Urban fantasy has been the 'cutting edge' of the fantasy novel in the decade of 2000-2010. It is a fantasy novel set inside a parallel of the modern world, but with supernatural added. Vampires, werewolves, elves/fae, and demons are common elements. 'Magical' superheroes or secret-agent style police/protectors/hunters are the most common theme. Typically it uses a first person perspective, and often overlaps with either the romance or mystery genres. 'Urban fantasy' is the label directed at male readers, and usually has tons of magic action, and 'paranormal romance' is directed at female readers. I'm only putting book ones in the guide, most series here are multiple books.
First, in terms of Urban Fantasy, there are 'best authors' right now. Jim Butcher and Charlene Harris have had TV series made out their novels, but personally I find Kim Harrison holding the spot as my favorite Urban Fantasy author with her 'Hollows' series. Ilona Andrews is also up in the top tier.
Jim Butcher Jim Butcher with his Dresden files. Book four, Summer Knight: A Novel of the Dresden Files (The Dresden Files, Book 4), is when it finally gets enthralling. Butcher improves ten-fold as a writer as the series continues. Harry Dresden, the protagonist, is a magician-detective-good guy who starts out basically blacklisted by the entire magical world. His world includes the faerie realm, Councils of Wizards, swords made by God to kill evil angels (Denarians), and three courts of vampires. The Dresden Files has it all. Butcher also has an epic fantasy series without the 'urban' element, originally conceived when someone challenged him to do 'high fantasy pokemon'. If you like battle scenes, check out his Furies of Calderon.
Kim Harrison Kim Harrison has several normal fantasy books behind her, writing as 'Dawn Cook'. Don't read those books; they can't hold a candle to her later stuff. In the Hollows, genetically altered tomatoes kill 90% of the human population, leaving enough room for the supernatural community to go public. Harrison has extremely compelling characters, moreso than other authors in the genre. A pixie, a witch, and a living vampire are the mains... and wait until you see what she does with demons and elves.
Ilona Andrews Ilona Andrews is actually a team of husband and wife writing. In addition to the 'Magic' series featuring investigator Kate Daniels in a world where magic comes and goes in waves, they have a second series. On the Edge (The Edge, Book 1) is volume one, with #2 'Bayou Moon' at a similar (good) story level. The 'Magic' series features obscure mythology and a were-lion.
Charlene Harris Now I should mention Sookie Stackhouse, the telepathic southern waitress series created by Charlene Harris, Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, Book 1). However her books are what I'd consider paranormal romance as opposed to urban fantasy. Simply because in each novel, Sookie has a new love interest. Eric the vampire is usually who it is half the time.
LKH The other 'big name' in Urban fantasy is LKH, or Laurell K. Hamilton. Her most notable work is Obsidian Butterfly (An Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Book 9), book nine of the Anita the Vampire Hunter series. Read it as a stand-alone novel. It's the only work of hers I recommend. If you liked OB, you can read the first eight novels of her 'Anita' series starting with Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter). Stay far, far away from her stuff otherwise unless you like harem fantasies featuring one woman and tons of men with elaborate hair styles and submissive personalities. Starting at book ten in her Anita series, LKH changed her writing style into 'experimentally erotic' which means no plot, but lots of mechanical sex descriptions. Her 'Merry Gentry' series was a great idea, but quickly degenerated into 'How many husbands can Merry have?'
Mercedes Lackey While some might believe LKH started Urban fantasy, the very first Urban fantasy work I ever read was by Mercedes Lackey in the late 1980's featuring Diana Tregarde, Guardian witch (romance novelist by day). It's a trilogy starting with Burning Water (Tor Horror), and quite good. However Lackey discontinued it due to low sales. She also did the Serrated Edge series (with various co-authors) in the same world, featuring elvish race-car drivers, but honestly I never liked those as much as Diana's Trilogy. Born to Run is a reprinted version of the first in the series.
Dean Koontz If you don't mind a high level of suspense/horror in your urban fantasy, I recommend Odd Thomas: An Odd Thomas Novel. Odd Thomas is a short order cook who sees ghosts, and has an extremely interesting and humorous personality. Odd is a compulsive do-gooder, and finds himself trouble. While Koontz is more mainstream, I'd really classify Odd Thomas and sequels (Forever Odd, Brother Odd, Odd Hours) as good urban fantasy.
Wen Spencer Another contributor to the 'good urban fantasy' category is novelist Wen Spencer. Tinker (Elfhome, Book 1) and "Wolf Who Rules" deal with Elves in Pittsburg, with a main character as a real teenage super-genius. The biggest surprise here is the genius character is written well. Spencer also wrote the Ukiah Oregon series, which is weird. (Too weird for me.) Think gentle, alien werewolf raised by two human mothers. Alien Taste (Ukiah Oregon, Book 1) is the first, but expect more sci-fi than fantasy.
