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For many people, fantasy means elves and dwarves in forests and mountains, going on distant quests. We tend to think of books like The Lord of the Rings with these incredible shots of heroes (and villains) traveling through incredible mountains, windy grassy plains and lonely swamps. Even when towns and cities appear, they tend to reflect a more medieval/renaissance era of towns/cities.
But then I discovered the urban fantasy subgenre, where magic and other fantasy elements exist in a modern city. Sometimes magic exists in the open and is integrated into society; everyone is aware of it and many practice it. But in other series, the magic is hidden from the mainstream world, practiced in secret, or hidden from the world, underground or otherwise.
Personally, I like the latter kind of genre because I like the idea that maybe, just maybe, there’s real magic in the world but we just don’t see it. While there are plenty of books out there that fit the bill, I was particularly interested in reading urban fantasy set in various cities around the UK. Here is a list of eight books set in London, Edinburgh and Manchester.
Never by Neil Gaiman
This book might be one of the best-known entries in this genre. Imagine there’s a whole amazing world beneath modern London. Metro stops are not just names; they refer to real beings. For example, there is a real baron in Baron’s Court, or brothers in Blackfriars. But living in this world is not easy. When Richard Mayhew helps a young girl on the street, he finds himself forgotten by the world above and drawn into the trouble brewing down below. Will he be able to survive the journey he is on and will he be able to resume his normal life? Given the popularity of Gaiman’s TV adaptations, I can only hope that one day they will consider a remake of this book.
The bones of ruin by Sarah Raughley
This one has circus and magic in Victorian London! Iris is a black walker who cannot die but knows nothing of her past. She meets Adam Temple who then makes her an offer she cannot refuse. He is part of a mysterious order called the Committee of Lights and the world will end. The Committee will decide who can live with a “Tournament of Freaks”. Adam wants her to compete for him; if she does, he will tell her about his past. How can she pass up this opportunity? The next book is due out next year.
London rivers by Ben Aaronovitch
Alright, this book and the corresponding series are the source of this list. When a man is murdered in Covent Garden, probationary officer Peter Grant finds himself securing the crime scene when approached by a potential witness. He doesn’t know that the witness was really a ghost. His experience with the ghost catches the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the sole member of the Metropolitan Police’s little-known Special Assessment Unit. In other words, he is responsible for the magic unit. He takes on Peter as his new apprentice and they try to get to the bottom of this most unusual death. There are nine complete books, several short stories, a short story book, as well as a series of graphic novels. (Note: the first book and series are called London rivers but the American title is midnight riot.)
The library of the dead by TL Huchu
Based in Edinburgh, young adult Ropa has a special gift. She can talk to ghosts. In fact, she made it her business by dropping out of school to help ghosts deliver messages to the living. When she learns that children are kidnapped and returned as shells of themselves, she decides to investigate. She discovers that there is a library of the dead with wonderful – and terrible – books that can help her better understand the new world she finds herself in. Can she figure out who’s taking the kids and arrest them? The second book Our Lady of Mysterious Diseases came out earlier this year.
Crown Sorcerer by Zen Cho
Unlike the other books on this list, magic is everywhere in this world. But then it starts to dry out. So it’s Zacharias Wythe’s job to find out why. In an alternate version of Regency, London, Zacharias is trained as a young boy by his master, freed upon his master’s death, and has now become the Sorcerer Royal. But it’s not an easy transition. Despite his prominent position, he has to deal with racism in court as well as suspicion and rumors about what happened to his master. Luckily, he finds an ally in a woman who has magical power, unusual in itself in this world, to figure out what’s going on. There are two books and one short story to date.
The Times of Abroad by CK McDonnell
We’ve all seen the tabloids with grim headlines and “scandalous” pictures at the grocery checkout. What if there was some truth in them? In Manchester there’s the weekly tabloid The Times of Abroad which tells tales of vampire bananas, ghosts and more. In this world, we meet Hannah Willis, who needs a job. She has ruined her life a little, thanks to her unfaithful husband. She assumes the role of assistant editor of The Times of Abroad despite the strange work environment — her boss is belligerent; there is a reason the position was open. But she realizes that’s the least of her problems when they all get the shock of their lives – there are real magical and often malignant creatures out there. Can she and the rest of the team get to the bottom of this? There are two books in the series so far; the third is due out next year. There’s also a bonus: a podcast of short stories in the world of Stranger Times.
The crow of the night by Sarah Painter
Lydia Crow was one of the four great magical families in London, but she wanted out. She had no magic and wanted to make her own way in the world. But after a job gone awry up north, this former private detective returns to London to let the air settle and avoid trouble. But things changed when his uncle, still at large, asked him to find his missing cousin. Once an unexpected ghost in her apartment and dangerous men from rival families were added, and Lydia found herself in the middle of a possible magical family war. The eighth book in the series is set to be released in October 2022.
witch mark by CL Polk
This one is based in a city that takes inspiration from Edwardian London, but I think it’s worthy of the list. Magic can either open up the world or trap you. As the son of a wealthy magical family, Miles Singer had two options: he could either become his sister’s subordinate or be locked away forever. Neither option is good, so he ends up going to war as a soldier, which leaves his own wounds. He manages to start a new life for himself as a psychiatrist at a veterans’ hospital, treating war patients from Aeland and Laneer. He occasionally leans on his particular talents in secret. But when a dying patient is brought to him whom he cannot save, despite his best efforts, and his special skills are revealed, he discovers that he cannot hide forever from who he is and his family. Plus, there’s a mysterious stranger who’s both dangerous and alluring. Can he get to the bottom of the poisoned patient’s death? Can he remain a free man? There are two other books in the series.
I can’t wait to see even more fantastic books set in cities across Britain and around the world. In the UK I would love to find more books about other cities like Belfast, Birmingham, Liverpool, Cardiff etc. Want more books set in London? Here is a list of 100 London-based books. Want more urban fantasy? Check out this Rioter list.