In high fantasy, tensions between imagined creatures—elves versus orcs, trolls versus everyone—can be seen as stand-ins for real-world strife. Fantastical stories that take place in more familiar settings are just as ideal, if not more so, for tackling issues of identity and social ills.
“The urban fantasy we’re seeing lately tends to explore race, identity, and culture in forward-thinking ways,” says Cory Allyn, editor at Skyhorse, who oversees the publisher’s Night Shade imprint. “Most urban fantasy is set in contemporary times, and as we find ourselves thinking more and more about cultural diversity in real life, it’s only natural that the fantasy being written is increasingly set around characters who reflect our modern-day reality.”
Night Shade is publishing Na’amen Gobert Tilahun’s The Tree (Nov. 2017), second in the Wrath & Athanaeum trilogy, which began with 2016’s Root. It’s set in an alternate version of present-day San Francisco in which gods and powerful government agencies pull the strings; the two main characters are both black and gay.
Lara Elena Donnelly’s debut, Amberlough (Tor, Feb. 2017), takes place in an alternate world that evokes Weimar-era Germany. The plot centers on a gay double agent who works to protect his lover during the rise of fascism.
“Genre books have gotten darker, edgier, and keener on social commentary,” says Diana Pho, editor at Tor, who describes Amberlough as “le Carré meets Cabaret.” This genre blending is a hallmark of several other forthcoming titles.
David Pomerico, executive editor at Harper Voyager, says Will Hill’s Slenderman (May 2017) is “as much a ghost story as it is a fantasy one.” It uses as its jumping-off point the Internet meme the Slender Man, a supernatural character who stalks and abducts children. The urban legend inspired real-life copycat crimes, an extreme example of what many people fear about the online world.
“People are increasingly unnerved by the role of technology in their lives,” says Helen Atsma, editorial director for fiction at HMH. Atsma edited Benjamin Percy’s The Dark Net (Aug. 2017), which posits that the Web houses not just criminal activities, but actual demons. Atsma says the author takes widespread fears about being hacked, or having personal information exposed or stolen, and “pushes them as far as he can.”
The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers (St. Martin’s, June 2017), another supernatural-inflected work, follows street performer Harvey Anderson as he tries to find out what happened to his girlfriend, who disappeared nine years before. In many ways—a missing young woman, threatening goons, pervasive political corruption—it follows the rules of thrillers peopled with real-world characters. But here, it turns out that the titular character has the power to selectively erase a person’s memory.
“It’s a bit paranormal, a bit action, a bit thriller, but a love story at heart,” says Quressa Robinson, assistant editor at St. Martin’s, who puts Youers among the many authors “playing around in genre-bending territory.”
Likewise, the setting of Chris Vola’s Only the Dead Know Brooklyn (St. Martin’s/Dunne, May 2017) resembles the actual borough but is populated by vampires. Turning the traditional bloodsucker story on its fanged head, the novel begins with the main character losing his vampirism and going to great lengths to save the woman he loves.
Another book from Dunne, Magicians Impossible by Brad Abraham (July 2017), has as its main character a 20-something slacker who learns he’s descended from spies with magical powers.
“It’s basically James Bond meets Doctor Strange,” says Brendan Deneen, who edited the book before moving to Tor/Forge. Like other editors we spoke with, he’s in favor of bending genre and tweaking tropes.
“Readers are hungry for these kinds of new takes on genres that they love,” he says. “We all want the familiar, but we also want the familiar to surprise us.”