Urban Fantasy Examined Part One: My Personal History with the Genre

When I was in fourth grade, I read Peirs Anthony’s On A Pale Horse. For those of you not familiar, On A Pale Horse is the first book in the Incarnations of Immortality series, a book series about the anthropomorphic manifestations of mystical forces and their lives as they navigate their way through the politics of the universe. The setting is a combination of a supernatural world and a version of Earth with modern (for 1983) trappings mixed with magic. Most of Pale Horse takes place in a dirty city.

It was different from the fantasy I’d been introduced to as a child. Both of my parents are geeks in their own right and my father has exposed me to Tolkien since the womb. “Traditional” fantasy was the norm for me. Sword and Sorcery. Epic Adventure.
Zane was none of those things… and I was intrigued.

I read the other six books in the series (available to me at an irresponsibly young age because my older brother) and never really thought about it again.

I loved it.

I knew it was something special, but I also thought it was unique. It was too easy to find books with dragons and knights. I didn’t want to spend too much time digging up mages and computers.

Time passed. I grew up. I moved deeper into the realm of epic fantasy, consuming the works of Jordan and Sanderson. Every so often, I might through in a book about vampires, just to feed that longing deep in my soul. It was close to what I wanted, but not perfect.

Then, a few years ago, a friend introduced me to a wizard named Harry Dresden.

I had heard of Butcher. He was in the whispered periphery of my geeky social circle. Talked about by those in the know and generally ignored by the ignorant. I was not among the enlightened.

But, at the insistence of one friend, I picked up Storm Front with one of my audible credits and the veil lifted from my eyes.

I’m not going to lie. I’ve never actually read any of the Dresden Files books in the traditional sense of reading (I don’t do too much “reading” these days at all), and it is entirely possible that the Dresden Files implanted themselves in me the way they did because of the amazing performance of James “Spike” Marsters. But, that little part of me that always longed for another Incarnations of Immortality feast came back to life.
I had found a new series and with it a new word: Urban Fantasy.

I dove into the Dresden clones, series with a snarky, male, first-person protagonist and his rag-tag band of misfit friends solving magical mysteries and fighting monsters. There are a few good ones, and they are a gateway drug.

From there, I dipped my toes into the Buffy clones. Glib, female, first-person protagonist “chosen ones” who worked with her rag-tag band of misfit friends to solve magical mysteries and fight monsters. That pool, my friend, is filled with enough good content to never surface from if you’re not careful.

And… those lead me to the border zone between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, the land where the mystery rules the plot, but the love story is a close second. Of course, that eventually led me over the line into full PR Territory. No, I haven’t read Twilight (yet), but I’ve ready plenty of good books that have been called Twilight Clones.

And I enjoyed them.

Then, I decided to write one.

When I sat down to scribe out the Seven Keys Saga, I thought I was tossing genre conventions straight out the window. I wrote in third-person. Something I thought was completely unheard of at the time. The closest thing to a romance for my protagonist in the first book is a bitter ex. I placed the story in Springfield, Missouri–a city, I assure you, is on the list of “places to never put an urban fantasy novel.”

I thought I was being clever and original. Turns out, I just hadn’t dug deep enough into the genre. I blame myself for that, but also, I blame the genre.

Somewhere along the lines of the last few years, Urban Fantasy has become synonymous with Contemporary Fantasy. It lost its meaning as “fantasy in an urban setting.” I blame Amazon, mostly, for this crime. If you slide over the Amazon.com and dig into the genre listings.

There is no Contemporary Fantasy genre. Worse, Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance are treated as one genre. I admit, there is cross-over between readers, but they are not the same genre, Amazon.

It’s a shame, too. Contemporary Fantasy as a genre can be split into so many different sub-genres. I mean, I’ve even read a few books best described as “Suburban” fantasy.

I would also point out the term “Urban Fantasy” doesn’t even imply contemporary, only “urban.” I read a great UF short story anthology that happened to include some medieval urban fantasy.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to spend some time diving into the genre from all angles. I want to learn it inside and out. Master its secrets.

And then, when I have learned everything there is to know, I will TURN THE POWER BACK UPON THE MASSES AND DOMINATE THE GLOBE! MWA HA HA HA!


Sorry… I mean… I’ll totally be a better writer… or something.

See you next week when I discuss my views on the history of the genre and how I’m 95% sure it was invented by Shakespeare.