If ten people are talking about urban fantasy, they’ll actually be talking about six different things. When I first started paying attention to things like sub-genre definitions (early 1990’s), the term urban fantasy usually labeled stories in a contemporary setting with traditionally fantastical elements—the modern folktale works of Charles de Lint, Emma Bull’s punk elf stories, the Bordertown series, and so on.
But the term is older than that, and I’ve also heard it used to describe traditional other-world fantasy set in a city, such as Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. Vampire fiction (the books of Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and P.N. Elrod for example) was its own separate thing.
Lately I’ve been wondering—when did “urban fantasy” come to be used almost exclusively to describe anything remotely following in the footsteps of Buffy and Anita? Stories with a main character who kicks ass, and with supernatural beings, usually but not exclusively vampires and werewolves (with liberal sprinklings of zombies, angels, djinn, ghosts, merfolk, and so on) who are sometimes bad guys but often good guys. Those ubiquitous covers of leather-clad women with lots of tattoos.
I’m using my own career to set up guideposts here, since the books in the Kitty series have nicely mirrored the rise in popularity of the current urban fantasy wave. For example, when the first book came out in 2005, no one was calling this kind of thing urban fantasy. That all changed within a couple of years. Another disclaimer: This is all my observation, and if anyone has other data points or observations to share, which will expand or debunk my little hypothesis, I’d love to hear them.
December 2002: I started writing Kitty and The Midnight Hour. (The first
short story featuring the character appeared in Weird Tales in 2001. You
can read that story, “Doctor Kitty Solves All Your Love Problems,” on my
November 2003: I started shopping around the novel in earnest, calling it “supernatural/dark fantasy.” It didn’t occur to me to call it urban fantasy, because that was something different, or so I thought. One agent told me that while he liked the book, he was going to pass on it because he didn’t know how he would sell it. (This is important. In December 2003, the whole vampire/werewolves/mystery/kick-ass heroine thing wasn’t enough of a trend for at least this literary agent to notice it.)
July 2004: Kitty and The Midnight Hour sold to then Warner Books.
August 2004: I had an embarrassing conversation with my new editor in which she compared my book to those of Kim Harrison and Kelley Armstrong. I had not heard of them.
A couple of weeks later, I went to the dealer’s room at Worldcon in Boston with the mission of checking out these titles and others, and I found a ton—L.A. Banks, Charlaine Harris as well as Harrison and Armstrong. I thought, “Holy crap, the market is oversaturated, my book will sink like a stone out of sight.” I was wrong.
November 2005: Kitty and The Midnight Hour was released. Reviews often
referred to the growing popularity of the genre, but didn’t use the term
“urban fantasy.” (This 2005 review
2005-2006: RT Book Reviews
2007: The third book, Kitty Takes a Holiday, was listed in RT Book Reviews as “Werewolf, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy.” All the subsequent books were listed as “Urban Fantasy, Paranormal/Urban Fantasy.” I sat on Urban Fantasy panels at DragonCon and ComicCon. RT Book Reviews Reviewer Choice Awards included a category for “best urban fantasy protagonist.” (Kitty Takes a Holiday, was nominated; Kim Harrison’s For a Few Demons More won.)
2007-2008: It’s around this point that urban fantasy as a sub genre became
totally ubiquitous and people started noticing just how many covers with
tramp stamps there were
It’s also around this time I started asking on convention participant questionnaires if I could please be put on other panels besides “What’s up with all this urban fantasy/kick-ass heroine stuff?”
May 2009: The Urban Fantasy issue of Locus
2010 and beyond: All my predictions have been wrong so far, so I’m not going to make any.
And there you have it. Before 2007, the term urban fantasy had not yet morphed into its current usage. By 2007, the term was everywhere. Why? That, I don’t know, though in a recent conversation a fellow writer suggested that this particular usage came from the romance community as a way to distinguish hard-edged stories from paranormal romance which feature a specific couple’s relationship and ends with “happily ever after.” I think there may be something to this.
I’d speculate that the term didn’t come from any one person or publication. These books definitely have their roots in the same tradition as what I call “old-school” urban fantasy that came before. It’s all asking the same questions about what would magic and the supernatural look like butted up against the modern world? The term has become useful as a label for this particular kind of book, which is why, I think, it’s become so ubiquitous in such a short amount of time.
Story pic via Jeff VanderMeer’s blog.