04 February 2011

Thoughts on Urban Fantasy

In an urban fantasy world,  these are the only colors you can see
Orig. photo by Picturetokyo, purpleized by KEB.
I've begun my second semester at Seton Hill, and my next genre of choice is speculative fiction, as in, science fiction and fantasy! Horror was a blast, and I'll revisit that genre at a later time, but now, let's move onto a genre that specializes in creating wonder.

A highly popular subgenre of fantasy today is urban fantasy. The basic tenets of this genre include: (1) The presence of a folklore, myth, supernatural or fairy-tale element, (2) An urban environment--most often a city, but it can encompass other urban locales, (3) Genre-crossing or "genre confusion" (4) Often written as part of a series; rarely standalone fiction (5) The setting is a reflection of the "real world" we live in.

There's also an unofficial clause that nearly every urban fantasy cover should look oddly similar, with specific tones and color palettes (see above pic). Oh, and if you have a female character on an urban fantasy cover, they'll look oddly similar, too. Check out this article by fantasy author Jim C. Hines. You'll see what I mean. It's hilarious.

Although I am not a regular reader of urban fantasy, I've always had a rough idea of what it is, either through instinct, cover art, book reviews, and other media such as television and film. It's safe to assume that if you ask someone what urban fantasy is, they can hazard a guess, even if they don't read it. Usually the answer is "Fantasy set in a city."  

The notion of urban living encompasses much more than a major metropolitan area. A heavily populated city, like New York or Chicago, can first spring to mind, but smaller locales also qualify as urban. According to the United Nations, 50% of the world's population live in urban areas. This means towns and villages, regardless of size, fall under the classification of "urban," too.

Now that we know that "urban" is much more than the city, we know that the same goes with "urban fantasy." An urban fantasy doesn't really have to have the requirement of the large city setting; the key is that the setting involves a location where a number of people, of varied populations, live in close proximity to each other.

The other argument is that urban fantasy must be contemporary. Although popular urban fantasies today tend to function in the modern world, there are always exceptions to the rule. Some urban fantasies are set in parallel worlds that do not exist or reflect any known time period (Un Lun Dun by China Miéville, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman; other urban fantasies can be set in the past (I know many, many novels set in 19th century London--way too numerous to list). The basic idea is not so much that fantasy must be set in today's world, but that people living in today's world can recognize the setting as something they already know and experience daily. Establishing relevance to today's readers is key, and I don't think this idea is limited to urban fantasy.

And is urban fantasy taken seriously as a genre? Time will tell. So far, it has proven to be bestselling material, with a wide and loyal fan base. There are complaints about the genre  as well as legitimate attempts at scholarly analysis. And of course, classes in universities designed to closely examine popular fiction always help bolster the credibility of genre writing (thank you, Seton Hill University!).

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