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The City is the Forest
What follows is an essay I wrote over a decade ago or so for, if I remember correctly, Realms of Fantasy magazine, which I am posting because (a) I think it’s still interesting and (b) because I wanted to link to it on Bluesky and it’s not online anywhere.
The City is the Forest: Three Kinds of Urban Fantasy
What we today call "urban fantasy" seems at first contact to be a divided land.
This is fairly generally acknowledged: one of the awkwardnesses of maneuvering through the modern-day SF/F bookstore is that there are at least two very distinct subgenres that may be meant by the term--and more probably three or four. To further complicate matters, most of these subgenres have more than one identifier themselves, and may be variously known as paranormal romance, contemporary fantasy, dark fantasy, or probably half a dozen other things.
As a species, we seem to have a powerful urge to classify things, and we probably don't consult the databases (or each other) often enough while we're coming up with names. Even writers and editors of urban fantasy are unable to agree on what it is and where it comes from--which I suspect is probably a reflection of the chimerical nature of the beast that bears the name.
To fully understand the nature of the confusion over exactly what urban fantasy is, where it's going, and where it comes from, it's necessary both to define our terms and to essay a brief historical survey. So, first: on to definitions.
It seems to me that there are three main streams of "urban fantasy."
The strain with the oldest claim to the name is the one critic John Clute is describing when (in his Dictionary of Fantasy (1997)) he says: UFs are normally texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city. (emphasis mine)
In other words, the city itself is a vital part of the narrative--and it must be a 'real' city. Ankh-Morpork does not suffice. Nor does Lankhmar. We must be able to go to this city, walk up and down in it, and step in the same puddles as the protagonist. This subgenre is often said to have originated with the work of John Crowley in the early 1980s, with Charles de Lint's Moonheart (1984) Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks (1987) cited as the true index fossils or type specimens, as it were, by which the taxonomy is established. It first came to my attention with Megan Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons (1985), which was then a novel of a type I had never experienced before in adult fiction--although "contemporary" settings have long been common in fantasy intended for children.
(De Lint and some others prefer the term "mythic fiction." My purpose here is not to establish a clear taxonomy of the subspecies of contemporary fantasy, but rather to trace the multiple uses of the term "urban fantasy," perhaps with an eye towards establishing a détente. It's obvious by now that no one is going to stop using it to mean three overlapping but occasionally contradictory things. The best we can probably manage at this point is try to get sorted what those are, and why the term is applicable in each case.)
Pamela Dean is the author of Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary (1998) and Tam Lin (1991). Although Tam Lin does not take place in an urban setting, per se, it's often classed with urban fantasy novels. In part because Dean is a member of the upper Midwestern geographical cohort of fantasy writers often linked to this first branch on the urban fantasy tree, but also because Tam Lin--while set on a college campus--concerns itself with the incursion of the numinous into the everyday, which may be the most easily categorizable aspect of urban fantasy.
I asked her what seemed to her to have been the driving forces behind this "new" aesthetic of fantasy. She replied:
I had no idea I had looked for a radically new direction for fantasy. Emma [Bull], now, quite possibly may have. I'm not even sure that I wrote any urban fantasy. I guess Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary counts, but I have guiltily to confess that its influences include not just War for the Oaks but That Hideous Strength [C.S. Lewis, 1945]. And Moonheart. And Swordspoint [Ellen Kushner, 1987--also often classed as one of the inspirational works of the "fantasy of manners" subgenre]. And the Lankhmar books. Well, I'm only guilty about the Lewis. But I was very much struck by his note at the beginning about why, intending to write about magicians and planetary angels, he had begun with "such hum-drum" matters as college politics. He says that fairy tales always do that, but we don't realize it because the hum-drum settings or beginnings of such tales are all exotic to us now. As was Braxton College to me when I read the book, but I took his meaning.
Probably the greatest unsung hero of the flowering of urban fantasy is then-Ace Books editor Terri Windling, who acquired both Moonheart and War for the Oaks and who edited the hugely influential "Bordertown" young adult series.
In an email interview, Emma Bull says:
Terri entered the field when it consisted almost entirely of high fantasy of the Tolkienesque variety and sword-and-sorcery, sometimes called heroic fantasy (though that name seems misleading; heroes are stirred pretty evenly throughout literature). She was determined to expand the genre and the kinds of stories one could tell in it....
She created the Bordertown setting and anthology series, and recruited writers whose sensibilities she thought would carry it forward: de Lint, Kushner, Shetterly & Bull, Midori Snyder, and many others. Bordertown was what really set the urban fantasy pot to boiling, I think; it showed writers and readers what was possible when one combined magic, folklore, and an urban culture. It illustrated what Delia Sherman once said on a panel at Fourth Street Fantasy Convention: "The city is the new forest."
