MIND MELD: Where is Urban Fantasy Headed?
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Urban Fantasy remains as a strong and vibrant subgenre of Fantasy. Like any subgenres, over the last few years, new authors, new ideas and new motifs have often radically reshaped a genre once known for “supernaturals in the night” into a much broader category. We asked this week’s panelists:
This is what they had to say…
The problem with knowing where a genre is going starts with defining the genre itself. What exactly is “Urban Fantasy”? There’s always been a category of work in what was then just called “Science Fiction” that fits this bill, from Bradbury’s October Country stuff to Sturgeon and Leiber and many others, including myself and many contemporaries. (I’d love to know what my book War of the Flowers was if it wasn’t urban fantasy.) But these days it’s also a consumer category — that is, it’s meant to narrowcast to people who apparently like fantasy stories that don’t take place in the traditional epic-fantasy environments of imaginary pasts. At the moment that means lots of fairies, vampires, werewolves, and zombies, most of which used to be thought of as components of “Horror”. So it’s hard to say. The trendy stuff — hello, bloodsuckers! — will peak and dwindle, just like serial killer novels did, but there will always be stories that can rightly be called Urban Fantasy. So I suspect it’s not a question of whether the waves will still come in — they will — but what kind of surfers will be on them. Memes will rise and decay (mostly through incestuous overuse) but as long as people stay interested in what lies behind ordinary life, I suspect the genre, at least the part that is about storytelling, will stay strong.
Urban fantasy is nowhere near as new a genre as we sometimes assume. ‘Someone just like you encounters magical things near home’ is the plot of almost all the fairy tales we know, and the ones that don’t fit that mold tend toward ‘a creature that is magical, but also just like you, encounters strange things near home.’ It’s just that ‘near home’ changes as the times change, and urban fantasy ‘ages out,’ becoming fairy tales. Someday, what we now view as urban fantasy will be quaintly historical, and we’ll be telling stories about werewolves in moon colonies, fae on generation ships, and cybernetic wizards.
At the same time, I think that modern urban fantasy is just now really finding its sea legs. We’re getting comfortable with the basics, and we’re starting to really explore the form. I think we’re going to see more really unique and diverse settings and protagonists, moving away from the comfortable monsters and digging into the uncomfortable ones. I also think the trilogy is fading. People either want to spend a long time with their favorite characters, or they want the one-and-done excitement of a standalone. So it’s going to be really great seeing where we all go from here.
When I consider the future of Urban Fantasy, I see it becoming useless as a tool for categorization. This is good news for many, as rigid categorization and formula-fiction is really only attractive to brick and mortar bookstores and the portions of the population that treat books like the mental equivalent comfort food (no challenge, no surprises, and little variation). Publishing genres are, to be cynical about it, often more useful to someone trying to figure out where to shelve stuff at the local Barnes and Noble than they are to readers or (especially) writers and, sad as it might be to say so, allowing the restrictions of a brick-and-mortar bookstore to dictate a novel’s categorization is an increasingly archaic and irrelevant practice in today’s online marketplace.
Luckily for writers (if not for brick and mortar bookstores, which now account for less than one third of all new book sales), as genres becomes less and less useful as shelf headers, it creates an increasingly flexible headspace in which you can ignore genre entirely. Urban Fantasy, in this situation, becomes a great catch-all for all that weird stuff out there that doesn’t really fit anywhere else. It’s not sciencey-enough for Sci-fi? Not gory enough for Horror? Not tricky enough for Mystery? Too technological for Fantasy? Or maybe it’s all of those things, plus a few more? Fine: toss it under Urban Fantasy and be done with it — the heading becomes the “YA” of adult fiction, and that’s is inarguably a good thing for everyone involved. YA books are usually uncategorized in terms of genre and (absolutely no coincidence) tend to be some of the best fiction out there right now, because the writer’s genre shackles are gone, the reader’s expectation are wide open. The rising tide of new readers and writers (hint: the “kids” that cut their teeth on that wild YA section) are those to whom genre is something to play with, not adhere to. Bubble-helmeted psychic space rangers ride Kaneda’s motorcycle though the vine-covered, post-apocalyptic streets of clockpunk erotica London, and everyone is pretty much okay with that.