Robin McKinley McKinley specializes in retelling fairy tales, which is perhaps why Sunshine is such a compelling vampire story. It's awesome urban vampire fantasy with a Gothic 'old country' feel, and I've never read a vamp book quite like it. McKinley's other books? Love 'The Hero and The Crown,' but it's not urban fantasy (actually young adult pure fantasy), and the rest aren't my taste.
Carolyn Crane Much like the Scarecrow Jonathan Crane, Carolyn's book Mind Games (The Disillusionists Trilogy: Book 1) deals with superpowers (high caps, short for high capacity psychics) and fears. The main character is a disillusionist who can weaponize her hypochrondria, and the writing is both intelligent and interesting. Crane writes in the present tense, and she pulls it off too! Right now this is my pick for 'best newcomer to urban fantasy in 2010.'
Carrie Vaughn Kitty and the Midnight Hour (Kitty Norville, Book 1) has my pick for 'next urban fantasy getting a television show.' It's that good. The show would be a comedy, with a 'not-taking-itself-seriously' theme exactly like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Kitty, the main character, is a female werewolf with a bubbly 'can't-stop-quipping' personality who starts her own radio talk show. She's the driving force behind the supernatural going public in her world, but first she must rise higher than low beta in her pack. The earlier books aren't as polished as later books, but this is a great urban fantasy that doesn't take itself too seriously. Caller segments into the "Midnight Hour" are especially hilarious.
Rachel Caine Rachel Caine has a talent for pacing; her stuff has a break-neck plot that will really get you exhausted as a reader. The weather warden series deals with climate mages and Djinn as the main paranormal category, and it is refreshingly unique. Ill Wind: Book One of the Weather Warden is the first book, and the series features a female protagonist who likes fast cars. Caine isn't in the top because she has a tendency to move too fast and belabor character flaws, but her stuff is interesting. The main weather warden series is done, and she's working on a spin-off in the same world featuring a djinn protagonist. She also has the Morganville vampire series as young-adult urban fantasy, but I can only rec that to teenagers.
EE Knight While I'm not sure if the Vampire Earth series staring David Valentine truly counts as urban fantasy, since it is more post-apocalyptic. Aliens from a world known as Kur have taken over the world, destroying human society and enslaving the survivors. Valentine enlists with Southern Command, one of the few remnants of the old U.S. government, as he resists the vampiric Kur, often visiting ruined cities and human outposts. Way of The Wolf: Book One Of The Vampire Earth is the start. Knight also has a series featuring dragons in a fantasy world from a first person perspective, but it's not as visceral as Vampire Earth.
Justina Robinson Keeping It Real (Quantum Gravity, Book 1) -- This girl knows how to have a good time. Fast paced, extremely weird, with multi-dimesional quantum bombs, cyborgs (including our main char.), demon worlds, and elf empires, this one is memorable, though heavy on romance. Four books so far.
Steven Brust Agyar is a vampire urban fantasy, from the perspective of a vampire minion. Not my favorite, but I haven't seen anything like it either. What I really like by Brust is the Vlad books in the Dragaerian empire, which is pure fantasy, but urban in the sense it's from a first person perspective. The Book of Jhereg, but there's like 12 books in this series. Avoid the earlier ones that begin with "The Phoenix Guards," their style is epic fantasy, not urban.
Terry Brooks This guy is a mainstream fantasy author with his Shannara and Landover series. The one urban fantasy trilogy he did, Running With the Demon (The Word and the Void Trilogy, Book 1) retains a third person viewpoint. It's a great trilogy following Olympic sprinter Nest Freemark, an old style Knight of his word, and it contains genuinely 'demonic' demons. Stop at 'Angel Fire East' and don't bother with the Genesis of Shannara.
Simon Green This man writes a man's urban fantasy. We're talking action and mysteries with legendary creatures, high stakes, and inventive powers and plotline. However, he sacrifices characterization to get those goods. So don't expect much in the way of tears or romance, and keep in mind after reading about ten of his books they start blurring together. He's done the Nightside Something from the Nightside (Nightside, Book 1) and The Man with the Golden Torc (Secret Histories, Book 1), both series with multiple books.
Harry Connolly Child of Fire: A Twenty Palaces Novel is his only novel out there. It's got mages, werewolves, and lovercraftian-style 'Outsiders.' This man has the potential to be great, but also has much room for improvement in his writing.
