In college, I took a class on YA fiction as part of my English curriculum. My professor had a theory, which I have come to generally agree with, that said that most people fall into two groups: those who prefer realistic fiction and those that prefer fantasy. Fantasy in this case means any fiction that takes place in another world or that includes some element, however small, of magic, technology that does not currently exist, or anything that could not exist in our world.
But I think there is another distinction, though one less pervasive. There are those, like me, who possess preferences based upon setting as well. This is why you get people who read Victorian romances or Tolkien-esque fantasy almost exclusively. I personally prefer books set in almost any time or place but today. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some wonderful books that I’ve enjoyed immensely set in the modern world, but in general, if given a choice between two books that are equal in all other respects, I will choose with an aversion to the modern world.
Why? I guess, I know this world and life. I read to escape and to explore places, experiences, and events that I can’t access on my own. As such, the modern world is boring to me. Also, as one who loves to see heroes rise above adversity and make something good out of the dark parts of life, it’s easier to believe it possible in another time or world than today. It’s why I prefer my romances in historical settings, my fantasy in other worlds, and my science fiction dabbling in science and among species that don’t exist yet.
So what does this have to do with urban fantasy? Urban fantasy is usually set today. Yes, elves, vampires, and other such fantastical creatures may exist along with magic, but the setting is basically our world. As such, before I started reading the genre, I was very reluctant to pick up an urban fantasy. It’s set in our world? Why would I bother?
But through the persistent nudging of my wonderful husband, I finally tried it with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and loved it. Since, I’ve expanded my list of urban fantasy authors by leaps and bounds, yet still only scratched the surface. When I go into the bookstore or browse online, I’m more likely to pick up an urban fantasy than almost anything else. On this blog, when I look for books to use for my readings, it’s hard not to pick almost all urban fantasies. Not only do a lot of female authors write them, but they just tend to interest me more.
So what is the draw of urban fantasy? What made it the genre that could smash through my usual interest boundaries? What has made it so popular over the past decade or so in speculative fiction?
While hundreds of people have theorized about this, I can offer the aspect of urban fantasy that took me from stubborn disinterest to ardent fan, and I’m sure it’s one that has influenced others as well. More than any other subgenre I have encountered, urban fantasy is the most character oriented and intimate out there.
Most urban fantasy is in first person, which increases the closeness of the narrator and the reader. It’s easier to feel like you’re a trusted confidant in this point of view than in any form of third person. Also, the nature of most urban fantasy series requires that they possess a hinge that goes beyond plot. They are not like epic fantasy, the other form most likely to come in series, which takes books to resolve a single primary plot goal; though urban fantasy certainly takes plot from previous books and weaves it into others. But in urban fantasy, the narrator must be sympathetic enough, interesting enough, and active enough to not only link the plots of each book, but also retain the attention and adoration of its readers. When we read urban fantasy, we are not simply touring a world or getting wrapped up in an intriguing plot or quest. Rather, we are making a friend of Harry Dresden, Anita Blake, Kitty Norville, Mercy Thompson, MacKayla Lane, Toby Daye, or whoever graces the pages of our favorite series. In urban fantasy, more than any other subgenre, we form a relationship with the hero most akin to those we experience in real life, and in the end, relationship will compel us more than just about anything else.
If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, what about it draws you? If you’re not, what repels you?