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What is Urban Fantasy? Monsters, Transgression, and Kicking Ass

Posted in book covers, Culture, fairy tales, fantasy, feminism, Fiction, folkloric motifs, genre fiction, Literature, mythology, Paranormal Fantasy, and Urban Fantasy

Best Urban Fantasy Books

It All Started in the 1980s

What is Urban Fantasy? While fantastical stories set in urban environments appear in 19th century literature (think of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula in London or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and even as far back as antiquity (consider the adventures recounted in Apuleius’s Golden Ass), the genre which we recognize today as ‘urban fantasy’ emerged in the 1980s. It’s no exaggeration to say urban fantasy has altered the perception and meaning of the monstrous and the supernatural in contemporary culture.

While it’s true that Mary Shelley’s monster, despite his inherent corruption, is a more pathetic figure than anything else, and that certain folkloric traditions cast the creatures called ‘shifters’ – werewolves, werebears, selkies – as sympathetic characters, the monster-as-hero or heroine has its origins in the transgressive literature of urban fantasy.

Frankenstein and Dracula

A Game-Changing Genre

Some quarters of the established publishing industry and academia found it hard to take urban fantasy seriously (until they realized how much money they could make from it). But it has proved its widespread and enduring popular appeal, as its tropes and story lines have translated themselves beyond the written word, and found commercial success in multimedia gaming, television, film, and graphic novels. The genre may no longer be promoted, but it has a dedicated and voracious following.

Most of us recognize that urban fantasy has been a game changer. Like the underground, shape-shifting protagonists which populate its streets and sewers, as a genre it defies a single, absolute definition. On the surface, the question, “What is Urban Fantasy?” may seem simple. But it is actually rather complex. Urban fantasy as nothing more than ‘fantasy set in an urban environment’ unravels once you read widely in the genre. And the genre is wide indeed, ranging from works by mainstream authors such as Neil Gaiman, to obscure, independently published authors with dedicated cult followings.

Urban Fantasy Reads

This problem of definition is clear once you look for the genre in libraries, high street bookstores, and even online. No two curators quite agree on where these works should be shelved.  A sub-genre known as ‘paranormal romance’ may have a section to itself, but you will find the same books cropping up in romance, historical fiction, fantasy, horror and science-fiction sections of the store. Urban fantasy even pops up in crime. Awkward as this may be for librarians and booksellers, it’s in keeping with the rule-breaking, boundary defying, transgressive nature of the literature itself.

What is Urban Fantasy?

A Shape-shifting Paradox

The nature of urban fantasy makes it hard to be specific and delimit its primary parameters or circumscribe its conventions in a simple statement of fact. Any understanding of the urban fantasy genre must embrace alternative perspectives, diverse interpretations, and multifaceted mapping of its literary and cultural evolution.

I’d like to point out that while the indistinct boundaries and shifting topography of the urban fantasy landscape are stumbling blocks to curators and other authorities, it’s this quality of transgression, its refusal to be pigeonholed, itemized, and labelled, which fuels the engines driving its continued popular appeal, and so commercial success.

I don’t want to engage in a quest to arrive at an absolute and final definition of what urban fantasy is. But I do want to examine how we recognize it when we see it.

Urban Fantasy Books

The term was first used in the 1980s. The key identifying feature of those early works was introducing magical or folkloric elements into a fictionalized modern, often urban, setting. In the early days the protagonist was almost always human and encountered magical beings as part of an excursion into a hidden underworld or forbidden Otherworld scenario. The magical beings were not vampires, werewolves and gargoyles, but rather elves, fairies, witches and wizards.

Borderlands, edited by Terri Windling

The pioneers of urban fantasy in the 1980s such as Terri Windling (The Wood Wife), Charles deLint, Emma Bull, Mercedes Lackey, and Francesca Lia Block (Dangerous Angels & The Elementals), draw on traditional Celtic folklore, rather than 19th century Gothic tales, for inspiration. Terri Windling, as editor and writer, was and is an influential figure in the history of the genre.

Life on the Border - Terri WindlingJack the Giant Killer - Charles deLintEmma Bull Bone Dance

The Influence of Celtic Myth and Gothic Romance

But it wasn’t just a shared love of Celtic myth and folklore which characterized the work of these early urban fantasy authors. There were thematic commonalities, too. The hybridization of fantasy elements with modern urban settings served as a backdrop against which to explore, and question, the accepted boundaries between fact and fantasy, individual and society, self and other. All these early works show a common concern with issues relating to identity and the social order. In the ancient fairy mythologies, the Otherworld is a place of ever-shifting appearances and moral ambiguity. It’s perhaps no surprise that this literature should have emerged during a time of radical social and ideological change in the Western world.

While the fairy tale influence on urban fantasy is still alive and well, there’s a new trend in which the protagonists themselves are transformed into vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings. The plots of these more recent incarnations of the urban fantasy genre further blur the boundaries by hybridizing fantasy, historical, crime fiction, steampunk, and science-fiction elements.

More loosely, the term urban fantasy also applies to ‘weird fiction’ as exemplified by authors such as Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, and perhaps Tim Powers.

Urban fantasy by China Mieville

Fusion or Confusion?

