Tuesday, 23 August 2011

An A-Z of Urban Fantasy (A-M!)

A - Z of Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

The term 'urban fantasy' was somewhat stolen by the 'paranormal romance' subset of fantasy/horror - what used to be merely fantasy tales set in cities, such as Charles de Lint's marvellous Newford sequence, now became fantasy about kick ass heroines in leather with guns hunting vampires.

Whichever way you look at it, urban fantasy encompasses some of the finest novels committed to paper. Here is a handy guide taking you from A-Z.

The first part of this A-Z article will take you from A to M - second part coming soon!

A - Anita Blake

It would be impossible to write an A-Z of urban fantasy without mentioning Anita Blake. This is the central character featured in Laurell K Hamilton's long-running series, starting with Guilty Pleasures and heading through 20 novels to reach the latest Hit List.

Anita Blake is an animator, a vampire hunter and sometime girlfriend of a werewolf. In later novels she becomes infected by the ardeur, which creates a need for her to have sex with many different partners, and, at this point, many fans deserted the series. However, there is no gainsaying the influence that Anita Blake had on a genre that now features a glut of heroines in her mould. She was one of the first, and deserves to be read for that alone.

B - Bas-Lag Cycle

This is a series of novels by China MiƩville - in chronological order:

- Perdido Street Station
- The Scar
- Iron Council

In the Bas-Lag Cycle, there is a fine example of urban fantasy, since the city of New Crobuzon plays a prominent part in all three novels. China MiƩville has often spoke of the importance of cities in his work. About New Crobuzon he says:

I still find myself riffing off books from my past constantly, sometimes without remembering what I’m basing my writing on. New Crobuzon is highly influenced by Brian Aldiss's The Malacia Tapestry [1976] and Tim Powers's Anubis Gates [1983], but they’d permeated me so deeply I was initially less conscious of them than of other influences.

Urban fantasy is also described as fantasy involving the environs of a city - where the city almost takes on a character of its own. New Crobuzon definitely fits this mould.

C - Charles de Lint

There is not a chance of writing an A-Z of urban fantasy and excluding Charles de Lint. He is the grand-daddy of urban fantasy. In a writing career spanning almost 30 years, Charles de Lint has produced over 60 works of fiction, being nominated several times for awards.

He is a master storyteller, with rich prose and vivid imagination. Several of his novels feature the mythical North American city of Newford, with recurring characters stepping in and out of the tale. His influence on modern day urban fantasy cannot be denied - felt in such diverse authors as Neil Gaiman and Kate Griffin.

The Newford series can be dipped in and out of with ease, and one of the best starting points is with 'Memory and Dream':

Isabelle Copley's visionary art frees ancient spirits. As the young student of the cruel, brilliant artist Vincent Rushkin, she discovered she could paint images so vividly real they brought her wildest fantasies to life. But when the forces she unleashed brought tragedy to those she loved, she turned her back on her talent -- and on her dreams.

Now, twenty years later, Isabelle must come to terms with the shattering memories she has long denied, and unlock the slumbering power of her brush. And, in a dark reckoning with her old master, she must find the courage to live out her dreams and bring the magic back to life.

D - Dresden Files

One of the beloved long-running series set in an urban fantasy setting, the Dresden files tell the tale of Harry Dresden. In a first person narrative, Jim Butcher recounts Harry's investigations into supernatural disturbances in modern-day Chicago, in a lively mix of magic and noir detective novels.

Jim Butcher is up to the 13th novel published. According to Wikipedia (so this may or may not be accurate), Butcher is currently planning for approximately twenty books in the "case files" of the series, to be capped by a further "big apocalyptic trilogy".

My review of Storm Front, the first novel in the series, can be found HERE.

E - Edward

When I say Edward, I talk about Edward Cullen, and the reason he finds his way onto this list is more to do with sexy male protagonists. For Edward you could substitute Jean-Claude from the Anita Blake series. Or Ren, from Nightshade by Andrea Cremer. Or Trent from the Hollows series. Or Terrible, from the series by Stacia Kane. There are many, many examples of heroines swooning over guys in urban fantasy - from the good guys, who show heroic tendencies, to the bad guys, who our heroine shouldn't even be spending time with.

F - Folklore

Many of the authors writing within the genre of urban fantasy have turned to folklore to inspire them in terms of the creatures that inhabit the pages of their novels. We've seen fae and sidhe of all flavours, but some of the authors will step outside the norm and pick a creature that's a little more unusual.

