Sunday, November 4, 2012

In Defence of Urban Fantasy

When Bastard Books did a series of guest posts discussing urban fantasy I was interested. However i was a little surprised by what was actually written. The guest posters by their own admission are for the most part not urban fantasy readers.

They give the impression that they don’t really like the genre, and they have their reasons. One was due to lack of ‘epicness’ in urban fantasy books, and I’ll cover that later. The other reasons tend to be the proliferation of sexually explicit storylines and lurid covers. The issue of highly traditional relationships to the exclusion of non-traditional pairings was also highlighted.

I was initially going to let the cover thing pass, because it’s something the genre tends to be known for, and I’ve even made jokes about it myself. I have looked at some covers and wondered if the books themselves are set in temperate climes, which is why the people on the covers wear so little clothing. Then I actually began to think about it and realized that it’s a myth. Urban fantasy by and large doesn’t favour those sort of covers, paranormal romance does.

People don’t seem to make a distinction between the two, and it needs to be made. Paranormal romance, and romance in this context generally stands for sex, is an offshoot of the romance genre itself. The main difference being that it features vampires and werewolves. It is true that booksellers do shelve the two; paranormal romance and urban fantasy together and there are examples of crossover, but they are definitely separate genres with their own readerships and marketing channels.

I first discovered what is recognized as urban fantasy these days the same way as many others via Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake. I liked the Anita Blake books to begin with. Anita was a tough talking, hard-edged necromancer who was hell bent on vengeance against vampires and she didn’t care about the laws that protected them in the world Hamilton created for her heroine to operate in. At some point the sex became more important than the story and I gave up the series; it’s still going. The Anita Blake series created their own subgenre; vampire porn.

I stayed away from the genre for some time after that, but picked up a book by Simon Green called Nightside. It was okay, but not outstanding. While reading reviews for it I noticed people referencing the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, so sought out the first book in the series; Storm Front.

I began an ongoing love affair with the Dresdens, and I still enjoy them immensely. Butcher doesn’t shy away from sex, but he doesn’t highlight it. It isn’t the focus of the books, the story arc and Harry Dresden’s interpersonal relationships are.

It wasn’t until I saw Seanan McGuire win the John W. Campbell award at Worldcon 2010, the first urban fantasy author to do so, that I investigated the genre seriously. Rosemary and Rue, the first of Seanan’s Toby Daye books was a revelation. No vampires or werewolves and a really interesting heroine and world. From that point on I’ve sought out concepts within the genre that are different. Faeries, like those in the Toby Dayes, are becoming more and more popular.

Now comes the cover criticism. Once I read it I initially agreed with it, then thought hang on, that’s not right. Chris McGrath’s Dresden and Toby covers never have what is thought of as a typical urban fantasy cover. They’re always fully clothed and often in fairly dark settings, the one possible exception was One Salt Sea and as Toby was a mermaid at the time I think we can let that one pass.

There’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Folly books on which the UK covers display road maps, and what’s in between them isn’t what people think of as urban fantasy either. With a bi racial protagonist and African river goddesses.

I started really looking at the covers after this and thinking about them and I was hard put to find the ones with a hard bodied woman wearing a midriff bearing tank top, posing in such a way that she shows off both her toned body and her collection of tattoos. They exist, and some of them are what I term as urban fantasy, but most are for paranormal romances.

Even a series that straddles the line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance like Charlotte Harris’ Sookie Stackhouses has never used a cover of that sort. The original US covers, which are still in circulation, are bright and almost cartoony in execution. The UK covers are generally a solid cover with a blood splash.

The issue of urban fantasy not being epic, well that perplexes me too. I’m yet to find an epic fantasy where the hero rides an animated dinosaur through a city scape, it happened in a Harry Dresden book, and Harry regularly saves the world, plus the actual scope of the books (it looks at tagging out around 20) is truly epic. Tanya Huff’s Enchantment Emporium had a dragon in it, and some very interesting non-traditional relationships. Atticus O’Sullivan, the 2,000 year old druid from Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series took on Norse Gods in one book of that. Laura Resnick’s fabulous Esther Diamond series is about a struggling actress who just happens to get herself into supernatural situations, they’re more comedic than anything and the covers are wonderfully whacky.

You’ve even got books like A. Lee Martinez’s Gil’s All-Fright Diner and Catherine Jinks’ Reformed Vampire Support Group which take the tropes of urban fantasy and turn them on their heads.

I haven’t yet even covered Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate which took steam punk added vampires and werewolves, a wonderfully strong heroine and gave us what Jane Austen might have produced if she’d ever decided to dabble in urban fantasy.

Have a look around with eyes and mind wide open and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.


  1. I was one of those Urban Fantasy guest posters, and I was surprised that Bastard was specifically soliciting articles from bloggers who were known to dislike UF, or to at least have had bad luck with it.

    and now I'm really wishing i'd mentioned Ben Aaronovitch's series in my article, because that is some damn, damn good UF!

  2. It was an odd tack to take. Maybe he didn't want to be accused of using lovers of the genre and preaching to the choir. The Folly books are great, Tad Williams new series about fallen angel Bobby Dollar is also worth a look, as is Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate, and you know I adore Seanan McGuire.