Mind Meld: How Do You Define Urban Fantasy?

Urban fantasy too often gets passed over by readers who have a narrow view of the genre and the unfounded reputation that all urban fantasy books are “the same.” Well, no one puts urban fantasy in a corner! Like any other type of fantasy, there are many nuances to this rich and varied subgenre. With that in mind, we asked some of our favorite urban fantasy authors…

Q: How do you define urban fantasy? Why do you love it? And what titles do you love to recommend?

Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is the New York Times bestselling author of the October Daye urban fantasy series, the InCryptid series, the forthcoming Deadlands novel Boneyard and other works, including the Hugo, Nebula, Alex and Locus Award-winning novella Every Heart a Doorway. Learn more at seananmcguire.com, or follow her on Twitter at seananmcguire.

So let’s start with a misconception: urban fantasy is not a “new” genre. You can make a very solid argument, for example, for Dracula being an early urban fantasy. It takes place in a familiar setting (England) as well as a more unusual one (for the audiences of the day, Stoker’s fantastical, monstrous Transylvania). It involves people and places that would be familiar to the reader, all overlain with a veil of something new and strange. “Urban fantasy,” as a label, has just as often encompassed things we could also categorize as horror—like all good fairy tales when they were first being told, it’s the contemporary nature of the setting that matters.

I say “fairy tales” and I’ll stand by it. I majored in folklore and mythology, and one thing that really stands out about those old stories is how contemporary many of them were when they were being told for the first time. Even as they spun unknown lands and magical kingdoms, they grounded themselves in the realities of the day. They were urban fantasy. They just didn’t know it. So that’s the answer, at least for me, to how I define and categorize urban fantasy: it’s something that takes place in a world we know, in a time we know, but different. Changed in ways that are both expected and not so expected.

(That’s also a lot of the difference between urban fantasy and portal fantasy, by the by. Portal fantasy begins here, and then says “magic is real, but it primarily lives somewhere entirely else.” Urban fantasy says “magic is real, and it has just eaten your dog.”)

I read a lot of urban fantasy. I have to. Writing in a genre ideally means understanding what that genre has to offer, what its shapes and trends are, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going. With that in mind, I want to recommend a very recent urban fantasy, and a very old one.

Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean, is not a loud book. But it’s an honest, earnest, essential book that set the stage for a remarkable amount of modern urban fantasy. It’s true in a way that’s difficult to put into words, and if I can write one thing that resonates for others as much as this book resonated for me, I will feel that I have won at life.

Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn, is the kind of modern, peppy, poppy urban fantasy that a lot of readers have been waiting for. There’s a whole different discussion to be had about whether superhero fiction is fantasy or its own genre, but since I’ve already said that urban fantasy encompasses a lot of horror, I have no qualms about saying that superhero stories set in our familiar modern world should absolutely qualify. It’s so good, y’all. You should read it.

R.S. Belcher
Belcher may currently be a writer, but he has also been a private investigator, a DJ, a comic book and game store owner, and studied forensic science. His books don’t so much hop genres as straddle them, from the horror-infused pirate adventure The Queen of Swords—set in the world of his acclaimed weird western, The Six-Gun Tarot—to his urban fantasy Nightwise, continuing with next year’s The Night Dahlia. And don’t forget his urban legends-inspired horror/urban fantasy about truckers fighting the forces of darkness, The Brotherhood of the Wheel.

I enjoy and respect Urban Fantasy precisely for the reasons many literary snobs poo-poo the genre. Urban Fantasy and its inbred mutant cousin with a chainsaw, Horror, meet the reader on their terms, in their world, and that heightens the surreal experience of adding supernatural elements to the story and adds to the reader’s immersion in the writer’s world.

A guy who can work miracles with magic, living, literally, in some tower, is a pretty big disconnect for a lot of readers. The writer has to work harder to make a visceral connection between their imaginary people and the flesh-and-blood readers to seduce them into that world and keep them there. A guy who has a drinking problem and has to figure out how to hustle up the money for the power bill because he drank it away, who also happens to be able to conjure miracles, is a much more immediate, immersive draw for the reader than the magic guy in the tower. I’m not knocking High Fantasy, but in my opinion one of the reasons Urban Fantasy has remained so popular is this intimate connection between the reader’s life experiences and the author’s world. The dance between reality and fantasy is what keeps bringing us back.