It’s an exciting time — when an author can forget about where their book is going to end up on the shelves of a bookstore and focus on doing their best work.
I think urban fantasy can pitch a pretty big tent. And though I think it’s tougher now to get a new series started, I think editors will continue to take risks on books that give us something newish—and by that I mean a new mashup. In my view urban fantasy is a mashup genre at its core, because you’re smooshing fantasy into a world built with science. But due to the popularity of a noir tone combined with a supernatural love triangle, we started to see a whole lot of those types of books, even to the point where we had very similar covers. They kind of flooded the shelves and perhaps influenced some people to think they had to write something like that too if they wanted to get published in the genre. I hope that’s changing now. I mean, we have all of science and all of fantasy to work with. That’s a whole lot of smooshing that can be done, and we don’t have to do it in the same few ways because sales figures suggest we do so.
Right now I think people are ready for some new cultural infusions, and we’re seeing this in the steampunk genre, which is a mashup of a fashion aesthetic with gadgets and alternate history. Originally it was all centered around England, but now you see authors like Cherie Priest going, hey, I’m going to do an American steampunk series because I can, so here’s Boneshaker, and as of yesterday, we now have Japanese steampunk thanks to Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer. Urban fantasy has room to go global too and I hope it does.
I think urban fantasy will continue to grow and change, and I think you’ll see authors continue to show their creativity in terms of characters and world building. One of the great things about urban fantasy is that it lends itself to so many different kinds of creatures, magic, mythologies, and stories.
I also think you’ll see more of urban fantasy being combined with other genres. I think combining urban fantasy elements with those of another genre, like a western or a mystery, would make for an interesting read. Also, many urban fantasies are labeled as “dark” reads. I think those will continue to be popular, but I could see lighter, funnier reads becoming popular as well.
One of the things I love about urban fantasy is that the possibilities for the genre are endless, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.
I’ve been a fan of urban fantasy, even before that name came into use. I think there’s something great about stories set in our world with weird things going on. A good author can make you wonder if those things are actually happening right here, right now.
I believe the trend will drift away from what has been overdone and we’ll begin to see fewer vampires, werewolves and witches. The supernatural element will remain, but we’ll see different creatures and different worlds.
Diana Rowland has tackled zombies in her new series, beginning with My Life as a White Trash Zombie. This is urban fantasy gold, with a great twist on the zombie tale. I recently finished reading Chris DeLint’s YA novel, Under My Skin, in which his protagonist and other children in their small town become struck with the ability to turn into different kinds of animals.
I do not believe urban fantasy is on its way out. I keep finding great new urban fantasy authors and titles to enjoy and I don’t see the fans of this genre cooling off.
Agent Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary agency tweeted just this week that “urban fantasy is not ‘dead’ as some people say. I can still sell the pants off it.” As a writer of urban fantasy, this makes me extremely happy. I think we will continue to see inventive new stories in the realm of urban fantasy.
Thirty years ago, when seminal urban fantasy works like Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks or Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons were first published, UF was a pretty easy sub-genre to pin down. On a background suffused with pastoralist quasi-medieval imitations of Tolkien and Lewis, UF’s setting and modern concerns immediately stood out. In the last fifteen years, however, urban fantasy has become a much more diffuse term, to the point where I wonder if it really retains valuable meaning.
On the face of it, “urban fantasy” is a really straightforward concept: fantasy that takes place in an urban environment. One can even get a bit fancier and call it fantasy where its urban setting is central to the themes and narrative arc of the story. But that general description is so broad as to apply just as accurately to Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork novels, as to China Mieville’s New Crobuzon books, or Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series.
