In 2019, I will be launching a new military science fiction series!
Behold the e-book cover for I, Synthorg, the first instalment in the Synthorg marines series!
Genres: military science fiction, galactic empire, space opera, cyberpunk
After two years of absence, I am back! And I’ve got great news for all my fans who love space SF. I’m launching a new book series!
Here’s the cover for the first book set in this fictional universe: Vega Blues, to be released on September 28, 2018.
Planet: Vega Tres. Population: 13 billion. Governments: None.
Detective Roy Deneb is a troubled soul. Loner, cynic, adrenaline junkie, and he’s damn good at his job. His specialty—undead cyborgs.
Zombies, wraiths, vampires—the colonists of Vega Tres gave old names to radically new and deadly types of beings. But in the urban jungle of Twilight City, Roy is the apex predator.
When a mysterious woman offers him an apparently simple job, he’s far from imagining that his life is about to change forever. He will have to assemble a team of outlaws to take on the greatest challenge of his life: defeat the CEO of an all-powerful corporation.
On the dangerous, lawless world that is Vega Tres, Roy discovers that there is more to life than mere survival—and that there’s a cause worth fighting for.
I had the pleasure to interview R. K. Thorne, the author of Mage Slave, Book 1 of The Enslaved Chronicles.
Hi Rebecca. Tell us about yourself. What inspires you to write?
Hey AJ. Thanks for having me on your blog! I’d have to say all the different types of people in the world and their unique problems inspire me to write. I see a lot of people weighed down by the mundanity of everyday life, or stuck in tricky relationships, and I like opening up worlds for them that show them heroic moments, passionate love, and hard-won victories that I believe we all have in us. We just lose track of them in the day-to-day. I love giving people an awesome experience, especially when it helps them get through tough times.
Which novelists do you admire?
I am currently reading a ton of Lindsay Buroker and Grace Draven’s work. I’m an author-oriented reader, so I prefer to find a single author that I know I like most of the time and just devour everything they’ve ever written. Lindsay has a LOT of books, so… it’s going to be a while. I am NOT complaining.
Going further back, I have always been a huge fan of Orson Scott Card, Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffrey, Sharon Shinn, L.E. Modesitt Jr., and Melanie Rawn. I also read a lot of old school Heinlein and Asimov, and I adore them in their own way. And of course, Jane Austen.
Music is an important source of inspiration for you. What is your favorite musical style?
I find music helps inspire me to feel the emotions and moments of my characters. You know, some days your cat jumps on your head while you’re sleeping, the tea pot breaks, your computer makes you sit through a restart, and then you need to write… you may not be feeling like writing, certainly not moments of heroism or adventure or romance. Music helps me remember the emotions to the level my characters would be feeling them, and also think through different ways something could feel. So many love songs, and still more nuances among different songs.
What about role-playing games?
RPGs can be inspiring, and they can also sap inspiration. I find the world building the most inspiring, I think. Seeing and exploring vast worlds, similar to what I imagine but they are visual and interactive. I hope to work on one someday.
On the other hand, they can feed that part of your brain that wants to “get things done” without you really getting much of anything done. When you end up spending too much time playing, which invariably I do, then instead of being relaxed from playing you can be more stressed in the long run.
That said, I still love them. I still believe games are a force of good in the world. And I’m still loving playing through the Witchers 1-3, although I’m a little late to the party, and taking a small side diversion to Civilization VI.
Is Mage Slave your first published work?
Yes. I have been writing for a long time, but this was the first time I felt a work was ready for publication.
I have independently published a game in the past, so I do have some experience in killing yourself on long side projects and then trying to get the word out about them when you’re so exhausted you want to die.
Currently there are more than 25.000 epic fantasy e-books on Amazon. Mage Slave reached the top 20 in this category, an impressive feat for a first novel. How do you explain your success?
That’s nice of you to say! The book has definitely done better than I expected. People say often in entrepreneurship and creative endeavors that the worst temptation to quit can come from when you expected to do better than you did, but you fell short. You might have sold 1000 units, but if you expected 2000, it can feel like a failure, but if you’d expected 50, you’d be jumping for joy. So I manage my expectations carefully, and typically try to keep them non-existent or rock bottom.