Urban Fantasy stories that pull you into a real-world subculture or society can be very enticing and effective. Whereas Science Fiction may use allegory to address the world we live in, good Urban Fantasy is a bit more bare-knuckle. It drops your ass into a part of the real world that you may not have a clue even exists alongside your day-to-day life. These excursions can be just as eye-opening and exhilarating as exploring some alien world.

Some Urban Fantasy authors who pull off this cultural translation and cache it into damn good and unique storytelling include Faith Hunter and her Jane Yellowrock series, David Coe’s Justis Fearrson series, and several amazing and unique series by John G. Hartness, including his Bubba the Monster Hunter books and the Quincy Harker series. Gail Z. Martin’s Deadly Curiosities series is also very unique and enjoyable. In YA Urban Fantasy, I highly recommend Lucienne Diver’s Vamped and Fang series to give you real insight into teenage culture and the real-world issues our kids struggle with daily.

ML Brennan
ML Brennan is the author of the Generation V urban fantasy series, where an utterly non-sparkly vampire and his kitsune wing-woman roam the mean streets of Providence, RI, and face the existential question of how to pay this month’s rent, combining humor, horror, and pop culture references. Follow her at @BrennanML or visit at http://www.mlbrennan.com.

Urban fantasy is in a pretty bizarre position—it is one of the most big-tent genres out there, yet it is also one of the most broadly stereotyped. If I put together a pile of the all the UF books I have just in my house, I’d have books that skewed horror, humor, romance, procedural, mystery, and sometimes all of those things at the same time. And that’s really what I love about UF—there’s so much variety, and there are talented writers carving out their own amazing directions. Just when everyone seems ready to completely write off UF as being one-hundred percent over-saturated, someone comes along and does something that transforms the genre again.

UF is also hard to pin down regarding something as basic as what it is, because despite what the title would imply, it’s more than just monsters in the city. For me, something being included in the UF classification requires that it meet three requirements:

  1. Contemporary. There are a lot of city scenes in Game of Thrones, but I’m pretty sure we can all agree that it isn’t UF. This genre is very much about the present day, because what says UF more than a vampire wearing skinny jeans, sipping a pumpkin-spice latte, and planning her latest murder spree on her smartphone? Absolutely nothing. Since the arguable birth of the genre in Emma Bull’s 1987 War For The Oaks, UF has been about magic colliding with modernity, about the sense of myth struggling against machinery. This isn’t historical fantasy – this is a world very recognizably our own and present, with something magical (and often deadly) mixed in.
  2. Gritty Realism. UF isn’t soft focus or easy. There’s dirt on the streets, and a sense of being at a lower level, of paying bills and scrounging for coupons. The protagonists might be dealing with magic and monsters, but they’re also worried about their car payment. Two of my favorite series that embody this are Cassie Alexander’s Edie Spence books about a nurse who ends up working in a very supernatural wing of a hospital after she is made an offer she can’t refuse, and Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie‘s exploration of how a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks finally gets a chance at a good life – but it involves eating brains.
  3. Locality. Look at a lot of UF series, and there’s one extra character – the setting. From Stephen Blackmoore’s takeover of LA in the Eric Carter series, to Paul Cornell’s magical London, to Rob Thurman and Daniel José Older’s different imaginings of New York City, the location is a critical component that shapes plot, tone, and character.

Faith Hunter
New York Times and USAToday bestselling author Faith Hunter was born in Louisiana and raised all over the south. She writes two contemporary Urban Fantasy series. When not writing she reads, kayaks whitewater rivers, and travels. www.faithhunter.net @hunterfaith

For twenty years I wrote thrillers under the name Gwen Hunter, but I longed to bring in to my thriller writing some magic and mayhem and creatures of the dark. That is what Urban Fantasy is for me—a thriller in a modern-day, recognizable, familiar, magical environment. The world still has rules and repercussions and consequences, it has tech and hot baths and central air, but it also has the unexplainable, the magical, the dark and foreboding, and the bloody. Toss in a little romance—because what is life without a hint of love—some cops and bounty hunters and voila, Urban Fantasy. In my worlds, the main characters are either cops or paranormal bounty hunters, hunting down the creatures who hunt humans. And my characters kick Big-Bad-Ugly ass! (Check out the Jane Yellowrock or Soulwood series.)

When I’m not writing or editing I like to read Urban fantasy too, and currently I am binge reading Chloe Neill’s The Hunt. If you haven’t read the Devil’s Isle series, then get thee to a bookstore pronto. It is wicked good!

Maurice Broaddus
His work has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Weird Tales, Apex Magazine, Asimov’s, Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and many more with some of his stories collected in The Voices of Martyrs. He wrote The Knights of Breton Court trilogy and the novella Buffalo Soldier. Learn more about him at MauriceBroaddus.com.