At first glance it may be difficult to marry these two together. Some consider them to be distinct genres, having emerged with separate but convergent lines of evolution. On the one hand you have the “traditional” urban fantasy inspired by European myth and fairy tales, in which the protagonist is human and the story revolves around the relationship between the self and the other; and then you have “contemporary” urban fantasy in which the protagonist is herself a magical being – vampire, werewolf, witch, dragon, or fairy – and has to use her powers to solve a crime or mystery. In contemporary urban fantasy, the first person point of view delivers unreliable narrators who themselves may be on the wrong side of the law.

Popular Urban Fantasy Books

But it’s likely that those writing contemporary urban fantasy were avid readers of traditional urban fantasy. That’s my case. And as a reader, I can see what binds these two strands together in a single thread despite their differences. They’re both hybrid forms, using the incursion of fantastical elements into a contemporary environment to explore, question, and challenge traditional boundaries of identity, morality, social roles, beliefs, and responsibilities.

Themes of Ethics and Identity

In traditional urban fantasy, ethics and identity become ambiguous as the human protagonist confronts the fluctuating, ephemeral world of fairy. Contemporary urban fantasy challenges traditional notions of good and evil, self and other, normality and monstrosity, with increasingly humanized monsters, and the choices protagonists must make have no clear moral context. The urban fantasy of the 1980s expressed the values of the mythic arts movement and carried forward an ancient tradition to a modern readership. But contemporary urban fantasy has turned tradition on its head and created something altogether new. Compare the 19th century vision of the vampire as all-that-is-evil flinching from the sign of the cross, and the modern sympathetic vampire heroes of the Twilight saga.

Twilight Saga

Rise of the Kick-Ass Heroine

By the 1990s contemporary urban fantasy had taken a firm hold and also offered something new to the genre.  Two exemplary contributions to the new trend were the Anita Blake novels by Laurel K. Hamilton and Joss Whedon’s TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In their worlds it’s possible for vampires to become ‘good’ by abstaining from giving in to their base desires. Buffy can engage in a romantic and sexual relationship with Angel because he’s rediscovered his soul and refrains from feeding on human blood. Likewise, Anita has misgivings about her attraction to vampires. In both cases we see the beginnings of a new convention: a ‘kick ass’ heroine wearing third wave feminist identity tags, and reversing the traditional victim role of ‘the girl’ in the horror story. What is urban fantasy without her?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

One feminist reading of these new protagonists and their ambivalent relationship to the monsters they encounter suggests they experience a natural affinity with the ‘monstrous other’ because they’re themselves side-lined and dehumanized in a patriarchal culture.

We’re All Monsters Now

In the 2000s the female protagonist telling her own story in the first person point of view is the dominant trend. Two further important shifts have occurred in this new millenium. The early heroines were humans fighting monsters, even if they were attracted to the monstrous other with which they found themselves in conflict. The most recent heroines are themselves supernatural or monstrous. Anita Blake, the protagonist of the long-running series, is infected with the lycanthropy virus and possessed by a sexually voracious demonic entity.  Sooki Stackhouse, Charlene Harris’s heroine in The Southern Vampire Mysteries, discovers she’s of fairy lineage. Over the last five years urban fantasy in which the female protagonist has never been human at all has proliferated.

Southern Vampire Mysteries Urban Fantasy

The other important shift has taken place in the worlds inhabited by our protagonists. In traditional urban fantasy and early contemporary urban fantasy, supernatural and magical beings encountered by the protagonists lived their lives in secret, parallel, underground worlds hidden within or alongside the modern world. Magical beings were outsiders. They lived in the margins, or as Windling might say, the ‘Borderlands.’

It’s common these days to find fictionalized contemporary worlds in which magical beings of any and every description live alongside one another, and more or less integrated into human society. These are worlds in which the supernatural and magical have become as commonplace as the human and the technological. The challenges these heroines face are more personal, more nuanced, and more ethically complex than those of the hero-who-does-good paradigms of the past.

New urban Fantasy

It’s perhaps no surprise that the ever-shifting parameters of culture, law, and behavior experienced in these vast supernatural multi-cultures reflect the anxieties and challenges of our globalized world. They require us to confront and challenge our assumptions about who belongs and does not belong, and who is authorized to condone or condemn any system of values or beliefs.

So what is Urban Fantasy?

The term represents a constellation of differently nuanced works which have evolved from the early 1980s, and continue to evolve into the present day. The juxtaposition of the fantastical and the magical with the urban and the commonplace is a key characteristic of the genre. It’s also identifiable by its transgressive nature, holding up a mirror to the social and cultural anxieties of the times, while questioning accepted boundaries between self and other, right and wrong, good and bad, the normal and the monstrous. It’s this transgressive, destabilizing thematic construct which unites the disparate manifestations of urban fantasy which we’ve seen so far.

If these are concerns which we’re likely to continue to confront over the next century or so, it’s reasonable to assume the urban fantasy genre, however it may adapt and evolve in response to social and cultural changes, is here to stay.


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Image credits: all book cover images are copyright of their respective owners and are used here in full compliance with the Fair Use Agreement of international copyright law (2016). All other images belong to Austin Hackney or are in the Public Domain and licensed by the Creative Commons.

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