Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Competing definitions

So, I was going to write and post this over the weekend, but wow is connectivity bad in Joplin, Missouri. I sure thought the town would be big enough to support decent cell phone connections, but no. At least not where I was.

And then Kenya only placed third in her class. Which was a big class of nice girls — I think eight were in the class — so third is okay, but you know, only Winners Bitch gets the points. Four point major, nice for whomever won.

My friend Laura won Winner’s Dog with her boy, though, so that was nice. I think she needs two more single points to finish him.

Next week another show, then I’m just about done for the year. It’d be nice to finish Kenya this year, but I’m not holding my breath.

So, anyway! On to the actual real topic of the post. I got a kick out of the VERY DIFFERENT definitions of Urban Fantasy which were used by Liz Bourke, Jared Shurin, Justin Landon, and Tansy Rayner Roberts to generate their respective lists of “essential UF.”

Here’s Liz: What is most prominent in the fantasy of the urban, to me, is the combination of anonymity and the need for systems and compromises – a way of operating in the world that doesn’t rely on implicit reciprocity and mutuality – that arises when people live together in numbers exceeding the hundred-odd of the isolate village or the thousand-odd of the tiny towns of the past. Urban fantasy shares DNA with ghost stories, noir crime and the police procedural, as well as fairytale, folklore, and fable. … Although UF and PR are distinct, for the most part, as marketing categories, my definition of urban fantasy as the fantasy of the town doesn’t really allow that distinction.

I like this focus. It’s thoughtful, it does not disregard the actual name of the subgenre, it’s academic in tone — I like academic definitions — and when I read it, I basically found myself going, Sure, Liz, sounds right to me! Plus, and I think this is important, all the books which I’ve read that are on Liz’ list seem like they belong to the UF subgenre.

Then I read Jared’s definition: a) The story is set in our world;
b) The fantastic element is integrated into our world – it hasn’t come from elsewhere; it has always been there. It can be revealed, but it isn’t elsewhere; c) The story is contemporary to the author.

Ah! I said. Interesting! It is interesting and I think it is basically true of what we think of as UF (and Paranormal). But look how the quality “urban” has been entirely removed from this definition. THIS is what I would call Contemporary Fantasy. And I’m not sure it matters whether magic has suddenly appeared or has always been there. But the real problem with Jared’s definition, it seems to me, is that it goes off totally sideways to the books which are sold as UF and thought of as UF, so that his list includes heaps of books which would be thought of as horror. Cthulhu, anyone?

To me, a Venn diagram of fantasy would have all, or nearly all, of UF subsumed within a significantly larger circle that meets Jared’s definition. But if you try to market books as UF and they do not fall within the actual-no-kidding UF subgenre, you are going to have a lot of confused (and annoyed) readers. And including horror in UF would be a big turnoff to readers like me who basically do not like horror.

Now, here’s Justin’s definition: To me “urban fantasy” is all about structure and narrative. It has nothing — I repeat, nothing — to do with milieu. Urban Fantasy has a snarky narrator, almost always first person. It requires a thriller structure.

Wow, I said. Really? Because a) police procedural is not the same as thriller. b) I can think of classic UF that are not first person (WAR FOR THE OAKS leaps to mind.) And c) Then why the blazes call it Urban Fantasy? Even less helpful, this pulls us out of contemporary or contemporary-ish settings altogether. Justin says that if you don’t draw the line where I do, “urban fantasy” becomes a catch all for anything that doesn’t have elves in it. But I think that drawing the line as he does opens up the genre A LOT MORE than any definition that includes milieu. Especially as, when you actually look at his list, he includes SF titles. This is once again a list that a) leaves off most of what actual readers think of as UF, and b) includes a lot of stuff that would leave those readers blinking in astonishment. Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE is a great book, but UF?

OKAY. One more. Tansy’s definition: But let’s get back to what urban fantasy actually is. Alternative history with magic. That’s it. That’s why the Charles De Lint books and the Charlaine Harris books and the elves on motorcycles and the Norse gods in suburbia and the sexy angry leather trousers kicking butt are all part of the same thing.

And again I have to disagree, because that would put again put TEMERAIRE into the UF category, where I don’t think it belongs. And JONATHON STRANGE AND MR NORRIL, which I admit I haven’t read (I have it on audio but haven’t listened to it yet — do you KNOW how long it is?) but don’t think is UF (right?)

Tansy goes on to add, “Sometimes, urban fantasy utilises tropes from other genres – especially from the paranormal end of the horror genre, and also from crime. Even the format of the books tends towards the series rather than serial, closer to crime than fantasy. But some urban fantasy doesn’t have crime plots OR horror tropes. Some of it is about the collision of the magical with the mundane, in a world that looks a lot like ours, but has a few key differences.”