You can never know how much of a title’s success is what you did versus luck combining fortuitously with the zeitgeist. But I’d say two things worked in my favor. First, I’ve been writing for a long time, over 25 years now, although not trying to publish. I struggled with perfectionism, finishing, and taking my writing seriously. To help with this, I enrolled in Joanna Penn’s Creative Freedom course, which helped me really reframe my writing as a serious business, a way I could make a living. The course helped me understand how to make sure I was treating my writing as seriously as it deserved. Through Joanna, I also read a great deal of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s books, but especially The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers. This flipped a bit for me on the perfectionism side. I had always known perfection was unattainable, but this encouraged me to be more brave and just go for it. The War of Art helped there too.
I also was determined to make the highest quality product I possibly could. I have a degree in graphic design, but I don’t do anything like book covers, so I hired the best person I could find to do my covers, and the best editor I could find who respected and enhanced my voice and loved books like those I loved. I used Vellum to do the interior e-book, because it did the best job of anything I could find. So, in other words, I tried to just do my very best in making a quality product. And then I did a lot of reading on kboards about best practices and tried to use them. We invested seriously in Facebook ads, which were both wonderful for receiving reader comments and feedback and for getting the word out. We also tried out email newsletters and Amazon ads. Basically, I supported the book in the first 2-3 weeks with a fair amount of paid advertising, most of it carefully crafted and hopefully presented to fans of books like my book. I have few ways of tracking if some part of these helped tremendously or if some of them did nothing, but you try to do your best. Kindle Unlimited enrollment no doubt helped immensely as well, I make about as much in page reads as I do in sales.
Oh, and one last thing. Mage Slave is an epic fantasy, but it also has a very strong romantic element. I marketed the novel to epic fantasy fans, but also to fans of paranormal romance and fantasy romance. I think being cross genre can sometimes make it hard to market a book, but it can also increase the audience, especially when it’s something like love which has a universal appeal. Based on reviews, some people reading it are hardcore fantasy readers that don’t mind the love story (a common element in fantasy anyway) but there are definitely a sprinkling of reviews from readers where this seems to be one of the first epic fantasies / secondary world fantasies they’ve ever read.
Do you have an agent?
Nope! I don’t have an agent. Who knows, that may change in the future, but right now, I am happy without one. I did not query agents or publishers with my novel, I went straight to indie publish after extensive thought and research.
First-time novelists struggle to get reviews for their books. Mage Slave currently has more than 60 reviews on Amazon and more than 350 ratings on Goodreads. Was it difficult to get your first reviews?
Yes and no. The reviews came in very, very slowly. I don’t think it had any in the first week, even though I tried to involve my immediate network. It’s funny because people always say they assume half the reviews are the author’s friends and family. I don’t think any of mine are, maybe one or two.
After maybe the second week, I got one really thoughtful review, which is still the most helpful review, and they started to come in more after that. I think one thing that helped was that the book is in Kindle Unlimited. Some of the first reviews to show up were not shown as “Verified” which can mean they were KU borrows, and some reviews mentioned that. Other authors have commented, and I agree, that KU readers seem to review often and write nice things much of the time.
People often believe that writers need to use Internet and social media to promote their books. Personally I’ve seen no clear correlation between Internet popularity and strong book sales. What is your position on this issue?
I agree with you, I don’t think there’s much of a correlation. (AND correlation would not prove causation anyway! Geeky laughter! Ahem.) I think every author needs to have a website and mailing list. I think social media can be a way to get discovered if you love it and are very active on it.
But honestly I think it’s very overrated, and for most authors, it’s playing with fire. Social networks are such time sucks, and it’s so hard to have the discipline to manage that time well and pull yourself away, especially when you give yourself the excuse that it’s somehow vaguely helping your writing business. Is it really? Are you sure? Can you track how it’s helping you? What actions do you anticipate eventually happening, and how many hours of social media futzing lie between now and then? Will it have been worth the time? The other problem is, are you tweeting about things that would actually attract readers? That’s actually kind of hard for some people and takes a lot of intentional thinking. If I write fantasy novels, but tweet about crocheting, there may not be much overlap there. Am I writing about writing topics like character agency or point of view? Readers don’t care about my writing blog, you know? Writers do. That’s great if I want to write books for authors too, or if connecting with writers helps me stay the course. That’s cool. But I shouldn’t tell myself I’m selling books and acquiring fiction readers that way. This is what I mean by playing with fire. Make sure whatever you do, you spend more minutes writing than any of these things.
