Genres Part Four – Urban Fantasy

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“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.

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19 comments to Genres Part Four – Urban Fantasy

  • Great genre updates, Misty.

    I’ve sort of rethought my take on Urban Fantasy after reading Mean Streets. Like any genre, there are some good, some bad, and some excellent. The key is finding what you like and enjoying it.

    I’ve also finally written a little urban fantasy about a dryad detective who has to hide evidence of fae victims, even if it ruins her case.

    Cheers,
    NGD

  • I’ve been enjoying your breakdown of genres. This one in particular is fascinating, especially because it is a genre that kind of evolved into existence over many years, books, and authors. Unlike say, cyberpunk, which kind of happened with Neuromancer — pop, new genre in place. I also find UF interesting because there is a parallel growth of the paranormal romance genre which is essentially the same elements just in different proportions. For that matter, horror and UF (and dark fantasy) can sometimes be shades of each other. It really shows you how the difference in emphasis can alter the genre.

  • Stuart, you’re exactly right. It’s all about nuance and emphasis.

    Dave, I’m rather fond of the whole supernatural detective subset of UF myself, so your dryad investigator sounds like fun!

  • WRT to the Supernatural detective/cop thing, which also seems to mix heavily with the romance… I have to wonder… is there room in Urban Fantasy for stuff that’s not supernatural detectives in steamy romances with vampires or werewolves? Sometimes, it seems to me that’s all there is to Urban Fantasy – but the name of the genre implies so much more – at least in theory, any time the world of magic, myth, or the supernatural crosses with a contemporary urban setting, that could be Urban Fantasy.

    I just can’t think of any immediate examples from the genre that don’t involve the detective/cop/demon-hunter type trope or the supernatural romance trope (and usually both). Admittedly, I’m not widely read in this particular subgenre as yet… So, does anyone have any examples they can share?

  • Misty, I’m interested in the fact that UF started as an offshoot of contemporary fantasy — because I don’t seem to hear many references to CF at all, and at times UF seems to have replaced CF, that they mean the same thing and everyone just calls it UF now. Is there still a market for contemporary fantasy, or is most CF just UF now? What CF *doesn’t* fall into the UF category?

  • Misty, I’m with you on the detective stuff.
    There’s a lot of mystery / thriller crossover. 🙂

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @ StephenAW: Check out Robin McKinley’s “Sunshine”. The main character is a baker, and while one vampire could be called an intriguing ally, her vampires are still monster enough that one does NOT sleep with them. Also, take a look at what other traditional fantasy authors have done in the UF genre as the results are often different from the romance/detective mold that you’re talking about, e.g., Tad Williams “War of the Flowers”.

    I agree it is interesting to see what other genres can sort of bleed into UF. Probably a number of Dean Koontz’s books could happily be shelved as UF these days, particularly the comic ones, like “Tick Tock” – though his books still deal with the super-natural as unusual rather than everyday phenomena. At the same time, other books that would traditionally have been labeled UF seem to be getting moved over into CF – such as the stuff by Charles DeLint – because of the specific (action,romance,…) tropes that UF has been embracing.

  • Great stuff, Misty. I found myself jotting down titles and authors — things and people I’d heard of but not yet read. Lots of books to add to the TBR pile!

  • I read this little vampire story that was contemporary when it was written, and had somewhat of an investigative edge to it. The vampire could be considered romantic, but that may be a stretch.

    I think it was called Dracula by Bram Stoker.

    The protagonists didn’t have much in the way of magic on their side, and it ultimately was scary, so, well…it probably doesn’t fall into that darn UF genre fully.

  • Stephen, yes, there is an overabundance of vampire UF on the shelves right now, and it’s not looking like it’s going anywhere. As Stuart pointed out, a lot of what makes a genre is in the reader’s eye, so one kind of UF might be called something else. But with the general definition being “takes place in a city”, and without the steamy romancepires, I can recommend Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series, and Glen Cook’s Garrett PI series (okay, yeah, he’s a detective, but not the standard UF sort.) You can also try the latest Bordertown anthology that I mentioned in the post – there are a couple of stories with vampires, but they’re by no means the main focus.

  • Laura, while UF is wicked huge right now, and doesn’t look to be diminishing any time soon, I do think there’s a market for contemporary fantasy. Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Tim Powers, James Blaylock, Sergei Lukyanenko are all selling contemporary work which isn’t necessarily UF and doing just fine. I think it all comes down to the same formula – author writes a great book and an agent who loves it sells it to an editor who believes in it. The subgenres may rise and fall in popularity, but sales are still possible even if one subgenre is on the down side for a while.

