Urban fantasy is a fantastic genre of English-language fiction, or a subgenre of fantasy, in which the narrative uses supernatural elements in an urban society. Works of urban fantasy may be set in the real world and introduce aspects of fantasy, or in a fantasy world with operating rules recognizably similar to ours. Elements such as discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence or conflict between humans and paranormal beings, and the changes such characters and events bring to local life are the mainspring. Many authors, publishers, and readers distinguish them from works of paranormal romance, which use similar characters and settings, but focus on the romantic relationships between characters. A contemporary setting is not strictly necessary for a work of urban fantasy: works of the genre may also take place in futuristic and historical settings, actual or imagined, as long as the rules remain recognizably those of the present universe.
Uses of "Urban Fantasy"
The term urban fantasy was used in print from as far back as the early 20th century. It originally described a characteristic of some object or place. Horst Schmidt-Brummer's 1973 book about Venice, California is subtitled "An Urban Fantasy", to denote a nostalgic appreciation for the unique city. And in various New York Times advertisements in 1928 through 1930 for the St. Regis hotel, the term implies that the hotel is a sort of paradise: "Never was an urban fantasy so enchanting..."
As a genre of 'adventure-pulp' fiction, the market for fantasy of any type was limited in the early years of the 20th century, as it battled for publication space with westerns, romance, eroticism, mysteries, military adventure, and the related fields of horror and science-fiction. Many well-known writers who got their start in the magazine market published stories in several genres: among them Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, and Elmore Leonard. As mysteries began to achieve wide public interest in the 1930s and 1940s, many of their evolutionary "hard-boiled" elements developing a public appetite for heightened-realism began to appear in other genres.
In Victorian-era English-speaking countries there was a strong and long-established appetite for supernatural stories, known as Gothic fiction; written by authors like [[Wilkie Collins], Bram Stoker, and even Charles Dickens Adventure fiction which fantastically manipulates one or more important social/physical laws of the contemporary universe began appearing at the end of the nineteenth century with widely-read works of Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger stories, not to mention Mark Twain's 1889 time-travel story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Jack London's 1908 dystopian novel The Iron Heel preceded by a year H. G. Wells' novel The Sleeper Awakes. Karel Čapek, Aldous Huxley, and even Sinclair Lewis (in his novel It Can't Happen Here) all wrote along this axis, establishing readers' taste for works that were Post-apocalyptic or Dystopian.
At the same time, interest in fairy-tales (that began with the translations of German, French, and Scandinavian stories) was boosted by codification and widespread publication of folklore material by popular English authors and like Andrew Lang, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and James Stephens. In addition, serious folklore studies sparked interest in the works of Sir James George Frazer as well as the Crawford translation of the Kalevala. An understanding of folklore underlies fantastic tales written by E. Nesbit and Lord Dunsany.
Placing mythical creatures in a contemporary setting, Charles G. Finney's celebrated 1935 experimental novel The Circus of Dr. Lao was a dark-ish examination of the people resident in an Arizona town without being moralizing. Its use of the circus as a metaphor directly influenced Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes - 1962) and Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn - 1968). A more recent appearance was in Charles de Lint’s 2000 short story ‘’Many Worlds Are Born Tonight’’.
Early urban fantasy may also be found in works of Manly Wade Wellman, especially his John Thunstone stories written during the 1940s. Wellman has been noted by many current authors for bringing contemporary characters and American settings into the fantasy and horror genres.
The prolific L. Sprague de Camp and his writing partner - war-game inventor Fletcher Pratt - explored urban material with their stories of Harold Shea in the 1940s and Gavagan's Bar tales in the '50s. Isaac Asimov's Azazel stories, most of which were written in the 1980s, take some of their urban character of his mystery stories initially published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine during the twenty years before that.
One source of the explicit social criticism and the often liberal themes found in contemporary urban fantasy was the collective of to-become-influential science-fiction professional wrters/editors founded in pre-WWII New York and later called the Futurians. In the post-war political climate, deft use of satire and humor (as well as friendships with sci-fi editors) enabled publication of works like 1952's novel The Space Merchants and 1955's Gladiator-At-Law). This political orientation helped overcome many writers' aversion to working in genres where violence, apolitical or reactionary views were the norm; and pacifism, internationalism, and feminism were held in contempt. Independently, Milwaukee's Clifford D. Simak began to eschew violence and introduce inhuman perspectives in his 1950s and 1960s works, as well as using supernatural characters like werewolves (The Werewolf Principle - 1967), and ghosts, leprechauns, and trolls ('The Goblin Reservation - 1968).
