Friday 27 February 2015

Book Roundup #4: Modern Fantasy

The term modern fantasy (or 'urban fantasy') tends to make me shudder when I see it in a bookstore.  90% of the books are romances of a lower calibre than Mills & Boon, simply with vampires/werewolves/angels/elves/insert-your-fantasy-trope-here to allow kinky sex scenes.

However it's not all bad.  Although some are a stretch to fit in the modern fantasy genre, here are a sample of decent books I can recommend:

Night Watch by Sergei Lubaynenko 3.5 Stars
Light and dark sorcerers maintain a Cold War-style truce, maintaining a balance between good, and chaos.  Each side has a group of sorcerers (“Others”) who oversee the others – the Night Watch are Light magicians responsible for policing dark others like vampires, werewolves etc.  It is a massively popular Russian series which, pleasantly, avoids the usual clichés.  This series is an enjoyable change of pace from the usual urban fantasy.  There is actually a very good movie that goes with it – but I recommend you read the book first or you may not grasp what is going on.

Why you’d read it:  An excellent urban fantasy with an interesting take on a rather tired genre.  The books (at least the first) work as standalone.  However the “Twilight” (a series of dimensions where Others can walk/draw their power) had a very cool “reveal” about it in a later book.

Why you’d leave it:  It has a very European style of writing and may be a bit different in its style and ‘voice’ to mainstream novels.  The books are a hefty ~500 pages.  Whilst I really enjoyed the first few books, I became a bit jaded by the series end (book 5).

Blood Oath: The President’s Vampire by Chris Farnsworth 3.5 Stars
This reminds me a of a Hellboy ripoff – a young White House staffer becomes the handler of a 100-year old vampire who serves the United States.  It even comes with a secret-base-under-the-Smithsonian.   That said, this is a surprisingly good series, and the author gets better with every book.  I like how he weaves myths and conspiracy theories through the series. 

Why you’d read it:  Because you’d like to know what REALLY happened at Innsmouth (spoiler: involves vampire and secret service with flamethrowers); how Osama Bin Laden actually died, and where Dr Frankenstein is living today.
Also, you liked Hellboy.

Why you’d leave it: You’re as sick of vampires as you are of zombies, even if the vampire is more a blood-spattered superhuman secret assassin. The author is no Hemingway, though he is quite good and improves with each book.

The Devil You Know by Mike Carey 3.5 Stars
This is the most ‘conventional’ of my round-up; a detective who can whistle up ghosts.  It’s perhaps typical of its kind, but the author is a Hellblazer(Constantine) comic writer who has proved very adept at novels, and in fact has some outstanding books in different genres.  It’s more “British”  than the usual urban fantasy fare, and there is a distinct lack of succubi, vampires and werewolves. 

Why you’d get it: A “British” Harry Dresden. If you prefer British movies and comedy over the US equivalent, this is for you.

Why you’d leave it:  You find the whole “supernatural sleuth” cliché tired, no matter who is writing it. 

The Girl with All the Gifts by Mike Carey 4 Stars
This is a weird but excellent book. I’m not sure what genre it fits in.  It’s like 28 Days Later (but with fungal zombies) meets Roahl Dahl’s Matilda.  For once I agree with the hyperbole on the dust jacket – “warm, surprising, chilling, enigmatic, unexpectedly poignant, gripping.”    In fact I’ll quote from it:
“Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When the come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her.  She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.”

Why you’d read it:  This borrows from a range of books, games and movies yet makes something unique, compelling and original.  For once, the critics are right. 

Why you’d leave it: Because you are sick of zombies, no matter how uniquely they are packaged.   And you like by-the-numbers, predictably familiar books by Dan Brown or Mills & Boon.

Bitter Seeds (The Milkweed Trypych) by Ian Tregillis  3.5 Stars
Weird War II.  Nazi psychics with superhuman powers battle British warlocks using blood sacrifice to summon “Eidolons” - demons from another dimension. 
Interested?  The series expands into the Cold War before concluding in a bittersweet third book.  This is definitely a spy book with a twist.  Sometimes, the  sacrifice necessary to defeat evil can be as terrible as losing to it. 

Why you’d read it: A well-written Weird War II book?  That’s as unusual as good Twilight fanfiction.  Grab it while you can.  It’s quite gritty and “realistic” – so far as the subject matter allows.  The characters are flawed and believable. 

Why you’d leave it:  It’s quite dark and unrelentingly grim.  I felt like I needed to get out into the wholesome sunshine after reading it. 

Pashazade (Arabesk Trilogy) By John Courtney Grimwood 3.5 Stars
This is a kind of alternate history, where WW1 never happened and the Ottoman Empire exists in the 21st century.  A detective story set in Alexandria (which is a kind of spy Casablanca), with an enigmatic main character (genetically/drug enhanced, and accompanied by a hallucinatory fox) who must clear his name of murder.  The story is intercut with flashbacks.  A fascinating, unusual book set in a rich world. 

Why you’d read it: If you like your detective books with a dash of the unusual (cyberpunk Arabia + alternate history.)  The author is probably the most talented of the books recommended on this page

Why you’d leave it:  Rather inaccessible – can be confusing at times.  The author does not coddle the reader, and has an unusual style.


  1. Thanks for these recommendations. I'll have to check some of them out.

    Another modern fantasy series you might like is the Laundry series by Charlles Stross. It's about a secret British agency nicknamed the Laundry that investigates and attempts to co-op supernatural threats--when it's not drowning in paperwork. The series has been described as The Office meets MI5 in a battle against Lovecraftian horrors from beyond space and time.

  2. And that author's name is spelled Charles Stross, if anyone's planning to do a google search.