Martha Wells’ City of Bones is an urban fantasy, but not in the way people usually use the term.
In general use, “urban fantasy” refers to a genre of stories that take place in a more-or-less modern world—Neverwhere, The Last Hot Time, Finder, that sort of thing. Wells definitely isn’t writing in that genre here; City of Bones is in a low-tech, wholly-invented fantasy world.
When I call it urban fantasy, I’m using the phrase in the most literal sense: the action in the book (excepting a few brief forays) takes place inside a city. So many fantasy novels are about journeys through wild, uncivilized places (consider how much of the Lord of the Rings takes place outside of city walls, for instance) that a fantasy set almost entirely in a single city is something of a novelty.
It seems to be one of Wells’ trademarks, though. Both of the other books I’ve read by her—the excellent Death of the Necromancer and the pretty good Wheel of the Infinite—similarly take place inside a single city. The best thing about this kind of tight focus, in addition to the much-needed variety in setting it provides to the genre, is that it allows the author to concetrate all the world-building in a single place. Instead of spending time coming up with a whole bunch of half-assed cultures that don’t feel real (a la David Eddings) or borrowing wholesale from real history to get a bunch of cultures that feel very real (as Guy Kay does), Wells is able to create a wholly invented culture in enough detail to make it feel solid and textured. Wells’ city feels lived-in.
Another Wells trademark is her refusal to use generic medievaloid settings. In Necromancer, she had a gaslight-and-cobblestones city; in Wheel, she had an ancient jungle city; here, she has a post-apocalyptic tiered city at the edge of an unlivable desert.
“Post-apocalyptic” doesn’t sound very original; the idea of a fantasy world arising from a nuclear barrage is well-worn—I have to believe that it was already cliched by the time Terry Brooks used it in Shannara, if for no other reason than that I can’t imagine Terry Brooks having an original idea. But Wells manages to surprise; I’ll refrain from giving too many details, since this is plot-important stuff, but her apocalypse isn’t a nuclear war, and her magic of the Ancients isn’t advanced scientific technology. The background fits the rest of the story, and is more than just window-dressing.
I’ve talked a lot about the setting, but not because the other aspects of the book are deficient. The characters are interesting, the plot an intriguing puzzle of discovery (as in Wells’ other books, there’s a strong element of mystery), and the pacing smooth. Necromancer is my favorite of her books, but this is a very solid work and keeps Wells on my buy-in-hardcover list.