If you read traditional fairy tales, you are likely to come away with some very specific ideas about when and where it is possible for magic to exist. At least you will if you were a reader like I was, looking for clues as to where magic might be found. Magic occurred once upon a time. To find it, the characters went into the woods. That was just the way of things. It’s so much the way of things there’s even a musical about it. There were rules for the way stories were told.
I have always loved fairy tales, but that specificity of time and setting made them seem like stories from a world that was gone. Not now. Not here. If this world had ever been a place of magic, it no longer was. I could accept that, but honestly, it made me a little sad.
This sensation—that magic was a thing for long ago or far away—only increased when I started reading portal fantasies. There were worlds with magic, these books told me, but they were through a door, always elsewhere. They weren’t my world.
And so, when I first came across urban fantasy (which I am defining in the broadest possible way as fantasy that occurs in an urban setting), it felt as if an entire new set of possibilities had opened. Cities weren’t impossible places for magic and neither was the modern world. Magic could be anywhere, all around me. I just needed to look for it, and the more I looked, the more magic I could find.
The idea of urban fantasy opened up a world for me. I didn’t need to find a wardrobe to Narnia or travel to once upon a time. Magic could just be—I could find it just across a border, hidden in the underground, or even right in the open, studiously ignored by the rest of the city, by all the people who only wanted to go about their lives without the invasion of the strange and impossible.
Magic could be here. Now.
It was a kind of breaking the rules—rules that I had thought were written in an inerasable ink. But these stories were proof that magic didn’t have to be limited to only long ago, to be bound to places that were far away or gone. It was possible to change the boundaries and make it something new.
I still remember the thrill I felt, the first time I read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, a book that places the Faerie courts in late-20th century Minnesota. I also remember my disappointment, when I eventually moved to Minneapolis and found it not nearly as magical as Bull had made it seem. (This lack of magic is certainly not Bull’s fault, and the Minnehaha Falls, well, those are indeed amazing.)
The settings of traditional fairy tale and urban fantasy can seem like opposites—the quiet, remote forest, and the loud bustle of a modern city. It might seem that perhaps each must hold a different kind of magic. There is something to this: Imagine China Miéville’s The City & The City in the middle of a forest. It’s possible—we are, after all, in the business of imagining things—but it would be an entirely different sort of story.
As we consider the possible locations for various types of magic, there is something to be said for thinking of the genius loci. It is the guardian or animating spirit of a place and it seems fitting that a place’s magic would fit with its spirit, that the two things would mesh. That you could have a deep magic, old as trees and cold as a river, with roots gnarled through the earth, and that there could also be a magic that crackled through the internet and stalked fashion week’s runways and longed for the cold iron of a yellow cab.
I love stories where magic is bound up tightly to the idea of a place: Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, with a magic that is neither fairy tale nor urban fantasy, but grown out of the Henrietta soil. I love the magic there the same way I love the disheveled glamour of the glorious old houses where magic can so often be found in Elizabeth Hand’s work, and the way I recognize the magic of Seattle in Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs in my bones.
But the thing that shift from fairy tales to urban fantasy taught me was that stories don’t have to be written as only those things—where the link to place is so strong that the story’s magic cannot survive elsewhere. That even though I love stories where magic and place seem to grow together, magic doesn’t need to be bound by location to have power. We can always find new places for it to live, and new ways for it to live there. Magic is magic, and we are in the business of imagining things. For me, this is one of the great gifts of writing and reading the literature of the fantastic. It gives us a framework to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in and to break the rules if we need to in order to get there.
Top image: War for the Oaks cover art (Penguin, 2016); art by La Boca.
Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed on NPR, and anthologized in year’s best and best of volumes. In the past, she’s been a competitive fencer and a college professor. An Unkindness of Magicians is her second novel. Her debut, Roses and Rot, was released from Saga Press in May of 2016, and was a Locus Award finalist for Best First Novel. Her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, will be out in 2018, also from Saga. You can find her on twitter where she is likely to post pictures of her cats.