I honestly think that UF was enormously influential in helping fantasy to broaden its horizons and incorporate narrative techniques from other genres. Without urban fantasy, I don’t think we could have internalized the influence of noir and thriller narrative techniques, nor could we have the neo-gothic sensibilities of paranormal romance and the steampunk subgenres. I think UF opened a window into modes other than the epic, and that is all kinds of good for the genre.
But at the same time, that richness diminishes the precision and utility of the label. When someone tells me that a book is “urban fantasy”, I no longer know what that means. Do they mean urban fantasy like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books? Urban fantasy like Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate? Or urban fantasy like Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City?
That urban fantasy is able to encompass such variety implies that it will bifurcate as a concept. On the one hand, it will remain an umbrella term whose definition implicitly stems from its opposite: urban fantasy is fantasy that takes place in a city (implied: as opposed to the pastoral/medieval countryside). I expect it will become the mirror image to the equally broad “epic fantasy” (BTW, I think UF can be just as epic – consider Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, which retains both urban and epic sensibilities).
On the other hand, I think we will see a re-trenchment of urban fantasy as fantasy that specifically wrestles with the ethos of the urban environment. So long as society struggles with its own values, its own identity, and its own environment, the city will remain a fascinating subject for fantastical exploration. And as UF’s fragmentation continues, and the resulting fragments become identifiable subgenres in their own right (steampunk, paranormal romance, supernatural mystery, etc.), urban fantasy will remain the strongest possible descriptor for books like Kate Griffen’s excellent Matthew Swift novels, or Leah Bobet’s Above, or Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City.
In other words, urban fantasy will return or refocus on its roots, and deepen/refresh its exploration of modernity and social/civil values through its use of cities as images and settings. And that concept – the city in fantasy – likely deserves to be a mind meld in its own right.
Urban fantasy is, it seems to me, today’s gateway drug for speculative fiction. It is the subgenre of speculative fiction that has the greatest chance of grabbing the attention of crossover readers who have been reluctant to try a full-fledged alternate-world epic fantasy, or a hard-core science fiction novel. Why? Because urban fantasy can be almost anything, so long as it possesses a couple of key characteristics.
I have written a ton of epic fantasy under the name David B. Coe, and among those readers who like castle intrigue, Medieval-esque settings, and powerful wizards, my books have a solid following. But when I wrote Thieftaker as D.B. Jackson, I found that I could appeal to a far wider audience. The book is a historical urban fantasy. It has elements of fantasy, it is a historical novel, it is a mystery. And because it has all of those qualities, my publisher and I have found it far easier to interest readers in the book, regardless of whether or not they are fans of more traditional forms of speculative fiction.
The defining narrative elements that set urban fantasy apart — the setting, the “noir” voice, the focus on a single “investigative” point of view character — are elastic enough to allow for almost any interpretation. The cityscapes can be contemporary, futuristic, or historical; they can be imagined or set in some version of our “real” world. They can populated by zombies, vampires, werewolves, demons, ghosts, or any other supernatural creatures. The storylines can be blended with romance, with history, with space opera, with Western themes. In short, anything goes.
That flexibility, I believe, is the key to Urban Fantasy’s future, and it will likely remain at the core of the subgenre’s appeal. Historical urban fantasy, my current bailiwick, is growing quickly. But so is romantic urban fantasy. And vampires, demons, werewolves, and their brethren continue to be popular. There may come a time when the field becomes overcrowded, when the voice and tropes grow stale, but we’re not there yet, not even close.
The question of the day is “Whither urban fantasy?” To be honest, I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess. Take three titles from the genre: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, Skinwalker by Faith Hunter, Ill Wind by Rachel Caine. All are urban fantasies, and yet aside from those defining characteristics I mentioned before, they have almost nothing in common. Add in a few more titles — Storm Front by Jim Butcher, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, and yes, even Thieftaker by yours truly — and you begin to understand the difficulty that lies in trying to predict a future for this most unpredictable of subgenres.
