Writing Fiction. What Is Urban Fantasy Anyway?

Many authors don’t want to categorize their writing, but the best way to immediately turn on (or turn off) a new reader is to relate your book to something they already like.

beanThe easiest way is to pick comparison authors in a genre and in today’s article, Emma Newman talks about the definition of urban fantasy along with some examples.

I had a hospital appointment back in early March which happened to fall on the same day as the launch of Between Two Thorns, my latest novel. I was rather nervous, as I had to go home and get ready for the launch straight after the appointment – unsurprisingly it was on my mind. When I mentioned it to my doctor, she lit up, excited (as most people are) to hear I was published. “What kind of book is it?” she asked. “Urban fantasy.” I replied.

She gave me a blank look.

“Is that like Lord of the Rings?” I shook my head. “No, but it is a kind of fantasy. It’s set in modern day Bath, but has evil faeries and mad sorcerers.” She beamed again. “Oh, I like the sound of that! I thought you meant it was something with elves in it.”

Variants of this conversation happen every time I mention ‘urban fantasy’ to anyone who is

a) not a science fiction and fantasy (SFF) reader or

b) not an SFF writer or

c) not an SFF publisher.

It’s hit and miss with booksellers – some are very excited, others say “Oh, I don’t do *that* section of the shop” and move away like I’ve been writing pamphlets extolling the virtues of eating a live frog every morning. (I don’t, by the way.)

I’m a geek.

I’m a huge fan of SFF and I am immersed in that world. Just like everything that mankind has ever created, the moment you have groups of people producing, consuming and enthusing about something, it quickly becomes riddled with jargon and categorization that only means something to the group of people who produce, consume or enthuse about it.

That’s true of the term ‘urban fantasy’ but what makes it more tricky is that we still debate what that encompasses in our community. That’s true of all things though, isn’t it?

So what I would like to do is talk about how a few people have defined it, what I mean when I say “I write Urban Fantasy” and point you in the direction of a few places you can dive in and experience it for yourself.

The urban angle

Urban fantasy has been defined by the places in which the fantasy (magic and or strange creatures, usually) is set – i.e. the urban environment. It gives flexibility in terms of the time period; the city could be in the Victorian, Tudor, post-American civil war – whenever. As long as the fantasy is rooted in the city, it’s urban fantasy.

Whilst I can see the sense of this, I don’t like to chain what I consider to be urban fantasy to being set in densely populated cities. I think urban fantasy novels can – and do – roam into the countryside, small towns and villages and sometimes only one cottage.

In some urban fantasy, the city itself is a character.

The horror angle

Paul Cornell, who recently had a rather splendid urban fantasy novel called “London Falling” published, described urban fantasy as “Horror in which the characters will probably survive.” I like the thinking here; a lot of urban fantasy features monsters and the horrific to varying degrees. However, for me, ‘horror’ also implies that urban fantasy is often scary and I don’t agree with that.

How I define urban fantasy

The way I conceptualize urban fantasy is magic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm. Everything appears normal until you walk down a particular alleyway after midnight on the third Tuesday of the month. The person sitting opposite you on the underground train looks normal but is in fact looking for a particular flavour of grief to steal and bottle up to take back to his master. The majority of the people who live there will have normal lives, oblivious to the magical all around them, hidden in plain sight.

Blurring genre lines

What makes this definition even more tricky is that urban fantasy books often straddle two or more genres (in fact, I like to do that with practically everything I write). There’s a lot of common ground between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, for example. In the latter the romance between two key characters forms the spine of the plot and story progression, in urban fantasy the romance is only one of many threads and the novel isn’t built around it.

Is a definition really that important?

You know, there’s been a bit of me thinking that whilst I’ve been writing this. After all, surely it should all be about the story, the characters and the quality of the writing. Who cares what sub-genre category a book falls into?

But then I think about how we find books in shops and online and how we describe them to each other. These genre labels act as a kind of shorthand and connect us to similar books that we can discover and love. If you’re a writer seeking an agent and/or publisher, it’s important to know where your word baby fits into the bigger picture because that agent or publisher needs to convince booksellers to stock it and they like to know where to put your book and how to market it.

Want to dip your toe into Urban Fantasy?

One of my favorite urban fantasy novels is “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman.

If you like police procedural stuff, give “Rivers of London” by Ben Aaronovitch and “London Falling” by Paul Cornell a go.

If you like angels – but not the traditional – try “Blood and Feathers” by Lou Morgan.

If you’re looking for some urban fantasy for young adults, try “The City’s Son” by Tom Pollock.

If you want to try it in tiny bite-sized chunks, I wrote a year and a day of weekly short stories set in the Split Worlds that you can read here: www.splitworlds.com/stories and if you like, you can have them delivered every week to your inbox for free (the sign-up for that can be found there too). There’s the first novel of the Split Worlds series “Between Two Thorns” too of course!

Have you got any urban fantasy novels you would recommend? Please do leave a comment below.

between2thornsEmma Newman was born in a tiny coastal village in Cornwall during one of the hottest summers on record and now lives in Somerset, England. She writes dark short stories, post-apocalyptic and urban fantasy novels and records audiobooks in all genres. Her hobbies include dressmaking and gaming and she drinks far too much tea. She blogs at www.enewman.co.uk, rarely gets enough sleep and refuses to eat mushrooms.

