A Word About Urban Fantasy: Part One — Defining the Terms

I will be honest with you. I can’t remember if I have posted about this in the past or if I’ve just meant to and never got around to it. If I haven’t, well yay me. If I have, consider this an updated version of whatever I said before.

What I have been meaning to do
1 is discuss some of the Urban Fantasy authors/books/series which I have enjoyed. Some of what I will list are a little on the dark side, some will have romantic overtones, some will be heavier on the fantasy elements. Part of the problem which one has when discussing Urban Fantasy is that it means different things to different people. If one were to sketch out a Venn Diagram of Genre Fiction, some people would place it near the intersection of Horror and Fantasy. Others would place it further in the Romance camp.

This is partially because the use of the term has fluctuated over the years. It used to mean setting which resembled normal society (the really, real world) which contain fantastic elements. This is where the Horror overlap occurs. Horror, generally speaking, takes place in worlds very similar to ours but which contain paranormal or supernatural elements of a dark nature. Urban Fantasy was thought to be similar, but the dark overtones were not required (although they could exist). In this sense it differed from regular Fantasy (or High Fantasy, or some other designation) in that these typically (but not always) took place (at least partially) in an entire world where the fantastic was the everyday.

To provide an example or three, worlds where magic is the dominating industrial force instead of science would be considered Fantasy. Worlds which contained creatures like dragons, unicorns, elves, the Fae…Fantasy. When those dragons, unicorns, elves, and such appear in our world (as opposed to a more swords and sorcery kind of setting), we could call it Urban Fantasy.

There is a long history of series in which characters from our world enter a fantastic realm. The works of C. S. Lewis, some of Piers Anthony, and J. K. Rowling would, in my opinion, fall in the Fantasy category. While characters may start out in our world (or a similar one), the cross into Narnia, Xanth, or Hogwarts and it environs. They leave our world and spend the majority of their adventuring in a world where magic dominates.

That being said, there are other books which I feel should be considered Fantasy under this definition but which one is likely to find elsewhere. Steven King’s Dark Tower series is a tough one in that it has both fantastic and technological elements (as well as some between world traveling).

Things get further muddied when various paranormal entities (including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, ghosts, angels, and demons) become romantic figures. Without getting into a discussion of the history of the literary vampire as an expression of lust in Victorian times, this has been at least in a limited way, the case for a long time. There was a resurgence of this where the paranormal creature was not only a hero, but the object of the hero or heroine’s affections. This is the basis for the sub-genre of Paranormal Romance. However, not every instance in which a human makes sexy time with the undead can be categorized thusly. The plots of Paranormal Romance novels have to follow the rules of the major category: Romance. Among other traditions, these novels must have an ending in which the lovers, after being kept apart for some reason, end up together. This was not the case for many of these novels and people looking for their usual Romance plots were not thrilled with books mis-categorized as Romances.
2 The term Urban Fantasy came to describe these stories as well, since they did contain elements of the supernatural which existed in our world.

Unfortunately, this causes a bit of confusion if you are an either/or type of person. If you love the Dresden novels and are only looking for more mysteries solved by magicians, you may be unhappy with the Sookie Stackhouse novels and vice versa.

Fortunately for me, I like both peanut butter and chocolate and I don’t really care if they are mixed together or in what ratio. Similarly, I am equally happy with vampires who are just main characters and vampires who make the ladies go crazy.

In the next post I will list some of the Urban Fantasy authors, novels, and series which I have enjoyed. I will be using a fairly open definition of Urban Fantasy using the following rules:

  • The setting of the action will be in our world or one so similar to it that if one were plucked from our world and placed into it we would be able to function without any major penalties.
  • The exception to the above is that there exists in this world an element of the fantastic. This can include the fact that magic is real, that fantasy creatures such as dragons, unicorns, elves, the Fae exist, or something along this nature.
  • The existence of the fantastic element may be general knowledge or may be hidden from society in general and known only to a specific few.
  • Characters may possess fantastic abilities, be fantastic creatures themselves, or simple people struggling to survive in a world which contains them.
  • If characters such as elves, the Fae, vampires, and such exist, they may be the focus of romantic attraction, have sexual relations with the other characters, or they may not (the Romance element may or may not be present — I will indicate this in the descriptions).
  • Tone may range from horrifically dark to light and amusing (I will include some humorous listings)
  • Happy endings not required.

So, having said all that, I’m going to end this post and allow you to move on to the
next one in which I list some of the books that I have read and enjoyed which fit this definition.

1 Or possibly update…

2 A brief aside: All genre fiction has certain rules it must follow including plots, tropes, standard characters, etc. We expect Horror to scare the reader and be generally dark in tone, happy endings are not required. Mysteries, be they hard boiled or cozy, must have a crime or misdeed of some type. The identity of the perpetrator is unknown to the other characters (although not necessarily unknown to the reader). The other characters must then determine “who dunnit.” Imagine coming to the end of the mystery in which the killer remains unknown, the case shuffled off to a cold case file.