Let’s face it: we love crime stories, and this holds just as true in the genre of fantasy fiction as it does in contemporary thrillers, mysteries, and non-fiction. Sometimes we’re hoping for the cop, the detective, or the private investigator to hunt down that rogue necromancer; sometimes we’re rooting for the clever thief to pull off that daring airship heist. All well-designed magical worlds have norms and rules…as well as characters who would break them.
My forthcoming novel, Jade City, is a gangster family saga that I’ve been calling “the Godfather with magic and kung fu,” and that author Ken Liu describes as “epic drama reminiscent of the best Hong Kong gangster films.” On the island of Kekon, magical jade is controlled by clans that bear resemblance in different ways to Triads, Yakuza, and Mafia organizations in our own world. The fun for me came in taking inspiration from modern day crime syndicates and throwing superhuman martial arts, Asian culture, and magical substance turf wars into the mix.
There are enough fantasy crime novels to keep any crime fiction and fantasy buff well occupied. It wasn’t easy to narrow down the field (I could easily have written a list just of fantasy heist novels, another list focused only on fantasy detective fiction, etc), but you’re unlikely to go wrong with these: ten of the top fantasy crime fiction novels.
Published as Rivers of London in the UK and Midnight Riot in the US, the first book of Aaronovitch’s series is described by Diana Gabaldon as, “What if Harry Potter grew up and joined the fuzz?” The main character, Peter Grant, is a rookie cop who can talk to ghosts and is tasked with solving baffling magical crimes. There are currently six books and a novella in this supernatural police procedural series that’s been praised for its sense of place, history, and wry wit.
A spinoff from YA author Bardugo’s wildly popular Grisha series, Six of Crows and its follow-up, Crooked Kingdom, follow criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker and a diverse, well-characterized misfit crew of outcasts on a mission to rescue a prisoner from the most secure prison in the world. Plenty of heist conventions, action, magic, and mystery fill this NYT bestselling duology.
Vlad is a supremely skilled hit man in the criminal syndicate House Jhereg, in the Eastern European-inspired world of Dragaera. Combining noirish mystery, sarcastic humor, and sword-and-sorcery conventions, it’s no wonder the Vlad Taltos series is still going strong after thirty-five years. There is no specific reading order for the fifteen-and-counting (eventually to be nineteen) books, but the first, Jhereg, published in 1983, is as good a place to start as any.
There are three books—White Cat, Red Glove, and Black Heart—in dark fantasy queen Holly Black’s story of guilt-plagued Cassel Sharpe, a young man who comes from a family of con artists and grifters—the titular “curse workers” in a world where magic is outlawed. The political issues in this society are layered skillfully on top of Cassel’s teenage voice as he wrestles with betrayal and orchestrates a plot to turn the tables on those who’ve deceived him.
You know a fictional character has made a lasting impression when he gets his own Wikipedia page. Lord Darcy is a criminal investigator in the employ of the Duke of Normandy, in an alternate world in which Richard the Lionheart founded a lasting empire now ruled by well-established laws of magic. Originally published as a series of stories in the 1960s and 70s, these fantasy detective stories have since been published in various omnibus editions.
Crime caper meets epic fantasy in picaresque fashion in Lynch’s highly and deservedly successful Gentleman Bastards series, which follows the career and adventures of orphan, thief, and scoundrel Locke Lamora as he pulls off ambitious con jobs and foils his enemies in a well-realized Renaissance-period world. The Lies of Locke Lamora is followed by Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves. Count me among the millions anxiously awaiting the fourth book, The Thorn of Emberlain.
This is fantasy noir at its grittiest. Low Town is the seediest district in the city of Rigus and is populated by street hustlers, petty criminals, drug dealers, and corrupt cops. The main character, the Warden, is a disgraced ex-law enforcement officer, war veteran, and drug addict who is just as grim, cynical, and irreverent as you’d expect when he’s drawn into investigating a brutal child murder. Not for those fantasy fans who prefer shiny unicorns. Low Town is followed by Tomorrow, The Killing, and She Who Waits.
At fifteen books and going strong, Jim Butcher’s bestselling series has spawned graphic novels, a role-playing game, and a short-lived television show on SYFY. Harry Dresden, wizard-for-hire, is a private investigator who not only regularly gets into tangles with the magical underworld, but shows depth of character growth as the series progresses.
Described as “Goodfellas meets Sword & Sorcery,” Hulick’s gritty fantasy series begins with the main character, Drothe, questioning an uncooperative smuggler with…let’s say, Al Capone-style levels of persuasion. Drothe, see, is a member of the Kin, the criminal gangster class in the city of Ildrecca. He takes cares of problems for his boss and smuggles dangerous relics on the side. There are only two books so far, but the series is most certainly off to a promising start.
Another well-known fantasy world detective, Garrett is a private investigator in the city of TunFaire in the kingdom of Karenta. There are gnomes, elves, centaurs, vampires, and all manners of magical denizens in Cook’s fourteen-book-long series, but Garrett (named after the creator of Garrett’s predecessor, Lord Darcy) solves mysteries with reliable old gumshoe work.
So, there you have it: a mix of old and new, capers and noir, lawmen and lawbreakers. More than enough literary proof that where there’s magic, there’s magical crime. Spread the word about your favorite fantasy crime novels, and if my list isn’t enough for you already—there are over eighty books there by my count—check out the five honorable mentions I couldn’t resist including below.
With thanks to the Codex Writers forum and Twitter for recommendations.
Fonda Lee is the award-winning author of the YA science fiction novels Zeroboxer and Exo. Born and raised in Canada, Lee is a black belt martial artist, a former corporate strategist, and action movie aficionado who now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Jade City is her adult debut.