Monday, January 5, 2015

Urban Fantasy Resources

Since it may be hard to recognize us from that still, the panel is (L to R): Moderator Jen Garrett, Author Christina Mercer, Author Angelica R. Jackson, Author Jessica Taylor, Author Heather Marie.

I took part in a panel of fantasy writers over the weekend (there's some video of it on my blog), representing the Urban Fantasy genre, and the first step in my preparation was to try to nail down a definition of Urban Fantasy. Not an easy thing to do, by the way, and greater minds than mine have tried.

The simplest definition is that Urban Fantasy is a story with fantastical elements that takes place in an urban--and usually modern--setting. But by that definition, some of the earliest and canonical UF titles don't actually make the cut. Some UF books are set in rural towns (as is my own Crow's Rest), and some are set in cities--but in historic or future times. And then there's the fact that paranormal stories, especially paranormal romance, often overlap UF enough that the two genres get lumped together on lists. So what separates urban fantasy from similar genres of paranormal, horror, romance, retold fairy tales, and even steampunk?

The website Best Fantasy Books has an answer to that question that I thought would be a great place to start: "Urban Fantasy is more of a hybrid of other genres than its own hard definition. Urban Fantasy tends to have a gritty atmosphere similar to crime fiction or noir, but mixes elements of mystery, romance, horror, and fantasy. As a result of its hybridity, authors have plenty of room to experiment and have fun."

(That last part is certainly true, and is one of the things that attracted me to the genre!)

Wikipedia offers a definition that is not quite as inclusive of setting as the one above:
"Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Urban fantasy exists on one side of a spectrum, opposite high fantasy, which is set in an entirely fictitious world. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include fictional elements. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city."

But like me, writer Emma Newman also takes issue with the "rule" about a city setting, and in an article on The Creative Penn blog she presents the definition that I like best:
"The way I conceptualize urban fantasy is magic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm. Everything appears normal until you walk down a particular alleyway after midnight on the third Tuesday of the month...The majority of the people who live there will have normal lives, oblivious to the magical all around them, hidden in plain sight."

For me, that collision of the strange and the everyday, with more in-your-face magic and possibilities than magical realism offers, is essential to a great urban fantasy.

In fact, before researching UF definitions, I would have defined it as "Fairy tale or mythological creatures bleeding into our world, and the resulting havoc they wreak on our lives." Which fits my worldbuilding in Crow's Rest, but not necessarily the urban fantasy genre as a whole. For that purpose, I think I'll stick with that Best Fantasy Books definition. There's also a pretty exhaustive rundown of the history of UF on Refractory, and if the above definitions have left you unsatisfied you may want to check it out.

In the course of this quest for a definition, I realized examples would be helpful. So this is not by any means an exhaustive list of the Urban Fantasy canon--these are just some from my own bookshelves.

*The Borderland series, which starts with an anthology of the same name edited by Terri Windling, and moves on to some novel-length works like Elsewhere by Will Shetterly. It may have actually established the "collision of the strange and the everyday" definition in my mind.

*Ariel by Steven R. Boyett is a cult favorite from 1983, which takes place in a post-Apocalyptic landscape--where the Apocalypse was caused by technology failing and magic returning to our world.

*Books by Charles de Lint, who made Urban Fantasy popular with his Newford stories. I recommend starting with Little (Grrl) Lost for the younger YA set, or Svaha for older readers.

*Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Fiest is a great example of UF that straddles the line into horror

*The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, which starts with Three Parts Dead, is a great example of what makes UF so hard to compartmentalize--this fantasy novel takes place in an urban environment where the natural laws on the existence of magic are completely different from our world, and yet aspects of the city and its denizens still seem so universal and relatable.

*The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black can stand in for the vampire books that are sometimes labeled "paranormal" (with or without "romance" added to it), sometimes fantasy, but in my mind are UF. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor is another that fits that description (but not with vampires).

*Gail Carriger's Finishing School series, which begins with Etiquette and Espionage, is another world that could equally be described as steampunk or UF. So could Cassandra Clare's books, especially her Infernal Devices series, in my opinion.

Bonus: here's a highlights video from the panel

If you have any other favorite definitions of Urban Fantasy, or UF titles, please share them in the comments!


  1. Excellent post.
    I've learned that, sometimes, labeling an urban fantasy as an urban fantasy can backfire, because of marketing. Labeling it as speculative fiction, however, opens up extra doors and even a window. LOL.

    1. Yes, labels have that double-edged sword. I was initially calling Crow's Rest "contemporary fantasy" because it doesn't take place in a big city. But I was told by agents and editors that CF isn't a real genre, and UF was likely the closest thing. There really is so much overlap for UF that I don't think any one label is wrong, but it still may not entirely encompass the book.

  2. Wow Angelica! What an exciting event to be part of a panel like that--Congratulations! :-)

    1. Thanks, Toni! It really was a lot of fun--it reminded me of the storytelling performances I used to do. Unlike acting, for storytelling you interact with the audience a lot more, and you kind of exchange energy. In this case, the panelists really build on each other's energy. Will definitely do a panel again, when I'm invited, lol


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