I try to have FB and TW accounts and be a little active, but I think most people would be much, much better off writing and getting more work out into the world.
Do you have any advice for aspiring fantasy novelists?
Be professional. Your writing is a business. You might not like that word, exactly, but you know what it means? It means it does have the potential to support you eventually. Take it seriously. Treat it with respect. Think long-term. And don’t stop reading!
Also, don’t fall into the perfection trap like I did. Finish things. Show them to readers of your genre. Ask them what they think, and then sit there with a blank face, don’t say ANYTHING for a couple of minutes, no matter what they say. Take notes. Only ask clarifying questions. They will be better judges than you are of if it’s good or not. You don’t want advice, you just want to know how they felt reading your work, and if they give you advice you don’t have to follow it. Also, just because something could be better, doesn’t mean it’s not good. There is no end to “better” – it’s a jail cell of your own making. But you hold the key.
And Nanowrimo this month is a perfect way to get over perfectionism and take the plunge – highly recommended and it’s during Nano that I started the first 30K of Mage Slave.
I’m so excited to share the new book cover for my novella Mirror Souls, A Prelude! I hope you like it as much as I do!
In the previous post we talked about the first authors who ventured into the uncharted territory that was urban fantasy in the 80s and the 90s: Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Laurell K. Hamilton, Neil Gaiman, and others. Now let’s see how urban fantasy evolved in the first decade of the 21st century.
Children’s books, young adult and new adult fiction
In the 90s urban fantasy books were written essentially for adults. J.K. Rowling changed that by integrating urban fantasy themes into her Harry Potter series. The main idea of the series is similar to the one Neil Gaiman played with in Neverwhere, namely the coexistence of two levels of reality, one technological, the other magical (see my review of Neverwhere). One can even say that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) was a Neverwhere for children and teens (see this essay comparing the two books).
Teen fiction (also called “young adult”) massively embraced urban fantasy in the 2000s. Twilight (2005) by Stephenie Meyer was a huge commercial success, despite the flaws of the novel (or maybe because of those flaws). Shortly afterwards Cassandra Clare started her Mortal Instruments series with City of Bones (2007). Since then teen urban fantasy invaded the shelves in every bookstore, becoming one of the most commercially successful genres in history.
The latest development is the emergence of what is called “new adult” fiction aimed at adults between 18 and 30 years of age. This genre is similar to young adult fiction but features slightly older protagonists (late teens and early twenties) and sometimes contains adult material, but not always. New adult urban fantasy started with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians in 2009 and this subgenre quickly gains momentum. The Magicians has been presented as the Harry Potter for grown-ups, but this novel is not just a reinvention of Harry Potter. The main difference is that this novel does not shy away from adult themes.
Supernatural detectives: when hardboiled meets fantasy
Detectives and private investigators dealing with unexplainable, paranormal events is not a new theme in literature. Actually the very first books dealing with this subject were not fiction books, but witch hunter’s manuals. The most famous of them was Malleus Maleficarum written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, a German clergyman. The theme of detectives who use magic to solve crimes is not new either. As a subgenre of crime fiction, occult detective fiction can be traced back to the 19th century:
- Fitz James O’Brien’s Harry Escott in “The Pot of Tulips” (1855)
- Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr. Martin Hesselius in “Green Tea” (1869) and In a Glass Darkly (1872)
- Bram Stoker’s Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in Dracula (1897).
In the 1990s, fantasy and hardboiled, i.e. noir detective stories, were completely distinct genres and seemed to have nothing in common. Fantasy stories were set in secondary, pre-industrial worlds where magic was part of everyday life. Noir detective stories were set in modern metropoles and rooted in social realities of big cities. Attempts to blend those two genres have been made, sometimes with success, for example in Hellblazer comic book series. However the fantastic noir remained a relatively minor genre, until Jim Butcher reinvented it.
Can you imagine a hybrid between Sam Spade and Gandalf?
Harry Dresden—Wizard. Lost items found. Paranormal Investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, or Other Entertainment.
