Saturday, March 3, 2012

What is Urban Fantasy?

Fangs for the Fantasy is a site that examines Urban Fantasy through a Social Justice lens. Now we’ve talked a lot about the Social Justice side of things, but we’re just going to take a moment to pin down what we consider the “Urban Fantasy” side of things. What is Urban Fantasy?

This particularly matters because we are always open to book suggestions – and we do receive a lot, both from authors and readers. Of course, some of these suggestions are not what we’d consider Urban Fantasy. That’s not essentially a problem, we’re not hugely strict about the genre we read (at least, so long as it falls within the realm of Speculative Fiction) but at the same time, Urban Fantasy is our preference and non-Urban Fantasy will be pushed to the back of the line more often than not.

Of course, when I sit down to actually define what is and what isn’t Urban Fantasy… it’s not so easy because the lines aren’t clear and the more I think this post is probably going to be more one of discussion than it is a definitive definition

I think we need to draw several lines here between genres and see what we would consider belongs to each. I think in particular we need to look at:

Urban Fantasy
Paranormal Romance.

Urban Fantasy vs Fantasy:
Now, I’m actually go out on a limb here and say that the “urban” part of Urban Fantasy is actually a misnomer – since urban merely suggests the presence of a city and a lot of Urban Fantasy does not contain an Urban setting while a lot of Classic or High Fantasy can, indeed, be city based. Let me throw out some examples.

Say, for example, Tolkein's heirs write a novel based on Middle Earth, set in Osgiliath or Rivendell. We have a Fantasy novel set entirely in a city – yet I think we'd all agree that the mere presence of a city does not make that urban fantasy, it's clearly High Fantasy. Similarly, if George R. R. Martin set a Game of Thrones entirely within Kings Landing or another city, we'd still call it High Fantasy

Similarly, True Blood is set in Bon Temps. Now I think this is way beyond the definition of “city” however there's no way this is Fantasy. Kelley Armstrong sets large amounts of the Otherworld series in rural areas. Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy again, takes place primarily in rural, out of the way places even Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Series doesn't exactly ground out in major urban centres, nor does Patricia Briggs. In fact, I would say for every Urban Fantasy set in a major city there is 1 or 2 set in rural regions.

So, yes, I say that the Urban element of Urban Fantasy is misleading.

I'm going to make a different distinction. To me Urban Fantasy involves OUR WORLD. Earth, as we know it, with extras. It may have been radically altered in some ways, but ultimately it's our world or very close to it. This way I think you can also have HISTORICAL Urban Fantasy – say, medieval Britain with vampires and it still be Urban Fantasy even if it has a Medieval setting (medieval setting was going to be my other criteria for Fantasy – but I disagree. A magical modern technology world that is completely different from Earth would be Fantasy/Sci-fi IMO). Of course, I know I’m on somewhat shaky ground on the idea of Medieval Urban Fantasy and Modern High Fantasy and I’d like to know what other people think

Urban Fantasy vs Sci-Fi
To me here, the difference is science vs Woo-woo. Yes I know sci-fi often stretches the definition of science, but if there's no magic, no mystical creatures and nothing that cannot be explained through (dubious) scientific means (even if it is “aliens with super-tech”) then it's sci-fi.

Horror vs Urban Fantasy
This is a tough one for me – but I think any story where the fantastical is always the ENEMY to be combated, hunted and avoided comes under the category of Horror. When the fantastical is inherently evil, when the protagonist is trying to survive the supernatural menace, then we have Horror. I know this is shaky ground in some cases, but to me a story like Dracula or a film like Van Helsing isn't Urban Fantasy – it's horror. It's about surviving the fantastic, not being around and a part of the fantastic. Yes, it's grey and wishy-washy and there are some meeeh moments, but it’s where I think the line is – but, again, I think this definitely is a very grey area.

Steampunk vs Urban Fantasy
To me, Steampunk is historical Sci-fi. Everything is explainable by science teeeechnically (albeit sometimes by clockwork automatons and steam powered laser beams which are dubious) but it's still technological not the fantastical. Still, cross over potential exists.

Young Adult
Is just label for books aimed at, well, young adults. Some is Urban Fantasy, some isn't

Paranormal Romance
IS Urban Fantasy. Yes yes it is. Buuut it's a cross-over genre with the Romance genre. There's a lot of grey areas here, a lot of Urban Fantasy has relationships but I think for it to be Paranormal Romance then the relationship has to be front and centre, the main reason and force of the book, the main topic of the book and the main focus of the book. Again, there's a lot of grey area here with Paranormal Romances having major Urban Fantasy plotlines in the background and Urban Fantasies having their central characters in powerful, vitally important romances.

Cross over
By definition there are going to be grey areas. Some Steampunk and Scif-fi will have extreme technology AND magic/the fantastic (Think Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare or the Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger. Both are Paranormal Steampunks. Or Nalini Singh's Psy/Changeling story is, in some ways, an Urban Fantasy Science-Fiction). Some Urban Fantasy will have Fantasy worlds linked to them, indeed the hidden reality/dimension of magical beings is quite a common trope even if it’s not always explored (Jim Butcher has the Nevernever, Yasmine Galenorn has the Otherworld, Kim Harrison has the Ever After) but that's because nothing ever fits neatly into slots.

Sometimes genre lines don’t cover anything and we need new words entirely as they straddle several boundaries.