Urban fantasy. Everyone knows what it is these days. There is even a romance-novel category for it. But back when I started writing it, it was a very new “place” to set a fantasy novel—although to be fair, a lot of things that were once classified as “horror” would be classified as “urban fantasy” today, like Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife or my own Diana Tregarde books. But when I started the Bedlam’s Bard and SERRAted Edge series, it was brand new, and no one had ever considered putting elves in a mall or on a racetrack, making them qualify for the category of “groundbreaking.”
So I’ll toot my own horn a little and submit for your consideration (as Rod Serling used to say) both those series. The Bedlam’s Bard series, beginning with A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, featured the debut of “mall elves”; the concept made sense to myself and co-writer Ellen Guon, because we posited elves as being tied to sacred groves, and many of the malls going up at the time in California had to be built around groves of native trees. The actual genesis of the series was a pen-and-ink sketch of a couple of bored looking teenage girls dressed in ‘80s hair and bling, loitering in a mall—and if you looked closely, you could see the pointed ears just barely sticking out of their hair. The SERRAted Edge series, on the other hand, was born of Larry and my mutual love of (real) sports car racing, and featured a division of Sports Car Club of America called the SouthEastern Road Racing Association. It asked, and answered the question, “What if elves never stopped challenging humans at crossroads, but just changed the (literal) vehicle of challenge?” And Baen came up with the tagline “Hot cars, fast elves, and kids on the run.”
Probably the most brilliant urban fantasy series I know is also set in what was at the time not only an unusual, but an unusually detailed setting. Charles de Lint’s Newford books and stories are set in a fictional Canadian city that includes such inventions as a college and a First Nations tribe that are so lovingly described that I always have to double-check and remind myself that no, I cannot visit Newford, much as I would like to. I, and the rest of his fans, could probably draw a complete map of Newford, find the Jilly Coppercorn’s studio, locate our favorite coffee-shop and tell you exactly where Newford’s folk musicians busk and have gigs. If given the choice of “what fantasy setting would you like to actually live in,” I’ll take Newford, hands down.
Right up there is Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, a retelling of the Scottish legend of the same name, set in a the fictional college of Blackstock. I love this book, and it’s on my “reread” shelf; whenever I get nostalgic and want to go back to college, I read this, and Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, and the craving is satisfied. College always seemed a little other-worldly to me, and this setting gives me a double dose of academia and mythos. Blackstock is the college I wish I had gone to, complete with the academic track I wistfully wish I had been able to take. Oh, and a heaping helping of magic.
The Wild Cards shared-world series curated by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass is touted as being science fiction, but to me, superhero fiction is a lot closer to fantasy than science fiction, so I am listing it here as well. As far as I am concerned, there’s very little resembling science in Wild Cards, and a whole lot of handwavium—and I am not saying that as a pejorative. Concentrating on character and story rather than physics and biology makes it resonate all the more for me. The setting is unusual, not because it is mostly in New York City, but because it is uncompromisingly adult, very dark and very gritty. I normally don’t like grimdark, but I make an exception for Wild Cards. And because most of it is not written by George, at least I have the comfort that I won’t grow fond of a character only to have him or her die in the next episode.
Lastly, but by no means least, I love Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, set in Chicago. I mean, Chicago! Sure, you can imagine strange things lurking in the Victorian neighborhoods of New York, and hiding in Central Park, and you can stretch your disbelief to imagine vacant-eyed elves amusing themselves in a Californian mall, hopped up on caffeinated drinks (addictive and narcotic for elves), but I come from the Chicago area and Chicago is so … prosaic. So blue-collar. So … ordinary. It takes a special kind of writer not only to set an urban fantasy series there, but to make you believe in wizards living in basement apartments, and trolls under the Chicago Bridge. Seriously. Trolls? In Chicago? At least, trolls that don’t live in their mommy’s basement? It’s particularly a treat for me, since I’m so familiar with Chicago, to see how many landmarks I know and have visited that Harry interacts with. Although, Jim? If you’re reading this? Go check out the University of Chicago Campus, particularly the Rockefeller Chapel. I think you’ll get some ideas.
Originally published September 2017.
Mercedes Lackey is the #1 New York Times best-selling American fantasy author behind the Heralds of Valdemar series, the Elemental Masters series, the 500 Kingdoms series, and many more. She has published over one hundred novels in under twenty-five years. Her latest book Apex is the spellbinding close to the #1 New York Times bestselling Hunter series.