Urban fantasy is a hugely popular segment of the SF/F marketplace, but there have always been arguments about the name. It seems like an effort to differentiate books set in OUR world with books set in a historically influenced imaginary world. Some have always insisted a more useful genre heading would be contemporary fantasy or first world fantasy (as opposed to epic fantasy aka second world fantasy). I personally like the name urban fantasy, as it conjures up city streets and danger and familiar surroundings. There are dozens upon dozens of series where the moniker fits like a glove: Butcher’s Dresden Files or Chloe Neil’s Chicagoland Vampires set in Chicago, Harrison’s Hollows series set in Cincinnati, and Seanan McGuire’s San Francisco set October Daye books all have great urban settings. I should really do a gazetteer post one of these days, actually. But what about books that have contemporary settings and real world landscapes but which are not urban? There’s some really great ones out there. Small towns, rural hamlets, and middle-of-nowhere settings can have some pretty interesting drama, it seems. And the communities are often a lot more intimate and up-in-everybody’s-business, which can add an interesting element to the story. Here are just a few I love a lot:
Tufa series by Alex Bledsoe
Start with: The Hum and the Shiver
These books are set in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, in a very rural, very insular community called Cloud County. each book has a self-contained arc, although characters recur and there are common elements to the series. There are people living in Cloud County that are rumored to have been there since before Europeans settlers came to America. The people are known as the Tufa, and they keep their secrets and don’t like outsiders. Bronwyn Hyatt is certainly not an outsider – she’s a pure blood Tufa – but she left home to join the army. Now she’s back, injured in the war and home to heal, and to see if she can find her place in her community again.
Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris
Start with: Dead Until Dark
The fictional small Louisiana town of Bon Temp almost seems like a real place after thirteen books and seven seasons of the HBO tv series. While these were never my particular jam, I read the first few and very much enjoyed them. The setting always seems a very essential part of the appeal of the books. Sookie is a small-town girl, naive in some ways, but not helpless. She has lived her whole life in Bon Temps, LA, where she knows everybody in town. Actually she knows them too well due to the fact that she is a telepath able to read anyone’s mind. When she meets vampire Bill Compton, a man whose thought she cannot hear, it seems a relief – even if he is a vampire. This series combines its small town sensibilities with mystery and romance as well as the paranormal elements.
Midnight Texas series by Charlaine Harris
Start with: Midnight Crossroad
After winding up the Sookie books, Harris has started a new series set in another small town. This time it is Midnight, a near-ghost town in rural Texas. It’s a town where everyone has a secret, and the residents don’t want strangers coming around. Psychics, vampires, witches and more call Midnight home. The first book kicks off when the townsfolk find a dead body down by the river. giving the book a slow-paced mystery to solve. But the point seems to be the town of Midnight. Everybody knows too much about each other’s business, which can be a comfort and a pain in the ass, and while there are many who believe Midnight is a perfect refuge, Harris shows how stifling small town life can be as well. Should be another hit series for Sookie fans.
Wide Open series by Deborah Coates
Start with: Wide Open
Home on leave for her sister’s funeral, Sgt. Hallie Michaels has seen ghosts since her near-death experience in Afghanistan. When she sees her sister’s ghost, she knows that her sister didn’t commit suicide – it was murder. With the help of Deputy Boyd Davies, Hallie learns to navigate her new relationship with the afterlife and looks for her sister’s killer. The setting in South Dakota feels anti-urban, although technically it is set outside Rapid City, a city small by most standards. Hallie lives on a ranch out of town, but Coates builds a community where neighbors look out for each other. This is a really interesting series, which should have a broader audience.
Jane True by Nicole Peeler
Start with: Tempest Rising
I’ve never read this series despite owning book 1 for a long time. It sounds like my cup of tea, but the covers are a little weird and the reviews are all over the place. But some folks love them, so I know I’ll give them a try one of these days. Jane True always felt out of step with the rest of the people in her small Maine town of Rockabill. While out on a midnight swim, she find a dead body. This leads her the discovery that she is a selkie and there is a whole community of supernatural creatures in her town. She bands together with a vampire to solve the mystery of the dead body, and apparently there’s some romance going on there as well.
Agent of Hel series by Jacqueline Carey
Start with: Dark Currents
The small lakeside Michigan town of Pemkowet sits on top of the realm of Norse goddess Hel. Daisy Johanssen is a half-demon trying to walk the straight and narrow, working as Hel’s liaison to the human community. She’s a corn-fed blond beauty who happens to have a tail, and she’s confident without being stereotypically “spunky”. This opening volume features a dead college kid whose murder points to the eldritch community. Daisy and local cop Cody Fairfax try to solve the murder before the local tourism trade is affected. It’s a cute little town, and a charming serious from an author that wrote the beautiful if heavy Kushiel series.
The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore
I love Chris Moore, who — in addition to being a funny, funny man — is also one of the nicer authors I’ve met in person. This was the first book I read of his, set in the fictional California coastal town of Pine Grove (Moore has set a few books in this . It’s quirky; populated by a strange cast of characters and visited by tourists wanting to enjoy the scenic coast south of Big Sur. The town psychiatrist has a patient kill herself, and her response is to stop prescribing antidepressants, believing that if she’d talked to her patient more the suicide would never had occurred. The townspeople get rowdy (and randy), but there’s something weirder attracted to Pine Grove. The local nuclear power plant seems to have leaked into the local waters and revived a dormant sea monster named Steve and he’s heading for Pine Grove. It’s goofy, funny, sometimes icky fun.
The Turning Season by Sharon Shinn
The life that Karadel has built for herself is carefully constructed around her being a shifter. She lives in a rural area, running a veterinary practice that also caters to the small and secretive shifter community, and relies on her friends when her shifts come upon her unexpectedly. Karadel is content, if not happy, but two things shake her quiet routine: her best friend and fellow shifter Celeste has attracted the attention of a stalker, and Karadel has met a human man with whom she would like to share her life. This is part of a loose series about shapeshifters and their loved ones (The Shape of Desire; Still Life with Shape Shifter) and focuses on the human side of the problem: making connections, dealing with loss, fear of change. (from my review in LJ)
Graveminder by Melissa Marr
After the death of her grandmother Maylene, Rebekkah Barrow returns to her tiny hometown of Claysville where she finds she is expected to take up Maylene’s mantle as graveminder. Her job is to keep the dead in their graves – not an easy task in Claysville where the lands of the living and dead overlap. She will have to work with the local Undertaker, and that job was recently taken by her old lover Byron Montgomery. The two come to believe that Maylene was murdered, and they must find her killer and save the town. This is more creepy gothic horror than urban fantasy but an easy crossover for UF fans. Bek fights her destiny and doesn’t particularly want to return to her spooky hometown, but Byron works hard to convince her they need to work together and hopefully more.