SF&F books about cities
December 30, 2018 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to find a specific kind of fantasy and/or SF book. About a person who arrives at and explores a large, complex city, its society, neighborhoods, etc.

I'm not thinking of any specific book I've already read or heard of, more of a feeling. Something about arriving at a strange city at twilight and finding your way to a brightly lit tavern. The city could be on this Earth, an alternate Earth or another galaxy. Ideally, it wouldn't deal with princes or chosen ones or saviors or prophecies, but rather with people, with markets and hostels and travellers. The people could be people or not. There could be boats, trains or other slow forms of transportation involved. More about the journey than the destination. I've already read all of Le Guin, Banks, Mieville, and they have some of the right flavor. Novels, comics, manga would all be OK.
posted by signal to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Try Felix Gilman's first novel, Thunderer. The sequel is decent too, but Thunderer is one of the best fantasy novels about a fantastical city that I have ever encountered.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 2:27 PM on December 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you like complicated and the inclusion of historic figures, look at the Riverworld series by Philip José Farmer.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 2:49 PM on December 30, 2018

City of Stairs gets into government, religion, and history of a city as a traveler arrives and explores. The sequel focused on a second, different city.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant describes the government, economy, and religion of a city and surrounding country. The perspective is from a traveling government official (who has some very ambitious ideas). She also goes to a tavern or two, regularly.
posted by Jorus at 2:50 PM on December 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

There's a terrific story in Kanishk Tharoor's collection Swimmer Among the Stars that works on this level. Daniel Abraham's Long Price books are full of interesting cities, and Robert Burnett's Divine Cities trilogy too. You mention some SF stalwarts, so I assume you've had a go with Gene Wolfe, but if not, the Severian sequence is very much city SF for much of its run.
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:52 PM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Thieves World series sounds right up your alley.

I also highly recommend Samuel Delaney's Dhalgren.
posted by Lunaloon at 3:01 PM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Dated, but a lot of Jack Vance's books have characters exploring new cities (and often trying to exploit their citizens). Araminta Station and sequels are a typical example.
posted by crocomancer at 3:04 PM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

A Stranger in Olondoria by Sofia Samatar will be right up your alley. It's about a merchant's son who travels to Olondoria for the first time and has... a rather bad trip.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:10 PM on December 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

The manga Aria is a soothing example of this genre.
posted by nicebookrack at 3:12 PM on December 30, 2018

Oh! You might also like Morgenstern's The Night Circus, where the 'city' is really a traveling circus.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 3:13 PM on December 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Invisible Cities - Italo Calvino; nothing but new cities.

Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor; Lagos is just one of the amazing characters in this book.
posted by nickggully at 3:25 PM on December 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

Seconding Invisible Cities.
posted by rodlymight at 3:29 PM on December 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

This vibe makes me think of the Sandman collection World's End, which has a frame story about various magical people meeting in a mysterious tavern. It's stand-alone and three of the shorts are also about cities.
posted by colorblock sock at 4:05 PM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sharon Shinn's Troubled Waters has a bit of this feel about it

And I only listened to the first chapter of Serial Box's Tremontaine, but that leapt to mind. It's several parallel stories of people from different social classes--including a foreigner finding her way among them all.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:06 PM on December 30, 2018

Imajica by Clive Barker is a sprawling fantasy novel with that kind of vibe.
posted by ejs at 4:08 PM on December 30, 2018

Perdido Street Station is right up this alley.
Edit: oops you probably know that, sorry.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:10 PM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was hoping someone would mention Invisible Cities. It's not SF/F (although it's not notSF/F), but otherwise it's perfect for you.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:37 PM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Dated and problematic, but Prelude to Foundation deals with a chase across many neighborhoods of a planet-spanning city. Transportation is sometimes fast, sometimes slow, and not for the reasons you might suspect.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:47 PM on December 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind series might also fit the bill.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:51 PM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards sequence would probably do it for you, that guy really revels in worldbuilding. No matter where you start, you'll get lots of juicy asides about the universe he's created, but I think you'd probably enjoy "Republic of Thieves" (third book) best. You could skip the flashback chapters if you don't get attached to Locke or Jean too much.

Marie Brennan's Memoirs of Lady Trent is kind of an alt-Victorian world with dragons -- every novel has the protagonist researching dragons in a different place, with the locations and societies she visits well-sketched.

