Monday, 27 April 2009

What is Urban Fantasy

One of the things that makes reading exciting is the constant potential to discover something new. Genre (I believe) is not static, the stalwarts are always there - Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, etc. - but they're also evolving and changing. However, genre needs conventions. It's how we know we'll find science fiction in the science fiction section and crime in the crime section at book shops.

So where would we find Urban Fantasy (UF)?

Currently, anywhere from horror (Kelley Armstrong) to science fiction/fantasy (Patricia Briggs) to romance (also Patricia Briggs :) ).

Urban fantasy is a relatively young genre, though maybe older than you think. The Wikipedia Entry says it's been around since the late eighties and cites authors such as Emma Bull. The entry defines it as "a subset of contemporary fantasy, consisting of magical novels and stories set in contemporary, real-world, urban settings...". Okay, that's a pretty broad spectrum. But in recent years (for me at least) urban fantasy has come to mean certain things. I've come to expect certain conventions when reading an UF novel.
  • Usually written in first person or very tight third person. The reader experiences the urban fantasy world through the eyes of the protagonist.
  • The story has a modern urban setting - that's kind of critical. :)
  • The worldbuilding is TIGHT.
  • The protagonist and their situation are the focus of the plot - this could be anything from just doing their job to trying to integrate into society. The plot may or may not involve a romantic/sexual relationship. But said romantic relationship will not overshadow the main storyline.
  • If a relationship is included as part of the storyline a happy hearts and flowers ending is not guaranteed.
  • Often the books are a series following the protagonist over a period of time.

If rules are meant to be broken, then I agree that conventions are meant to be bent. Everyone wants to read something original, the next big thing, but the conventions are there for a reason. If one of the conventions is broken then the rest of them better be outstanding.

I agree that there is a gradation from urban fantasy to paranormal romance that isn't always easy to define. I'd include the following authors as writing UF - Kelley Armstrong, Simon R. Green, Patricia Briggs, Jenna Black (Morgan Kingsley), Karen Chance, Kat Richardson. Paranormal Romance - Sherrilyn Kenyon, Alyssa Day.

Then there are those authors that fall in between more gritty that PNR but with more romance that UF and I'd include Nalini Singh's Changeling series here. I'd also include the first three books in the BDB series here. The following books in that series I'd classify as paranormal family saga (lol speaking of making genres up on the spot) not urban fantasy, mainly (among other things) because there is a lack of single protagonist.

So why is this important?

It's important to me because urban fantasy is my favourite genre, it's my comfort read, it's the place I go to when real life sucks.

When a publisher labels a book PNR when it's clear that it's urban fantasy and there's a reader/reviewer outcry it annoys and frustrates me. When publishers latch onto the urban fantasy label as they latched onto the Paranormal Romance label and slap it on everything regardless it annoys and frustrates me.

I predict that in the future a lot of books previously labelled as PNR will be labelled UF. Not because they are UF but because it's the next big thing* (despite being around for 30 years or more).

* - I actually think the next big thing (which has also been around for a while) is going to be Steampunk. Can't wait to see how that gets labelled.


Mary M. said...

I don't even know what steampunk is. That word is so out of my limited dictionary. But I might check on google if I can remember :)

I think labels change or become more dofficult to attribute because more and more books fall in between categories - like paranormal and UF. The case that struck me the most in the recent months was probably Nalini Singh's Angel's Blood: not 1st p. POV, book focussed on a single couple, but more on their relationship as a whole than their romance, if that makes sense. The feel is also UF, and while they have an HEA of sorts by the end of the book, their journey is not over and will continue over the next book (and maybe more). So what do you call that? Nalini solved it by saying it was an "urban fantasy romance" , IIRC. I like that because as a reader, I will know in advance that this book might not be fully paranormal romance or fully UF. I wish JR would do something like that too because her books aren't romances anymore (more obvious than ever in LAv) but they aren't fully UF either, if one sticks to the rules you mentionned.

Oh, and it annoys me too if a book that is obviously one genre when you read it is labeled as something else by the publisher and/or author. Annoys me Big. Time.

LesleyW said...

Mary - thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Brace yourself for my post later in the week, 'cause I'm still thinking about this urban fantasy romance thing.

I haven't read Angel's Blood yet. I'm interested to see if there's a book that can convince me UFR is a viable genre. So far it hasn't happened but I'm trying to keep an open mind - honest.

Li said...

LOL @ paranormal family saga :-D

Interesting post!

I think of Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling books as being paranormal romance, rather than UF, because there's a clear focus on the h/h and a HEA for them. Whereas in the other series you classify as UF, there's romance, yes, but more as an added bonus rather than the main conflict/focus.

LesleyW said...

Li - thanks. Re. paranormal family saga, I guess because it's just not UF to me.