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?