To my mind, it comes down to this: Perhaps more than any other subgenre in speculative fiction, urban fantasy is dependent for its tone and personality on the narrating character. The titles I’ve just listed are as individual as the people who drive the action. I wouldn’t even try to predict what might come next, any more than I might try to predict what kind of person would be next to walk through a barroom door. In the end, urban fantasy is defined by the very fact that it defies definition. Guessing at its future is like trying to anticipate the flight of a butterfly. Better simply to watch it happen.
To talk about where urban fantasy goes from here, we need to clear up a very common misconception about what urban fantasy is. Many people confuse UF with paranormal romance, even going so far as to say things like:
“The two share 90% of their genre DNA. However, the main differences are this: Urban fantasy focuses on an issue outside of a romantic relationship between two characters. Paranormal romance focuses on a romantic relationship between two characters and how outside forces affect that relationship.” – Holmes, Jeannie (December 21, 2010) jeannieholmes.com
Like most misunderstandings, there’s a little truth in there confusing the issue. A lot of paranormal romance (a subset of the romance genre which places two or more romantically-entangled characters, usually with at least one of them being non-human) is set in modern times, in a large city, or with characters that have contemporary jobs and ideals, instead of the princes in a castle/male dominated society type historical romance. It doesn’t have to be, but a great deal of it certainly is. So it can be said that paranormal romance has elements in common with UF. But a UF story doesn’t necessarily have anything in common with paranormal romance.
What makes a story urban fantasy is the “urban” part. It’s a fantasy story which is inexorably tied to, or influenced by, a city. It’s the fiction of place. There doesn’t have to be any romance at all. The characters may or may not be paranormal – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the city, the setting, is another character in the story, changing the way the characters view the world, themselves, or the plot.
One example would be China Miéville’s brilliant neo-noir novel, The City and The City. This multiply award-winning novel can be called fantasy or weird fiction (and has been called both) but it is absolutely urban fantasy – a story that takes place in a city which drastically changes the story being told. There are no paranormal creatures, and not much of a romance, unless you’re looking at the interwoven lives of the narrator and his two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma.
Another example of urban fantasy is Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series. These books, starting with 2009’s Rosemary and Rue, follow the misadventures of a half-elf private detective. With hat-tips to Shakespeare, Mickey Spillane, and Jim Butcher, the stories are as much high fantasy as they are noir – but they’re undoubtedly urban fantasy because McGuire makes the landscape integral to the story. She doesn’t just set Toby in “a city”… it’s “The City”, San Francisco, with all of its hills, bridges, tourists, odd street characters and rambling fog. The setting is important as more than decorative detail.
If we understand that’s what makes an urban fantasy, then it’s easy to see the genre expanding into non-Western cities, and other time periods. “Urban” means so much more than SF, New York, and London. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is a great story set in an imagined city which shapes the movements of its characters. It’s also set in the past, playing with the idea that “urban” has to be “modern”. Sergey Lukyanenko’s fabulous Night Watch series is set in Russia, bringing demons and monsters into a very modern Moscow. Liz Williams’ Inspector Chen books follow a supernatural detective in a future version of Singapore.
Let’s see more of those stories!
My sense of the big Urban Fantasy project has always been that it’s a genre that takes its gravity assist from a massive cultural discomfort about women, sexuality and power. I still expect that will form the core of the genre as it moves forward. The thing is, thought, that there is a marketing incentive to package things that aren’t involved with that as urban fantasy to attract the UF audience, and the upshot it that a lot of stories that might have been put in as horror (and horror-comedy) or crime novels with a fantastic element of some sort are identifying themselves as urban fantasy. A decade ago, I don’t know that Diana Rowland’s White Trash Vampire books or Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt books would necessarily have been classed as urban fantasy.
Also I expect that we’ll be seeing more books that can be marketed as urban fantasy in the United States where that category is profoundly alive and as something else overseas where the publishers are less enamored of it.
Tagged with: Carrie Cuinn • chris Modzelewski • D.B. Jackson • Daniel Abraham • David B. Coe • doyce testerman • jennifer estep • kevin hearne • Mind Meld • sandra wickham • Seanan McGuire • Tad Williams
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