Urban fantasy is one of the easiest (sub)genres to define: it’s fantasy in an urban setting. While it has other common features, the setting is what makes the genre what it is. Some might say that the urban setting must be one from our own world, thus distinguishing it from high fantasy, but I hesitate to even put that restriction on it. I think it’s entirely possible to write an urban fantasy novel set in a fictional city in a made-up world, and it would have a lot of the same appeal to readers as a book set in our own. That said, most urban fantasy is set in our own world in our own time in a recognizable city – just with the major addition of a little magic.
Urban fantasy has a lot of crossover with paranormal fantasy, since urban fantasy often involves magical creatures like werewolves, fairies, vampires, angels, and so on. Often, there is no distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal fantasy. Author Jeannie Holmes does make a distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, however, which I think is interesting to consider. This is a bit of a hot topic among uberfans of both genres. Megan McArdle at Genrify has a fantastic chart that depicts 100 popular series (mostly adult) on a spectrum, showing the fluidity of the definitions. The two genres are not mutually exclusive, though it’s important to consider whether the reader you’re talking to will want a book heavy or light on romance (or if they don’t care!). Like many of the other genres we cover, a book can be urban fantasy and historical fiction and a mystery and a romance.
While not a requirement, urban fantasy is often grittier than other fantasy novels, much like what you’d find in general urban fiction. It features teens on their own a lot, navigating more adult situations than they would in non-urban fantasy. It can also be more accessible than other fantasy, since the setting is usually something most readers will already recognize; there won’t be a lot of world-building to absorb and get lost in.
On the Web:
- Karen Healey recommends five YA urban fantasies and talks a little about the genre at Booknotes Unbound.
- YALSA’s The Hub did a genre guide to urban fantasy in 2013.
- Kirkus has a list of 17 YA urban fantasy titles with reviews.
- All Things Urban Fantasy is chock full of information, reviews, and discussion on urban fantasy, including lots of YA.
- Kelley Armstrong
- Holly Black
- Rachel Caine
- Cassandra Clare
- Michael Grant
- Sherrilyn Kenyon
- Melissa Marr
- Richelle Mead
- Cynthia Leitich Smith
- LJ Smith
Below are a few books published within the last five years, a few forthcoming titles, and a few that are a bit older but still circulate well among teens. Descriptions are from WorldCat and links lead to our reviews when applicable. Any we missed? Any diverse titles in particular to add to the list? Let us know in the comments.
The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong
After fifteen-year-old Chloe starts seeing ghosts and is sent to Lyle
House, a mysterious group home for mentally disturbed teenagers, she
soon discovers that neither Lyle House nor its inhabitants are exactly
what they seem, and that she and her new friends are in danger. | Sequels: The Awakening, The Reckoning
Manifest by Artist Arthur
Krystal Bentley is an outsider at her new high school in a small
Connecticut town since she hears the voice in her head of a dead teenage
boy who becomes her confidant, so she joins two other teens with
unusual powers to solve his killing. | Sequels: Mystify, Mutiny, Mayhem, Mesmerize
Tithe by Holly Black
After returning home from a tour with her mother’s rock band,
sixteen-year-old Kaye, who has been visited by faeries since childhood,
discovers that she herself is a magical faerie creature with a special
destiny. | Sequels: Valiant, Ironside
White Cat by Holly Black
When Cassel Sharpe discovers that his older brothers have used him to
carry out their criminal schemes and then stolen his memories, he
figures out a way to turn their evil machinations against them. | Sequels: Red Glove, Black Heart
The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan
Sixteen-year-old Nick and his family have battled magicians and demons
for most of his life, but when his brother, Alan, is marked for death
while helping new friends Jamie and Mae, Nick’s determination to save
Alan leads him to uncover a devastating secret. | Sequels: The Demon’s Covenant, The Demon’s Surrender
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
When 15-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New
York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder — much less a murder
committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and
brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air.