Jim Butcher is the MacGyver of fantasy. In Storm Front (2000), he combined detective fiction with sword and sorcery, two completely different genres, to create something new and functional. Unlike MacGyver, however, Butcher didn’t use his skills to fight for justice, but to write a commercially successful series of urban fantasy novels, The Dresden Files. As most bestsellers, his books will not challenge you much on an intellectual level, but they will keep you thoroughly entertained. To my knowledge, Butcher is the most commercially successful author writing in the urban fantasy genre. Five of his books were No. 1 New York Times bestsellers. Few writers managed such an achievement.
The Dresden Files has many similarities with Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, but also some significant differences. In particular, fictional universes are quite different. The Dresden Files draws more heavily on hardboiled detective fiction, but also on sword and sorcery. In Anita Blake series, the stories often revolve around vampires and other undead and their struggle for power. The other important difference is the evolution of the series, as Anita Blake series veered toward paranormal romance and erotica, while The Dresden Files remained firmly rooted in the supernatural detective genre.
My novella Mirror Souls also belongs to this genre. The London police investigates a series of mysterious murders that occur in the city’s underground tunnels. The victims—all hardened criminals—have four puncture wounds on their forehead, but none of these wounds were lethal. The cause of death is cardiac arrest—they literally died of fear. Who is behind these murders? A serial killer or a vigilante? Is the murderer even human? André de Mirandol, a young sociologist, is hired by Interpol to help with the investigation. To solve the mystery, André will have to confront a ghost from his family’s past. If you enjoyed The Dresden Files or Anita Blake series, give Mirror Souls a try. Subscribe to my newsletter and receive Mirror Souls: A Prelude for FREE!
Update (September 2016): my novel Griffen, or Shadows of the Mirror Realm, set in the same universe has been released!
Fighting demons, ya think it’s funny?
Urban fantasy novels often use a light, casual tone. Humor is often present, irrespective of how dark and dramatic the story is. We already see it in Moonheart (1984) by Charles de Lint, as well as other early examples of urban fantasy. Guilty Pleasures (1993) by Laurell K. Hamilton starts like this:
Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn’t change that.
While some urban fantasy writers used a relatively serious tone (e.g. Kelley Armstrong in Bitten, Patricia Briggs in Moon Called), others didn’t hesitate to add a good dose of humor to their stories. Several passages from Storm Front come to my mind, for example when Harry Dresden argues with Bob, a spirit of intellect inhabiting a human skull. Neil Gaiman also takes a tongue-in-cheek approach in his books. For example, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990), co-written with Terry Pratchett, is a supernatural comedy mocking the belief in Biblical Apocalypse. Neverwhere (1996) is also filled with humorous dialogue, and the villains of the story are as hilarious as they are sinister.
Strong female protagonists
The vast majority of urban fantasy novels feature strong-willed female protagonists. The only exceptions I know of are The Dresden Files and The Magicians, both written by male authors, not surprisingly.
Anita Blake is an iconic figure, the prototype of a kick-ass heroine (see my previous post on the history of urban fantasy). She is independent, determined, brave, and capable of defending herself. To top it all, she’s a risk-taker and an adrenaline addict. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, and often gets in trouble because of her defiant attitude. Countless urban fantasy heroines would fit this profile: Elena Michaels (Women of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong), Mercy Thompson (Patricia Briggs’ series), Rachel Morgan (The Hollows by Kim Harrison), Kate Daniels (Ilona Andrews’ series), Selene (Underworld film series), and so on.
Some female protagonists are more feminine and vulnerable, but even they have a strong personality, for example Sookie Stackhouse (book series by Charlaine Harris and TV series True Blood) or MacKayla Lane, called Mac (Fever series by Karen Marie Moning). They may look like Barbie dolls, but they know what they want and they get what they want. In Darkfever, the 22-year-old Mac abandons her lavish lifestyle in Ashford, Georgia, and journeys to Dublin to investigate the murder of her sister. With no detective training and no help from the police, it’s not surprising that she quickly gets in trouble. Yet she refuses to back down. Some would say she’s brave and determined, others would find her stubborn or hot-headed. Your call.
