The best books set in a modern fantasy world

Who am I?

Full disclosure: I am a fantasy world nerd! I treasure my visits to these imaginary places, and I love imagining how the world goes on after the last page. I’ve spent hours pondering what would happen in Narnia after the invention of the internal combustion engine, or in Middle Earth when populations reach levels requiring building codes and infrastructure planning. (I told you I was a nerd!) Advancing fantasy technologies creates new problems, new solutions, and new parallels to our own time. The books on this list redefine our assumptions of what a fantasy world is, and what stories they have to share.


I wrote...

Titanshade

By Dan Stout,

Book cover of Titanshade

What is my book about?

Carter's a homicide cop in Titanshade, an oil boomtown where 8-tracks are state of the art, disco rules the radio, and all the best sorcerers wear designer labels. It's also a metropolis teetering on the edge of disaster. As its oil reserves run dry, the city's future hangs on a possible investment from the reclusive amphibians known as Squibs.

But now negotiations have been derailed by the horrific murder of a Squib diplomat. The pressure's never been higher to make a quick arrest, even as Carter's investigation leads him into conflict with the city's elite. Undermined by corrupt coworkers and falsified evidence, and with a suspect list that includes power-hungry politicians, oil magnates, and mad scientists, Carter must find the killer before the investigation turns into a witch-hunt and those closest to him pay the ultimate price on the filthy streets of Titanshade.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Three Parts Dead

By Max Gladstone,

Book cover of Three Parts Dead

Why this book?

I’m drawn to fantasy stories set in modern-day analogues because I’m fascinated to see the ways that having magic and monsters as a fact of life would shape a world from the ground up. I’m particularly interested in the impact on more mundane matters like legal contracts and labor disputes. Perhaps no one dives into this topic with as much gusto as Max Gladstone. In Three Parts Dead, we meet necromantic lawyers and witness the legal and practical repercussions of a god’s death. In lesser hands, this could easily slump into tedious details, or the intricacies might be forgotten in an attempt to ramp up the action. But Gladstone finds the perfect balance, keeping abstract concepts engaging while presenting action scenes that carry true consequences. The city of Alt Coulumb is one of my favorite fantasy settings, and the entire Craft Sequence is well-worth reading.


Amberlough (The Amberlough Dossier Book 1)

By Lara Elena Donnelly,

Book cover of Amberlough (The Amberlough Dossier Book 1)

Why this book?

Oh, man… I love this book so much! Donnelly writes the kind of prose that makes me jealous. I frequently stop and go back, rereading her words just to savor the imagery and effortless flow. Characterizations are rich and full, not only for the leads but also for the background characters. Now, I need to point out that there is no magic in this book, so if you’re looking for dragons and lightning bolts, it won’t scratch that itch. But Amberlough feels like a proper fantasy world, and that earns it a place on this list. if you enjoy the encroaching global conflict of Lord of the Rings, but also love John LeCarre and Cabaret, Amberlough is the perfectly-blended cocktail you’ve been looking for.


Jade City

By Fonda Lee,

Book cover of Jade City

Why this book?

As much as I love seeing fantasy worlds grappling with legal and political realities, I’m also fascinated by the question of fantasy crime. If you feel the same way, then you’ll be happy to hear that Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga is The Godfather retold with magic. It’s a story of family power struggles, preternaturally-enhanced abilities, and carefully-crafted action. I’m astonished at how clearly Lee’s scenes unfold in my mind, making them easy to follow even during the most frenetic of action sequences. I’m not the only one blown away by this series -- Jade City has won wide acclaim, including a World Fantasy Award and being included on Time Magazine’s list of Top 100 Fantasy Books of all Time. 


Shrouded Loyalties

By Reese Hogan,

Book cover of Shrouded Loyalties

Why this book?

Shrouded Loyalties combines post-war intrigue with submarine warfare and Lovecraftian terrors. Everything in this book is awesome, but the two aspects I love the most sit at opposite ends of the realism spectrum. In the realm of the fantastic, Hogan’s creatures are terrifyingly other-worldly, and the prose masterfully switches between revelation and shadow, underlining just how deeply frightening these beings are. But the book also shines in its very down-to-earth depiction of relationships fraught with trust issues, as characters find themselves wrapped in layers of wishful thinking, old grudges, and external propaganda.

Hogan is a master of showing how conflicts can arise when both sides believe they’re in the right. The players in Shrouded Loyalties are all doing the best they can, even if that brings them into deadly conflict with those they care most about. 


The Iron Dragon's Daughter

By Michael Swanwick,

Book cover of The Iron Dragon's Daughter

Why this book?

I’m a sucker for fantasy blended with industrial strife. In Michael Swanwick’s Jane, we see a character trapped in an industrialized fairy-world, forced to work in a factory building bio-mechanical dragons. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter blends biting social commentary with a thoughtful coming-of-age narrative, resulting in a powerful story that’s accumulated a stack of award wins and nominations. 


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