I’ve mentioned my distaste for the term “urban fantasy” before, since it’s often used to denote works with supernatural elements set in the real world. Urban fantasy, to me, would naturally mean a fantasy work set in an urban environment—which is exactly what we’re looking at today. Two novels, both the first installments in epic fantasy series, that are both fantasy and urban.
A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
The powerful city-state of Saraykeht is a bastion of peace and culture, a major center of commerce and trade. Its economy depends on the power of the captive spirit, Seedless, an andat bound to the poet-sorcerer Heshai for life. Enter the Galts, a juggernaut of an empire committed to laying waste to all lands with their ferocious army. Saraykeht, though, has always been too strong for the Galts to attack, but now they see an opportunity. If they can dispose of Heshai, Seedless’s bonded poet-sorcerer, Seedless will perish and the entire city will fall. With secret forces inside the city, the Galts prepare to enact their terrible plan.
In the middle is Otah, a simple laborer with a complex past. Recruited to act as a bodyguard for his girlfriend’s boss at a secret meeting, he inadvertently learns of the Galtish plot. Otah finds himself as the sole hope of Saraykeht, either he stops the Galts, or the whole city and everyone in it perishes forever.
This recommendation is actually an indirect one—Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink enjoys Abraham’s writing and was pleased to see Abraham begin a new series. I decided to start with Abraham somewhere a little earlier, such as this, his first novel. And look! George R. R. Martin contributed a proper blurb for it!
Aidan loved it, pointing out that this human story manages to be mature without indulging in useless grittiness and edginess. Memory at Stella Matutina also enjoyed it, finding it to be “a deep, complex read that I’d recommend to anyone in search of a slightly different secondary world fantasy“.
A Shadow in Summer was published on July 31, 2007.
Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton
Following in the footsteps of writers like China Miéville and Richard K. Morgan, Mark Charan Newton balances style and storytelling in this bold and brilliant debut. Nights of the Villjamur marks the beginning of a sweeping new fantasy epic.
Beneath a dying red sun sits the proud and ancient city of Villjamur, capital of a mighty empire that now sits powerless against an encroaching ice age. As throngs of refugees gather outside the city gates, a fierce debate rages within the walls about the fate of these desperate souls. Then tragedy strikes—and the Emperor’s elder daughter, Jamur Rika, is summoned to serve as queen. Joined by her younger sister, Jamur Eir, the queen comes to sympathize with the hardships of the common people, thanks in part to her dashing teacher Randur Estevu, a man who is not what he seems.
Meanwhile, the grisly murder of a councillor draws the attention of Inspector Rumex Jeryd. Jeryd is a rumel, a species of nonhuman that can live for hundreds of years and shares the city with humans, birdlike garuda, and the eerie banshees whose forlorn cries herald death. Jeryd’s investigation will lead him into a web of corruption—and to an obscene conspiracy that threatens the lives of Rika and Eir, and the future of Villjamur itself.
But in the far north, where the drawn-out winter has already begun, an even greater threat appears, against which all the empire’s military and magical power may well prove useless—a threat from another world.
I first heard of Mark Charan Newton when the cover for his third book, The Book of Transformations, was released—and was delighted to discover it featured a trans lead! But I always have to start series, no matter how loosely connected, at the beginning, which leads me to Nights of Villjamur, which features a gay protagonist. Queer representation in fantasy? Be still, my heart.
Pat at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist enjoyed it, although he pointed out that the worldbuilding was often better than the characterization. Graeme at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review also really enjoyed it, although he notes that it’s not perfect.
Nights of Villjamur was published on June 29, 2010.