I have been set a task by with wizards of FantasyCon–a quest that appears impossible at the outset—to define “urban fantasy” and make it stand out as a genre. But as with the heroines of all good fantasy I must give it my best shot.
Unlike those genres that can trace their lineage to Beowolf, this is a new phenomenon, having taken root in the 1990s. Among the authors who have staked the territory most clearly are Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), Laurell K. Hamilton (Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter), Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere), Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles) and J.K. Rowlings (Harry Potter). And that diversity alone ought to give you some idea of the long odds on my quest.
It is often said that urban fantasy is simply urban, that its entire claim to fame is in the fact that it is set in cities and towns. But many other fantasy stories are set in cities past and present, and that doesn’t make such stories “urban fantasy.” Most urban fantasy is based in an industrialized or post-industrial setting and as a natural consequence it is mostly urban (because so is most of the population in such societies). And yet sometimes the story is about the fact that characters are forced out of the urban world to hide in what is left of the wilderness.
So, I’ll take another tack here. Urban fantasy isn’t only about setting. It’s a contemporary and urban form of mundane fantasy. The excellent genre-definition site bestfantasybooks.com defines “mundane fantasy” by saying it will not satisfy readers who primarily want to escape from mundane reality. Instead, “if perhaps you want to find a bit of fantasy within the mundane, maybe this sub-genre will be for you.”
And that is where urban fantasy shines. Of all fantasy genres, urban fantasy is the most close to home. A good urban fantasy tale should send shivers down your spine and make you think reality might just change the next time you step outside your door. It should cause you to look at the impassive faces on the subway during your morning commute and think, “Yes, I can see where it comes from.” It should hint that something inexplicable could happen at any moment in a banal industrial cityscape. It should transform the alleyways of a small, ordinary town into a setting for the terrible and wondrous.
In short, if high fantasy let’s you escape from your life while you read, urban fantasy captures you and invades your thoughts even when you are not reading.
Most urban fantasy is set on earth in modern or nearly modern times. It often either begins with a character who believes they live in the mundane world or with a character who must hide magic from those who don’t know about it. Its setting is important because it should mirror something very real and familiar in order to draw the reader into a web of “what if” questions that render the fantasy eerily plausible.
While all children know that Harry Potter’s magic isn’t real, they love the idea that a magical world is hiding in the city streets all around them, that a secret world could be just between the railway platforms or out the back of a local bookshop. And urban fantasy isn’t just for children and young adults.
Another way that some have tried to pigeonhole urban fantasy has been to say that it is shallow and lacking in social substance. This comes from a few popular associations but often they are misleading and belong as much to other genres as they do to urban fantasy. And look again even at Harry Potter. It may be a children’s series but the social and moral commentary run deep beyond what is usually preached at children.
Urban fantasy may not be famous for attacking huge societal issues or epic struggles yet, but I believe this is only because the other side of urban fantasy, where it connects with sci-fi fantasy, social sci fi and dystopian genres has been insufficiently explored. The defining factor in urban fantasy is its ability to seep into the reader’s world rather than forcing the reader to suspend disbelief. It poses a danger to those who have difficulty separating fantasy and reality because it mixes the two so well. It is no surprise that many urban fantasy narratives include an urban bookstore as a crucial location, given that bookstores are one place we can guarantee readers frequent. It is therefore easy for the urban fantasy writer to grab the reader’s reality with such a setting and slurp them down the rabbit hole.
Urban fantasy has the potential to be a deep literary and social genre precisely because of how it intersects with reality. There’s a wealth of possibility to explore in this sub-genre. It is a new genre and as such its depths have yet to be explored. The bestfantasybooks.com definition reads, “Urban Fantasy doesn’t play by the rules.”
Arie Farnam is a former war correspondent and urban documentary filmmaker turned fantasy writer living in Prague. She is the author of The Kyrennei Series (Book One is The Soul and the Seed), which presents a frighteningly realistic–yet fantastical–alternative take on contemporary international affairs and social dynamics. Combine the forgotten existence of a magical nonhuman race and a clandestine telepathic power cult with the emotional impact of literary fiction and you get an electrifying tale. When not setting keyboards on fire with speed typing, Farnam practices urban homesteading, chases her two awesome children and concocts herbal medicines.