When asked about the genesis of her own War for the Oaks, so often cited as one of the groundbreaking works of urban fantasy, Bull said:
I remember it as coming not from the fantasy I read as much as from the city itself. Minneapolis was the first city I lived in on my own as an adult, and I found non-miraculous magic in it on an almost daily basis. Minneapolis seemed to believe in civic ritual, in neighborhoods joining to raise power, in sacred ground and holy fools and the faith that fuels impossible endeavors like garage bands, bike co-ops, folk music venues, and arts festivals....
[I]nstead of the canonical single Queen of Faerie I established two queens, both haughty and blind to the needs of their subjects. The winner would be the one who could learn there was strength in humility and value in the beings she'd scorned.
Which, right there, breaks from the mold of high fantasy to tell a contemporary story, a story with the values of urban life. There is no inherent power or nobility in kingship. Power is what happens when a community unites for the benefit of everyone. Nobility is the individual doing what she or he believes is right in spite of the tyranny of kings. The city is the forest, the castle, the labyrinth, the arena where the struggle plays out.
Comic books also had a heavy influence on the early urban fantasy zeitgeist, from J. O'Barr's The Crow (beginning 1989) to Neil Gaiman's The Sandman (also beginning 1989). But a book that seems to me highly influential--but which is almost never named when people start listing early urban fantasy titles--is Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place (1960). However, the term didn't exist yet when A Fine and Private Place was written, and wouldn't--not until over thirty years later.
"Urban fantasy" after this tradition is still quite commonly written. Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001), Tim Powers's Earthquake Weather (1997), even my own Whiskey and Water (2007). However, it is no longer the dominant mode.
"Urban fantasy" evolved quite quickly into a second subspecies--the paranormal detective novel, which is usually found in that natural habitat of the detective novel--the series.
The most well-known modern example of this is Jim Butcher's Dresden Files (beginning in 2000 with Storm Front), but it traces its roots much farther back--at the very least to Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregare books, beginning with Burning Water (1989). This idea of a supernatural or spellcasting detective can be traced back in popular culture to The Shadow--and probably further.
Meanwhile, another similar-but-different subgenre was brewing in another part of the fantastic-fiction world--and this one was fated to really take off. This one traces its roots to Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series (beginning with Guilty Pleasures (1993)) and became firmly established as a major subgenre with the success of Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan books, beginning with Dead Witch Walking (2004) and Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville books, beginning with Kitty and the Midnight Hour (2005).
Circlet Press editor Celia Tan believes that the popularity and boom of this modern strand of urban fantasy is related to its cross-genre outlook. She says:
It's a bit amazing that it took so long to get there when post-modernism had been around for a long time already by the early 1990s, and one of the tried and true pomo methods is cross-pollination, hybridization, mashing up, etc whatever you want to call it. But there was a prevailing attitude among the corporations (not so much among the writers or readers!) that you could NOT mix chocolate and peanut butter.
One of the first huge smash hits that mixed chocolate and peanut butter (and nuts and bunch of other stuff) were the Anita Blake books. Laurell K. Hamilton mixed elements of noir/hardboiled detective, romance, horror, and mystery in a giant Dagwood Sandwich of Genre Yumminess, and what you found was romance readers, horror readers, mystery readers... ALL liked it.... The series was, I think, a sleeper hit at first, but which just kept selling and gathering steam.
These novels draw their inspiration from the same initial set of tropes--the fantastic in the modern day world--and the earliest of Hamilton's novels are more strongly focused on supernatural investigations such as the ones Lackey's Tregare undertakes. However, they rapidly begin pulling in tropes of the romance and horror genres that aren't as present in other books of the type.
Before we knew it, they'd speciated again.
Around this time, a tremendous influence was exerted upon the genre due to the popularity of Joss Whedon's TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), which famously recast high school through the metaphor of a literal rather than figurative Hell.
Even a modestly successful television program has many times the audience of all but the most successful books, and Buffy's fans were hungry for "more of the same, only different." Additionally, I imagine a number of writers were also Buffy fans, and inspired to write by the show's drama and combination of darkness and humor.
Suddenly, books about "kick-ass" (read: tough, funny, charismatic, take-no-prisoners) heroines were thick on the ground. Most of these books were heavily engaged with a romance with some sort of supernatural creature (most often--but not exclusively--a vampire or a werewolf) and often the heroines themselves had supernatural powers.
A term was needed for these books, and the phrase "urban fantasy" was coined.
In response to an email request, Charles de Lint commented:
One of the most interesting differences between the old stuff and what's being published now is something I ran across in a blog (sadly, can't remember where), but it articulated something I hadn't really thought about before: the older stuff focused on creativity and the arts community (musicians, writers, painters, dancers, etc).... The current stuff is pretty much detective novels with a fantasy and/or romantic element. The latter presents a more linear, get things done view of the world....