The theme of female empowerment is not new to literature. The earliest examples I know of are Gothic novels from the end of the 18th century featuring female protagonists (see Origins of Urban Fantasy). Interestingly, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy, was published during the same period (1792). As I argued in my previous post, urban fantasy is the 21st-century equivalent of Gothic novel, in a sense that these genres have a lot in common. However, urban fantasy allows us to consider the problem of women’s rights from a new angle.
Werewolf stories are interesting in this regard, for example Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, Moon Called by Patricia Briggs, or Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn. They feature female werewolves or shapeshifters and depict their complex relationships with the werewolf packs they belong to. Gender roles, emancipation, homophobia, authority and conflicts of authority—there’s a lot to say about werewolf stories.
Is it all about sex?
Urban fantasy has quite a reputation for featuring attractive protagonists who are no strangers to sensual pleasures with equally attractive partners of the opposite sex. The reason for that is simple. Since the beginning, urban fantasy has been closely associated with paranormal romance, although not all urban fantasy stories contain romance. Most of them do, and I don’t see that as a problem. Who doesn’t enjoy a good love story?
The problem is that, in some urban fantasy stories, romance feels forced. An ancient female vampire suddenly falls in love with a human. Why? Because it’s convenient, that’s all. I’m thinking of the Underworld series, for example. In the first movie, Selene falls for Michael Corvin. Why is she attracted to him? What makes him special?
Love triangles is also a common feature in contemporary fantasy. A love triangle can be a powerful narrative device when used intelligently. In Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, the love triangle between Elena, the protagonist, Phillip (a human), and Clay (a werewolf), reveals the duality of Elena’s personality. She’s a werewolf trying to live a normal, human life. Her boyfriend Philip doesn’t know who she truly is. Her love for Phillip stems from her attachment to humanity and her wish to become emancipated from her pack. Her desire for Clay, on the other hand, stems from her carnal, animal instincts. In other words, the human in her loves Phillip, while the wolf in her loves Clay. Which side of her personality is going to win? Read the book to find out!
Escapism or a different take on reality?
Urban fantasy—as most fantasy subgenres—tends to emphasize heroics and personal achievement. However, urban fantasy stories often feature ordinary people caught in a supernatural intrigue. As I wrote in my previous post, urban fantasy may be an escapist genre, but this is an ambiguous escapism that always brings us back to reality.
To me the most interesting aspect of urban fantasy is how this genre deals with the theme of duality. Reality versus fantasy, modernity versus tradition, technology versus magic, intellect versus instinct—duality seems to be at the core of every urban fantasy story. The opposites compete with each other to better complete each other. A good example of Yin-Yang theory, isn’t it?
Star Wars is the most profitable franchise in history. It’s no surprise that the new movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens smashed box office records. As millions of fans of the original trilogy, I watched this new instalment of the Star Wars series not without emotion, to say the least. Overall I must admit my impressions are mixed.
Don’t get me wrong, The Force Awakens has many qualities: an excellent cast, stunning special effects, and a brilliant soundtrack by John Williams. Yes, the same John Williams who composed the soundtracks for the original Star Wars trilogy. The Force Awakens could have been an excellent movie. It just needed a decent scenario, and, importantly, a director willing to take risks. Of course that didn’t happen—too much money at stake. No magic for Christmas—Santa doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, let’s stay positive and start with the pros.
An excellent cast overall, the old generation of Star Wars actors passing the torch to the new one. Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill are all there, although the latter makes only a brief appearance. They are joined by young and talented actors, Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), and others.
Rey and Kylo Ren are probably the most interesting characters. Rey is a young woman who barely manages to survive on an arid world, yet dreams of becoming a pilot. What can I say, I have a weak spot for this kind of characters, idealistic, tough and vulnerable at the same time. A Luke Skywalker 2.0—a difficult legacy to live up to.
Kylo Ren was a pleasant surprise. At the beginning I feared he would be just another archetypical villain, but his personality appeared to be more complex. Diagnosis—he has a strong, destructive inferiority complex. He venerates his grandfather Darth Vader, but he just doesn’t have what it takes to match the accomplishments of his idol. What Kylo Ren lacks in power and skill he tries to make up for in determination and sheer ferocity. It doesn’t always work, which makes him unpredictable and prone to fits of rage. Good—tortured souls make the best villains.
