Beth Woodward is a sci-fi/fantasy author, cat lover, “Doctor Who” aficionado, and karaoke junkie. Her debut urban fantasy novel, The Demon Within, will be published by California Coldblood Books on April 12. She can be reached via her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
I love urban fantasy. I love the idea that the normal one and the supernatural one exist just a hair away from one another. I love the rich, complex mythologies. I love the slow-burning romances that often line the pages. But I think what attracted me to it the most is that it’s the only book genre, besides romance, that is dominated mostly by women—both women characters and women writers.
One of the more common elements of urban fantasy are its strong female protagonists. Some of them kick butt physically, but many of them use their intelligence, wit, or magical prowess (it is fantasy, after all) to get along. The best ones feel, despite the fantastical environment, like real women facing real problems.
Below is a spotlight of a few of my favorites.
(Note: each of the books mentioned is the first in the series.)
5) The women of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets the first mention on this list partially because Buffy became the template for almost all other urban fantasy that came after it. We have a normal young woman who finds out she’s the chosen one who develops in strength as the series progresses. But it’s not just about physical strength. Buffy’s emotional and mental maturation throughout the series is incredible. More than being an urban fantasy, it’s a coming-of-age series, and Buffy really grows up throughout the series.
But I think why this deserves the top spot is because Buffy’s not the only strong, complex female character. There was Willow, who grew from being a timid, bookish high schooler to a goddess; Anya, the former vengeance demon who learned slowly how to be human; and of course Tara. Willow and Tara’s romance was one of the first lesbian romances on television. Tara herself goes from being Willow’s shy, stammering girlfriend to the woman who sang “Under Your Spell,” only one of the sexiest moments in TV history. Seriously, take a look.
Throughout its run, Buffy took the Bechdel test, chewed it up, and spit it out. But more than that, it showcased compelling, complex characters who evolved throughout the course of the series. If you enjoy the kick-ass women characters of urban fantasy today, you owe a thank you to Buffy.
4) Kate Daniels from Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
Moving on to the book world. Kate Daniels does, in a lot of ways, fall very squarely into that urban fantasy heroine archetype: a loner, amazing with her sword, armed with magic she can’t fully control. But what I really like about the series, which starts with Magic Bites, is how we get to see Kate go from being a loner mercenary to forming her own family of friends, associates, and even a certain alpha male Beast Lord with whom she has one of the best slow-burn romances in urban fantasy. Through the series, we learn why Kate was such a loner, but it’s also clear that she was never meant to be that way, that she’s motivated by her love and protectiveness of the people she cares about.
The series also features some of the best world building in urban fantasy, plus several spinoff novels/novellas featuring some very different female leads: Andrea, the gun-wielding law enforcement agent who has to reconcile her shape-shifter nature with the xenophobic tendencies of her agency; Dali, a near-blind magical prodigy with genius level intelligence; and Julie, Kate’s orphaned ward who has gone from petulant teenager to an intelligent, capable young woman whose story I am very much invested in.
3) October Daye from Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire
What always manages to strike me about Seanan McGuire’s brilliant October Daye series is how underpowered and outmanned Toby is. In a world where pureblooded fae hold all the power, Toby is a changeling. But she never lets that, or anything else, stop her: not her political disenfranchisement, not her mother’s abandonment, not the loss of her family, not even the 14 years she spent stuck as a fish (long story, don’t ask).
Toby is a detective by trade, and her magic allows her to read people’s histories in their blood. (Kinda creepy, but also cool). She’s not much of a fighter, so she spends much of the series up against people who are stronger and faster than she is and having to use her wit to get out of things. (Which doesn’t always work. She gets injured a lot.) Throughout the series, she builds up a network of people she trusts, and also learns to rely on them for the skills and abilities she lacks.
2) Justine Jones from Mind Games by Carolyn Crane
The most obvious thing that makes Justine unique among urban fantasy heroines is that she’s not supernatural. At all. She doesn’t have superpowers and she’s not a vampire or werewolf or witch. Instead, her most distinguishing characteristic is that she’s a chronic hypochondriac, which is why she gets recruited into a gang of crime fighters who use their neuroses to “disillusion” other people.
Justine is a normal woman in a land of superpowered people, and she has to rely on her brains, her heart, and her moral compass to muddle through this complicated world. She’s not always right; in fact, a significant portion of the trilogy revolves around her judging people wrongly. But she keeps going, she allows herself to change her mind, and she grows as a character.
1) Meg Corbyn from Written in Red by Anne Bishop
Meg is a blood prophet: she can see the future whenever her skin is cut. She spent her entire life in an institution until she escaped and began living and working in a town of “Others,” shape-shifters who (reluctantly) share the world with humans. Meg’s challenges are so different than other urban fantasy heroines. When she first escapes, she has no skills to live independently, no knowledge of how the world works, and no understanding of other people. She’s sometimes consumed with the desire to cut herself, to release her visions.
But through the series, Meg grows and learns. She obtains a job, befriends the Others in the community, and slowly learns to control her urges. Later, we get to see just how strong she is when compared to the other blood prophets—many of whom have difficulty surviving outside of captivity. But Meg does it on her own, and one of the joys of the series is watching her grow and learn and discover the world—not to mention the glacially slow-paced (but wonderful) romance between her and Simon Wolfguard, the leader of the Others’ Courtyard.