Guest Post: Diana Pharoah Francis

Thinking About Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is dying. Everybody seems to be saying so. Yanno, except for the people reading it, the people publishing it and the bookstores selling gobs of it.

It’s almost too good to be true. This genre of fantasy just keeps growing and expanding, with no end in sight.

The death stuff is true on one level. It’s not so easy to sell vampire fiction anymore and you definitely have to be creative and fresh with the stuff you’re writing. A lot of ground has already been covered, but so you need an original take. Shapshifters and werewolves and faeries are also looking down the same barrel. Zombies are on the rise, as are angels and demons. Soon they’ll be superseded by something else. Maybe new vampires. Maybe it will be something else entirely. But something will come.

The thing with urban fantasy—which is not so urban anymore, but I’ll get to that in a minute—is that it’s incredibly fertile ground. The possibilities seem endless. The idea that your neighbor could be a witch, or a gremlin, or a fairy is seductive. The idea that the real world can be full of magic and mystery if only you look at it just so, or turn the right corner, or pick up the right key, is equally alluring.

At the same time, you can mix in mystery, thriller, romance, the old west, political intrigue, police procedure . . .  You can stir in just about any ingredient you want that makes for a good story and there are readers out there for you. It’s a lot harder to do that in most other fantasy or sf genres. I think part of that is that the everyday life, language, and settings lend themselves to all these elements and don’t seem strange or out of place. I think also, the various flavors mean that readers don’t get bored. They have lots of choices and they dine heartily on whatever appeals at the moment. Don’t want Italian food today? Have some sushi. Not in the mood for soup and bread for dinner? Have some southern BBQ. Tomorrow or next week, you’ll be in the mood for something else and the nice thing is, it will be there.

The thing about this kind of fantasy—which is called Urban Fantasy by some, paranormal romance by others, and various other monikers—is that it has a lot to offer a wide audience. Characters are rich and emotional, the magic is interesting, there is complex and interesting worldbuilding, and you have a lot of choices and a lot of surprises in store.

I don’t think Urban Fantasy works as a category name though. That’s partly because it’s no longer limited to urban settings. For instance, my Horngate Witches books are set partly in an urban landscape, and partly in the very wild landscape of Montana. I can’t call it paranormal romance, either, because while there is romance, it doesn’t focus on romance. And while set in an existing landscape, I’m also bringing on a magical war and so soon it will be more in an apocalyptical world.  At the same time, Nalini Singh is called paranormal romance, but wow, her books contain complex worlds that are amazing and makes reader want to wallow around in them. None of those names seem to be a big enough container for all the flavors of this is this kind of fantasy.

If you read the Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels books (and you should), then you know that her books are set in an alternate Atlanta where magic and technology have changed the landscape considerably. If you’ve read Robin Mckinley’s Sunshine (and again, go do it if you haven’t), then you know that this is no ordinary United States and her vampires are not the usual variety.  Neither fit well into the urban fantasy or paranormal romance categories.

I used to think Contemporary Fantasy was a good group designation—better at least than urban fantasy or paranormal romance. But really, it doesn’t capture enough under its umbrella either. I’m thinking possibly Modern Fantasy might do it, though “modern” carries a lot of its own baggage.

You might ask why it matters what it’s called. There are a few reasons. One, it helps publishers figure out how to market it, and bookstores figure out where to put it, which therefore determines who is likely to read it, and even how long it might stay on the shelves. For instance, if it’s paranormal romance, then it will be in the romance aisle, and there are a lot of people who will sniff and turn up their noses and never even walk down that aisle. But also, romance rotates frequently and the shelf life there can be much shorter than in the sf/fantasy aisle.

On the other hand, people who read romance might never wander into the sf/f, because they believe that all that they want will be shelved in the romance aisle. But for instance, Ilona Andrews, Patty Briggs and Laura Anne Gilman are typically shelved in fantasy, but they all have strong romantic elements. On the other hand, Jeaniene Frost, Karen Moon Moning and Meljean Brook are typically shelved in romance, and they have very strong fantastical elements beyond the romance elements. But they can only be in one section. And that doesn’t cover young adult writers like Melissa Marr or Lisa Mantchev. I remember going into a bookstore and I couldn’t find Richelle Mead. She was in literary fiction, where I never would have looked. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were all together?

If you are shopping electronically, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to click a category and see all the kinds of books that you love? (though in electronic indexing, you could put books in multiple categories, which doesn’t happen in bookstores—there is only so much shelf space).

Regardless of the name, however, this genre is not dying. Not by a long shot. Thank goodness. It looks like I’ll never run out of my favorite stuff to read. And hopefully I’ll keep being able to write what I love as well.

