Jul 13 2010 12:32pm

The Lasting Appeal of Urban Fantasy

I’m not an academic or a critic, and the thought of writing an essay about genre filled me with a sense of...not exactly dread, but hesitation. I have opinions, sure, but they’re mine, not something I’m going to insist everyone else take as any kind of gospel (see: not an academic or critic).

But I have been mucking about with fantasy—and specifically urban fantasy—since back when the calendar still started with “19” rather than “20,”—so I do have a few thoughts on the genre.

First is that, despite all the press around this generation of writers, urban fantasy is not “new.” We can point to Charles DeLint as the “father” of UF, with his fantastical Ontario, or Emma Bull’s seminal War for the Oaks, but my classic example is Peter Beagle, and my favorite book of all times, A Fine and Private Place, which is set in then-modern (late 1950’s) NYC. So yeah, we’ve been writing, and reading, “urban fantasy” for a while.

And there’s a reason for that and why, even when other sub-genres eclipse it in sales, it remains.

When I first started working on Staying Dead, I got some well-meaning but negative feedback from industry folk, because—back in 2001—epic fantasy was still the big thing, alternate history a tight runner-up. Sure, there were some people who were already doing well with urban fantasy, but my book didn’t have any vampires, and barely a whiff of sex or existential angst.

I nodded, and listened, and when they went on their way, convinced they had shown me the error of my ways, I went back to work on my non-vampire, non-erotica urban fantasy. Because in my experience, urban fantasy—more to the point, modern fantasy—is at its heart not about the fantastic, but the everyday: the intensity of the real world drawn in the most vibrant colors possible, so that what was mundane and ordinary takes on a new depth and meaning.

Or, as Bernard Malamud said:

“Fantasy challenges (the writer) to make use of the earthly wonderful as well as the supernatural; to tie them together in unpredictable combinations with the commonplace, the ordinary, & out of this still produce a real enough truth about life.”

And so, let’s go back to A Fine and Private Place. Two dead people, a raven, and an old guy with Issues. That’s it. And yet, the dilemmas and troubles that face them all are reflected in the dilemmas that we face in our own lives. They are none of them real, perhaps, but nonetheless true.

Pick up any urban fantasy today, in fact, and no matter how much the trappings seem to be entirely about vampires or demons and high-heeled boots and kicking ass, you will find a very modern and “ordinary” dilemma. Even Anita Blake started out as a woman trying to make a go at a very tough field, trying to maintain a hint of normalcy where there was none to be found. She had bills to pay and dry cleaning to pick up, a best girlfriend’s crises to deal with as well as her own. Today, UF is popular not because it’s escapism, or wish-fulfillment—although it fills all those necessary niches nicely—but because it recognizes a need that the other aspects of fantasy often miss: to wedge the impossible, the fantastic, into the everyday minutia of modern life.

And that, in my experience, is the real, lasting appeal of urban fantasy: Not that the heroes and heroines are part of a magical world, but that they are also part of our world. That the supernatural is lurking on the street corner, in the supermarket, on the subway or in the pizza place down the street. While we may not be able to accomplish what the characters in UF do—and most of us, honestly, would not want their lives—that unpredictable combination of supernatural and commonplace tells us that even the dullest, most ordinary moment has magic.

Photo © 2009 Elsa M. Ruiz

Laura Anne Gilman is currently working on the 9th book in her “Cosa Nostradamus” UF series, after Hard Magic and the forthcoming Pack of Lies, for Luna. She is also the author of the Nebula-nominated Flesh and Fire: Book 1 of The Vineart War, for Pocket. You can follow her on Twitter @LAGilman.

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
April Vrugtman
1. dwndrgn
I agree wholeheartedly!

Oh, and I wanted to say that while your book Staying Dead was on my 'to read' list for a quite a while, I finally read it and will be fast obtaining the rest of the series. Very good stuff.

Thank you!
Mary O'Dea
2. thorn
I loved 'A Fine and Private Place', too. Read it in the late 70's.

I thought I was the only one.

You might take a glance at 'Her Fearful Symmetry' by Audrey Niffenegger. Flawed, but interesting.
Chaz Brenchley
3. Chaz Brenchley
Yay. Can you give this article a plug over on BVC, maybe point a few more people this way...?
les kaye
4. hapax
A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE -- Oh, I loved that book. More of the anguish and glory of love can be found in the fierce desperation of Michael and Laura, and the timid wonder of Mr. Rebek and Mrs Klapper, than in all the torrid sexxorings of the kickass paranormal protagonists of the recent craze.

Now I have to go add this to my "one to keep, two to lend" personal library.
Chaz Brenchley
5. omega_n
I adore Beagle beyond all reason.

I agree with you that people are drawn to stories set in our world, that it draws the possibility of magic so much closer to us. I mean, it's not really UF, but look at Harry Potter--one of the big reasons it took off like it did is that it fit so perfectly with our world, a wonderful little hidden universe that sounded completely believable. I'm not sure if that's the primary appeal of most modern UF/paranormal romance, since so much of it is similar kickass heroines and their para-human romances.
Chaz Brenchley
6. Anna_Wing
I'd also recommend Kate Griffin's two (so far) novels "A Madness of Angels" and "The Midnight Mayor", which are the most intense and intricately observed novels of London I have ever read. Everything is magic in Griffin's London, from the expected things like the London Stone to the flight of pigeons to the patterns that rubbish makes in the wind in the tunnels of the Underground. I will never look at the ticket barriers of the London Underground in quite the same way again.
Paul Howard
7. DrakBibliophile
I'm enjoying Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series (first book is _Magic Bites_).

While there are vampires in this series, they aren't 'sexy' vampires.

There is a romance subplot, but the main subplot is Kate's willingness to be involved with other people.

However, I had to laugh about one reviewer of the first book.

While I spotted the potential romance, the reviewer was 'screaming' about the *lack* of romance.

Unlikely much 'urban fantasy', the authors don't 'hit you over the head' with the romance.
Dan McGirt
8. Dan_McGirt
So you're saying urban fantasy's appeal lies in the characters and the storytelling? Interesting theory! :)
Chaz Brenchley
9. LauraAnneG
I'm amused at how many people are 'closeted' Beagle fans. Come out and join us, everyone!

Actually, Dan, what I'm saying is that UF's appeal is in blending the storytelling of the fantastic with the characters of the 'ordinary' in such a way that the reader sees only a seamless and emotionally satisfying whole. It's a very -particular- kind of storytelling.

DrakBibliophile -- the conflation of UF with paranormal romance drives me crazy. I write both, I love both, but an UF, while it may have romance, is not restricted to the storytelling structure of the romance; adventure and magic drives the action, and the emotional/sexual connection is at most a subplot. Often a damned important subplot, yes, but...

dwndrgn -- thanks!

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