Defining Urban Fantasy

Elsewhere On the Intertubes, there’s a discussion about Urban Fantasy, and people are providing their favorite titles in-genre, which is very cool and useful, in an oh! I’ve-gotta-get-that-book kinda way.

One thing, though, is that, looking at the lists, and the titles I do know/have read, I’m finding myself parsing certain books not as “urban fantasy” but as “werewolf novel” or “vampire novel.” This is, I should state, based on the scientific process known as “gut feeling.”

I mean, the Sookie Stackhouse books are fun, but to me, they’re vampire novels, not urban fantasy. The Weather Warden books are super, but, nope, not urban fantasy. Wizard of Pigeons? Dead-on urban fantasy.

So, you’re wondering — as I am — what’s the difference? And, thinking about this. . .I think that, for a book to be urban fantasy, to me, the city/town/specific piece of land has to be a character. It’s not enough that the action is set in a certain place, the story has to be about that place to some degree; it has to be important to the story that these events are happening here, rather than over there, in Gotham.

So, yeah, the Sookie books take place now — making them Contemporary Fantasy/Vampire — but the towns and cities in which the various stories happen are. . .just settings. The life of A Specific Town isn’t threatened, or bound up tightly with the magic of the story.

In Wizard of Pigeons, the city depends for its existence on its magic-workers doing their magic correctly and consistently; in The War for the Oaks a piece of the city’s geography is under dispute by two factions of the fey. In Carousel Tides, the fate of an entire seacoast town depends upon the heroine dealing with the forces of magic appropriately.

The attraction for me, in what I call urban fantasy, is the juxtaposition of the weird with the everyday, and the degree to which each reflects and influences the other. A story about vampire or werewolf politics can be — has been — interesting to me, but — if the story can be moved to any city and told just as effectively, then the story isn’t urban fantasy.


2 thoughts on “Defining Urban Fantasy”

  1. Having just finished reading Carousel Tides (love it love it love it, btw) I find this a timely post. I was trying to describe Tides’ genre to my husband, and fell back on urban fantasy with the caveat that no, Maine is not urban, but that’s the genre it falls under. He’s from New York City, so he’s picky about “urban.”

  2. I loved Wizard of the Pigeons, although it’s been ages since I last read it. I feel a re-read coming on!

    If you’re looking for a few more recommendations of books to read, check out Charlie Fletcher’s childrens books (Stone Heart, Iron Hand, Silver Tongue), and Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London, and Moon over Soho). They’re all set in London, and would definitely pass your definition of urban fantasy – it’s so clear that the authors know and love London.


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