Her latest book is Between Two Thorns, available now from Angry Robot Books.

Top image: Bean Chicago. Flickr Creative Commons by Justin Kern


Be Sociable, Share!


  1. says

    I started reading Jennifer Estep’s Paranormal Romance Series about Big Time, which was tons of fun. She started a second urban fantasy series that I’ve enjoyed (although her first book is a touch repetitive I love the characters) about the Elemental Assassin. Features the big south USA.

  2. says

    Ooo! Very helpful article. The genre lines seem to have become so blurred lately (a good thing when reading but not so great when you’re a writer trying to pigeonhole your novel), and this helps bring them back into focus. Thanks!

  3. says

    I think the reigning king of urban fantasy would be Jim Butcher with his Harry Dresden series. If you haven’t had a chance to pick these up, you’re missing out on an amazing, witty, inspirational story.

    • Daniel Xiao Wang says

      I was surprised not to see Jim Butcher mentioned until your comment. Butcher’s Dresden Files are amazing.

  4. says

    Now that’s a very interesting question, and similar to one I’ve been pondering myself lately…

    If you have written a book which straddles more than one genre, how do you categorize it correctly without misleading potential readers? To me, the word ‘fantasy’ implies something which is not real and is desired – it doesn’t immediately conjour up fairies or wizards or fantastical creatures, although I accept that for many it does, and maybe I’m wrong simply by virtue of being outnumbered!

    For instance (and this isn’t intended just to be a plug for my book, though if it works that way I shan’t complain!) I’ve written a story which is set in a contemporary city (London) and it is basically a romance but also has elements of … well that’s where it gets tricky, because the main character believes she exists in two ‘worlds’, or ‘time-zones’ or ‘realities’ – she doesn’t want to, but doesn’t know how to stop it, or even at one point, which one is the ‘real’ world… does that come under ‘fantasy’ (because she could be dreaming up a different reality for herself because the other one is too painful) , ‘science-fiction’ (because she might be time-travelling without meaning to) or …what?

    Genre/Category is such a difficult thing to pin down, as Joanna so rightly says. My book isn’t published yet, so the question of categorizing has yet to come and bite me on the what-not – I’ve gone for ‘a dystopian romance’ for the time being, but have absolutely no idea if that’s what it really is… or, more importantly, if that is what potential readers would agree it is… thanks for your thoughts, Joanna. Great website by the way!

    • says

      I think you need to identify which element forms the spine of your story. If it’s romance more than anything else – if the plot is built around that and the book would cease to work if the romance was removed – then you could call it a dystopian romance if the dystopian setting is important 0r prominent too.

      An example: The Time Traveller’s Wife is a romance. It’s irrelevant that time travel is involved to a science fiction reader, as it’s not the focus of the story, the romance is. As a sci-fi fan, I didn’t enjoy that book nearly as much as romance readers.

      I guess what I’m also saying is be aware of who you think will enjoy the book the most. Unless the two worlds / time-travel aspects are prominent, drive the plot or are at least explored a great deal, the book is primarily romance. That’s my tuppence anyway – I’m no expert!

      • says

        Thanks for your input Emma – I think that is kind of the conclusion I’ve come to at this point; it is primarily a romance, so at least I got that bit right! The dystopian/other reality element is perhaps quite not as prominent as the contemporary setting and the romance is romance in both, so I may even drop that when I do the big marketing push.

        Fiona, I’m glad I’m not the only one to have the problem!

  5. says

    Urban Fantasy, while reading the paragraphs I wondered if the Marvel Comics Super Heroes would be Urban Fantasy since it would be Science Fiction and Fantasy. I am trying to finish a Time Travel Romance novelette so it is Science Fiction, but the word URBAN – brings it to the underground or unknown world, which could exist, to the inexperienced eye. I am not a home garden nut, but some days I wondered if there really are gnomes because we ate two guyabanos, which were heart shaped, and one sitting on the table waiting to be sliced for dessert. Guyabanos supposedly kills cancer cells inside our bodies. Urban Fantasy would work more on the self-published route with the same display marketing of Marvel Comics. It might help to have an artist conception of the Urban unorthodox dwellers, to help promote the novel beyond the cover.

  6. says

    Lovely post Joanna & Emma.
    Emma, as an urban fantasy (YA) author myself, you had me at ‘It’s set in modern day Bath, but has evil faeries and mad sorcerers’. I loved that line! I also love Bath! In fact, I’m currently writing a sequel (my 6th book) which is set partly in Bath (and London, Salisbury, Winchester…)
    I usually categorize urban fantasy as ‘fantasy set in a modern day world’ or something along those lines. I have quite a few favourites like Shalini Boland’s Marchwood Vampires series, Melissa Pearl’s Time Spirit series and Betwixt, Poppet’s Scarlet Vamporium, Laura Elliott’s Shadow Slayer, Alexandra May’s The Elemental (set in the Wiltshire area)…. I could easily go on!