So let me ask you two questions. Do you think the genre is dying? Or maybe you might think it should die. And where do you find books to read? Do you cross out of your normal aisles and look more widely?

Bio:

A professor of English at the University of Montana Western, Diana Pharaoh Francis is also a writer of fantasy. Her novels include the Path series and the Crosspointe Chronicles by Roc books, and the Horngate Witches books from Pocket. She likes to write flawed characters struggling with making good choices (and frequently failing). She believes evil should be punished and good should triumph. Eventually. But figuring out which is which is sometimes very difficult. Her next book, Crimson Wind, will be hitting shelves in December. For more on Diana Pharaoh Francis and her books, go to www.dianapfrancis.com

  • It’s true. I used to go looking for vampire books in the horror section but couldn’t find a particular author. I had to ask a clerk who didn’t know so had to look it up on their computer base. Ended up in the Sci-fi aisle. Whodathunkit since it was a regular old blood and guts and gore on the floor horror vamp book.

    I don’t like the Urban Fantasy name either. I liked it when they all just fell under horror or gothic no matter what else was going on in the story.

    And no, I won’t go snooping around the romance aisle cause…ewwww…and yet, now there’s the whole paranormal romance thing in THAT aisle. HUMPH!

  • Marianne de Pierres

    Hi Cher_Dawn,

    urban fantasy is quite a limiting term. I’m currently writing an occult crossed western fantasy – not sure UF covers it :).

    It can also be the death of a book when it’s put in the wrong bookshelves in the store. I had a colleague who wrote really good historical fiction and they gave her a trad. fantasy cover. It killed the book.

    Thanks for your comment anyway.
    MDP

  • J-A Brocke

    I love the whole idea of contemporary settings with some ‘magic’ (what I understand to be urban fantasy. It’s great to have so much choice, now the sub-genre has expanded. One question though – does it have to be romance to be urban fantasy?

  • Great post! On the one hand it’s a great time to be writing in this evolving genre (whatever we call it) where the lines are blurring. But publishing is a big machine that’s slow to catch up, so where a book gets shelved can make or break it. As Cher_Dawn’s post shows, many UF fans have a “ewwww” reaction to romance, and yet a lot of really good paranormal romance is simply urban fantasy (or whatever we call it) with romantic elements.

  • I don’t think it has to be romance at all. That’s one reason why paranormal romance doesn’t quite work.

  • Marianne

    Hi Suzanne,
    thanks for your comment. I guess marketing can be very tricky. Word of mouth, in the end, can be more effective.
    MDP

  • Stefan

    While I don’t really think Urban Fantasy is dying, I believe your love declaration to the genre is exaggerated, at least as long as we look at what currently gets published. UF is somewhat formulaic. It’s possibly most obvious with the POV characters, there’s basically 2 options: the Paranormal Romance one, which is a new heroine meeting her hero in every new book, or a kickass heroine as the single main character. Male main characters are even more rare than male UF writers, but at least they exist… I don’t think I’ve ever read UF with an ensemble cast like Lord of the Rings or George Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire. That probably has a lot to do with the length restrictions that are for some reason much, much stricter in Urban Fantasy than in Science Fiction, let alone epic fantasy. No epic 1000 page books, not enough space to develop 3 or 4 main characters. The same thing also limits the story development somewhat… a book seldom covers more than a season in UF. Longterm story arcs might be handled over the course of the series, but that quite often means they never get to an end.

  • Hi Stefan:

    I’m not sure this is a love declaration, but I won’t quibble on that. I would say that most fantasy is formulaic in its way. That doesn’t mean its presentation and telling can’t be original as hell. As far as ensemble points of view, for me, that goes toward the genre. One of the reason for multiple points of view in epic fantasy is the epic nature of the books–so many far flung things going on and so much complex intrigue with many issues involved means that you frequently need a broader scope of points of view to develop the story properly. Contemporary fantasy tends to focus more tightly.

    On the other hand, Contemporary fantasy frequently as multiple book series and so has the opportunity to develop storylines across a broader canvas, though you are correct that storylines in Contemporary fantasy/UF tend to happen over a compressed period of time.

    But I think what you’re pointing out is the formula of epic: multiple points of view, extended periods of time, complex intrigue and so on.

    In the end, they are very different kinds of stories and while I love both very much, I understand that when I write them (and I do both) each has a their own conventions and expectations.

Awards

davitt-award  aurealis-award   logo-curtin-university

Peacemaker - Aurealis Award
Best Science Fiction Novel 2014

Curtin University Distinguished Alumni Award 2014

Transformation Space - Aurealis Award
 Best Science Fiction Novel 2010

Sharp Shooter - Davitt Award
Best Crime Novel 2009 (Sisters in Crime Australia) 

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