Genre of the Week: Urban Fantasy

13 Jan

Last week, I talked about Steampunk.  This week’s Genre is Urban Fantasy, commonly abbreviated UF.  A general description of a UF novel is “any novel taking place on Earth in modern times (no earlier than the 1900’s, but more commonly between the 1960’s and the present) which involves some type of paranormal or supernatural element and portrays its interactions with an urban environment.”

Urban fantasy has been said to include elements of fantasy, horror and romance.  A lot of the more popular UF today has a larger romance component, and also a larger horror component than you might have seen previously.  Without suggesting that Girls in FantasyTM only write romance, I think this is attributable to the a certain degree to the number of female authors in the modern incarnation of UF.  And there are a lot.

And there’s also more crossover with the Paranormal Romance(PR) genre, the title of which might hint to you that there’s a lot more romance than in your typical UF novel.  Even more than in your typical Kick-Ass Heroine UF novel, which is literally becoming more and more “typical” of the genre in general.  And you know what?  That’s great.  It’s wonderful to see more female fantasy authors getting the attention they deserve.  And they do deserve it.

You may notice I’m having a bit of trouble keeping the gender issues out of this post.  Because Urban Fantasy has a much more conspicuous and overt female writer-/reader-ship, it’s gotten a lot of attention from the gender pundits.  Now, I don’t want to digress into a long lecture about the history or status of women in Spec Fic, so I think we’ll leave this discussion at that.  (Feel free to talk about it in comments, however, if you’d like to.)

One of the things that really differentiates UF from other sub-genres of fantasy is that it is often set both in a high-magic world, and yet a world that is recognizably, or even blatantly in-your-face, Earth.  Whether or not the supernatural or fantastic elements is out in the open, or hidden behind layers of secrets and vast under-world conspiracies, it is there, it is active, and it has a great deal of influence on the world, or at least on the world most of its protagonists move in.  Oh, and it has a lot of kick-ass female leads, too–but that’s veering back towards the gender issues debate.  We’ll leave that for a later post.

Another thing that sets this genre apart is it’s crossover ability.  Much like steampunk, urban fantasy gets along well with many related sub-genres.  Like, for instance, steampunk!  But it also blurs the edges of it’s parent category “contemporary” fantasy, which is generally a reference specifically to the time period a story is set in.  Earlier, I mentioned the fuzzy borders between YF and PR.  It also has close ties to Horror, and the Horror/Fantasy (kind of) mix that makes up the sub-genre of “Dark Fantasy”.  Urban fantasy is often also shoved into another larger category called “low fantasy”, which—in contrast to High Fantasy and it’s many elaborate secondary-worlds—is generally set on earth and has less mythical overtones in terms of its structure.  Naturally, it borrows quite a few non-human species/races from mythology.  Even Gods.

Finally, Urban fantasy crosses over with slightly more distant relatives in the mystery area, such as noir, police procedurals, and thrillers.  This is primarily because—as inhabitants of a modern, industrialized world—UF protagonists have one of the widest arrays of professions in the genre.  The most common include Spy, Detective, PI (there’s a difference), Medical Examiner/Coroner, Hired Muscle, and occasionally Stock Broker or business magnate.  All of those jobs that allow for fights in dirty alleys, investigating crimes, and waging shadow wars throughout the criminal underground.  Of course, some have more normal jobs as well, especially those who don’t begin the story aware of these strange and powerful supernatural menaces. (More on that later.)

Currently, UF is one of the most popular sub-genres, topping best-seller charts and being snapped up by agents and editors like priceless jewels.  Urban fantasy authors are some of the most visible author presences on the net, as the link list lower in the post will display.  A great deal of UF comes in the form of series of inter-connected but standalone books, and then tend to run rather long.  The Dresden Files must be in the teens or twenties by now, and newer series are gaining ground fast.  Now, why don’t you have a gander at a few prime examples of what this genre has to offer?

  1.  The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
  2. The Weather Warden Series by Rachel Caine
  3. Three Days to Dead by Kelly Meding
  4. The Demons Series by Stacia Kane
  5. War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
  6. The Newford Series by Charles de Lint
  7. The Marla Mason Series by Tim Pratt
  8. The Kitty Norville Series by Carrie Vaughn
  9. The Shifters Series by Rachel Vincent
  10. The Walker Papers Series by C E Murphy
  11. The Allie Beckstrom Series by Devon Monk
  12. The Mercy Thompson Series by Patricia Briggs

All of these books are good Urban Fantasy.  You may not see some names you expected to see, and I will explain that in a later post.  Suffice it to say that there are a few different directions UF is going in, and this list contains series and authors from the first and currently most popular direction.

Now, this list will direct you to some cool articles and blogs on the subject of UF.  These are all places I’ve been to and enjoyed.

  1. The Magic District
  2. Deadline Dames
  3. Fangs, Fur, and Fey
  4. The League of Reluctant Adults

Next time: Space Opera!


