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All That Glitters: The Fantasy Cities You Don’t Want to Live In

Nicole Hill

Staff Writer

An aspiring Golden Girl, Nicole Hill is a former journalist and forever writer whose home is equal parts pet rescue and personal library. Nicole lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and growing canine and feline brood. Please send any and all book recs and review copies to

The City We Became, By N.K. Jemisin.

Three-time Hugo Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author N.K. Jemisin crafts her most incredible novel yet, a story of culture, identity, magic, and myths in contemporary New York City. Every great city has a soul. Some are ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York? She's got six. "It's a glorious fantasy, set in that most imaginary of cities, New York. It's inclusive in all the best ways, and manages to contain both Borges and Lovecraft in its fabric, but the unique voice and viewpoint are Jemisin's alone." -- Neil Gaiman

When you think “magical city,” do you dream of glittering, shimmering utopias, their streets pouring forth with esteemed and equitable witchcraft and wizardry?

Well, this list ain’t for you.

“Magic” doesn’t mean “perfect,” and fantasy stories are littered with destinations as dark as they are wondrous. Consider crossing these cities off your fictional tourism list.

A Criminal Magic coverA Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly

In this timeline, we don’t associate Washington, D.C., with much magic. But Kelly’s 1926 District is a hotbed of outlaw sorcery. It’s a city both gritty and glamorous, where Prohibition is in full force. But this time? The target isn’t booze; it’s “shine,” an intoxicating byproduct of spellwork. It’s not all speakeasies and good times though. In a capital city with criminalized magic, you naturally find a hopping magic underground but also a substantive organized crime ring. The Shaw Gang cartel is the catalyst that draws together two young magicians on converging, explosive paths.

Slice of Cherry coverSlice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

Portero, Texas, is a nightmare factory. Both monstrous and magical, this East Texas town is home to Kit and Fancy Cordelle, daughters of the infamous Bonesaw Killer. As such, even in a town where literal monsters hunt the populace, the Cordelle sisters feel like the hideous outsiders. And maybe the apples didn’t fall too far from the murderous tree. When Kit and Fancy discover a magic portal to another world that allows them to play God, they use it as a handy tool on their own killing spree, as they rid Portero of rapists, abusers, and other rotten elements.

The Never Tilting World coverThe Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

The broken world of Aeon provides two upturned magic cities for the price of one. Long ruled by generations of twin goddesses, Aeon stopped rotating 17 years ago when two sisters broke their bond. Now the world is split into two, each half with its own wrecked capital. There is Aranth, plunged into eternal night and buffet by storm and sea. And there is the Golden City, with its sandy environs scorched by ceaseless sunlight. The only hope for saving these two cities and the world they share? The newest pair of goddesses, unknown to each other, who are being drawn by supernatural forces to heal the wound.

Food of the Gods coverFood of the Gods by Cassandra Khaw

Another twofer for you, but this time, we’re looking at two real cities through a madcap magical lens. Perhaps more than anyone alive, Rupert Wong knows the dark side of magic and divine power. In a hectic double life in Kuala Lumpur, Rupert spends his days as a cannibal chef for elite ghouls and his nights as a bookkeeper for the Ten Courts of Chinese Hell. A quest of sorts from a Dragon King takes him along the chaotic supernatural streets of Kuala Lumpur, and then on to London, where the notoriously pragmatic and emotionally stable gods of Ancient Greece have now settled.

Sourcery coverSourcery by Terry Pratchett

What can a person say about Ankh-Morpork? The setting for most of Pratchett’s Discworld novels is a pile of kindling waiting for a match. (Coincidentally, so is the river Ankh.) That match is usually lit by the reckless wizards of Unseen University, as it is here in the fifth book of the prolific satirical fantasy series. When a mysterious child “sourceror” shows up at Unseen University, the wizards are initially enthralled by his power. But young Coin’s plan could destroy the fabric of Ankh-Morpork and Discworld itself.

Borderline coverBorderline by Mishell Baker

It makes perfect sense that Los Angeles would host a portal from this world to Faerie. It’s a move from glitz to glamour. But relations between the realms have been better, which Millie discovers when she’s recruited by the Arcadia Project to track down a Seelie nobleman moonlighting as a movie star. Quickly, a larger conspiracy comes into focus, exposing the sinister supernatural underbelly of Tinseltown. This is a high-stakes, stressful environment, made all the more difficult for Millie, navigating life with new prosthetics and a recent Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis. (Care warning for attempted suicide)

Revenge and the Wild coverRevenge and the Wild by Michelle Modesto

As the name implies, Rogue City is a lawless, violent town in an alternate West. It’s the kind of place where saloon brawls break out in hexes and bullets. Seventeen-year-old Westie arrived as an orphan, fleeing the cannibals who attacked her family on the wagon trail. Years later, those cannibals have arrived in Rogue City, ever the magnet for monsters. They’re here to invest in Westie’s adoptive father’s magic-harvesting invention. But they’ll get more than they bargained for when they meet this impulsive, rough-and-tumble teen bent on revenge.