Defining Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy (UF) can be defined as a unique subgenre within fantasy. Its primary point of departure from the larger genre of fantasy is its use of the city or urban locale as a portal through which the extraordinary, magical or supernatural is able to intersect and interact with the ordinary, mundane, real world. The city must operate as more than a backdrop and should reflect the experiences of life within a real city. The following traits are primary characteristics of UF, irreducible from the urban locale, and should be considered recurring traits that help classify the subgenre. UF is told primarily in first-person narrative and includes the protagonist’s emotional, psychological and metaphysical developments. The protagonist tends to be a female who is both empowered and marginalised. She tends to occupy a marginalised position in society due to her gender, employment or metaphysical inheritance,[i] and is empowered by her ability and willingness to face and defeat the antagonist/s, and also usually by her connection with the supernatural, either through personal power or knowledge. The protagonist will be empowered by her role in the city—she will be recognisable as a typical inhabitant of the city and her role as hero will be linked to her ability to thrive in the urban environment.[ii] As such, the UF protagonist can be labelled an ‘urban hunter’—a new title belonging to this subgenre. The protagonist will also function as a necessary bridge between the groups introduced in the story—often as a human–supernatural liaison, but equally often acting between supernatural groups as a fellow ‘monster’. Further, thematic and tonal elements tend to include fear, anxiety and dread that reflect the level of disruption or violence present in the city. This can be either due to supernatural influences or in response to the socio-political issues of gender, sexuality and identity that the novels tend to raise. However, such thematic concerns are always developed and expressed through the characters’ interactions with and presence in the urban landscape.

Secondary characteristics vary between authors and novels. They are present in other subgenres, but are significant in UF because of the implication that their occurrence is due to the locale of the city. Rather than listing these in needless detail here, I will summarise the overall characteristics that will be expanded in later chapters. First, there is the important presentation and examination of changing ideas on sexuality. The protagonists of UF often engage in non-traditional forms of sexual intercourse and interaction[iii] that are reflective of society’s changing views on sexuality, and a response to the implied mythological heritage of the creatures included.[iv] What is particularly unique in UF’s treatment of sex is the positive view it offers on sexual experimentation, while equally condemning rape, power play and force[v] that are popularly associated with the forms of ‘bondage and dominance’ and ‘sadism and masochism’ that these novels discuss. 

Second, and here due mainly to the adoption of horror, gothic and murder-mystery tropes, UF tends to present visceral and explicit violence and death both at the level of destruction (multiple bodies) and atrocity (children). The degree of violence creates an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, while also developing and resolving the main plot lines of the story. Such an atmosphere also helps undermine the security of the home, the city and the self in a vivid and troubling manner. It would be expected that these acts belong to the ‘evil’ side, as presented in the form of antagonists, yet the responses of the protagonist and her helpers are often equally violent.[vi] This results in the realisation that, instead of action, it is motivation that matters when it comes to the didactic resolution of the storyline.

Third, UF novels have moved away from the traditional hero’s ensemble and instead form a support network of secondary characters around the protagonist that aid in their battles—physical and metaphoric—and are irreducible from the success of the final resolution. These support characters are often representative of the ‘friends as family’ communities that young adults build around themselves in cities—a trope well reflected in popular culture. They are formed by a number of other outsiders who occupy marginalised positions in their society, like the protagonist, but are also uniquely powerful and can subsequently aid the hero. Finally, UF novels involve or reimagine traditional and classic mythology—non-rational or supernatural creatures and events already immersed into our cultural understandings[vii] are reinvigorated to populate the UF world. These creatures often fulfil allegorical roles that are relevant to contemporary urban life and deal with particular concerns of the here and now.[viii]

Ultimately, UF is primarily concerned with the urban experience. The supernatural and non-rational phenomena can be read as representational of contemporary city life and the threats faced there daily. It is a subgenre interested in the changing ideas of sexuality, gender and fear that only the anonymity of a sprawling urbanscape can offer. UF authors, while engaging in various discourses, are primarily writing urban dramas relevant to a contemporary reader.

Image of a woman's silhouette outlined by a blue moon with a cityscape sweeping out left and right.

Footnotes:

[i] The influence of the metaphysical minority for most UF protagonists is part of their role as the last, strongest or most unique member of an exclusive supernatural or magical group. For example, Anita Blake (Laurell K. Hamilton) is born a rare necromancer, Charlie Madigan (Kelly Gay) comes from a unique genetic lineage, and Mercy Thompson (Patricia Briggs) is a very rare coyote shifter. These characters are not accepted for their abilities in human society or the supernatural community; they remain isolated and are often prejudiced against until there is a realisation of use for their particular heritage.

[ii] In his definition, John Clute (1997) also suggested that the protagonist of UF offers a new perspective on the idea of the hero: ‘There is an increasing sense that writers may well be conceiving the typical inhabitant of the great cities as a kind of hunter-gatherer figure, one better able than suburbanities or farmers to cope with the crack-up of the immensely rigid world system created over the previous few thousand years’ (p. 976).

[iii] Including, but not limited to, bondage and dominance, sadism and masochism, blood play, breath play, fetishes, homosexuality, anal sex, oral sex, swingers, orgies, polyamorous relationships, role-play, necrophilia (sex with the undead) and bestiality (sex with a were-creature in animal form).

[iv] The best example of this is the continued concept that blood taking by vampires results in an unintended sexual release or response by the donor. Thus, the act becomes representative of the desire to relinquish control in sexual situations. The other most common mythological expectation is that sexual encounters with were-animals will be animalistic, barbaric, rough and intense, thus coming to represent a desire to release the animal within and engage in bestial sexual acts. There are also the modern assumptions built into such encounters with these creatures that are associated with their assumed physiology: sex with a vampire must include blood and sex with a were-animal will include animal behaviours of biting and scratching.

[v] UF has an equally predominant female readership as mainstream romances and PRs. A distinguishing aspect of UF is that, even while ‘playing’ a subservient role in a sexual encounter, the female characters are equally in control and responsible for the interaction as the males. To a degree, the treatment of sex in UF is counter-cultural when compared to the mainstream success of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, which both reinforce traditional and negative perceptions of women and sex. UF (predominantly adult UF, as opposed to young adult UF) focuses on sex as empowering for both genders, while also not romanticising the act.

[vi] This dichotomy between the expected evil of the supernatural and the actual textual ambivalence of all the characters is a vital part of UF. The subgenre continues to return to the idea of questioning the ‘monster’ inside—returning to the question of who was the real monster: Dr Frankenstein or his creature? UF tends to resolutely decide that the true urban monsters are the human failings already present in our societies.

[vii] By ‘cultural understandings’, I refer to the involvement of cultural folklore, fairy tales and fables that are already part of the popular consciousness. Whether taken from indigenous myths, popular children’s literature or translated original stories, many authors admit to drawing on their own memories of stories or researching such stories to populate their cities in UF.

[viii] These concerns vary with the particular novel, but one such example would be the representation of the fae groups in War for the Oaks. If they won the war, the dark seelie would encourage the breakdown of the city’s systems, degradation of housing and increased crime; thus, they are an allegory for urban and moral decay. In contrast, the light fae represent the creative progress and moral responsibilities associated with developing a healthy urban community.