Understanding Urban Fantasy

In the last two or three months, if you would have happened to glance down at my ‘I’ve been busy reading’ goodreads sticker, you would have noticed urban fantasy featuring very heavily on the list. You know, the Women of the Underowrld series by Kelley Armstrong, Karen Chance’s books set in the Cassandra Palmer series and Unearthly by Christina Hand.

Until recently, I had no idea what urban fantasy was (poor, poor, deprived me). I put it in the same box as I put fantasy, in- the I’m-sure-it’s-great-but-elves-with-names-that-are-too-long-to-pronounce-are-not for-me.  Well, lucky me- urban fantasy very rarely has to do with unpronounceable names and characters with pointy ears. Usually, urban fantasy books deal with a host of magical species; everything from albino vampires and banshees to werewolves, witches and zombies. In fact, the only criterion for a book to be placed under the Urban Fantasy genre is that it must take place in a city.

Wikipedia says, Urban fantasy describes a work that is set primarily in the real world and contains aspects of fantasy. These matters may involve the arrivals of alien races, the discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence between humans and paranormal beings, conflicts between humans and malicious paranormals, and subsequent changes to city management.

The city doesn’t even have to be a realistic, modern day city. The city could be a futuristic Atlanta (such as the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews)  with supernatural elements working quietly in the background or it could be Victorian London (like Gale Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series) where the fae have ‘come out of the closet’. At the same time, the city could be completely imaginary like Perdido Beach in Michael Grant’s Gone series. But in most cases, the city plays a major role- almost developing a personality and character of it’s own.

Urban Fantasy is totally thrilling because it gives us familiarity and then throws a random element of unpredictability into it. Imagine making your routine, everyday commute from home to work/school. Just think about it- same driver, same bus, ordinary traffic signals, stop signs, apartment complexes and trees that pass you by but if you look closely at the kid tapping next to you on a smartphone, you’ll suddenly notice two small horns pushing out from under his curly hair and ratsa cap.  That’s exactly what the Urban Fantasy genre is supposed to be like; it’s magic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm.The majority of the people who live there will have normal lives, oblivious to the magical all around them, hidden in plain sight.

Sounds creepy,huh? It can get a little bit creepy. Yes, I’ve had paranoia attacks because of reading Urban Fantasy. I see an abnormally pale person with unusual eyes and just for a second I think ‘vampire’ but that’s part of the fun. Urban fantasy is like the exact opposite of High Fantasy; instead of taking you away from the normal world to the paranormal world, it brings the preternatural to your normal world .

Urban Fantasy is only a sub-genre. As a result, most books in this genre blur lines with other genres like paranormal romance. It can get a bit trick to differentiate between the two, but like author Jeannie Holmes says:

The two [Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance] share 90% of their genre DNA. However, the main differences are this: Urban fantasy focuses on an issue outside of a romantic relationship between two characters. Paranormal romance focuses on a romantic relationship between two characters and how outside forces affect that relationship. The best litmus test to determine if a story is urban fantasy or paranormal romance is to ask the following question: ‘If the romance between Character A and Character B were removed, would the plot still stand as a viable storyline?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ chances are good it’s urban fantasy. If the answer is ‘no,’ it’s most likely paranormal romance.

So go give this genre a chance. Pick out an urban fantasy book. If genres were food, than Urban Fantasy would be like an avocado- tasty, slightly fattening and surprisingly nutritious. Here are some YA Urban Fantasy books I’ve reviewed:

  1. Young Elites by Marie Lu
  2. Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
  3. Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
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