Now the cons. Plot holes ruined the movie for me (read this: 40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’). The plot is hardly credible and not always consistent with the Star Wars universe. For example, in the original Star Wars trilogy, Luke was trained by two Jedi masters, Obi-Wan and Yoda. In The Force Awakens, however, both Rey and Finn are able to use a lightsaber very effectively in a combat situation with no training once or ever.
Spontaneous Jedification: an unexplainable phenomenon where Force-sensitive individuals become Jedi with no training.
The plot is riddled with Deus ex machina, unlikely but convenient coincidences. For example the way the Falcon Millenium is introduced into the story is rather sloppy. Overall The Force Awakens suffers from the typical Hollywoodian sensationalism that damaged so many promising movies. It’s all about marketing, my friends. It’s all about making money.
Another major problem—the movie is blatantly derivative. It’s not a spoiler to say that the writers copied the story of A New Hope with an almost religious devotion, down to the minute details. The names change, but the situations remain identical. Was it really necessary? Couldn’t we visit a few places from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, for example?
But what could we expect from J.J. Abrams, the film director who have ruined the Star Trek franchise by reinventing the characters from the original series? Tasha Robinson writes in her article in The Verge:
in spite of the new faces, The Force Awakens worships at the feet of the original Star Wars trilogy on a beat-for-beat, moment-for-moment, even prop-for-prop basis. Much like Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek, Force Awakens is a stealth remake, with a certain amount of narrative squirming done to make it into a sequel.
Read this article. Personally I find this review bold and enlightening. Another quote:
Let’s be clear: if anyone made this movie without the Star Wars name, no one would accept it for a moment. It’d be universally derided as the thinnest, most obvious plagiarism. But because it comes with George Lucas’ blessing, and because it’s so obviously made by Star Wars fans expressing their joy at being given the keys to the kingdom, and because it invites viewers to become kids seeing A New Hope for the first time again, the critical community has largely greeted it with a sigh of collective relief and welcome.
I agree, The Force Awakens looks and feels like a clone of A New Hope. A clone genetically engineered to optimize its money-making potential. Unfortunately the writers didn’t even manage to replicate the formula correctly and left out some of the most important aspects of the series. See my comment above re. plot holes and “Spontaneous Jedification.”
What else can I say about this movie? Attempts at humor are more or less successful, depending on whether you like this kind of humor. The best lines of dialogue were copied or adapted from the original trilogy. The philosophical depth of The Empire Strikes Back is absent. Yoda is gone, and wisdom is gone with him.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas made three exceptional sci-fi/fantasy movies that captivated the imagination of millions of fans. This is how I want to remember this story. No matter how many millions the new trilogy will gross, no matter how many positive reviews it receives, Yours Truly will remain a rebel loyal to the original trilogy. Because, let’s face it, money has never been a substitute for talent and passion, and will never be.
This Christmas, may the Force be with you, and don’t spend your money on Star Wars tie-ins or merchandise. Buy a good, original book instead.
Charles de Lint, the pioneer of urban fantasy
The very first urban fantasy work was probably the novel Moonheart: A Romance by Charles de Lint published in 1984. At that time, however, the term “urban fantasy” hadn’t been coined yet. Urban fantasy was defined in 1997 by John Clute and John Grant in their Encyclopedia of Fantasy as “texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect, and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.”
Ironically the series that launched urban fantasy wasn’t set in a real city, but in an imaginary one. Newford invented by Charles de Lint represents a typical American city, with its wealthy residential areas and its slums, its beachfronts and its wastelands, and, of course, its vast network of underground tunnels. Newford series started with the short story “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair” that appeared for the first time in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1987. In 1993 several short stories by Charles de Lint, all set in Newford, were compiled by Terri Windling and published under the title Dreams Underfoot.
Dreams Underfoot is a memorable read. We meet colorful characters, grow attached to them, and explore the mysteries of Newford in their company. Some stories border on magical realism or surrealism, for example “Freewheeling,” where a street kid steals bicycles to set them free. For him even unanimated objects have a soul, a mind of their own, and therefore deserve to be free. Is he insane, or is he perceiving something real, a magic hidden in mundane objects? We will never know. Throughout the book, reality, myth, and magic intertwine so intimately that sometimes it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s illusion. Whether magic is real or not doesn’t change the meaning of the stories, however. What matters is what people believe in. Such is the theory of consensual reality: things exist because we want them to exist.
