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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.
The easiest way is to pick comparison authors in a genre and in today's article, Emma Newman talks about the definition as well as how to write urban fantasy.
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.
Emma 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
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.
Steve Vera says
That was a great post! Very relatable and funny (love the frog line). And on top of that it gives a little clarity onwhat urban fantasy actully is and how to “one-line” to people who are curious, to be able to say it with authori-teh. Thanks for writing it!
Jeff Elkins says
I’m a new author trying to discover my genera. This post was great. As I read I thought, “Yep, that’s me.” Thank you!
Sheri-Lynn Marean says
Great post, and helpful, thank you. I do have a question, does it have to follow a certain character if there are more books in the series? I have a friend trying to figure out where to slot her book, but the next books in the series will be about different people and I know my fav’s: Patricia Briggs, Faith Hunter, Ilona Andrews, they continue the story line with the same characters…or does this not matter?
Brady Longmore says
I don’t think there is a hard rule about following the same characters throughout the series. Many writers write spinoffs for other characters that are still considered to be accepted canon within that world. Look at Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time: talk about tangents! I do however think it’s important that the author keep in mind that it’s the characters that bring people back to read more. Definitely explore and let the story lead the way, but don’t be too neglectful of your main heroes and villains, would be my humble advice.
Brady Longmore says
Thanks you for a great article. I’m a discovery writer and my current work in progress has quite accidentally propelled me into the urban fantasy genre. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the question of what genre my story has become. This helped! I especially enjoyed the definition: weird stuff creeping around the edges of a world where magic isn’t the norm. That’s exactly where I’ve found myself.
Karen Moore says
Great Post! I wasn’t sure what my category my new story would fall into until after I read this. Thanks for sharing! Do you ever critique anyone else’s work?
Neal Martin says
I don’t think the horror angle in urban fantasy should be underestimated. As most good UF stories deal with monsters of varying shades of darkness, horror inevitably becomes a major focus, unless of course the story is really paranormal romance, in which case the horror will be played down a great deal. Most of the best UF books I’ve read have been quite dark and haven’t flinched from the horror these monsters inspire, and indeed cause within the story.
Chris Stevenson says
I’m glad a similarity was drawn between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. It makes me feel better already. For the past 25 years I’ve been trying to explain to people what “portal” fantasy is. Perhaps you can take on that subject in a future article. Through the Looking Glass, the Narnia world and Stardust, I think, fall under the “portal” definition. Even The Bridge to Tarabithia.
Charles de Lint’s books are some of my favorite urban fantasy reads.