Richelle Mead Frankly, this author writes decent bedroom scenes, a place other urban fantasy authors don't go. If you like actiony urban fantasy with strong characters and amusing introductions, I recommend Storm Born (Dark Swan, Book 1), a series I ended up enjoying despite the impulsive main character. (This is offset by having intelligent and developed companions, who I actually like more than the main.) It features a parallel elf-spirit type world which modern shamans may touch. If you like emoting paranormal romantic settings, go for Succubus Blues (Georgina Kincaid, Book 1), a series I dropped like a hot potato (main is a female succubus, looking for emotional love). Finally if you are a kid, Mead also wrote the "Vampire Academy" series in the YA section, something I haven't read.
Patricia Briggs Briggs is a 'female werewolf' author. She's worth reading if you like werewolves, but not at the top of the genre. Both her series are set in the same world, start with Moon Called (Mercy Thompson), starring a skinwalker who turns into a Coyote and was raised by a werewolf pack. Her other series, Alpha and Omega, begins with a book called "Cry Wolf" featuring a female werewolf inside Briggs's pack hierarchy. Read a few volumes of Mercy first; the background is helpful.
TA Pratt Marla Mason becomes more interesting after the author stops going for cheap shock-gimmicks (think cannibalism) in book one. More for guys than girls, though the protagonist is a genuinely tough woman. Don't expect much romance in this series. Blood Engines (Marla Mason, Book 1)
Lucy A. Synder Spellbent is similar to the style of TA Pratt, and nearly as good. A strong sorceress (an ubiquitomancer... anything can be a spell) must deal with a dimensional portal, a hostile wizard's government, and rescue her boyfriend. A new series which looks good.
Nina Kiriki Hoffman This author is excellent, awesome, writes great stories. The problem is, she can't end them. Her books have unsatisfying endings right in the middle of things, and none of them leave the reader with a clear sense of closure. I still like her stuff, but her writing style is deeply flawed. A Fistful Of Sky is probably my favorite.
JF Lewis Staked is another vampire and werewolf tale starting an urban fantasy series. The main characters are jerks and not-so-smart. Normally I'd dismiss this entirely, but the second book was much better. A series that might go places (including in the trash can). Will read book three.
Kelley Armstrong She's written the Women of the Otherworld series, that starts with Bitten (Women of the Otherworld, Book 1). While her first seven volumes aren't bad, they also aren't my idea of good urban fantasy, in part because of crossing over into paranormal romance. This is chick-lit urban fantasy. The protagonist is different in each same-world novel, with some repeats. I thought Elena the werewolf was OK, Paige was so-so, and I absolutely hated Hope Adams. Personally, book eleven with Savannah was a huge disappointment, as this author can't do mysteries.
Jocelyn Drake Nightwalker (Dark Days, Book 1) was a wonderful start for an urban fantasy series. Heavy on action, light on romance, featuring vampires vs. humans vs. elves. "Dayhunter" is book two, "Dawnbreaker" is book three.
C. E. Murphy This author has two urban fantasy series, Urban Shaman (The Walker Papers, Book 1) and Heart of Stone (The Negotiator). I finished Urban Shaman, thought it good, and based on that went for more books. Big mistake. In both "Heart of Stone" and "Thunderbird Falls" I stopped at page 80ish. My problem -- the main characters are so stubborn about having their respective ways that easily avoidable dangerous situations become the main plot. These women whine to the minor characters who warned them avoiding inner powers/jogging in nightlife hunting grounds would be stupid! Also in both novels the professions of the main characters (police woman and lawyer) have very little to do with being a real police woman or lawyer. If situational stupidity also drives you nuts, do yourself a favor and skip this author. If you must try her, the shaman books emphasize healing and have astral plane style crazy detailed acid trip scenery, and the 'Negotiator' involves romance with a gargoyle.
Rob Thurman I tried his/her Carl Leandros series, and while I finished book one, it didn't wow me. Haven't bought book two, and likely won't. An average urban fantasy series, but better stuff is out there. Features two brothers facing a whole smorgasbord of fae-type creatures. Has a vampire too. Nightlife (Cal Leandros, Book 1)
Jaye Wells Main character is a dumb female vampire assassin. I say dumb because of the plotline -- the impatient author writes ancient factions (vampires, mages, fae) with tons of intrigue and then has Group A battle Group B on a large scale because it's dramatic. Two books so far, Red-Headed Stepchild (Sabina Kane, Book 1). An average series, but funny in places. This is decent 'fluffy' urban fantasy, if you like that type.
Karen Chance Cassandra Palmer is a time-travelling priestess of Pythea, and yes, that means the novels are extremely confusing. They contain vampires, demons, cliches, and the author has a hard time welding her plot and pacing together. She randomly tosses minor characters of high plot importance everywhere in her novels. They serve as random deus-ex for the chapter then don't get mentioned much ever again. I don't recommend her stuff. Touch the Dark (Cassandra Palmer, Book 1) is her first book; you've been warned.