Dreams Underfoot has been compared with works of literary fantasy such as Little, Big (1981) by John Crowley and Winter’s Tale (1983) by Mark Helprin.
Sex and fey and rock and roll!
Some would say that the first urban fantasy novel was the War for the Oaks (1987) by Emma Bull. Not sure I agree, but let’s talk about this book. It tells the story of Eddi McCandry, a young singer who lives in Minneapolis. She is having a bad day, or rather a bad night. She has broken up with her boyfriend and left his band, and later she finds herself running from a sinister man and a huge dog. The two creatures are one and the same: a phouka, a faerie being who has chosen Eddi to be a mortal pawn in the age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts.
War for the Oaks isn’t the most appropriate title for this novel, as the war of the faerie courts is not at the core of the story. Rock music is. A good title for this book would be Eddi and the Fey (the name of Eddi’s band) or even better Sex & Fey & Rock & Roll! Emma Bull was a musician; she played guitar and sang in the Flash Girls, a goth-folk duo, and was a member of Cats Laughing, a psychedelic folk-jazz band. No doubt that her passion for music inspired the War for the Oaks.
This novel would be better described as paranormal romance rather than urban fantasy. The plot revolves around Eddi and her love life (and her sex life, although there are no explicit sex scenes). There is even a love triangle between Eddi and two supernatural beings, a narrative device that will later become a hallmark of paranormal romance.
Overall, there isn’t much action in this book. Most of it (especially the middle part) is filled with dialogues between Eddi and the phouka or other members of her band. Although there are some good ideas, they are not exploited in this novel, for example the role Eddi was supposed to have in the reformation of seelie courts. On the positive side, the writing style is inspired, and the story is quite imaginative, but the characters are clichéd (the valiant price, the noble queen, the evil witch, etc.) The phouka is an exception as he seems to be more subtle than the others.
Overall the War for the Oaks is a light read, enjoyable if you like paranormal romance, but not a must read in my opinion. I mentioned this book for historical reasons, because it set the stage for more successful novels and series blending urban fantasy with paranormal romance.
For completeness I also mention Bedlam’s Bard (1998) by Mercedes Lackey which has similarities with the War for the Oaks. Again this is a story about music and elves in a contemporary setting. It’s interesting to see how urban fantasy writers integrated folk and rock music into their narratives. Charles de Lint’s stories often mention music, and this is no coincidence. In the 70s fantasy and horror literature influenced popular music to a great extent, therefore it’s not surprising that, in the 80s and the 90s, music returned the favor, so to speak, by inspiring a new breed of fantasy stories. This vast subject deserves a separate post; for now let’s return to the matter at hand and talk about vampires!
Here be vampires!
Today we couldn’t imagine urban fantasy without vampires. They are everywhere. It wasn’t the case in the early 90s, however. The novel that introduced vampires into urban fantasy was Guilty Pleasures (1993) by Laurell K. Hamilton, the first instalment of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series.
As I already mentioned in the post on the origins of urban fantasy, it’s difficult to establish the boundaries between vampire fiction (a subgenre of horror fiction) and urban fantasy. In my opinion, the difference between horror and fantasy is that the former tends to be more introverted while the latter is more extraverted. Horror fiction often focuses on what the characters feel, with an emphasis on strong negative emotions such as anger, fear, sorrow, etc. Fantasy, on the other hand, relies more on the sense of awe, and usually involves extensive world building to achieve its effect. This is by no means an absolute rule, but I think it applies quite often.
Guilty Pleasures is difficult to categorize as it borrows from horror, thriller and fantasy genres in equal measure. The novel takes place in a world where vampires revealed their existence to the living. As one would expect, such a revelation cased quite a stir, if not panic. After all, aren’t vampires preying on humans? What should be the legal status of a vampire in our society? Should they have the same rights as the living?
The author of Guilty Pleasures happily skips over social and legal aspects of this problem to focus on action. Anita Blake has a most unusual job: she’s an animator working for the police. She raises the dead so the police can interrogate them. Convenient for the police, isn’t it? Your key witnesses are dead? No worries, Anita Blake will resurrect them for you!
