by R.R. Virdi
Urban fantasy is a subgenre of the traditional fantasy parent genre in literature. You know, kings, horses, courts, monsters, magic, mayhem, and typically a roguish hero. The genre’s come about in the last thirty or so years even though the term has been used since sparingly since the early 20th century. Urban fantasy has one notable difference from its sister genre, Contemporary fantasy. So long as—you guessed it, the genre takes place in an urban environment with some level of fantastical qualities, it counts as urban fantasy. Contemporary requires the story to be set in present day times.
This subtle difference allows people to play with the genre in ways to niche it into other genres and widen its appeal. The Daggers and Steele series by Alex P. Berg is a wonderful example of this. It’s a bit of a spoiler to give this away, but the great twist and wonderful part of this series is that it’s an alternative history like fiction with an urban fantasy emphasis. You’re aware of the genre from the get-go. The cover and blurb tell you all you need to know:
Elven side kick, tough guy investigator who sleuths into mysteries that defy normal convention, and urban setting. It’s a concentrated does of some of the urban fantasy tropes that old readers will resonate with and find familiar, and new ones will be sucked in by and glean understanding of in what makes the genre. Daggers and Steele is a series that helps show the flexibility of the urban fantasy subgenre and how far or…back (see what I did there) the setting can be taken and tweaked to add to the fantastical elements already within this brand of fiction.
The name really stuck to the style of fiction and began to describe it in the late 1980’s with a few scattered pieces of work then, to now with hundreds of series between traditionally published and indie.
Some of the earliest and most notable authors in the genre who helped it find its feet are: Laurel K. Hamilton of the Anita Blake series—often considered one of the most substantial works in the genre, Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece, Neverwhere (the urban fantasy adventure set in London and a twist off parallel London Below), and another in the genre that’s developed a major cult following: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. A series that follows the grizzled and snarky, self-abasing wizard, Harry Dresden.
All three of those works are some of the best examples to show the variances allowed in setting and style within the genre while all falling under its umbrella. Laurel K. Hamilton’s series follows a necromancer, Anita Blake, living in a world where the supernatural are widely known about and have rights. It’s a dark and seedy version of Missouri following the paranormal side of things. While it’s urban and set in a present day setting, the world is vastly different than ours on a series of levels.
Butcher’s Dresden Files takes a different route—set in modern day Chicago where the supernatural elements are mostly kept under wraps by their own powers. For the most part, his Chicago is pretty much along the same lines as ours. The paranormal lurk, are unexplained and unbelieved by most people. Freak accidents and occurrences are just that. The boldest and most shocking bit of overt magical presence is none other than the protagonist himself, Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard. He’s in the phonebook as such.
And then Gaiman’s work falls somewhere, and lovably in between. Richard, the main character, crosses path with a young woman, Door, who possesses the uncanny ability of opening up doorways between the modern (at that time) London, and a twisted version, London Below. She accidently ends up dragging him along into her weird world of odd people selling odder things, a portal fantasy set within a major city where monsters and myths are real. Members of the normal world apart from Richard aren’t aware these places and things exist. In fact, as time passes and Richard becomes more immersed in London Below…people forget he exists.
All three references offer just a hint of how fluid the genre can be as well as welcoming to readers with different tastes and a want of setting that might be different and resonate with their personal interests.
My own series, The Grave Report, follows a disembodied soul, Vincent Graves, murdered by the paranormal and tasked with inhabiting the bodies of those killed by the supernatural and using their minds, bodies, memories, and skills to solve their murders. The series is predominantly set in the burrows of New York. Given that urban fantasy allows for so much flexibility, I wanted to play with that. So, the series shifts urban locales per novel/story, and yet always retains the urban fantasy vibe tinged with the classic noir investigator hints that permeate many novels in the genre. Given that he’s a soul that can bounce into any body murdered anywhere…the series isn’t limited by setting all. And, it still qualifies as urban fantasy.
That series has gone onto land award finalist positions alongside giants in the genre: Jim Butcher and Larry Correia, last year at the inaugural DragonCon Dragon Awards under the Best Fantasy (Paranormal) category. As noted, two other urban fantasy writers all with their own spins on the endlessly workable genre.
The urban fantasy subgenre has no limits on what can be done, and so very few constraints. So, make sure to dive into it, readers. I’m sure you’ll find something more along the flavors you yearn for. There’s certain no shortage of material and takes on the genre. Go looking, read on, I know there are works out there for you, and I’ve only named a few.