David R. Slayton's stand-out urban fantasy debut, White Trash Warlock, has complex worldbuilding, emotional nuance, and thrilling action sequences. It follows 20-year old Adam Lee Binder, a broke, gay wizard living in an Oklahoma trailer park, as he uses his modest powers to hunt for his absentee father, who he suspects to be a warlock. Slayton picks some of his favorite urban fantasies that break new ground.
You can't browse urban fantasy as a category without running into cops, werewolves, or vampires, but that doesn't mean there aren't breakout or revolutionary books inside the genre. Urban fantasy is a dynamic, diverse genre with plenty of new tricks to learn, and many authors give their tropes and old supernatural creatures a new angle.
Edwards takes what could be a tired trope--characters based on tarot cards--and gives everything a fresh and gritty spin in his series The Tarot Sequence. His world of New Atlantis is more fantastic than most in urban fantasy, but he keeps things at the street level by incorporating tech, magic, and a mix of architecture stolen from human cities. The distinct characters are what really make this first book in the series come alive. The connections they build are what will keep you coming back for the rest.
Lee juggles multiple points of view like so many knives. Her characters live in a crowded, fast-changing city where jade is a status symbol, carefully controlled, and a channel for magic, making for cutthroat politics whether you're a would-be jade thief working a dead-end job or a powerful member of one of the clans rivaling for control. This book unwinds quickly, shifting from one perspective to the next. The characters are compelling, even when they're not sympathetic. After all, they're just trying to survive as the ground shifts out from under them.
Ness's novel is like a large puzzle that takes time to assemble. Its multiple points of view layer together into a complex story. This isn't an easy read, but the setting of 1950s America with all of its faults and prejudices resting beside the almost casual inclusion of dragons makes for a fascinating read that's utterly worth your time. The characters and the plot twists are what keep the book moving even when all the moving parts threaten to overwhelm.
Roanhorse gives protagonist Maggie Hoskie the hard edges of many urban fantasy heroines, but the magic and creatures drawn from Native and Navajo traditions make her world unique and fascinating. This is a fast-paced read set in a realm that mixes brutal combat and beauty in equal measure. Maggie is handed a mystery in the form of a monster that forces her to confront an immortal from her past, the last person she wants to deal with.
London makes for a natural urban fantasy setting. The city's complex history and diverse denizens lend themselves to the addition of the supernatural. Aaronovitch uses all of this and another urban fantasy standard, police, to introduce a series with a magical mystery and a healthy dose of wry humor. Aaronovitch isn't afraid to pry at the seams of London's society and class divides, giving the book a relatable protagonist, Constable Peter Grant, while balancing his newfound talent for magic with pithy observations about the world and creatures around him.
McGuire always shows the great flexibility and variation that urban fantasy can achieve as a genre. It would be easy to make a list of breakout books that were all hers. This first book in her October Daye series may start with the usual investigator angle, but the story quickly gets turned on its head by a shocking transformation that upends protagonist October "Toby" Daye's world. From there, the politics of faerie unwind with romance, fantastical magic, hard choices, and plenty of bloodshed as the series continues. McGuire is a master plotter, and each book adds critical details and hints toward exposed secrets and the relationship reversals that she excels at.
Older's novel drips with voice. Ghosts and spirits are common in urban fantasy, as are characters who walk between the living and the dead. Older mixes it up with a character who immediately wants something new, a different life than what his current status as an in-betweener warrants. This is Brooklyn on magic, with all of the observations and mix that adding ghosts to New York can bring.
Carriger mixes steampunk, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance in this Victorian comedy of manners full of vampires, werewolves, and teacups. There's nothing quite like it for laughter and a paranormal mystery. It's also a beautiful and engaging love story. Alexia Tarrabotti is a spinster cursed or blessed, depending on which supernatural entity you're asking, with a lack of soul, a quantity everyone is trying to measure in order to create more supernatural beings or destroy them. This state gives Alexia the unique ability to nullify supernatural powers. This delightful book kicked off a career that has earned Carriger a diehard fandom.
9. The Fell of Dark by Caleb Roehrig
If you made Buffy a nervous, ready-for-a-bigger-city gay teen living in an Illinois suburb where vampires are an accepted factor, you'd get this funny YA novel with deep genre roots. The snark is strong with this one as Auggie Pfeiffer quickly rejects the notion of being the "chosen one" as a vamp seduction technique. Roehrig does a wonderful job of playing on tropes and reader expectations while wrapping it all in a main character that you can't help rooting for.
McKinney takes a usual urban fantasy approach, borrowing from classic literature, and drops it into modern-day Atlanta in this retelling of Alice in Wonderland. But this isn't Lewis Carroll's Alice. A young adult, she's quick with a blade or a sharp retort, and she doesn't spend a moment asking to be a normal girl without superpowers. Encountering her first walking nightmare the night her father dies, Alice leaps into training with both boots and travels to Wonderland with all the enthusiasm of a cosplayer. The real trouble starts when she begins to question whether the dream world or the real one is where she belongs.