Subgenre Study: Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is so pervasive these days that I mentally divide fantasy into urban fantasy and everything else.

Like the other subgenres we’ve discussed, its definition is a bit fluid.  Wikipedia says it doesn’t matter what time period the story is set in – if it’s in a city, it’s urban fantasy.  A lot of people say that urban fantasy has to be set in contemporary times, set in what is more or less the real world, with a sense of place.  (For example, The War for the Oaks – by some considered the mother of the subgenre – takes place in Minneapolis.)  Some people break these up into two subgenres – urban (taking place in a city) and contemporary (modern times) – but as far as I know, most people consider contemporary and urban fantasy to be the same subgenre.

(I have seen some confusion on what genre something is if it takes place in modern times but not in a city.  I guess the Contemporary Fantasy label would be more appropriate there, though I have a friend that refers to these as either Suburban Fantasy or Country Fantasy, depending on actual location.)

Urban fantasy tends to be tied fairly closely to Paranormal Romance, as they include some of the same tropes – the main character is usually a normal person who either stumbles upon the secret magic part of the world or discovers their destiny somehow involves a previously unknown fantasy goal (demonkiller, priestess, etc).  They normally have to work with someone who is part of this magic world (often someone of the opposite sex).  Often there are fantasy creatures who have been living among us forever and there is some great consequence if their existence became common knowledge (but not always – sometimes the stories involve life after that has been revealed and society has become integrated).

Characters in urban fantasy still often follow the Hero’s Journey in a slightly more subtle manner.

Urban fantasy is ubiquitous these days.  You can find it in almost all media, from television shows (Supernatural) to movies (Pan’s Labyrinth) to comics (Hellboy) to books (oh so many, but the Harry Potter series, technically, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, everything Patricia Briggs writes – even Peter Pan could be considered urban fantasy).

It almost makes one wonder if it’s a reaction to modern society, that we’re trying to put a little bit of magic back into life.

What are your favorite urban fantasy examples, Squiders?  Any recommendations for the class?

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Christopher on 2011/08/19 at 9:22 PM

    The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is a great urban fantasy series. (If you’ve seen the abominable SciFi network TV show, the books are INFINITELY better!) The hero is a wizard, living in Chicago, and dealing with the supernatural there. Initially, he’s also working as a private investigator, but that aspect is pushed to the background fairly quickly (and the series improves for that push).

    Also very good are Ben Aaronovitch’s “Midnight Riot,” and “Moon Over Soho,” (to be read in that order), which take place in London and feature a young police constable becoming a wizard *under the auspices of the Metropolitan Police Force of London.* Pretty nifty.

    Myself, I prefer to think of things as “contemporary fantasy,” or at least it is when I write it. I don’t use Big Cities as a setting very often, and really, I think “suburban fantasy” sounds a bit silly. But that may just be me. I prefer small cities and small towns– mostly because that’s the sort of places that I’ve lived all my life, I suspect.

    I love the dichotomy that’s inherent in contemporary fantasy. It’s like a… a tool, almost a *cheat,* even. After all, what’s more shocking (and thus more *exciting*)– a wizard throwing fire blasts and lightning bolts at a bunch of zombies in a medieval town or castle–

    –or the same wizard, the same fire blasts and lightning bolts, same bunch of zombies *in the middle of Times Square!?*

    Give me the NYC battle, please!


  2. […] we touched on just barely during the Subgenre Study, while many people consider urban and contemporary fantasy to be synonymous, they’re not […]


  3. […] we touched on just barely during the Subgenre Study, while many people consider urban and contemporary fantasy to be synonymous, they’re not […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: