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.
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?