she finds herself locked in a battle against two dueling forces: necromancers and paramilitary shapeshifters.
Great characters, great writing, great plot.
4. Skin Game, Jim Butcher
Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files series deserve to be considered among the elite. Some could credibly argue that Butcher either created urban fantasy, or at least legitimized it as its own distinct subgenre. No list of urban fantasy books would be complete without Jim Butcher.
Skin Game is the 15th book in the series. It’s astounding that a writer could continue to sustain a series for that long. Butcher not only sustained it, but improved it with each new addition. In this work, Dresden wants to rob Hades. That alone should be sufficient to convince anyone to buy a copy.
3. Dead Witch Walking, Kim Harrison
A witch, a pixie, and a vampire walk into a bar…
This tale tales the age-old tale of wanting to escape. With crisp, mellifluous prose and a great story, it’s hard to not name it number one.
2. Moon Called, Patricia Bridges
Mercedes (Mercy) Thompson shapeshifts into a coyote sometimes. She also seems to have a propensity for attracting werewolves. In this brilliant book, I was treated to compelling action, awesome characterization, beautiful writing that often verged on poetry, and what turned out to be a damn good story.
1. Changes, Jim Butcher
Since this book debuted as number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list in 2010, it seems natural to give it due consideration for a list such as this. What sets this book apart is the premise of the plot. One of the best and most poignant plots in any medium is that of parent fighting against incredible odds to save or avenge their child.
All of the novels on this list performed at a high level, and deserve to be considered among the greats within the genre we call urban fantasy today. But, none held me like this one. With solid writing and a good premise, an author can take over the world. Who knows, Butcher may become Caesar some day soon.
If you like creative tales with unusual creatures in modern settings, you might enjoy my latest book, A Killer’s Secret.
Thank you again for inviting me into your heads and homes.