Others, where the protagonists aren't necessarily new to the society, but spend time explaining it:
* Seraphina and Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman (YA)
* Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin
* The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein
* It's been a while but Brandon Sanderson's "Elantris" might scratch that itch
posted by snerson at 5:14 PM on December 30, 2018

Arcadia by Iain Pears is fantastic. There's a lot more to it than just these parts, but there are characters who travel from the future to pre-WWII Germany (and eventually move to London) as well as characters who travel to another world/time, though not just the city in that world. Anyway, in both cases, especially the latter, they very much have to figure out the humdrum of living daily life in this new-to-them place.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:25 PM on December 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher - also somewhat dated and problematic but still creative and evocative. It involves a human who was taken captive and brought to a large domed city built by alien invaders - the human protagonist has some degree of freedom via working for the captors as a servant and explores the city, with the aim of escaping and also finding weaknesses of the alien invaders so the humans can mount an attack. It's the second of a trilogy but you don't really need to read the first book.
posted by Mallenroh at 6:34 PM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. Time-travelling historians visit London and other parts of England during WWII. The time travel adventure plot goes so fast you don't even realise how deeply you, along with the historians, have become immersed in the world she's built, especially in the sections set in London during the Blitz.
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 6:58 PM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Blackfish City by Sam J Millar is only peripherally about the visitor - but far more about the visitor's effect on the sprawling post-apocalyptic floating city of Qaanaaq.
posted by scruss at 7:34 PM on December 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Only Forward - Michael Marshall Smith
posted by fourpotatoes at 3:14 AM on December 31, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers. I started reading Rush-That-Speaks's suggestions Thunderer, and it's pretty close to exactly the feeling I was aiming for. I'll post some more once I've started on a few more!
posted by signal at 6:36 AM on December 31, 2018

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft is exactly this.
posted by sonmi at 6:37 AM on December 31, 2018 [1 favorite]

War for the Oaks takes place in a hidden dimension of Minneapolis and is very place-based. The central character is human although there are magical beings.

Eddi McCandry sings rock and roll. But her boyfriend just dumped her, her band just broke up, and life could hardly be worse. Then, walking home through downtown Minneapolis on a dark night, she finds herself drafted into an invisible war between the faerie folk.
posted by rogerroger at 6:49 AM on December 31, 2018

Most of Samuel R Delany, but I'm not sure what the best starting point would be.
posted by bfields at 9:08 AM on December 31, 2018

+1 on Dhalgren, but it can be a challenge to get through (at least it was for me).

The Belgian comics artist Francois Schuiten, who trained as an architect, has been doing a series called The Obscure Cities for decades now -- the artwork is spectacular, but I've never read it (because I can't read French/Belgian). But apparently the entire thing is now being translated and released by IDW.
posted by Bron at 9:15 AM on December 31, 2018

Blood Orbit by KR Richardson is about a rookie cop who is exploring and learning about a complicated world on the job. Might be faster-paced than what you are looking for.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson gave me a feeling of gradual discovery throughout the entire book.
posted by esoterrica at 10:46 AM on December 31, 2018

The Etched City by K.J. Bishop
posted by JohnFromGR at 11:47 AM on December 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

The City Watch books of Terry Pratchett's Discworld are in a very grimy and lived-in city.
posted by tracer at 1:05 PM on December 31, 2018

City of Roses by Kip Manley is urban fantasy set in Portland where the city is almost like a character itself.

Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams is another good one.
posted by snwod at 4:22 PM on December 31, 2018

Perhaps Karin Tidbeck's Amatka. It's weird off-world colony cities and people's committees and markets and buildings and slow trains and stuff, though not nearly so hyggelig as to feature a warm and welcoming tavern. Here's an NPR review.
posted by mumkin at 6:40 PM on December 31, 2018

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds might suit.

It's been a while since I read it. But many of its scenes are concerned primarily with describing the unusual societal and physical structure of the titular city.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 1:42 AM on January 1, 2019

Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books, especially Ill Met In Lankhmar is sort of the ur-book in the modern fantasy city genre. They provide some of the inspiration for the aforementioned Discworld books, and analogues of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser appear in one of the early volumes.
posted by runcibleshaw at 4:28 PM on January 2, 2019

Maybe The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell? For some reason it feels like Sci Fi even though it's probably really historical fiction with some fantasy elements. Description from Amazon:

"The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, and costly courtesans comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland."

Also, perhaps Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I suppose it is experimental fiction. I thought it was funny but I have a weird sense of humor. From Wikipedia:

"The book explores imagination and the imaginable through the descriptions of cities by an explorer, Marco Polo. The book is framed as a conversation between the aging and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his expanding and vast empire, and Polo. The majority of the book consists of brief prose poems describing 55 fictitious cities that are narrated by Polo, many of which can be read as parables or meditations on culture, language, time, memory, death, or the general nature of human experience."

One last suggestion: you could try googling urban sci fi. That will cast a larger net than you want, but it may capture some books that scratch your itch
posted by agog at 2:26 PM on January 3, 2019

Not exactly your criteria but the classic (late 50's) Cities in Flight by James Blish are a fun read.
posted by sammyo at 9:25 AM on January 30, 2019

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