The best fantasy books with fantastical civic design

Jasmine Gower Author Of Moonshine
By Jasmine Gower

Who am I?

Having previously worked in the Urban Affairs side of academia and drawing heavily on my own experience living in the city of Portland, OR while writing my book, Moonshine, I’ve become very interested in how fantasy authors find creative ways to incorporate the supernatural elements of the genre with the extremely mundane aspects of urban planning and civics. I find that the most immersive fantasy worlds are the ones that concern themselves with the gritty details of how their societies operate on a basic logistical level, and I think a well-written fantasy city can very much shine as a character in its own right.


I wrote...

Moonshine

By Jasmine Gower,

Book cover of Moonshine

What is my book about?

In the flourishing metropolis of Soot City, progressive ideals reign, and the old ways of magic and liquid mana are forbidden. Daisy Dell is a Modern Girl – stylish, educated, and independent – keen to establish herself in the city but reluctant to give up the taboo magic inherited from her grandmother.

Her new job takes her to unexpected places, and she gets more attention than she had hoped for. When bounty hunters start combing the city for magicians, Daisy must decide whether to stay with her new employer – even if it means revealing the grim source of her dazzling powers.

The books I picked & why

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Witchmark

By C.L. Polk,

Book cover of Witchmark

Why this book?

Witchmark is a gorgeous example of what some call “gaslamp fantasy”—where sorcerers and the supernatural exist in fantastical but post-industrial worlds. Following the journey of witch-turned-veterans’-doctor Miles, Witchmark is set in Kingston, a city that relies on an element known as aether to power its lights, trains, and telephones. The question of aether’s source is key to the conflict that Miles and his allies must untangle, so I won’t give it away, but the mystery surrounding it expertly utilizes the fantastical and themes of magic to raise questions in the reader about the cost of modern comforts and which members of society will actually end up paying it.


The Resurrectionist of Caligo

By Wendy Trimboli, Alicia Zaloga,

Book cover of The Resurrectionist of Caligo

Why this book?

Tapping into Edinburgh’s grim history of graverobbers (which, if you haven’t had the chance to play tourist in Scotland before, is absolutely fascinating), The Resurrectionist of Caligo uses the dark fantasy staples of blood magic and necromancy to explore the death industry, its role in urban environments, and its storied connection to academia and medicine. Following the trials of Caligo’s local “resurrectionist”, Roger, this book examines what happens to the dead in fantasy worlds, tracing the journeys of their cadavers from death to autopsy to burial to exhuming, taking a closer look at the ceremony and taboo surrounding death and how cities manage the nitty-gritty logistics of storing (or utilizing) their dead once the funerals are over.


The Perfect Assassin: Book 1 in the Chronicles of Ghadid

By K.A. Doore,

Book cover of The Perfect Assassin: Book 1 in the Chronicles of Ghadid

Why this book?

Harsh environments provide a compelling opportunity for fantasy authors to explore how otherworldly magic or technology can help populations build functioning civilizations and survive in such conditions. The Perfect Assassins setting of Ghadid, a desert city built upon massive platforms that rise above the dunes, does exactly this with an ancient plumbing system that provides its residents with water that not only fills their cups but also fuels the magic of their healers. While the water supply allows the residents of Ghadid to survive in such a harsh climate, its limitations further inform how the city handles farming, commerce, medicine, its calendar, and—most pertinently to the story—the threat of malevolent spirits from the sands below.


The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

By N.K. Jemisin,

Book cover of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Why this book?

The world-building in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms explores how the powering of societies can come at a human cost—though in this case, the humans have outsourced that cost to the gods. Enslaved by the Arameri aristocratic family that rules over the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, gods and godlings power the Arameri’s control of the city of Sky, allowing the city to flourish but at the expense of the common people’s or the gods’ agency. Compared to the other books listed here, this tale is more concerned with the structures of class and authority (and less so utility) that help turn the gears of society, but its examinations of these aspects of civics are still insightful and, ultimately, optimistic.


Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville,

Book cover of Perdido Street Station

Why this book?

In the city of New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station is built within the ribcage of some ancient, unknown beast. The layout of the city resembles the anatomy of such a creature, as well—roads and rivers acting as arteries, districts as organs, and its residents as parasitic insects (especially the ones who are part insect). Perdido Street Station uses its fantastical steampunk setting to reimagine real-world urban crises—bigotry, labor abuses, organized crime, natural and human-made disasters—as they would appear in a world of monsters. The most terrifying part is that despite all of the human-animal hybrids and thaumaturgy, these injustices are all too familiar. The nakedly-political themes of Perdido Street Station will hit especially close to home to readers who are particularly plugged into the civic struggles of their own cities, leaving behind a haunting feeling and, hopefully, inspiration to work toward a better world.


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