Laurell K Hamilton is particularly fond of plundering the folklore and history of various countries, and coming up with new nasties. She's used from American folklore in one of her novels, and the lamia from Greek mythology.

G - Guns

Or weaponry in general, I guess. Considering the amount of magic inherent in urban fantasy it's amazing how many people still use guns. Part of this, I'm guessing, it because a lot of urban fantasy is linked to either police work or private investigations, both areas where guns will generally be found (especially in the States).

Most of our heroes and heroines will generally have some form of magic that they use, but it is often backed up by a gun!

H - Hollows

The Hollows is a series a novels by Kim Harrison, featuring Rachel Morgan. Rachel is a private investigator (after a little incident with the Inderland Security department). Accompanied by Ivy (vampire) and Jenks (pixy), Rachel becomes embroiled in a number of adventures that often involve businessman Trent.

The very strongest part of this series about Rachel is the world-building. It is based in Cincinnati, and takes place after the Turn, where a virus carried by a GM-created tomato spread around the world and killed off a quarter of the human population. After this the Inderlanders came out of hiding and took their place in society - non-humans, such as witches, demons, elves, pixys and gargoyles.

Begin with Dead Witch Walking - and enjoy! This is one of the finest examples of urban fantasy around.

I - Investigations

From Harry Dresden, to Rachel Morgan, to Anita Blake, to Chess, to Vicki Nelson - all of these characters perform some sort of investigative work, whether it is alongside the police, or private investigation. I'm not sure exactly why it is that urban fantasy has connected so strongly with investigations - possibly because it allows the characters to become involved with supernatural crime and, by necessity, police work is fairly episodic, which suits a long-running series.

J - Jim Butcher

The rather famous and talented author of the Dresden files, Jim Butcher is one of the very very few men who has successfully broken into the arena of urban fantasy (as it is today).

K - Kate Griffin

Kate is the sickeningly young, beautiful and incredibly brilliant author of A Madness of Angels, The Midnight Mayor and The Neon Court.

She writes urban fantasy very much in the vein of Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman, with rich prose and quirky magic. In fact, she uses the city of London as a form of magic and energy that can be tapped into - our main character simply can't function and use his magic when he strays too far from the city boundaries.

These three novels are a triumph of imagination and whimsical storytelling from a master of the art, and I highly recommend them as a modern form of urban fantasy that doesn't rely on kick ass heroines to carry the tale. Also, there is nary a sniff of romance!

L - London

Of all the cities featured in urban fantasy, London seems to be the most beloved. From the aforementioned Kate Griffin to Neil Gaiman, from Suzanne McLeod to Ben Aaronovitch, from Mike Carey to Mike Shevdon - all of these fine authors have used London as their setting for all or part of a novel.

London is a city where old and new collide, where the Underground system provides a magic all of its own, where gargoyles still sit atop buildings. It really is no leap to imagine a London that contains creatures out of the ordinary - magic and mystery are present on the streets.

I love London - and I adore my urban fantasy with a dose of London.

M - Music

I've added music here on two counts. One is that novels written by Charles de Lint, in particular, feature music as a big part of the plot. The Little Country is one of my very favourite novels by Mr de Lint, and has a high focus on folk music.

But I also mention music because of the amount of urban fantasy authors writing today who cite it as a massive inspiration to them. Some of them include their playlists at the front of the novel as part of their acknowledgements; others mention the music they write to; and Lauren Beukes created a whole CD of music that influenced Zoo City (which is undeniably urban fantasy, no matter how many science fiction awards it receives!)

It seems as though music and urban fantasy goes hand in hand.

So, here, I leave you at the end of Part 1 in this article concerning An A-Z of Urban Fantasy with a song that is now inextricably linked with Twilight:

Enjoy! And come back soon for Part 2 (N-Z!)


  1. OOh what a fabulous post. I never really understood the term urban fantasy and now realise I have read more books in this genre than I had realised. I have read some Charles De Lint, Kim Harrison and I did read the first Anita Blake book. I also own A Madness of Angels which I definitely want to read now.

  2. Have saved your post as a brilliant resource for the school library - thank you so much for doing it :D

  3. Awesome post! May I steal the idea and enter by own listings? Please?

    I own a number of the books you listened and have read any of them too. Great list!

  4. Edward is not Urban Fantasy, I think that falls strongly under Paranormal Romance....

  5. Yeah, I agree with Reb@Book-Rants about Edward not being Urban Fantasy. Also, I think K should have been for Kate Daniels or I for Ilona Andrews. Now that is an Urban Fantasy series.