Do you like spy stuff? James Bond movies, TV shows like MI-5, and books by John Le Carré? Sure you do. The action, the double-crossing, the sneaking about. It’s all good. But even a genre as delightful as the spy novel can get new life by blending in other genres like fantasy. Although there are dozens of epic and grimdark fantasies with spies and assassins as characters (maybe I’ll do a roundup of those some day), I wanted to pull together a list of books that took the tried and true formula of a secretive spy agency, like the CIA, MI-6, etc. and blended it with fantasy. Some of these blends went for a more campy parody of the form, some take it deadly serious. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ones I found were mostly British settings, as the Brits do love their spy stories. It wasn’t hard to find some great ones, but do let me know if I missed a favorite:
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
Myfanwy Thomas wakes up surrounded by corpses and with no memory. Luckily she left herself a letter, which leads her to impersonate herself in her job at a supernatural intelligence agency, The Checquy. The Checquy protects Great Britain from supernatural threats, and many members have special powers or abilities themselves. The agency has a rigid hierarchy and agents are recruited at a young age. One of the joys of this one is watching Myfanwy decide who she is going to be, even after she finds out who she was. While there is a LOT of fantastical elements in this book (fantasy, horror and even SF), readers who enjoy spy novels and who are looking for a departure could really enjoy it, although the fast pace might make it a better fit for fans of Robert Ludlum or Daniel Silva rather than Le Carré.
Declare by Tim Powers
Now this one hews much closer to the Le Carré formula, but of course with a fantastic twist. Andrew Hale was recruited into the service young, but isn’t activated until WWII when he is immediately pitched into a dangerous situation where he is meant to be a double agent infiltrating a Soviet spy ring in Nazi-occupied Paris. He then is assigned to Operation Declare, a secret mission to Mount Ararat where his team is trying to oppose a Soviet attempt to harness supernatural forces at this power nexus. The mission is unfinished, and two decades after the war, Hale is reactivated to service. Tim Powers is an amazing writer, and this gets all the beats of a cold war thriller down cold, including an appearance by famous real-life spy Kim Philby. The has a slow build, but excellent spycraft.
No Hero by Jonathan Wood
Arthur Wallace is an Oxford cop chasing a serial killer, but when he catches his bad guy, the truth is much more complicated than he thought. He is recruited into a secret government agency called MI37 that deals with the threat of tentacled beings called the Progeny breaking through from another dimension. Very Men In Black and very fun, but with some scary horror Lovecraft thrown in. The threats are magical AND extraterrestrial, which make this a bit unusual. This is the first in a new series.
The Man with the Golden Torc by Simon R. Green
An urban fantasy series that plays heavily with James Bond, Green’s Secret Histories begins with this volume, which (like most of the books in the series) even has a title that is a pun on Ian Fleming’s books. Eddie Drood’s family keeps humanity safe from the monsters under the bed and the things that go bump in the night. But in The Man with the Golden Torc, Eddie’s family have disowned him and not just in the cut-off-his-allowance way: they want him dead. Eddie has a secret identity, “Shaman Bond” that he uses when he doesn’t want to be known as a member of his famous (in underworld circles) family and this comes in handy as Eddie/Shaman tries to clear his name and find out who set him up. The series has lots of James Bond-style action and gadgets, and if the writing is not the strongest (there’s a lot of repetition and awkward turns of phrase), the action will pull you through despite yourself. Fun.
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
Computer geek Bob Howard works in IT for the Laundry, a secret governmental agency tasked with protecting Britain from the occult. Mainly a desk-bound filer of paperwork and a fixer of computer bugs, Bob is an unlikely hero, but he would love to get out in the field and prove his worth. He gets his chance when there is a threat that Nazi-summoned monsters straight out of Lovecraft might get loose in our world. In Stross’ series otherworldly, extradimensional powers can be tapped through technology. There’s some complicated math thrown about, but as Bob explains, any science that is sufficiently advanced will look like magic to those who don’t understand it. With more humor than is usual in either spy fiction or horror, Stross draws the reader in through his likeable yet smart-alecky lead. He will mostly appeal to those who will get a good UNIX joke, but the deeper Bob gets pulled into the dangerous world of eldritch spycraft the more you will pull for him.
Phoenix Rising by Philippa Ballentine and Tee Morris
When odd but criminal things pop up in Victorian England, the Ministry of Peculiar Occurances is the secret agency to call. After a daring but reckless rescue of an important asset being held in Antarctica, Ministry operative Eliza Braun has been suspended from fieldwork and her resentment lands right on her new supervisor in the archives (and former rescuee), Wellington Books. The two polar opposites bicker and flirt, but make a good team as Eliza convinces Wellington it would be more fun to solve cold cases than to file them in the archives. This steampunk alt-history series has a John Steed/Mrs. Peel vibe for those who have a fondness for the original Avengers.
The Land Across by Gene Wolfe
Travel writer Grafton chooses a mysterious and obscure Eastern European country for his next guide, but once he crosses the border, strange things start happening. His passport is confiscated and he is imprisoned with a weird couple who will themselves be shot if he escapes. There are treasure hunts, secret police and supernatural threats to come, all wrapped up in the trappings of a Kafka-esque totalitarian setting where the reader will have no idea who to trust. Twisty and cool, it will appeal to fans of those everyman-in-deep-trouble spy stories with an unreliable narrator as the cherry on top.
Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis
During WWII, the Nazis were obsessed with the idea of the Nietzschean ideal of the superman, but what if they really succeeded in making one? Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the war who sees a woman with wires going into her head and comes to realize that the Germans have taken orphans and made them into weapons of war. In order to balance the scales, the British recruit their own warlocks to the war effort. If you like the spy novels set during WWII from authors like Alan Furst, the meticulous scene setting and spycraft should give this frist book in the Milkweed Triptych a try.
Witchling by Yasmine Galenorn
OK, so I haven’t read this one, but sisters who are half-human, half-faerie agents for the Otherworld Intelligence Agency? This sounds pretty good. From reviews it sounds like it teeters on the borders of urban fantasy and paranormal romance territory, and Booklist praised it thusly: “Well-crafted fantasy abounds here, along with great character chemistry and an old-fashioned gumshoe–detective feel.”
Bonus GN/TV pick:
The Middleman by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Although I came to The Middleman by way of the brief-lived TV series that was inexplicably on ABC Family, I read and adored the graphic novel as well. Wendy Watson is an art student who takes a temp job to earn cash. When a super-intellient ape rampages through the lab she works at, the Middleman comes to save the day. Noticing Watson’s savoir faire under pressure and excellent memory, he recruits her into the secret agency he works for that takes care of supernatural threats. Full of lots of pop culture references and general silliness, this is a light-hearted take on the secret agent, but good grief is it fun.