Everyone has a different idea about what urban fantasy is. The first time I her the term urban fantasy was when I was told that my novel series The Knights of Breton Court was one. I’s used to connecting the word “urban” as in any of a number of other code phrases for “we mean black people but we need to tip toe around saying, you know, stuff black people are into” like “urban radio” or “urban fiction” (aka street lit). So I thought maybe I had stumbled into the perfect genre to write my brand of fiction. Imagine my surprise when I found out that’s about as opposite a landscape as possible.

For me, I go with the simple definition of it being a story where the city is as much a character as anyone else running around such that if you were to remove the city, the story doesn’t work as well. In short, I need an urban fantasy to take me to a place.

I’m on an urban fantasy binge right now. Daniel José Older’s Half Resurrection Blues and Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot are great examples. I also believe that an author who doesn’t get enough run as an urban fantasy author is the late and very missed L.A. Banks.

Emma Jane Holloway
Emma Jane Holloway is the author of The Baskerville Affair trilogy of steampunk adventures. Ever since childhood, she refused to accept that history was nothing but facts imprisoned behind the closed door of time. Accordingly, her novels are filled with whimsical impossibilities and the occasional eye-blinking impertinence—but always in the service of grand adventure. An award-winning author of both historical and urban fantasy romance, Holloway has published articles, essays, short stories, and novels and can be found at www.rowanartistry.com or on Twitter @RowanAshArt.

Urban fantasy is about the junction of our everyday modern world with the realm of the fantastic. Sometimes the supernatural world is common knowledge, and sometimes not. I don’t think the genre needs to be more defined than that. In fact, it shouldn’t be. UF is all about the possibilities around us.

For me urban fantasy has the best of two worlds. It’s a feast of magic, adventure, and monsters that represents pure entertainment. At the same time, the stories and characters are robust enough to tackle complex story questions about our contemporary society. This isn’t unique to UF, but the fantastic setting enables intriguing exploration. At their best, these are books that linger in the mind long after the last chapter is read.

What would I recommend? Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. There’s always a crime to solve, with high adventure and unexpected magic, but the best part is the wry, down-to-earth narration of the hero, Peter Grant. He’s a mass of contradictions—a young police officer, a novice sorcerer, an everyday Londoner, and the son of immigrants—and his conflicted uncertainty makes him approachable and real. For me, these books are a breath of fresh air in the genre.

Michael F. Haspil
Michael F. Haspil is the author of the urban fantasy novel Graveyard Shift about a reanimated pharaoh blackmailed into law enforcement in a contemporary Miami thriving with vampires. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, a geek, a podcaster, and a gamer. You can discover more about him at www.michaelhaspil.com or catch up with him on Twitter @MichaelHaspil.

Urban Fantasy is a crazy hybrid of crime fiction, horror, noir, fantasy, and more often than not, romance. It establishes literary arenas where the preternatural lives, and often works, side-by-side with the mundane.

What I love about Urban Fantasy is it describes realities just beyond our limited perception and implies that the wondrous exists just outside our current view. Urban Fantasy is that dark spot you see slide backward out of the corner of your eye. It’s the blur that streaked behind you as you fixed your hair in the mirror. The scruffy-looking biker guzzling milk instead of a beer? Potential werewolf. The elegant woman wearing dark glasses in the corner of the coffee shop away from the windows? Vampire. The wizened lady with the thick glasses who looks like a stereotypical librarian? That’s just her cover. Wizard.

We tend to link Urban Fantasy stories with pseudo-tongue-in-cheek tales of vampires, werewolves, wizards, and druids, but it’s so much more than that. Like all good literature, we can use the Urban Fantasy subgenre to describe situations and stories of those who are “othered” in our real world. By distancing ourselves from the reality of a condition and dropping our contemporary baggage, we allow ourselves to empathize and see potential solutions. Urban Fantasy gives us a clear lens to gaze at our own world and open our minds to spheres beyond those which we call normal.

The book I love to recommend to newcomers is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Neverwhere is about the repercussions a good Samaritan suffers when he helps an injured young lady. By helping her, the way he views the world changes. The world’s perception of him alters as well. People stop noticing him and he slips into a crack in reality where he notices a vibrant underworld beneath the city he thought he knew. It is an ideal exemplar of the supernatural world coexisting with our own. The book is full of adventure and quests and everything a new Urban Fantasy reader could want.

