Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What is "Urban Fantasy" to you?

Before I get started, I want to mention that I am really looking forward to the debut novel by Jaye Wells titled Red-Headed Stepchild. The buzz about this book is exceptional. There is a contest over at Amberkatze’s Book Blog. So head over there and enter and you may win a copy. Red-Headed Stepchild has a March 31, 2009 release date.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog (which is 2 days late):

The blogosphere is replete with discussions about Urban Fantasy, well the part of the blogosphere I seem to read regularly. It seems that the definition of “Urban Fantasy” is murky. Let’s parse this if we can –

Fantasy – Fiction characterized by highly fanciful or supernatural elements.*

Urban – Of, relating to, or located in a city.*

That gives us a very rough approximation of Urban Fantasy (UF) – a fictional work with highly fanciful or supernatural elements in which the locale is a city. It's not a horrible definition but it is lacking. It reminds me of the saying – all generalizations are false including this one.

I think my view of and the way I would like to define UF is influenced by the way I came to UF. I generally don’t like Fantasy, especially Epic Fantasy. I’ve read and enjoyed series by Anne McCaffrey, Katherine Kurtz and others. None of those books have remained in my personal library. I do love Thomas Burnett Swann’s books. I perhaps should not admit this, but I’ve never been able to read The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t even make it all the way through The Hobbit.

I much preferred to read H.P. Lovecraft, Machen, and Hodgson to reading fantasy as I was growing up. Later I found Elaine Bergstrom’s Austra Vampire series, Poppy Z. Brite, and Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series among others. I’m also a huge fan of dystopias (Animal Farm, The Overman Culture, R.U.R., We, Brave New World, etc.).

I came to Urban Fantasy because of the paranormal element. And I came to it from horror. I’m not going to argue, tempting as it might be, that it is more closely aligned with horror than fantasy although I reserve the right to do so at a later date. It is called Urban Fantasy. I also perceive a dystopian element lurking in some of the stories. Things are simply not as good as they seem.

Is there such a thing as Urban Farror (Urban Fantasy Horror)? There are some scary things in many of these novels. I'd certainly like to have Urban Farror as a subgenre.

So how do we define UF?

Does it have to be set in modern times or simply in a real place that exists or has existed?
Does it have to take place in a city?
Does it have to have a kick ass heroine?
Can it have some semblance of an HEA or is the HEA strictly forbidden?
Do we exclude or include novels that are primarily mysteries?
How many subgenres of UF presently exist?

I have many more questions about the definition of UF than I have answers, obviously.

So what defines UF? I just don’t know because it’s a genre that has existed for quite a while, seems to include many subgenres, and is still evolving. I think I’ll borrow a line from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, "I know it when I see it" ... or at least I think I do.

Qwill’s Qwestions: What defines UF for you? What’s your favorite UF book or series and why do you like it?

*From the American Heritage Dictionary. It's the dictionary that I prefer because it has awesome etymologies.


  1. I've always thought of Urban Fantasy as stories set in the known world as though fantastical elements were real. So, an author takes a city (Jim Butcher's Chicago, Kim Harrison's Cincinnati, Mark Henry's Seattle) and populate it with wizards, witches, zombies, and so forth.

    And Urban Fantasy does not require happy endings, just satisfactory ones. That's why books like mine, set in the real world with magical elements, are considered paranormal romance. Because the romance is central component to the story as well as the happy ending.

    Good blog, Qwill!

  2. Quill, I like what Michele said. I have always had trouble figuring out the difference between paranormal, but if what she said is true, then yes her books are paranormal but Patricia Briggs must be Urban Fantasy because there is little romance but satisfactory endings.

  3. I agree Michele. No HEAs in UF or it's called ParaRom. But I still wonder if it's UF if it's set in the known medieval world or some other historical time - Historical UF?

  4. Hi, Pat. Patricia Briggs is definitely UF. I get the basic premise of UF, I'm searching for the edges of the genre and it's genesis. Along with the authors that Michele mentioned, Anton Strout writes great UF set in NYC. And there are plenty of other authors that write UF.

  5. I'm not sure I could define it if I tried. I just love to read and try not to put things into genres unless I'm in the mood for a certain kind of book, you know? However, that said, I LOVE URBAN FANTASY! Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, Patricia Briggs, Carrie Vaughn, you name it!