Thursday, September 16, 2010

On Reading Urban Fantasy

by Jessica

As my colleagues have mentioned at various points, DGLM has its own bookclub. Every couple of months we choose a general category of fiction—for example, Booker Prize winners, young adult novels, debut novels, etc.—and each of us reads a representative work, usually something fairly recently published. It’s a good way to stay in touch with the market, keep tabs on the trends, and broaden our exposure to writers we might not otherwise gravitate toward. This go-round was urban fantasy, a category that I’ve not read, and despite the fact that I had to hide the book’s crimson cover from my always inquisitive four-year-old: “Why, mommy, does that man have such big teeth? And why does that lady have blood on her neck?” I was glad to finally get a glimpse of a genre that has, as we all know, proven tremendously popular. The last vampire novel that I read was Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and before that I’d wager that it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, neither of which offer much insight into the present paranormal trend. After reading my bookclub selection, I did some further investigating—not least trying to figure out why the genre is called “urban fantasy,” which strikes me as an odd and imperfect sort of label. I’ve read a few explanations, but again: Why urban? The fantasy part I get.

So obviously I’m far from expert, but I find it interesting that the romantic tropes are fairly similar to non-paranormal romance: the heroine must discover her own heart and secure the love of a brooding, mysterious, slightly-threatening-but-ultimately-good man. The surrounding stakes, however, are a good bit higher (and where the undead are concerned, sharper). Here the conflicts are cosmic in scope. To proceed to her happily-ever-after, the heroine must dispatch demons, fight the armies of evil, and often save the planet. The domestic space that was once the usual canvas for women’s fiction is not quite big enough to contain the kind of challenges these women face, nor are these ladies simply resilient—they are physically powerful, sometimes lethal, and pretty much undaunted by gore. At risk of reading too much into the present trend, I wonder if the epic nature of the conflicts in which these fictional women triumph does not, in some small way reflect the way real women view their own less fantastical, but perhaps no less challenging, lives. Indeed, there’s something appealing about the notion of seeing myself as the action hero of my own story. In which case, I’m off to battle the forces of darkness, one pitch letter/contract clause at a time.

If you are a reader of urban fantasy, I’d love to hear what you love about it.


  1. The story line in a fine urban fantasy has no boundaries. Epic/high fantasy is great but I have to learn a new language to understand it. The world of UF is familiar, I can relate to it or as much as I can to any werewolf, vampire crawling, ghost and demon world, I guess.

    With commercial lit and urban fantasy, it’s the difference between country music and hard rock. I can listen and enjoy Lady Antebellum but they don’t billow my sails like Nickelback.

  2. I have a friend who was very disappointed to learn that 'urban fantasy' wasn't about African-American Elves.

  3. I think it became Urban Fantasy mostly because it was easier to say than Contemporary Fantasy. And Urban Fantasy is usually a little different from Paranormal Romance (in that UF doesn't always end in a relationship HEA)so it couldn't just take over that title.

    Hallmarks of both seem to be a mix of tech or modern world and fantastic elements, started, I think, with Anne Rice, Tanya Huff, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Kim Harrison. Other current favorites of mine are Patricia Briggs and Jim Butcher. I'm not so good at knowing the names of Paranormal Romance writers because theirs, with the HEA, are usually one-offs rather than the series that have become common in UF.

    I like the escapism provided by the paranormal elements and the fact that in these stories the women can take care of themselves. No waiting to be rescued, no white knights (well, except in Butcher's stories and then it's a faerie term). I like the mix of fantasy and tech.

    UF is for people who wouldn't give up their computers without a fight, but who like a little magic to go with it.

  4. Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres to read, as well as my favorite to write--though I stay away from vampires in my own stories.

    I think it's popular as a romance category because vampires (and werewolves, gargoyles, faeries, etc.) are the ultimate alpha males. No matter how liberated women may be, there's something about an alpha male that makes us a bit weak in the knees. Throw in the bad boy aspect that is pretty well a given if you're dealing with vampires and you have a recipe for swoon soup.

    And the kick ass heroines are great too. I've always admired women who can take care of themselves, and keep those alpha males in line.

  5. "No matter how liberated women may be, there's something about an alpha male that makes us a bit weak in the knees."

    One of the standard reasons given for the success of Star Wars is that by 1977, audiences found Cowboys versus Indians stories distasteful and, post-Vietnam, had no stomach for war movies set during real wars. Making it a fantasy made it possible to have heroes running around shooting bad guys again.

    I think the various period and time travel romance novels are the same thing. They allow post-feminist characters to be swept off their feet.

    Urban fantasy's meant to be more rooted in the contemporary world, but there always seems to be an alpha male ready to pounce. The fantasy elements are, by their nature, old and so old-fashioned. So there is still that time travel element.

    There does seem to be a strong element of having cake and eating it - strong professional women who fall quickly into old romantic models:

    The logistics of that one ... is a 'granite strong touch' really what a woman wants? Sounds a little painful.

  6. Interesting post. I had a hard time defining the genre of one of my manuscripts, but when I read the synopsis to my writer group, they all said it was urban fantasy. Maybe it'll find a home.

  7. Katherine Isham23/9/10 4:27 PM

    As a longtime (well, as longtime as you can be at 25) writer/reader of urban fantasy, it's surprising to me to hear urban fantasy paired so closely with paranormal romance. Not that paranormal romance doesn't have it's place in that genre! I think it's just the first time I've realized people think of these genres as so related now.

    but to me, the urban fantasy trend definitely looms a bit larger than just paranormal romance and even "modern-day vampire" stories. The classic Urban Fantasy author is usually considered to be Charles deLint ( and his Newford books. Those books posit the idea of a city as being a living, breathing thing in a sense, and the idea that the fantastic races or creatures that are a part of that city are organically connected to it. Another genre definer for Urban Fantasy is _War for the Oaks_ by Emma Bull, where the atmosphere of Minneapolis is almost as big of a part of the story as the Eddi's interactions with its Faerie inhabitants.

    It can also sometimes be problematic to tie Urban Fantasy to "contemporary" fantasy, because quite often books in this genre are *not* contemporary. For example, Soulless ( fits nicely within the Urban Fantasy genre, though it takes place in the 1800's.

    That being said, genre is a fluid thing, and Urban Fantasy's rise into the mainstream means that what constitutes the borders of this genre is increasingly becoming blurred and unclear. Not to mention that I agree with you that it can get problematic when you have a book that's a "modern fantasy" but can hardly be considered "urban"! Either way, as a lover of the genre, it's exciting to see so many newcomers to this field, both readers and authors.


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