“Texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect, and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.” – John Clute and John Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Urban fantasy, while once merely a subgenre of fantasy, has become its own genre. Once upon a time, it was an offshoot of contemporary fantasy, and indicated that the story took place in a city. It still means that, but has become so much more, as anyone who’s wandered into a bookstore lately can tell you. Urban fantasy has an unusually wide audience, appealing to not only fantasy readers but also to romance readers, which grants it successful crossover strength. Yes, I said romance. I know a few of you are sneering at the idea of yucky romance, but one thing urban fantasy does well is make a monster romantic. Think about it…before the rise of urban fantasy, vampires were, for the most part, to be avoided. No one would think of letting one get close enough for a kiss. But now some of the best romantic characters are the monsters themselves. (Yes, me, too – I’m a Spike girl from way back.) The talented urban fantasy writer is able to overcome that natural aversion to danger to make his monstrous characters attractive to the reader.
The genre usually involves a city-dwelling protagonist who’s either able to work magic or is somehow of supernatural heritage (or maybe both). The world of urban fantasy tends to be dark, although the level of darkness can differ with each author’s world. (Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels are dark enough to almost qualify as horror.) And most importantly, the world of urban fantasy generally features vampires, fallen angels or other dangerous creatures living out in the open and even serving as romantic interests.
Many think that urban fantasy got its start in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and credit Laurel K Hamilton with giving the genre its distinctive voice. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series introduced many fantasy readers to a darker, grittier, sexier kind of magical world, one in which magic isn’t a dream but a means to an end, a tool to be wielded by the protagonist to reach her goals. Anita Blake exploded onto the scene with guns blazing, strong and able to defend herself but with a softness that allowed her to experience desire and love. This kind of woman deserved more than an ordinary boyfriend, and she got one. Or two. Hamilton’s vampires were still dangerous, but alluring at the same time. For women coming off of the post-feminist era, desiring all the perks of being “the little woman” but also determined not to let anyone hold them back, Anita Blake was the kind of hero they’d been waiting for.
Some believe that credit should fall to Anne Rice, with her excellent Interview With The Vampire in 1976. When the book first appeared, it was shelved in horror. Where else would a story about a bloodsucking monster belong? Only years later, after many reprints of the book, unexpected sequels and a well-received movie, did people begin saying that Anne Rice had created a new genre. Whether she is the origin or not, the book belongs in the category and is considered a classic of fantasy today.
Considering its similarities to contemporary fantasy, perhaps one might say that urban fantasy is a direct offshoot of editor Terri Windling’s shared world of Bordertown, the city that sits between the Realm where the fae dwell and the World of humanity. In 1985, Windling was asked to create a shared-world antholgy for teenagers (there wasn’t a separate YA genre back then.) She ran with the idea, inviting authors Ellen Kushner, Midori Snyder, Charles de Lint, Will Shetterly and Emma Bull to join her in building the amazing, sometimes dystopic world of the city in between. Recently the team came together again to release a new collection of stories from the edge, Welcome to Bordertown.
Regardless of who’s responsible, we can all agree that urban fantasy has carved out its own niche in the fantasy market. These days there are as many sorts of urban fantasy as there are subgenres of fantasy itself. Vampires and werewolves and witches abound, along with the Sidhe, fallen angels and shapeshifters. Urban fantasy’s readership is intensely loyal and hungry for more books all the time, so it’s definitely a good genre choice for the writer with a great idea and an individual voice.