It’s hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to
everyone else and when there is nothing — not even a smear of blood —
to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy? | Sequels: City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels, City of Lost Souls, City of Heavenly Fire
Angelfall by Susan Ee
It’s been six weeks since angels of the apocalypse descended to demolish
the modern world. Street gangs rule the day while fear and superstition
rule the night. When warrior angels fly away with a helpless little
girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her
back. Anything, including making a deal with an enemy angel. | Sequels: World After, End of Days (forthcoming)
Gone by Michael Grant
In the blink of an eye, everyone disappears. Gone. Except for the young.
There are teens, but not one single adult. Just as suddenly, there are
no phones, no internet, no television. No way to get help. And no way to
figure out what’s happened. Hunger threatens. Bullies rule. A sinister
creature lurks. Animals are mutating. And the teens themselves are
changing, developing new talents — unimaginable, dangerous, deadly powers — that grow stronger by the day. | Sequels: Hunger, Lies, Plague, Fear, Light
Tyger Tyger by Kersten Hamilton
Soon after the mysterious and alluring Finn arrives at her family’s
home, sixteen-year-old Teagan Wylltson and her disabled brother are
drawn into the battle Finn’s family has fought since the thirteenth
century, when Fionn MacCumhaill angered the goblin king. | Sequels: In the Forests of the Night, When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears
Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
Eighteen-year-old New Zealand boarding school student Ellie Spencer must
use her rusty tae kwon do skills and new-found magic to try to stop a
fairy-like race of creatures from Maori myth and legend that is plotting
to kill millions of humans in order to regain their lost immortality.
The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
Toronto sixteen-year-old Scotch may have to acknowledge her own
limitations and come to terms with her mixed Jamaican, white, and black
heritage if she is to stop the Chaos that has claimed her brother and
made much of the world crazy.
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Seventeen-year-old Aislinn, who has the rare ability to see faeries, is
drawn against her will into a centuries-old battle between the Summer
King and the Winter Queen, and the survival of her life, her love, and
summer all hang in the balance. | Sequels:
Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older (June 30)
When the murals painted on the walls of her Brooklyn neighborhood start
to change and fade in front of her, Sierra Santiago realizes that
something strange is going on–then she discovers her Puerto Rican
family are shadowshapers and finds herself in a battle with an evil
anthropologist for the lives of her family and friends.
Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce
After a Fenris, or werewolf, killed their grandmother and almost killed
them, sisters Scarlett and Rosie March devote themselves to hunting and
killing the beasts that prey on teenaged girls, learning how to lure
them with red cloaks and occasionally using the help of their old
friend, Silas, the woodsman’s son.
Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
Portero, Texas, teens Kit and Fancy Cordelle share their infamous
father’s fascination with killing, and despite their tendency to shun
others they bring two boys with similar tendencies to a world of endless
possibilities they have discovered behind a mysterious door.
Misfit by Jon Skovron
Seattle sixteen-year-old Jael must negotiate normal life in Catholic
school while learning to control the abilities she inherited from her
mother, a demon, and protect those she loves from Belial, the Duke of
Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith
When multiple murders in Austin, Texas, threaten the grand re-opening of
her family’s vampire-themed restaurant, seventeen-year-old, orphaned
Quincie worries that her best friend-turned-love interest, Kieren, a
werewolf-in-training, may be the prime suspect. | Sequels: Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Seventeen-year-old Karou, a lovely, enigmatic art student in a Prague
boarding school, carries a sketchbook of hideous, frightening
monsters–the chimaerae who form the only family she has ever known. | Sequels: Days of Blood and Starlight, Dreams of Gods and Monsters
The Stars Never Rise by Rachel Vincent (June 9)
In a world ruled by the brutally puritanical Church and its army of
black-robed exorcists, sixteen-year-old Nina tries to save her pregnant
younger sister from the Church’s wrath and discovers that not only is
the Church run by demons but that Nina herself is one of the very few
who can genuinely exorcise them.