Thu
Jul 22 2010 3:17pm

What Urban Fantasy Means to Me

My personal definition of urban fantasy is “Weird stuff in the real world,” and I love it. I read it, I write it, and I love to talk about it.

I will always happily remember my discovery of urban fantasy. It was sometime in the 1980s—I suppose I could do some research and find out exactly when, but I’m not going to. I had recently moved to Minneapolis and I went to a local SF convention called 4th Street Fantasy Con. There were some writers there I’d heard of, and a bunch more that were recently published that I hadn’t heard of but were going to become influential in the future. These new writers included Steven Brust, Lois McMasters Bujold, and, most importantly for this blog, Emma Bull. Emma Bull’s first book War for the Oaks had just been released and was getting great buzz at the con. I bought a copy and—WOW!

War for the Oaks is the first urban fantasy I can remember reading. The writing was wonderful, the characters were wonderful, the story was great. Best of all War for the Oaks was set in modern day Minneapolis—the place where I lived—only with the courts of faerie attached. A lot of the settings, such as the First Ave. nightclub, were places I knew. Others were places I would come to know as I visited local spots where scenes from the story took place. A lot of the settings became part of my everyday life. To this day when I go into the St. Louis Park Byerly’s grocery story I remember a pookah shopping there, and it always makes me smile.

The story was about a war fought in Minneapolis between light and dark faerie folk, with a human champion chosen for each side. There’s a wonderful romance in War for the Oaks, of which I will give no spoilers, but I highly recommend you read this book if you haven’t yet. Over the years I’ve given “War of the Oaks” tours of the Twin Cities to a lot of out of town friends who love the book as much as I do.

The next urban fantasy I can recall reading was Wizard of the Pigeons, a dark, moody, evocative magical realism sort of tale set in Seattle. (Further coverage on Tor.com here.) Thanks to that book there are places in Seattle where I will not go—it creeped me out! I believed in the magic permeating the lives of some homeless Seattle street people.

I firmly believe that one of the most important elements of urban fantasies that works is setting; weird stuff in the real world, as I said before. The fantasy elements are important and certainly must have internal logic, but believing in the urban part of the urban fantasy is vital to bringing the story—the whole genre—to life. I work in two urban fantasy universes, both involving vampires. One series is dark urban fantasy, the other is paranormal romance. In each universe I try to make the setting as real as possible. I’ve spent time in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Seattle, Las Vegas, Arizona researching the real places my supernatural folk hang out in my fictional stories. Without knowing the places my characters wouldn’t feel the hot night wind in Vegas, or smell the mixed scents of jasmine and car exhaust in L.A, and neither would the reader. What the characters know and see, what they eat and where, the streets they walk, the traffic they deal with, the weather—everything that makes a place real makes the fantasy more real.

I believe that Harry Dresden walks the streets of Chicago, I believe in Charles de Lint’s Canada, in Neil Gaiman’s London and in the urban settings where a lot of fine authors have placed their supernatural characters. I have no trouble in believing in elves in New Jersey—as long as I believe in New Jersey....hmmm...I wonder if I can do something with that?


New York Times bestselling author Susan Sizemore writes and reads in many genres, including fantasy and romance. When not writing she can be found knitting, watching anime, or on Twitter.

7 comments
Miri47
1. Miri47
Thanks for this blog! I love your stuff, and War for the Oaks is one of my favorites, too!

Can't wait to read more Laws of the Blood books... do we have some Arizona settings coming up?
Miri47
2. Alexis Morgan
Love your definition of Urban Fantasy. I love the genre, too. War of the Oaks is a fabulous story. And of course Harry Dresden walks the streets of Chicago--well, except when he's riding Sue to the rescue.

Can't wait for the Laws of the Blood stories.

Alexis
Miri47
3. SSizemore
Thanks, guys! The next Laws book starts in Las Vegas, but I'm not sure where it goes from there.
Miri47
4. Terri Beckett
I love War for the Oaks, too! And Harry Dresden... And you know how I feel about LotB!
Miri47
5. Eugene R.
I am not sure when urban fantasy came into existence. Certainly, Fritz Leiber wrote urban fantasy (Our Lady of Darkness, 1977). Peter Beagle had ghosts and werewolves running through modern streets in the 1960s. And Thorne Smith wrote urban (and suburban) fantastic comedies (Night Life of the Gods, 1931). But the 1980s is a good period from which to start.

I have been a bit wary of using the "urban" label solely based on setting or contemporary timeframe. I generally like to see that the fantastic element is linked to the city in question. Much of Charles de Lint's work seems to lack this connection, so I tend to think that calling it urban fantasy simply from the setting alone is akin to calling An American in Paris a French film.

As for elves in New Jersey, well, as we say in these here parts, "New Jersey - only the strong survive."

- Eugene, humming John Gorka's home state anthem, "I'm From New Jersey"
April Vrugtman
6. dwndrgn
You've just reminded me of Glen Cook's Garrett Files, what I consider to be the precurser to Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Shucks, there's more books to add to my 'to read' list.
Miri47
7. N. Mamatas
This seems to be as good a place to mention as any that if this month goes by without a single mention of Strange Toys by Patricia Geary I'm totally gonna plotz.

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