A significant part of Philip K. Dick's writing also may be categorized with early urban fantasy (eg: The Little Movement). And less-celebrated authors also made significant contributions to defining the field: Daniel Keyes initial version of Flowers for Algernon was published in 1958, introducing the use of an undescribed 'scientific technology' as a device for suspension of disbelief. Chester Anderson wrote The Butterfly Kid in 1967, and Michael Kurland's book The Unicorn Girl came out in 1969; both utilize the terminology of science as a cloak for magic.
Finally, many of the "second wave" feminist authors writing in the early 1960s chose to operate in the established fantasy and science-fiction genres, and particularly bringing those genre characteristics into the young-adult market which had been a haven for women writers. As a result, readers of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea stories, Anne McCaffrey's Pern saga, or books by Edward Eager and Jane Yolen grew up accepting the basic tenets of those genres. Also, Marion Zimmer Bradley was heavily involved with fantasy and s-f fandom for years.
Development into established genre
The 1974 TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker is an example of the early efforts in the present genre. The show featured a Chicago newspaper reporter uncovering and battling supernatural creatures (e.g. vampires and zombies) in an urban environments. Unbelieved and unappreciated, considered by his boss, colleagues, the police and the public as something between a crackpot or an insane murderer as he struggles with both real and metaphorical demons in each episode. This series originated with the 1972 movie The Night Stalker and thus predates by approximately 15 years the early usage of the term "Urban Fantasy."
The re-write of Dan Aykroyd's original 1982 science-fiction comedy script for Ghostbusters by Harold Ramis replaced the futuristic setting for the fantastic events with present-day New York City. This effectively enabled the film to be made; and brought urban fantasy into mainstream American culture.
The term began to describe a style of fiction only in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This development is apparent in the increased use of the term in contemporary reviews. Terri Windling's shared Borderlands universe, launched in the mid-1980s, was touted by Neil Gaiman as "one of the most important places where Urban Fantasy began" with Tor.com claiming that "some say, Urban Fantasy was born in Bordertown," which provided "young, beginning writers like Charles de Lint and Emma Bull" with a platform for the new genre. Also during the 1980s, fantasy writer Glen Cook began writing his Garrett P.I. books, which sets a hardboiled detective into a fantasy world.
Several publications and writers have cited authors Laurell K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison as notable contributors to the genre. Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, and Time have recognized the longevity and influence of Hamilton's stories, while The New York Times and Amazon.com have noted the work of Kim Harrison. Author Courtney Allison Moulton has cited Hamilton's early works among her inspirations. Kelly Gay has noted Hamilton, Harrison, and Emma Bull as primary influences. Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series have been described by Barnes and Noble as "the gold standard" for the genre; one of the books from the series was nominated for the 2015 Hugo Award.
While adult urban fantasy novels may stand-alone (like Mulengro by Charles de Lint or Emma Bull's War for the Oaks), the economics of the market favor series characters, and genre-crossing allows sales along multiple lines.
Many urban-fantasy novels are told via a first-person narrative, and often feature mythological beings, romance, and female protagonists who are involved in law enforcement or vigilantism. Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series—which follows the investigations of a supernatural Federal Marshal during paranormal cases—has been called a substantial and influential work of the genre. Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan novels, also regarded as inspirational works, feature a bounty-hunting "witch-born" demon who battles numerous supernatural foes. Multi-genre offerings combine urban fantasy with other established forms (eg: police procedurals, as we see in the Peter Grant stories of Ben Aaronovitch, or the Charlie Madigan series, by Kelly Gay, which explores challenges a police officer faces while trying to balance her paranormal cases with life as a single mother).0
In addition to books which present largely independent characters, certain stories feature men and women who are regularly partnered on adventures—often with an underlying romantic element. The Jaz Parks series, by Jennifer Rardin, follows the titular CIA operative and her vampire boss as they combat supernatural threats to national security. Jocelynn Drake's Dark Days novels follow a vampire named Mira and a vampire hunter named Danaus, who work together to protect their people from a mutual enemy. Night Huntress, a series by Jeaniene Frost, centers on a half-vampire named Catherine and a vampire bounty hunter called Bones, who gradually become lovers while battling the undead.