  7. Christine Hennebury says

    Great post! I struggle with defining Urban Fantasy too, and I came up with something very close to this part of your post: “The way I conceptualize urban fantasy is magic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm.”

    My favourite UF stuff is by Kelley Armstrong, Jaye Wells and Lilith Saintcrow.

  8. says

    Great post. I’m very pleased to see some new names here that I haven’t come across before. I will be checking them out. I write urban fantasy too (first one coming out in 11 months with Spence City) and the one thing that urban fantasy let’s you do is explore some of the big issues in parallel with a different world. Sounds pompous, but it isn’t, since you can do it with as much humour as you want. After being a psych thriller heavy-hitter, it’s invigorating and a great deal of fun. As for classification–I’d go for contemporary urban fantasy–then everyone knows it’s in the here and now and, yes it’s going to have a thriller element and a boy meets fae aspect, but the focus of the book has to be the SFF.
    Hope to see you all around at some stage.

  9. Steph says

    Last thing I read in this category was The Genesis (blood of ages series) by k l Kerr . Vampire urban fantasy takes places in what feels like a normal city, definitely fits the UF and not the PR genre, which I honestly prefer. The city’s dark, brooding, vampires have guns, good action scenes.

  10. says

    I love Urban Fantasy. One of my favourite series’ is Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. They were definitely an influence on me for my Locked Within books, though mine are quite a bit shorter. Probably also good first-steps into the genre since the first book is a pretty quick and easy read.

    I’ve heard the genre described in terms of the difference between it and Horror: If there’s one monster, it’s Horror. If there are many, it’s Urban Fantasy.

    I do believe that empowerment of the protagonists is a big factor in defining the genre. Characters in Urban Fantasy, unlike Thrillers or Horror, tend to have, or develop, the ability to stand against the supernatural forces in the world. That’s one of the reasons I love it as a genre, because of the sense of facing the things that fill you with fear and driving them back.

  11. Beverley Burgess Bell says

    The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne is outstanding – Atticus O’Sullivan is a lighter version of Harry Dresden. Non-stop action and great fun. Plus Hearne’s command of the english language is masterful. I highly recommend it, plus there’s a new book coming out next week – yippee!

  12. linda says

    I am surprised that no mention is made of Charles de Lint, who practically created and defined the genre. Jack of Kinrowan, Dreams Underfoot, The Onion Girl, etc. are all urban fantasy.
    also, many of Datlow & Windling’s contemporary fairy tales have the elements of urban fantasy embedded in them.

  13. says

    Hi Emma

    What a relief it was to read your post; I am about to publish a book set in modern day Paris with supernatural elements (a typewriter than can change the past, and telepathy), and the question of category always come up when I talk about my book. I never thought it was a pure fantasy book because I have blended very realistic and authentic aspects with the supernatural ones, but I think urban fantasy is much more appropriate.


  14. Katy says

    NaNoWriMo is next month, and I have an absolutely awesome plotting worksheet for all my writing. (Shoutout to the amazing Annie!) One of the first questions on there is about the genre, and I got completely stumped. What is this that I’m trying to write about? Paranormal Romance, maybe? Or the elusive Urban Fantasy? This really helped clear the lines. My upcoming NaNoWriMo work is (probably) Urban Fantasy. (It’s a book set in the modern world about an immortal King Midas and a singer-songwriter girl with unknowing ties to the world of Greek mythology.)

    Thanks so much for this post! :)

  15. Stephanie says

    Thank you for clarifying the genre. I’m writing a query letter for my novel and struggling with the genre. I know, that probably sounds ridiculous.

    It’s set in a fictitious rural town in Oregon. A week after the MC’s mother drowns in the hot spring on her family’s property, her skin begins to crack and bleed like her mother’s used to. The MC discovers she must follow her mother’s posthumous advice. Dive into the spring and retrieve shards of glass each day to stave off the crack’s steady progression. As she dives, a boy begins to materialize in the spring. She learns that the spring is actually the fountain of youth and the mysterious cracks are part of a punishment brought on by her grandmother (five times over) and the boy in the spring over 100 years ago. Though there is a romantic aspect to the storyline, it’s primarily about the MC’s struggle to gather all of the glass shards in order to break the curse. Am I right in my thinking that this is more of an urban fantasy than a paranormal romance?

  16. Rhonda says

    I would recommend Kat Richardson’s “Greywalker” books. They were my entry point into the sub-genre. A nice combination of the private detective element with urban setting and paranormal creatures. I also like Stina Leicht’s “Of Blood and Honey.”

  17. says

    One of my favourite Urban Fantasy authors is Simon R. Green, especially his Nightside series. In it the city, the urban environment is very much a character and its filled with odd characters, mixing super-science and high fantasy with modern elements. They’re extremely fun to read.

  18. Pam Carter says

    Dance of the Goblins by Jaq D. Hawkins is an excellent Urban Fantasy with a dystopian element. It works in a lot of known folklore and presents a plausible scenario where magicians take over ruling a broken city after a planetary disaster and by a fluke, the humans discover that a Shamanic society of goblins have been living in caverns under the city all this time. It’s definitely on the dark side, but has a lot of humor too.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *