So people recommended Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence; I looked at thumbnails of the covers, decided they were generic urban fantasy, and added them to the middle-ish “I’ll get around to that some day” portion of my to-read list. Then people recommended them more. Then they recommended them more and I was in the mood for urban fantasy, so I started the first one, and… um, oops, it turns out these aren’t urban fantasy after all? In fact, they’re secondary world fantasy set in a world that’s unique and fascinating for three reasons.
The first is that it’s set in the aftermath of a more conventional fantasy book—the God Wars, when the Craftspeople (newly in command of their eldritch powers) rose up and contended with the gods themselves for the rule of the world, and… kinda won, leaving the world in the kind of messily inconsistent situation that you get in the aftermath of real wars.
The second is that it’s focusing on an unusually modern time period. The world isn’t any identifiable era from our world—as you’d expect, having gods and magic around changes the way that technology would advance—but it feels modern-ish. Jazz Age-y, maybe? But very much its own thing, still.
The third is that the magic system itself, the Craft, is basically a magical version of legal practice. Craftspeople have student loans, work for big firms (or sometimes do low-paid public service), and their battles consist of arguments that just happen to be made to the universe itself about its very nature. Contracts are binding in very real ways, and souls can be sold to pay debts.
So it’s an interesting setting. It also turns out to have interesting characters. Click on the thumbnail of those urban-fantasy-looking covers, and what jumps out at you in the full-sized image is that the people on them are not your generic white-dude-with-a-hat or white-woman-with-a-bared-midriff, either. The books are focused on telling stories from different perspectives, which comes through both in the protagonists and in what the stories are about.
Because this is where things come full circle a bit: While these aren’t urban fantasy in the usual sense, they’re actually about cities in a way that goes deeper than most urban fantasy. The stories are about things like water rights, zoning issues, gentrification, banking crises, religious pluralism, law enforcement practices… and also, yes, old gods rising and lich kings and conspiracies and demons. They manage to be about those “relevant” things without giving up an iota of fun or excitement. (In a sense, maybe the thing that’s most like them is Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork books. But in another sense, that’s a completely ridiculous comparison, because these aren’t humorous in that way, though they have their moments.)
At any rate, the upshot of this one is simple: These are excellent fantasy novels by basically any criteria that you’d care to mention, and some that you wouldn’t have thought to. Go read them.