The Urban Hunter

City reflected in a woman's eye

Urban fantasy (UF) as a sub-genre arose in the 1980s and presented an alternative view of the heroic female protagonist. As UF has developed, a new archetype has emerged – the urban hunter. Defined by its situation in the urban environment this archetype draws on elements of gendered bodies, hybridization, the other and narrative purpose to create a unique character. Present in a myriad of texts, including works by Emma Bull, Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelly Gay and Patricia Briggs, this archetype represents a changing understanding of what it means to be a hero. The urban hunter can be perceived as a complex reflection of an increasingly urbanized world, and of central importance to understanding UF’s resonance with contemporary readers.

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Opening of the article:

Eddi had never been suited to a normal life.

—Emma Bull

In Montana, on a hunt, the wolves howl and cry, but in the city all hunting is done soundlessly. Growls, whines, and barks are all bluffing tools—it is the quiet wolf that will kill you.

—Patricia Briggs, Moon Called

As with any aspect of urban fantasy (UF), it is vital to begin by examining the urban. A UF protagonist must necessarily be unique to the world they inhabit. This factor is as essential a part of the subgenre as the use of the cityscape setting. As such the urban hunter is a character uniquely situated to gain power from their urban landscape. As revealed in the epigraph from Patricia Briggs’s novel Moon Called, the urban hunter has evolved to understand the hunting grounds of the city. John Clute added to his original definition of UF that:

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 suburbanites or farmers to cope with the crack-up of the immensely rigid world systems created over the previous few thousand years. (Clute 1)

The ability of the protagonist to not only belong, but also thrive in the city is of central importance. Like the female flâneur, they must be observers of the city and be willing to embrace the opportunities of their urban world. Such protagonists make sense as women because the city (full of its liminal spaces and adoption of the other) is more willing to allow social change. The breakdown of the city as it is challenged by the incursion of the supernatural within and without offers a space of flexibility. Already in flux and subverted by the non-rational, the city requires the non-traditional. The women of UF already operate successfully in a space of difference in the city (character roles in UF before the incursion include police officer, detective, musician, artist, community worker, novelist, mechanic, student and magical cleaner, among others). This allows them greater ease to transition into the role of hero without needing to sacrifice their individuality. High fantasy often requires heroes to set aside their own needs in pursuit of a greater good. Instead, UF develops the individuality of the hero as an integral part of the journey. As the city and modernity encourage embracing individuality, it is unsurprising that this is a key part of UF.