And while this is true, I think it still allows far too many titles to be included that really ought to be something else. FIRE AND HEMLOCK is on Tansy’s list. UF? Not to me. BUT most of Tansy’s titles look like they would in fact fall pretty much into what is actually understood, read, and marketed as UF. (I haven’t read most of them, but that’s my impression.) So her definition works better for me than Jared’s or Justin’s.

OKAY. A final, definitive definition of UF. Because if everybody else can do it, so can I, right?

Urban fantasy must be set in an urban setting, usually but not exclusively a contemporary setting, but never in a secondary world or far enough in the past that the setting might as well be a secondary world. Magic has probably been present in the world for a long time and has influenced history to a greater or lesser extent. And the tropes utilized must include those of crime novels or police procedurals.

Does that “must” in the last sentence exclude too many clearly UF titles? I think maybe *I* just threw WAR FOR THE OAKS out of the subgenre. Oops. Back to the drawing board . . .

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7 Comments Competing definitions

  1. Elaine T

    Wishing better next time for Kenya.

    JONATHON STRANGE is not urban fantasy. JS&MN wanders all over England and drops in to Portugal & Spain (Peninsular part of Napoleonic Wars). It is not particularly ‘urban.’

    If it’s urban fantasy the city -ish environment must play a major role. Police procedurals are one way of having it do that. Things work out differently than they would in a non-urban environment given the plethora of people and connections or lack thereof possible in cities. Snarky tone is not required, or you’d be defining the Amber Chronicles as urban fantasy.

    But I think MckInley’s vampire book, SUNSHINE, counts. It’s in an urban/heavily built up suburban environment and if Sunny had lived somewhere else, somewhere more isolated it would have read quite differently. (clicks through and sees Tansy agreed.)

  2. Rachel

    Oh, good, I like that about the urban environment having to be important but it doesn’t matter how. That clears up the problem re: some obvious UF lacking a crime or police procedural focus. Do you see a contemporary or contemporary-ish setting as important?

  3. Maureen Eichner

    I mean, a book can have an important setting that happens to be a city and not be UF, in my opinion at least. Which is to say that I agree much more strongly with Liz Bourke’s definition (not surprising; I am very impressed by her generally).

  4. Elaine T

    Are the Watch books in Pratchett’s DISCWORLD urban fantasy? I tend not to think of them as such, but they are secondary world fantasy and set in a distinct city where the city’s city-ish qualitites are important: mixed classes living close; possible anonymity because it’s often polite to ignore each other in cities; lots of resources of various sorts from the UU to Foul Ol Ron. Sagara’s ELANTRA stories can be described that way as well, including the main character being the equivalent of a cop. Someone included them in the UF class in last week’s thread.

    When the term UF is thrown around I default to ‘our world’ more or less setting, heavily populated environment with magic/elves/critters around and more or less lone hero facing off with evil magic critters. SUNSHINE isn’t quite our world, but otherwise fits. Calling UF alternate history isn’t right. I suppose technically they are… but the point isn’t the alternate history part, the point is magic in contemporary city. It’s a question of where the emphasis is.

    Speaking of which my husband and I agreed on liking the recent UF, CHARMING by Elliott James, a great deal.

  5. Rachel

    I definitely think that it’s not enough to have just any old city be important in the story, that the city in question must be set in a world that is more or less like ours. For me, Terry Pratchett does not write UF at all; he wrote comedy at first and then as he became a better writer started writing satire. CITY OF BONES is not UF, none of the gritty sword-and-sorcery is UF, etc. SUNSHINE is close enough to our world to count, for me.

  6. Elaine T

    you did mean the Martha Wells, City of Bones, yes? It was also the title of Cassandra Clare’s first novel. I looked at that, because a friend of mine knew Clare, but not much stuck. I think it was a cross between urban and portal fantasy.

    As I think about it, I agree that UF, the publishing genre, calls for a more or less real world contemporary setting. Secondary world fantasies set in cities (like the Watch books of Pratchett) are secondary world fantasies, perhaps flavored with UF depending on what the author does with the story. It’s that mountain/valley metaphor, the genres blend, with the pure stuff- say Mercy Thompson – being a peak, and the Watch books down in the valley at most on a foothill of the UF peak.

  7. Rachel

    Yes, definitely the one by Martha Wells! I hadn’t realized there was another with the same title, but Wells’ setting in that one is pretty much an ur-city. I feel claustrophobic just thinking about it, but then it was worse than a city — it was a city most people were trapped in. *Shudders*.

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