Editor Paula Guran, who has a long history with all three of these subgenres--and romance, and horror--thinks it likely that that it was coined a second time without reference to or knowledge of the first usage, and I concur. Unfortunately, that coinage--and the massive popularity and resulting market glut of this third strain of urban fantasy--has resulted in a good deal of confusion.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, however, was not the originator of this type of urban fantasy. The successful television series Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990) lacks certain aspects that have come to be commonly identified with urban fantasy in this third vein (the "kick-ass" superhuman heroine) but Beauty and the Beast does center on a strong female character and her romance with a moderately unhuman man. I'd not go so far as to say it was the originating seed for the third thread of urban fantasy, but I think a strong influence is likely.
This third type of urban fantasy is the most heavily influenced by romance. As Paula Guran says in her essay in the Joe R. Lansdale and Peter S. Beagle edited Tachyon Press anthology, Urban Fantasy (2011):
In the 1990s and first years of the twenty-first century, the term paranormal romance was often used by the media and reviewers in publications such as the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, etc. to describe fantasy books like those written by Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris as well as those by Christine Feehan, Maggie Shayne, and others. Previously, Anne Rice’s work—her Interview with the Vampire was published in 1976—had often been referred to as paranormal romance.
Her essay goes on in depth regarding the term "paranormal romance," its evolution into "urban fantasy," and its relationship to both romance and fantasy. I recommend it to the interested reader.
This third type of urban fantasy is oft-maligned--possibly because it is so strongly associated with women's writing (although men write it too), and women's writing is still subject to critical dismissal. Its popularity is also probably an influence there--a great volume of anything always means that there will be more of it around to be bad. And--perhaps more saliently--anything that is seen to be popular, and in particular popular with women, will be seen to be 'bad.'
As should be obvious by now, the boundaries between these three subsets of "urban fantasy" are extremely permeable--as is probably predictable, in a subgenre predicated so heavily on exploring the impact of faerie on the modern world. Jenna Black (author of over a dozen modern-style urban fantasy titles, beginning with Watchers in the Night (2006)), says:
Emma Bull and Charles de Lint were my introduction to urban fantasy, back before the term urban fantasy was used, but I suspect there are other examples further back in time that I just can't call to mind.
There are two things that drew me to urban fantasy from the beginning: the juxtaposition between the contemporary world and fantasy elements, and the strong female protagonists. The fact that most urban fantasy is set in the contemporary world makes it more easily accessible and relatable than the more traditional fantasy settings.... I also love the strong, but flawed, heroines, who are more likely to rescue the hero than be rescued by him.
Best-selling author Seanan McGuire (Rosemary & Rue, 2009), offers an even deeper perspective:
I believe that urban fantasy is a much older genre than most people give it credit for being, with roots in fairy tales, folk ballads, and marchen. Remember that when Little Red Riding Hood first went into that deep dark forest, people lived on the edges of woods just like it. She was living in an urban fantasy. Those stories gradually "aged out" of a setting we all knew intimately, and were replaced by ghost stories, urban legends, gothic romance, and eventually, the urban fantasy of today. Urban fantasy is very old, and it's not going anywhere.
Daniel Abraham, who writes urban fantasy as M.L.N. Hanover (Unclean Spirits (2004)), offers an interesting perspective on the thematic concerns of the "modern" strain of urban fantasy that makes an interesting counterpoint to Emma Bull's points about urban fantasy growing out of a need to undermine the power structures of traditional or "heroic" fantasy. In an email interview, he said:
Urban fantasy is, for my money, one of the genres that is most looked down upon, and because of that it has a kind of freedom that I like. I think the main conversation with UF is about women, violence, and power, but it isn't didactic. The best UF gets to be the uncomfortable fantasies and daydreams of our culture at this moment. To go back to Ms. Hamilton, guilty pleasures.
When I asked him if he thought urban fantasy was looked down upon because so much of it was by women, he responded:
More the about than the by, I think.... I see a fair number of women writing in other genres who aren't treated with open contempt the way that UF is as a genre, but they tend to write things that are more easily accessed by men.
UF looks like a mashup of horror and mystery, but I think it's closest kin is romance (with paranormal romance being the shared territory at the border), and romance is 1) a tremendous market force, 2) geared toward women (to the degree that men adopt feminine 'nyms), and 3) treated with contempt. That looks similar enough that I think they've tapped into the same aquifer, and I think it's a place that speaks specifically to the experience of women.
Taking Abraham's, de Lint's, and Bull's arguments as a starting point, then, it seems that some common thematic threads emerge between the various subgenres or subspecies.
Urban fantasies are likely to feature characters who are not white, Protestant, and heterosexual in primary roles. They often revolve around the concerns of the dispossessed or socially marginalized--the homeless, the mentally ill, starving artists, women, single parents, working stiffs, young persons. These are not the nobles of high fantasy, but more-or-less ordinary people who are nevertheless set apart by talent or experience or simply who they happen to love.
Which leads me to the tentative conclusion that the various threads of urban fantasy are allied in more ways than not, and that a good part of their appeal may be the room they give for a variety of voices to speak up loud and clear.
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