Barb & JC Hendee Run away and don't buy the books by this author team. Ok, ok. They are gothic vampire books, both their 'Noble Dead' fantasy world with the female dhampir and the more recent attempt at pure urban fantasy Blood Memories (Vampire Memories, No. 1), featuring a helpless vampire. Good descriptions, retarded plotting. I suppose if you liked Bronte you might like their stuff. Not my style.
Kelly Meding Three Days to Dead (Dreg City, Book 1) starts off following a deceased paranormal cop who is resurrected in a strange body. Great opening, but I found the police procedure amateur and lacking in terms of intelligence. Her hunter teams are supposed to be low profile but keep blowing up parts of their city. Book two locks Meding into the 'repercussions clueless' crowd of authors, with her main character acting like 36+ hours of sleep deprivation doesn't affect her decisions or personality.
Lilith Saintcrow She's another one who tricks you into paranormal romance. Her series start off with Urban fantasy type action but quickly degenerate into romance between a woman and a supernatural creature, usually a demon or devil. She likes to sprinkle in Christian mythology too. I've only tried Dante Valentine Working for the Devil (Dante Valentine, Book 1) and Jill Kismet Night Shift (Jill Kismet, Hunter, Book 1)... in both cases I've dropped the series.
Jennifer Estep The first book, Spider's Bite (Elemental Assassin, Book 1), was an amazing debut. Gin, the tough and smart stone/ice elemental assassin, avenges the death of her mentor. The second book took everything that was great about book one, set it on fire, and stomped on it. The methodically careful Gin with a tough amoral code is now a softie who runs into danger with no planning and no thought of personal gain, and her boyfriend goes from having integrity to being a milksop. I do not recommend this series.
Vicki Pettersson Avoid this author if you are a man! Her novels are bloated and full of females emoting about trivial things while acting dumb and meandering around what might have been an interesting plotline. It's superheroes based on the signs of the zodiac that use magic. The Scent of Shadows (Sign of the Zodiac, Book 1)
Devon Monk Magic to the Bone (Allie Beckstrom, Book 1) fails at characterization, which is a pity, since the idea of magic causing memory loss as a cost was great. Unfortunately, the main character has a way around this, is too perfect, and has no chemistry with the male leads.
Jeanne C. Stein Her chronicles of 'Anna Strong' are about a shallow and emotionally silly heroine who gets turned into a vampire. Another badly plotted paranormal romance (without the bedroom scenes) in the urban fantasy section. Book two is perhaps the worst mystery I've read in my life. No guide link, but do avoid.
Caitlin Kittredge She's written the Black London series starting with "Street Magic" and the Nocturne City series starting with "Night Life". Kittredge can't plot, gets minor details wrong, and has no clue about police procedures. Yep, mains are detectives. Kittredge writes extremely unlikeable 'bad boy' junkie characters as the male romantic interests. So if you are a woman who likes her heroines being treated like trash by their screwed up yet magically bad boys, check these out. They deal with demonology, and I emphatically do not recommend. Books are not even linked in this guide.
Lisa Shearin Magic Lost, Trouble Found (Raine Benares, Book 1) is a pure fantasy written in the first person style of urban fantasy. It's extremely fluffy, and the main character swiftly turns into a mary-sue type girl juggling men as the series continues. Maybe ok as a girl's beach read; not for guys.
Wild Cards, edited by George R.R. Martin Martin is more known for his epic fantasy series "Song of Fire and Ice." The concept -- in 1959 a strange meteor falls on Earth. It releases the Wild Card virus, one that mutates the population. 10% have their genomes rewritten. The majority of the alters are 'Jokers' with hideous deformities, some of which 'drew the black queen' and died from them. The last handful are 'Aces' who gain strange and mysterious superpowers. This is complicated by an alien who shows up and guiltily treats the extraterrestrial plague, though his reasons remain mysterious. There's like 18 volumes, and most are short stories anthologies by a whole cast of authors (including Zelazny, Walter Jon William, Melinda Snodrass, Milan, Kress... really like a 'who's who' of good 1980's sci-fi/fantasy authors). Martin has stories himself, and some later volumes are novels. Wild Cards (v. 1) is experimental superhero genre, or maybe alternative history with weird powers. It's hard to label, so I put it on the bottom. I hesitated in adding it to this guide, though the majority of stories read like urban fantasy and take place in New York City. I would not advise buying this series until you know you like it. 'Wild Cards' is out of print, fairly rare, and the quality of stories vary. Characters like 'The Great and Powerful Turtle,' will always have a place in my heart though.