Peter McLean
Peter McLean is the author of urban fantasy novels Drake, Dominion, and Damnation, for Angry Robot Books, and the forthcoming fantasy Priest of Bones for Ace/Roc. His website is Talonwraith.com and he is on Twitter as @PeteMC666

For me, the essential ingredient of Urban Fantasy is that it’s, well, urban. It isn’t just the city as setting though, it’s the city as a character in its own right. Whether it’s Jim Butcher’s Chicago or Ben Aaronovitch’s London, the sense of place and the nuances of that place become every bit as important as the human characters. My all-time favourite has to be Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.

It’s a fascinating and multi-layered book, hilarious and horrifying by turn as Gaiman takes us down the rabbit hole into a dark, modern Alice in Wonderland populated by immortal killers and the very archetypes that make up the fabric of London. From Old Bailey to the Black Friars to the Angel Islington, the whole story hangs on its setting. Neverwhere is London, and I know London.

I think that’s part of the key to getting into an Urban Fantasy. The real attraction of the genre for me is that sense of the supernatural, the dangerous and otherworldly, lurking just around the corner out of sight in the real world. The more real that world feels, the more familiar, the stronger that effect is.

Walk around London and look up sometime; maybe you’ll spot Old Bailey perched on a rooftop, watching you.

Allison Pang
Allison Pang is the author of the Abby Sinclair UF series, the webcomic Fox & Willow, and the new steampunk series The Iron Heart Chronicles. She likes elves, LEGOS, LEGO elves…and bacon.

I’ve always categorized UF into two separate genres: Before Buffy and After Buffy. (Buffy, of course, being “the Vampire Slayer.”) Before Buffy, I had always gotten the impression that UF was about a specific city or town and the fantastical things that occurred there—like Charles de Lint’s stories about Newford, where the town itself was a character in its own right. Each short story or novel took an element of that city and showed a new facet of it, unraveling each mystery a little at a time.

After Buffy, I think we saw a huge shift into the first person story, with an emphasis on the “strong female protagonist.” Instead of being setting driven, the stories became character driven, often heavily influenced by the Paranormal Romance genre.

There is absolutely room for both types of UF. Books and genres don’t evolve in a vacuum. We write these stories because there is a need to make the narrative our own, to tell the stories we want to read and to fill in the gaps of our modern mythos.

As far as my favorites go, Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint is probably it. I’m also fond of Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, Tanya Huff’s Vickie Nelson series, and Patricia BriggsMercy Thompson series.

Amanda Bonilla
Amanda Bonilla lives in rural Idaho where she writes urban fantasy, paranormal romance as Kate Baxter, and romantic suspense as Mandy Baxter. She’s a part-time pet wrangler, full-time sun worshipper, and only goes out into the cold when coerced. She can be found at amandabonilla.com, on Twitter: @amandabonilla, or on Facebook.

Urban Fantasy is by far my first love in genre fiction. It combines so many elements that I love: mystery, action, the paranormal, and elements of romance. I’m a huge fan of urban fantasy’s dark, edgy vibe and the stage that it sets for feisty, tough heroines who live their lives on their own terms and possess the self-confidence and skills necessary to save themselves.

I like to think of urban fantasy as more “contemporary fantasy.” I don’t believe that a story needs to be set in an urban environment and small town/rural settings are becoming increasingly popular within the genre. Urban fantasy is open to a wide cast of characters: werewolves, vampires, fae, shifters, witches, humans with enhanced abilities…there really isn’t any limit to what kind of creature an author chooses to include.

One of my favorite things about urban fantasy is that the parameters of the genre aren’t rigid. It’s such an all-inclusive genre. Extraordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances within the backdrop of the world we live in. Urban fantasy is such a great genre for showcasing diversity. The possibilities are limited only by the author’s imagination.

My introduction to urban fantasy was Patricia Briggs’s Moon Called. I fell in love with Mercy Thompson from page one and devoured each new book in the series. Briggs is my go-to urban fantasy author—I’d read the phone book from cover to cover if she authored it—and she’s the first author I suggest to readers who are new to the genre. There are so many exciting voices in the genre: Lillith Saintcrow, Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearne, Jennifer Estep, Chloe Neill, and Kalayna Price. As well as some amazing up and comers like: Amanda Carlson, Chelsea Mueller, and Jenn Stark. They’re all fabulous and I’d recommend any of these authors in a heartbeat!

What urban fantasy series do you recommend? We’ve got our own favorites for best standalone urban fantasy, best continuing urban fantasy series and best complete urban fantasy series.

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