Would you believe not everyone has heard of the urban fantasy genre? I was shocked too. But, when someone asked me what it was, I stumbled, lots of things came to mind. Turns out, it’s not so easy to define. Authors and writers (agents and publishers) in the genre have varying descriptions on the definition. So, I took some time, did some research, compared notes, and this is my answer — along with other cool information.
Defining Urban Fantasy
It’s a hard genre to pin down, but this is my attempt to wrangle it into its essence.
Mythical and magical creatures and beings living alongside regular humans in a real world setting.
Some people will insist it has to be set in a city, while others include rural and remote settings.
As to key elements, it is a melting pot of other genres as it blends fantasy, horror, humor, suspense, mystery, action and adventure, and romance.
Analyzing the Phrase Urban Fantasy
This is where the confusion starts. It’s an odd phase. But after researching and reading opinions on the origin, the most logical explanation is that the word urban is borrowed from a related term, Urban Legend. Urban is used to differentiate modern from traditional legends.
So, urban fantasy differs from traditional fantasy — with entirely imaginary landscapes — by being contemporary with landscapes anchored in the real world. Which means it does not have to be set in a city. But to use the term Modern or Contemporary Fantasy would be more confusing since Urban Fantasy (UF) can occur in any timeline—Renaissance, the Uruk period, or right now.
The fantasy part is more obvious. It must have a fantasy element that is integral to the story.
A Brief History and Forerunners of Urban Fantasy
The subgenre is new, but the idea is as old as Shakespeare. A Midsummer-Night’s Dream brought fairies into the modern world.
One of the earliest “modern” storytellers is Anne Rice. Interview with the Vampire (1976), the first book in The Vampire Chronicles, was set in 1791 Louisiana and Paris. The story chronicles the 200 years of life-after-death of Louis, a vampire. It was originally filed under horror.
Moonheart (1984) by Charles de Lint is an award-winning, bestseller set in 1980 Ottawa. It features a wizard, an imp, a secret paranormal investigative section of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), and a very special house.
War for the Oaks (1987) by Emma Bull is about a faery war in Minneapolis, and there’s a romance component.
The Borderland Series (1986-2011) edited by Terri Windling is about the place between the real world and the magic world.
Now, the book series that set new boundaries and really pushed this genre into the spotlight was Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter. The protagonist is female and the story is told in first person. It also has a strong romantic element and focuses on crime-solving and action (at least the earlier books did). These books were first listed under horror as well.
First person and female heroines ruled in the beginning but that is no longer the case.
This category is huge with a plethora of authors and titles. I don’t know when it became an official category, but it probably needs a better name and more subcategories.
Urban Fantasy VS Paranormal Romance
In UF, romance may be there but is not the focus of the plot. In Paranormal Romance, it is. Example of Paranormal Romance is Soulless by Gail Carriger.
Urban Fantasy VS Horror
By nature, UF has horror elements but its main purpose is not to scare or frighten the reader; it’s more of a byproduct. With horror, terror is a key element. Example of horror is Stephen King’s It.
Urban Fantasy VS Magic Realism
Magical realism blends magical elements into a realistic world in order to pursue a deeper understanding of reality. The magical elements are normal occurrences presented in a straightforward manner. The plot is based in reality. It’s serious. It’s drama. UF not so much; it’s escapist. Example of Magic Realism is Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.
Still confused? Here are some examples you might already know.
Urban Fantasy in TV and Film
- Buffy The Vampire Slayer
- Pushing Daisies
- Dead Like Me
- Lost Girl
- Sleepy Hallow
- The Crow
Want to get your feet wet?
Popular Urban Fantasy Authors
- Ilona Andrews: Kate Daniels series
- Kelley Armstrong: Otherworld series
- Patricia Briggs: Mercy Thompson series
- Jim Butcher: Harry Dresden series
- Jeaniene Frost: Night Huntress series
- Neil Gaiman: American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere, and Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett)
- Charlaine Harris: Sookie Stackhouse series
- Kim Harrison: The Hollows series
Do you read UF? Do you write UF? Do you watch UF? What are your feelings on paranormal romance, horror, and magic realism?