Historically grounded literary urban fantasy suggestions?
February 9, 2018 11:30 AM   Subscribe

I really like Tim Powers, especially his stuff set in the near past. I'm looking for other books that are historically grounded, well-written, seem internally plausible, and deal with any or all of the following themes: urban fantasy, the occult, the cold war, spy stuff in general, myth, magic.

I am not interested in titles that are wacky and funny, or that belong to a thirty book series, although I did enjoy the Sandman Slim series (what I've read so far)

I realize this is a really narrow sliver of fiction.

You will be awarded super bonus points for sharing your favorite book recommendation engine.
posted by mecran01 to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Like, I would really love to read something like John LeCarre with an occult element to it!
posted by mecran01 at 11:47 AM on February 9, 2018

Try the Sara Gran Claire DeWitt series. It may be too much detective for you, but it may be a good match.
posted by frumiousb at 11:50 AM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Laundry Files
posted by Jorus at 11:54 AM on February 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

Daniel O'Malley's The Rook (which I've read) begins a series (the remainder of which I've not read) about the spy agency that protects Britain from supernatural threats. You might like it.

There's also Charlie Stross' Laundry Files, which don't necessarily strike the same tone as Powers but do tick at least some of your boxes there.
posted by gauche at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also by Stross and free online: A Colder War
posted by Jorus at 11:56 AM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I only checked it out of the library yesterday and haven't read it yet, but Winter Tide springs to mind.
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:08 PM on February 9, 2018

You might enjoy the MJ-12 series by Michael J. Martinez (book 1 is MJ-12: Inception). It's got covert operatives with interesting powers doing cold war espionage. There are 2 books so far, and the last one coming out later this year.
posted by mogget at 12:12 PM on February 9, 2018

Also, more speculative in some ways (that I can't mention without giving some important things away) but maybe Ian Tregellis' Milkweed Trilogy? It's sort of like if British intelligence was John Constantine-esque and the Nazis succeeded in creating X-Men. Spies, the occult, and precursors to the Cold War abound.
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:17 PM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal. Mediums in World War I. It's a standalone not a series.
posted by maybeandroid at 12:26 PM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ooh, I'll be watching this closely. I'll second The Rook by Daniel O'Malley, although I didn't like the sequel nearly as much. It's not the same tonally, but it's enjoyable.
posted by PussKillian at 12:26 PM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

This might not fit your definition of "historically grounded" (it's grounded in a history that rhymes with ours, but is not our history) but my favorite urban fantasy series is Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence.

It's set in a world that is a couple generations removed from a tremendous religious/magical/industrial upheaval that has resulted in a magical system known as "The Craft" in which souls have been made into a fungible currency, ancient deities have to worry about their credit ratings, and contract law is a potentially deadly profession.

There are currently 6 books in the sequence, but they are intentionally not a series. They can be read in any order, and no book requires knowledge of any previous book.
posted by firechicago at 12:30 PM on February 9, 2018 [6 favorites]

I enjoyed A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy, #1) by Deborah Harkness. Tried the next book in the series and, meh.

Have you ever read T.H. White Arthurian books? Sword in the Stone and Camelot were based on The Once and Future King. He's such a good writer.
posted by theora55 at 12:46 PM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been enjoying The Rise and Fall of DODO, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. A delightfully weird combination of modern military bureaucracy and impeccably researched time travel into various eras.

I am hesitant to link to it, since many mefites hate him with a passion, but author Cory Doctorow actually does a good job summing it up in his boing boing (also hated here) mini-review.
posted by seasparrow at 12:50 PM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

China Miéville's Last Days of New Paris checks a lot of these boxes. (Not his best, but closest to the interests you note, with bonus Surrealist artmaking games, Aleister Crowley, & Paris in WWII.) The City & the City is more like le Carré (and a much better book) but it's less fantastical.
posted by miles per flower at 12:53 PM on February 9, 2018

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
posted by crocomancer at 1:27 PM on February 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

I very much enjoyed Lovecraft Country. It's set in the mid-50's and is a series of short stories that form an overarching novel which blends the real-life horrors of Jim Crow and mythological horrors of Cthulhu. It seems like it would tick all your boxes except for spy stuff.
posted by subocoyne at 1:42 PM on February 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

You might try Myke Cole's Shadow Ops:Reawakening Trilogy. Start with Gemini Cell. Falls in the current military fantasy realm. Fast and fun reads with sorcerers as part of a shadowy military group.
posted by Hopeful and Cynical at 2:24 PM on February 9, 2018

I just finished Eowyn Ivey's To the Bright Edge of the World, which was a very well-written epistolary novel about photography, Euro-American exploration in the Alaskan interior, Native Alaskan myths and legends, and cultural change. It's lovely, with more than a few hints of magic/magical realism.
posted by suelac at 3:59 PM on February 9, 2018

Serial Box has a series called The Witch Who Came In From the Cold, and if occult Cold War is what you're looking for, have at it.

It was published as a chapter-a-week serial but is now out in novel form.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:35 PM on February 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mary Gentle's White Crow series (4 books) is more or less set in a Restoration London (17th century) with occult magics, sentient (sort of) buildings, monsters, and mysteries, both overt and not. Her writing is not to everybody's taste but she's historically accurate and plots well. I like her a lot. White Crow books
posted by MovableBookLady at 7:01 PM on February 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Have you read Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn and its sequels? Plenty of spy stuff, near-future speculative stuff, echoes-of-the-Cold-War stuff, other... stuff to be revealed when you get there. Very solid writing with a specially good knack for tightly drawn set pieces and very believable quick-stroke characterization on the fly, even for throwaway characters. Recommended.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:55 PM on February 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

Amberlough! There’s no magic in it, but it still counts as fantasy, I think, due to being set in an alternative world with parallels to 1930s Berlin. Spies! Smugglers! Cabaret! And one of the most beautiful hardback covers I’ve ever seen!
posted by cardinalandcrow at 12:45 AM on February 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Consider Fonda Lee's Jade City? It's not exactly alternate history, but the setting feels like an island nation in the Pacific sometime around 1970. There will be a sequel, but it doesn't seem like a series that will sprawl forever. The main focus of the book is organized crime, but one of the characters has been an intelligence asset for a foreign power, and uses those contacts in interesting ways.
posted by yarntheory at 6:27 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Jo Walton’s Farthing, Ha’penny and Half a Crown are alternate history set in 1940s Britain, lots of intrigue, quite depressing. I love Tim Powers and Jo Walton, so you may as well. In urban fantasy / crime I like Ben Aaronovitch and Mike Carey but they’re both long series writers. Seanan Maguire is good but very light and also series. I really liked The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker - it came out a few years back, wish she would write another book. It’s hard to find writers as good as Powers! I am going to assume you have read The Magicians books by Lev Grossman and Little, Big by John Crowley. Crowley’s Aegypt books - there are 4 - might also interest you.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:21 PM on February 10, 2018

At the Table of Wolves is probably what you're looking for, and a lot of her sf is historical.

This one is part of a series, but there's just two books so far and I don't know how long it's likely to be.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:14 PM on February 11, 2018

I just remembered - Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift books!
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:49 PM on February 12, 2018

« Older Seduction via book recommendations?   |   roll to sniff butts Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.