Her other job is even more dangerous: she executes vampires. If she has a court order of execution, she can kill a vampire in all legality. If she doesn’t have a court order… Well, she kills those bloodsuckers anyway. Not all vampires are portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters in the novel, but it’s implied that most of them are. We are not far from the situation portrayed in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). In short, Anita Blake is a self-appointed Agent 007 with a license to kill, and she uses this license quite liberally, eliminating the bad guys whether they are living or undead. By “guys” I mean both males and females, as the main villain of the novel is a female vampire. No sexism here.
Guilty Pleasures is the kind of novel that keeps the reader engaged from the first to the last page. Hamilton excels in the art of creating and maintaining tension. Her writing is visceral, full of strong sensations. However, it would be unfair to say that the novel is only sensationalist. Underneath a relatively shallow vampire hunting story, one can discern some interesting observations about human psychology.
Hamilton is probably the first urban fantasy author to step into the realm of female fantasies. In the following decade, many writers will follow her on this path. Those fantasies are not as innocent as male writers imagined them. For example, many women are attracted by men with strong personalities, to say the least. We knew that at least since Byron and his poems about charismatic, yet dangerous men. Cinema has been exploiting this theme since the early 40s. Danger and romance—a winning combination! Humphrey Bogart’s characters may have been tough, even dangerous sometimes, yet none of them could compete in both sophistication and ferocity with Anne Rice’s Lestat or Hamilton’s Jean-Claude.
Sophistication, ferocity and sex appeal—that’s the winning combination for a vampire in an urban fantasy novel. Hamilton understood that and represented vampires as the embodiment of the deepest female desires. Although this view can seem shocking at first, it is surprisingly insightful considering recent scientific evidence. (For scientific information on this subject I recommend the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd Edition, D.M. Buss, ed. Wiley, New York, NY. In particular see the chapter Women’s sexual interests across the ovulatory cycle: Function and phylogeny by S.W. Gangestad, R. Thornhill and C.E. Garver-Apgar.)
We will continue this discussion in my next post on urban fantasy, as there is a lot to say on this subject. Now let’s talk about another urban fantasy author who contributed to shape the genre. He needs no introduction; ladies and gentlemen, I give you Neil Gaiman!
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Neverwhere started as a television series first aired in 1996 on BBC Two. It was written by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry, and directed by Dewi Humphreys. Later that year Gaiman adapted the series into a novel. And what an influential novel that was!
Neverwhere is a parallel world that coexists alongside ours, but normally cannot be seen by us. Sometimes, for mysterious reasons, people “fall through the cracks” and become part of this unseen universe. Gaiman uses this as a metaphor for social exclusion; these people are no longer part of civilized society, lose everything they owned, have to live homeless and obey the ruthless rules of the underworld. Yet, as grim as this place originally appears, it is full of adventure and magic, which makes it more appealing for a romantic soul than our safe and predictable technological world.
There are no vampires or werewolves in Neverwhere, but there are all sorts of fantastical creatures, some of them stranger than others. In this novel, the protagonist discovers the existence of an invisible London, the London Below. Every London Underground station hides a secret world that reminds us of the city’s medieval past. There is a monastery under Blackfriars, at Earl’s Court lives an actual earl with his court, and under Angel hides… well, an Angel! Interestingly there is no paranormal romance in Neverwhere, not even a hint—this is urban fantasy in its purest form.
I believe Neverwhere is one of the best urban fantasy novels. Witty, imaginative, but also thought-provoking—this is what the genre was meant to be. The main focus of an urban fantasy story should be the city, the urban life with its contrasts and paradoxes.
Urban fantasy may be an escapist genre, but this is an ambiguous escapism that always brings us back to reality. In Neverwhere, this ambiguous escapism appears through the tribulations of the protagonist between the London Above and the London Below, the former representing reality, and the latter representing fantasy.
Gaiman produced other noteworthy works, in particular the comic book series Sandman and the novel American Gods (2001) for which he received several awards, including Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Bram Stoker Awards (see my post on science fiction, fantasy and horror awards for details on those awards).
In the next post on urban fantasy, we’ll talk about the evolution of the genre in the first decade of the 21st century, starting with Jim Butcher and Kelley Armstrong.