Reading Urban Fantasy by Andreé Robinson-Neal

It is wrong to assume that everyone who picks up or (for those who prefer tablets or other devices) clicks on an urban fantasy book has the same understanding of the genre. UF is distinguished from other types of fantasy writing by the contemporary, Earth-bound setting. Beyond that, the experience of reading urban fantasy and defining it becomes more nebulous.

The fantastical content within UF should not be confused with that found through the locales and personages in high fantasy classics such as Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, or Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy. There is a distinctly European or medieval flavor to high fantasy from which UF departs. Rather, urban fantasy includes similar supernatural elements in more modern surroundings. The carriages, stables, and forests are often replaced by Chevy’s, parking decks, and office buildings. But not always. Hence the dilemma.
The seminal works seem to suggest that the story should be located in metropolitan living spaces or other highly populated areas. Consider de Lint’s Sara and Jamie and their Ottowa-like environs in Moonheart, or Hamilton’s St. Louis-dwelling Anita Blake in Vampire Hunter; the descriptions of place are familiar to any reader who knows anything about the cities of Western society. Many UF purists insist that at a minimum, the protagonist should live or work in a city, and that he or she must present in a particular way. Take for example the description offered in Fantasy Faction‘s “Urban Fantasy Versus Paranormal Romance” post:

An urban fantasy’s plot is the same as any fantasy: good versus evil, saving the world, etc. The subgenre usually involves a city-dwelling protagonist who is able to work magic and/or is of supernatural heritage. It may or may not have a romance element. Most do, but as a subplot or backdrop to the main action plot. For this reason, some believe the romance element of urban fantasy does not need to follow the requisites of true romance, adhering to the happily-ever-after ending.

Interesting. And while the article was written in 2013, one could suggest “not so much.”

The Los Angeles (or Philadelphia or London or Chicago or Tampa or NYC) or Fill-In-Your-City-Here location remains a consistent element that defines the “urban” in UF but romance is not a given. Ask Harry Dresden, protagonist in Butcher’s Dresden Files series of novels. While Mr. Dresden is Chicago’s only professional wizard, romance is not on his docket. As the UF scene continues to evolve, romance may become less of a “thing” within the genre. Or maybe not.

Or perhaps such changes occur because of what readers come to expect. Maybe the degree of romance becomes defined by readers more than by authors or publishers. For lovers of UF, such tendencies toward romance may no longer be defined by heaving bosoms and flowing yet soon-to-be-removed gowns. After all, Tolkien’s Gollum could be said to have had a romantic involvement with that ring; it’s all in the eye of the beholder, right?

Just as romance is not a requisite part of the UF storyline, it is equally important to note that the action does not have to take place in a city, despite what “urban” suggests. The protagonist may spend much of his or her time in the suburbs, in the mid-west, at the beach, or somewhere off Main Street; the non-urban settings serve as exciting new backdrops for elves, vampires, or witches. In this way, UF continues to step away from its roots in ways that go beyond traditional settings.

The joy of reading urban fantasy is the experience of placing self within the story. While it may not be too difficult to imagine how a character feels when meeting a werewolf along a dark stretch of wooded lane, it is even easier to imagine how a UF character would feel meeting a werewolf at the Fifth Avenue bus stop—particularly if the bus stop in the story reminds you of your own. Your experience at the local Starbucks may change after reading of someone whose latte is conjured by a recently-hired witch at their coffee shop.

Changes in societal norms lead to changes in genres. The protagonists in urban fantasy novels and stories go beyond the gumshoe-meets-Dracula concept. The stories are becoming edgier and more inclusive. Take for example the stories collected in Scheherazade’s Facade that offer magic, dragons, and other fantasy elements combined with cross-dressing and gender-defying characters. Patricia Briggs offers a view of gay relationships in her Mercy Thompson series in which her characters Warren and Kyle present issues that seem typical of the challenges found in anybody’s union. Except Warren is a werewolf and his mate, Kyle, is human.

The question arises whether readers need a tried-and-true definition of urban fantasy. We can use a litmus test to determine if we are reading something in the UF category: if the story takes place in a contemporary (rural, suburban, or urban) setting, and includes a fantastical element (with or without romance as a sub-plot), there is a decent chance the story is urban fantasy. If the story takes place in a medieval location or off-Earth, if there are no fantastical elements (no magic or supernatural activities or beasts), or if the primary focus is romance, we are probably safe to check the “not so much” box.

Regardless of the city-versus-country or romance-versus-no-romance argument, the urban fantasy genre has something to offer all readers. There are classic works for traditionalists who prefer to stick with a magic-wielding, city-dwelling protagonist, alongside works by nouveau novelists who break the boundaries of gender, orientation, and location. Whether you want to explore unmasqued worlds, elf punk, or legends and reality, urban fiction has much to offer.


AR NealANDREÉ ROBINSON-NEAL got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury–both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.


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3 thoughts on “Reading Urban Fantasy by Andreé Robinson-Neal

  • November 16, 2014 at 11:29 pm
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    This is an interesting analysis of the elements of urban fantasy, which is by far my favorite genre, and the one within which I’d classify most of my work.

    I think you have it largely right. While it’s called ‘urban’ fantasy, it seems generally accepted to count anything that’s set in the contemporary period with some sort of anchor in real places and things, even if it’s not happening in a true ‘urban’ setting.

    I’m not so sure about the romance part. I’d happily read urban fantasy where there was no romantic element and never hesitate to call it UF… though to be honest I’m not coming up with any examples right off the top of my head.

    Where I struggle is when there are monsters or other fantastic creatures or other elements of high fantasy that bleed over into the ‘real world.’ Can you have dragons or elves or dwarves in urban fantasy? Do vampires and werewolves count as exceptions? On the flip side, if no one is casting magical spells but there’s a parallel world or other paranormal/supernatural element, is it still UF, or is it something else?

    How might we classify the Harry Potter novels? Are they a form of urban fantasy? Thinking on that, I’d certainly classify Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’ as UF so I suppose HP would be as well?

    Reply
    • November 22, 2014 at 11:38 am
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      Hi Jackie! Yes — I agree that the ‘urban’ part of Urban Fantasy has certainly changed over time, but as the articles out there suggest, the concensus is still lacking beyond a contemporary setting and real places and things.

      As far as HP is concerned, folks seem to argue that it is contemporary fantasy as opposed to UF.

      Reply
  • November 17, 2014 at 3:00 am
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    I think HP isn’t “gritty” enough for Urban Fantasy. If it only took place in Diagon Alley and the like and if real world and HP-world meshed more closely (Hermione using her cell phone to call for help etc.), it would be a better fit. I think.

    Reply

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