Posted by on January 13, 2010 in Fantasy, genre, Genre of the Week, Urban Fantasy


Tags: , , , , , ,

12 responses to “Genre of the Week: Urban Fantasy

  1. Cassandra Jade

    January 13, 2010 at 5:59 AM

    Thanks for the excellent discription of the genre and the great list of examples. I think you are right about Urban Fantasy having a massive feminine influence though this might change as time goes on. Thanks for the great post.

    • atsiko

      January 13, 2010 at 6:14 AM

      Well, there are three general “lineages” in UF, and the kick-ass heroine is one of them. It also happens to be the most popular right now.

      In a post later this week, I’m going to discuss those lineages and their origins, as well as how they mash together to create the wonderful Urban fantasy genre. I’ll also talk about some well-known authors in those lineages, which I did not link to in this post. People like Neil Gamain who rights more from the mythic fantasy side, as opposed to the paranormal romance side, and a relatively new player in an up-and-coming lineage, Harry Connolly, who writes things more like a thriller, and is closer to the noir end of UF. It will be great fun.

      (All these “lineages” make me sound like I’m holding forth on the history of Wicca! 🙂 )

  2. Leanan-Sidhe

    January 13, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    Nice post 🙂 I await your next installment.

  3. meagansk

    January 13, 2010 at 10:04 PM

    See, the girls write fantasy, boys write science fiction thing is one of the reasons I shy away from the fantasy genre as a whole, and women heavy subgenres like Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance in particular. I know that might sound kind of weird coming from a woman, since I feel like I should be all ra ra fight the power, any kick ass heroine is agood kick ass heroine, and to an extent, I am. I’m glad that UF has lots and lots of strong female characters, and one of my favorite writers (Tim Pratt) has a very strong series of Urban Fantasy novels with a very kick ass woman as the main character. I just wish that more SF books did as well. That, along with my general distaste for the modern police procedural (which does, as you noted, seem to have influenced UF) combines in me not really liking UF that much. However, good post.

  4. atsiko

    January 13, 2010 at 10:32 PM

    I’ll admit to being surprised at your first few sentences, but you make a certain amount of sense. I’m not much for police procedurals, either. Or thrillers. Noir detectives can be okay, but I’m definitely more for China Mieville or Neil Gaiman “UF”, and even more for high/epic fantasy and science fiction.
    I disagree with the suggestion that the lines split so neatly between fantasy girls and sci-fi boys, though. If you look at the origins of fantasy, it’s mostly men in the beginning, and the men still might have a slight lead in writing high and epic fantasy. Of course, it’s mostly men in sf, too. But female writers are making steady headway. The question of gender percentages in sf in terms of writers, readers and characters is still quite murky, so I’ll stop there before I stick my foot any further in my mouth.
    Anyway, glad you liked the post.

    • meagansk

      January 13, 2010 at 10:41 PM

      Yeah, I’m more of a Neil Gaiman/ China Mieville person myself, though for some reason I don’t get into the high/epic fantasy subgenre as much as other people do. There’s just something about police procedurals that makes me feel like I’m watching a rerun of CSI. I think the only book like that that I liked was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon.

      I know a lot of major fantasy writers, and most of the really influential ones, have been men. It just seems to me like now, while a lot more women are writing speculative fiction, many seem to trend more towards the fantasy side of the sf/f line. I guess I might just be a little frustrated because SF seems to still be largely a men’s genre, in terms of both writers and readership, though I could be wrong. Hopefully, I am. My apologies if I came off a bit abrasive.

  5. atsiko

    January 13, 2010 at 10:52 PM

    Abrasive? Not at all. I understand your points. SF could do with more female writers and more FMCs.

  6. Stacia Kane

    January 15, 2010 at 3:26 PM

    I’d like to see more female-written science fiction, as well. I believe Ann Aguirre’s Jax books are more SF than UF, might want to check those out.

  7. ralfast

    January 16, 2010 at 2:02 AM

    I more of a Harry Dresden-type UF reader/writer. I like my UF to be on the darker/edgier side. I defined UF thus:

    “Urban fantasy (I prefer the term contemporary fantasy) is a fantasy themed story (magic, monsters, quests, etc.) in a contemporary setting. BTW, a lot of the non-fluff Mall/Valley Girl YA stuff falls into this category. All Urban fantasy that I have read (and I’m writing right now) has several of the following elements: ”


    Again the definition falls clearly within my experience and probably ignores a lot more of the stuff that is out there. And yes it seems that female writers are dominating the sub-genre, which I don’t mind, except that it feels like one of those trends (like teenage vampires) that may run itself into the ground all to quickly, thus hurting the writers and the sub-genre.

    The bland covers don’t help either.

  8. atsiko

    January 16, 2010 at 7:01 AM

    “Contemporary fantasy” is often considered a hypernym of UF, which can lead to pretty blurry lines.
    Thanks for the link, it was short but interesting. I’d say the poster focuses a little much on surface in some spots, but otherwise, the set of components is spot on.


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