The best (vampire-free!) real-world fantasy books with a unique and creative premise

Kater Cheek Author Of Mulberry Wands
By Kater Cheek

Who am I?

I started writing urban fantasy because that’s what I wanted to read more of, and at the time there wasn’t much on offer. I started the Kit Melbourne series with the aim of creating a world in which magic was real, but most people don’t believe in it. I aim for believable, realistic characters with plausible relationships. I’m not a fan of prophets, noble bloodlines, or destiny; magic in my worlds are much more egalitarian. Vampires are not sexy superheroes. Faeries are more like aliens than pinup girls. My inspirations are mystery, true crime, anthropology, psychology, history, natural sciences, ecology, and neo-Paganism—and books like those on this list!


I wrote...

Mulberry Wands

By Kater Cheek,

Book cover of Mulberry Wands

What is my book about?

Don’t get me wrong, I love vampires and shapeshifters, but I wanted a break from that when I started the Alternate Susan books. Mulberry Wands is the second book in the series, but in some ways I think it’s the most creative thing I’ve ever done. I have an exotic culture of tiny desert-dwelling people, entrepreneurs selling magic, shapeshifting owl-women, a time-traveler love interest, cash-strapped young roomates, and a murder trial where a human is taking a fall for a cat. It’s about friendship and loyalty and ecological conflict in a version of Arizona where animals have magic too.

The books I picked & why

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The Wood Wife

By Terri Windling,

Book cover of The Wood Wife

Why this book?

This book was so brilliant and creative it made me want to be a writer. It’s set in Tucson, Arizona, and is steeped in a deep love and understanding of the Sonoran desert. But unlike the Arizona I grew up in, these dry arroyos are full of dark gods and faeries. Not your typical overdone Irish fey either, where they look like Tolkien elves and everyone dresses in fetish gear. No, Windling does faeries like Guilerrmo del Toro does faeries. These twisted godlings can unmake reality or grant powers in equal measure. It’s dark, but it’s not death and bloodshed dark, more like Meow Wolf’s “the world is creepy and strange and I don’t understand it” dark. 

The Wood Wife

By Terri Windling,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Wood Wife as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Leaving behind her fashionable West Coast life, Maggie Black comes to the Southwestern desert to pursue her passion and her dream. Her mentor, the acclaimed poet Davis Cooper, has mysteriously died in the canyons east of Tucson, bequeathing her his estate and the mystery of his life--and death.

Maggie is astonish by the power of this harsh but beautiful land and captivated by the uncommon people who call it home--especially Fox, a man unlike any she has ever known, who understands the desert's special power.

As she reads Cooper's letters and learns the secrets of his life, Maggie comes face-to-face…

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern,

Book cover of The Night Circus

Why this book?

If you need a palette cleanser, Erin Morgenstern’s beautiful word pictures make you feel like you’re in a trippy animated film. The premise is that two promising young magicians have been pitted against each other in a duel to the death. Well, it’s more like a seasonal playoff to the death, because they sure take their sweet time about it. 

And it is sweet. The magicians outdo each other in beauty and whimsy until they end up falling in love. 

The venue for these spells is a mysterious circus with the theme of “black and white.” Black and white cats perform tricks. Black and white costumed acrobats leap through the air. One tent has an ice menagerie. Another tent is full of clouds. The lush descriptions were just so beautiful. I felt like I could taste the chocolate mice and smell the roasting peanuts.

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Night Circus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE TIKTOK SENSATION

Rediscover the million-copy bestselling fantasy read with a different kind of magic, now in a stunning anniversary edition to mark 10 years since it's paperback debut.

The circus arrives without warning. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Against the grey sky the towering tents are striped black and white. A sign hanging upon an iron gates reads:

Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn

Full of breath-taking amazements and open only at night, Le Cirque des Reves seems to cast a spell over all who wander its circular paths. But behind the glittering acrobats, fortune-tellers…


Finder

By Emma Bull,

Book cover of Finder

Why this book?

Emma Bull wrote urban fantasy before that was really a thing, and this one is set in a shared world which straddles the human world and the world of the fey. Two unlikely friends are misfits in their own life. The titular character was kicked out of his family because his magic power made him seem too “weird” in the human realm, and his elven friend never felt at home in her fey family because her skill as a mechanic made her an outcast among the magic users. The fragile peace of their community is damaged when a new drug promises to turn humans fey.

This book is about making a home when you didn’t fit in with your family of origin, and the lengths people will go through to find a new identity. It may not feel as fresh as it did in the 1980s, but it will probably make you cry.

Finder

By Emma Bull,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Finder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Death and dark magic hang like a shadow over the city called Bordertown. Orient has a magical gift—or maybe a curse—for finding lost objects. But can he find a way to save the people he loves?

Creatures of Will and Temper

By Molly Tanzer,

Book cover of Creatures of Will and Temper

Why this book?

Molly Tanzer came up with one of the cleverest “magic” tropes ever and I wish I’d thought of it myself. Her Victorian London “diabolists” engage with demons in a way that felt so logical that it seemed 100% plausible. It involves specific plants, for example, ginger. These demons are more like sentient aliens that enter into a (permanent) symbiotic relationship with a human host, upon which they confer benefits.

It made me go, “I mean, getting into devil worship like this may not be my thing, but yeah, I get why people could be into it.” It’s not all gushing balls and gaslit concerts either, since our protagonists are much more middle class. There’s danger here, because not all of these diabolists are harmless. I craved ginger for months after this book.

Creatures of Will and Temper

By Molly Tanzer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Creatures of Will and Temper as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Victorian London is a place of fluid social roles, vibrant arts culture, fin-de-siecle wonders ... and dangerous underground diabolic cults. Fencer Evadne Gray cares for none of the former and knows nothing of the latter when she's sent to London to chaperone her younger sister, aspiring art critic Dorina. Unfortunately for Evadne, she soon learns too much about all of it when Dorina meets their uncle's friend, Lady Henrietta "Henry" Wotton. A semi-respectable aristocrat in public, in private she is secretly in the thrall of a demon obsessed with beauty and pleasure. When Lady Henry and Dorina immediately hit it…

The Golem and the Jinni

By Helene Wecker,

Book cover of The Golem and the Jinni

Why this book?

America in the late 19th and early 20th century was a fascinating place of both turmoil and opportunity. Wecker takes what is already an interesting historical era and makes it even more fun by asking, “what if two of the immigrants to this new land were supernatural?” 

The Golem, created by a rabbi for a man who died on the journey, tries to find a new life in the Jewish neighborhoods of New York, except that she doesn’t really fit in among normal humans. 

The Jinni also struggles to fit in, and you get a lot of his backstory where we learn how poorly Jinni and human interactions usually turn out. Even though they are completely opposite creatures, you just hope these crazy kids will find a home in each other.

The Golem and the Jinni

By Helene Wecker,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Golem and the Jinni as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'One of only two novels I've ever loved whose main characters are not human' BARBARA KINGSOLVER

For fans of The Essex Serpent and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.

'By far my favourite book of of the year' Guardian

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899.

Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, born in…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in occult, magicians, and jinn?

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