  • Interesting article. I’ve read very little UF though I do have a growing TBR pile. I do have an idea for a story that I thought was UF but after reading this I’m beginning to thing it might fall more into the Contemporary Fiction category. It has many supernatural elements in it but is mostly based in the Fingerlakes region of NY, which is mostly mountains, farms, vineyards, small towns and the like.

    While the bookstore would put it in the SFF section as far as marketability goes (which is a subset of this whole series of posts) I’d have to really think about that.

    Thanks for giving me lots to think about here. Its important to know how to categorize something you’re going to write so this article – this whole series on genre – helps.

  • Thanks, Misty. That’s great to hear.

  • Another of the early UF writers who blended vampires, romance, and an urban setting was Karen E. Taylor. Her protagonist was a vampire who wanted desperately to be normal.

  • CE, you’re right – while it’s vital to know what your subgenre is while you’re trying to pitch it to agents and editors, it’s somewhat less of an issue once you’re at bookstore level, because the best a bookstore will do is place it in ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’.
    But the marketability doesn’t end with selling to the publisher, since there are readers who search out specific subgenres of fantasy. Part of your online promotional work will have to include targeting those sorts of readers, to let them know something they might love is coming down the pike. 😀

    I’ve never been to the Finger Lakes region, but my son brought back tons of pictures from a Boy Scout canoe trip he took in that area, and it’s very beautiful!

  • Misty> Great post. I think you hit UF perfectly!

    Steven Watkins> If you’re looking for what I’d call kind of UF, but without detectives or romance, look at Terry Pratchett’s Disc World. The Vimes stories are UF, though he is a police man. It is set in a fantasy world, preindustrial (or at least pre-electricity), but it certainly is urban.

    Other early urban fantasy… well, there’s Beowulf. Urban city (as urban as it got back then) attacked by a big scary monster, his mother, and then another city attacked by a dragon. Pretty UF, though they do tend to go out into the wilderness to fight the monsters… I’ve also heard compelling arguments that Harry Potter is UF, too.

    I like the UF genre, and I write in the UF genre–mostly. I think that what I’m writing with Sarah is UF, but it is sort of epic UF, or high UF. Our MC crosses from the present now into the present now in faerie, which is in the big city. Everything works differently, of course, because it is magic, not iron and technology, but it is still contemporary and urban. 🙂

  • A mystery is the driving plot in urban fantasy. By driving plot I mean the plot the main character follows to achieve his/her goal. The fantasy elements are the building blocks of the world and the characters.

    Mysteries by themselves have many varieties including the cozy and the detective novel, the police procedural, the spy novel, and the thriller.

    Each type of mystery has urban fantasy and paranormal mystery equivalents. Here are some examples.

    PROFESSIONAL AMATEUR DETECTIVE: A professional in a specific setting uses his insider information to solve a crime. The Dick Francis novels about horse racing are a good example.

     Marjorie M. Liu’s   “Hunter Kiss” series. The heroine’s job is to kill demons, and she must solve mysteries involving them.

    Charlaine Harris’ GRAVE series. The heroine is able to find dead bodies and experience the last moments of the person’s death. She often works with police departments and grieving relatives to help solve murders.

    POLICE PROCEDURAL: Think LAW AND ORDER or any serious cop show.

    Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson series

    Anton Strout’s DEAD series., Paranormal NYC government agency which takes care of paranormal threats and covers them up. Hero Simon is an ex-thief who uses psychometry to read objects.

    CE Murphy series. Shaman cop Joanne Walker.

    HISTORICAL: Crime-solving people in the past.

    Sarah Jane Stratford’s THE MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN. An historical spy novel with vampires. English vampires discover that Hitler’s “final solution” includes vampires so they go into Germany to stop the Nazis.

    PN Elrod series. Vampire PI in 1930s Chicago.

    PRIVATE EYE:

    Many of Kelley Armstrong’s “The Otherworld Series.”   

    Kat Richardson’s Greywalker novels.

    Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files.”

    THE FORENSICS MYSTERY: CSI, the novel.

    Laura Anne Gilman’s HARD MAGIC.    Magic (the current/electricity) is seen as a science with spells.  A group of young Talents is brought together to create the first forensic magic investigative team. 

    THE SPY NOVEL:

    Simon R. Green’s Eddie Drood novels.

  • So what would you call a fantasy in a contemporary setting (a small town and surrounding villages rather than a city), where there is no mystery/noir element but there are strong romantic elements without a happy ending? Oh, and no magic, just monsters trying to stay below radar.

    Is this where the genre called paranormal comes in?