It is July, and July is urban fantasy month, which draws up the question: what is urban fantasy? What can you call urban fantasy, and how do you decide what it is, and what’s the difference between urban fantasy and a paranormal romance when people use the terms interchangeably? I define an urban fantasy novel, in generic, as a book with fantastical elements set in a modern and generally recognizable urban setting. That’s a fairly huge umbrella, I’ll admit.
Some of these books are about heroines running around with dashing vampires and broody werewolves stomping evil and having romances. Some of them are police procedurals, some of them are humorous detective stories, and some of them are dark twisty emotional dramas. I’m currently reading (in honor of his appearance as a guest of honor at the upcoming Readercon) the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross, and when pressed to decide what genre these books are, I think I’d say urban fantasy, despite the science and the technophile influences—which draws another point up on the “is it urban fantasy” argument. In a fantasy set in our timestream, our world, is the inclusion of tech and science a breaker that turns a book into a scifi novel, or is it still urban fantasy?
This series is currently three books and a few stories long. The Atrocity Archives is the first (which also contains the novella “The Concrete Jungle”), The Jennifer Morgue is the second (also contains “Pimpf”), and the newest book is The Fuller Memorandum (reviewed by Arachne Jericho here). There are also stories available on Tor.com: ”Down on the Farm” and “Overtime.” For those unaware of the series, The Laundry Files books take place in a very unique and weird universe.
The explanation in The Jennifer Morgue is perhaps my favorite:
“There’s only one common realm among the universes, and that’s the platonic realm of mathematics. We can solve theorems and cast hand-puppet shadows on the walls of our cave. What most folks (including mathematicians and computer scientists—which amounts to the same thing) don’t know is that in overlapping parallel version of the cave, other beings—for utterly unhuman values of “being”—can also sometimes see the shadows, and cast shadows right back at us.”
Those beings are, generally, of the Lovecraftian variety. Stross plays with settings and terminology from Lovecraft in a skillful and interesting way. Tentacular horrors are common in this series. Then there are the even-more-evil Nazis causing trouble all over the place throughout time. I’m calling “space Nazis” as a deeply scifi thing, but then you have the Lovecraft, which is in some ways science-fiction but in many others fantastical in nature. The method of summoning and Bob’s job—in “computational demonology”—also weld together seamlessly the fantastical and the science fictional: it’s about math and computers and science, but it’s equally about the ghosts of the vasty deeps.
So, I’ll call it science-fantasy for now. (There are more and more science fantasy books around lately, and I’m loving it.) That doesn’t even touch on the actual setting, which is a governmental bureaucracy in contemporary England with a twisty history dating well back and tangled up in WWII. In fact, every major country seems to have a Laundry of their own and there’s limited interaction and cooperation between them to keep the tentacular horrors a great big secret while still not letting them eat our brains. In his work, Bob ends up filling the role of a sort of detective and spy, though he isn’t really the type.
And that, the very modern and very recognizable world immersed in quotidia, is a thoroughly urban fantasy feature. It potentially could be real right here, right now, and we wouldn’t know—that’s about half of urban fantasy books. (The other half are the books like Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, where the world has become recently aware of the supernatural.)
So—are the Laundry Files books urban fantasy, or is it fair to call them such?
I say, yes. They feel like urban fantasy novels in the sense that, if I had to give a similar series, I would say Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, not a Lovecraftian horror novel or a multiverse science-fiction book. There’s a certain feel developing for many of the humorous-yet-dark urban fantasy novels that feature people who solve big, world-threatening mysteries, like Bob Howard or Harry Dresden. These books, while they may have romantic subplots, are rarely romances. I would arguably count Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan books in this category as well because—despite her relationships as they develop—the books are not strictly about the relationships and they don’t have explicit sex scenes, they’re about the mystery-solving and detective sort of work.
These are the books I call urban fantasy. The early Anita Blake series qualifies, too, though now they fall under the part of the umbrella I call “paranormal romance”—those are the books that are concerned with sex and relationships above the rest of the plot, though they are often also mysteries or feature crime-solving. Some are more directly involved in the tropes of the romance genre than others, but they’re also fairly recognizable in the tone and “feel.”
I wonder if there will be an uptick in these urban “science-fantasy” sorts of books that involve more technology? That’s where Charles Stross’ series differs from things like The Dresden Files, which avoids technology via the wizard’s quirk Butcher mixes in (they screw up electronics). He not only has the influence of Lovecraft, he plays with tastes of cyberpunk.
Urban fantasy itself is a genre that combines many others, and that’s why it’s such a hard thing to classify. It can mix mystery, fantasy, science fiction, romance, commercial fiction—the only unifying factor seems to be the contemporary setting, but recent books like Alaya Johnson’s Moonshine feel like urban fantasy but are set in different time periods. I think this is the heart of its popularity and what makes the books so fun. They can be so many different things to so many different readers yet still be unified under an umbrella term. “Urban fantasy” is almost as wide a term as “fantasy” or “science fiction” for how much space it can cover thematically.
So, yes. The Laundry Files are urban fantasy, and so are the Anita Blake books, and so are Sherrilyn Kenyon’s books, and so are things like Holly Black’s newest YA White Cat. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it, right? I hope to see even more, and even greater variety. (Secret: It’s what I’m writing right now, too.)
The Laundry Files might be my current urban fantasy pick—but what’s your favorite, and what makes you consider it “urban fantasy?” How do you define the genre when you’re shopping and reading?
Artwork by Malcolm McClinton from The Laundy Files RPG