In contrast to the "professional heroes" found in adult urban-fantasy novels, many novels aimed at young adult audiences follow inexperienced protagonists who are unexpectedly drawn into paranormal struggles. Amidst these conflicts, characters often gain allies, find romance, and, in some cases, develop or discover supernatural abilities of their own. In Kelley Armstrong's The Darkest Powers series, a group of teens with paranormal talents go on the run while fleeing from a persistent band of scientists. Gone, by Michael Grant, follows an isolated town in which adults have mysteriously disappeared, leaving a society of super-powered children behind. In Unearthly, by Cynthia Hand, a girl discovers that she is part angel and gifted with superhuman abilities, leading her to seek out her purpose on Earth. The Immortals series, by Alyson Noël, follows a girl who gains special abilities after recovering from an accident, and also grows close to a mysterious new boy at her school. Love triangles also play a prominent part in these and several other urban-fantasy novels. Coming-of-age themes and teen 'voices' also often distinguish young-adult urban fantasy from adult books in the genre.
Boarding schools are a common setting in teen urban fantasy. Rampant, by Diana Peterfreund, follows a group of young women at a cloisters as they train to fight killer unicorns. The House of Night series, by P. C. and Kristin Cast, presents a school where future vampires are disciplined while on the path to transformation, during which several romantic conflicts and other clashes ensue. Claudia Gray's Evernight novels center on a mysterious academy, where a romantic bond develops between a girl born to vampires, and a boy who hunts them. Fallen, by Lauren Kate, revolves around a student named Luce who finds herself drawn to a boy named Daniel, unaware that he is a fallen angel who shares a history with her. Other series, such as Carrie Jones's Need, have characters moving to new locations but attending public schools while discovering mysterious occurrences elsewhere in their towns.
Distinction from paranormal romance
In an online commentary, author Jeannie Holmes described differences between urban fantasy and paranormal romance:
The two 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.
Use of other forms of media has become a common part of the creation and promotion of urban-fantasy works.
Several urban-fantasy authors cite music as an inspiration. Certain writers recommend songs or playlists on their official websites, including Courtney Allison Moulton, Jaye Wells, and Sarah J. Maas, who couple their recommendations with links to music-providing services. Publishers have also used music for book trailers, including the trailer for Carrie Jones's Captivate, which features the work of songwriter Derek Daisey.
Original music is also produced. In 2010, musicians Alexandra Monir, Michael Bearden, and Heather Holley (a songwriter for Christina Aguilera's Stripped) collaborated to create songs for Monir's debut novel, Timeless.
Book trailers are often used to promote urban-fantasy novels. Publishers such as HarperCollins also produce regular video interviews with debuting authors.
Comics and manga
Adaptations of urban-fantasy novels have appeared in comic books and manga. Among the tales to be adapted are Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson stories, and Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely.
Film and television
Works of urban fantasy have been adapted to or have originated in film and television. Well-known examples include the 1992 series Highlander and the TV adaptation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is regarded as a seminal work of the genre.
Certain staples of urban-fantasy novels are also present in television shows. The concept of peaceful coexistence with paranormal beings is explored in the 1996 series Kindred: The Embraced, which focuses on secret vampire clans in San Francisco. Works such as Witchblade present the more common matter of a protagonist attempting to protect citizens.
While urban-fantasy novels are often centered on heroines, television programs have regularly featured both genders in leading roles. Shows such as Beauty and the Beast, The Dresden Files, Forever Knight, Grimm, Moonlight, and Supernatural are based around male protagonists, while other programs, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Witchblade, focus largely on female protagonists.
The following is an incomplete list of notable authors of urban fantasy. According to 2013 statistics by the fantasy publisher Tor Books, among writers of urban fantasy or paranormal romance, 57% are women and 43% are men, whereas men outnumber women by about two to one in writing historical, epic or high fantasy.
- Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London series)
- Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels series)
- Kelley Armstrong (Women of the Otherworld and Darkest Powers series)
- L.A. Banks (Vampire Huntress series and Crimson Moon novels)
- Holly Black (Modern Faerie Tales series)
- Marie Brennan (Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie)
- Sarah Rees Brennan (The Demon's Lexicon series)
- Patricia Briggs (Mercy Thompson series)
- Terry Brooks (Word & Void series)
- Emma Bull (War for the Oaks)
- Jim Butcher (Dresden Files series)
- Rachel Caine (Weather Warden series)
- Mike Carey (Felix Castor series)
- Karen Chance (Cassandra Palmer series)
- Cinda Williams Chima (The Heir Trilogy)
- Cassandra Clare (Mortal Instruments series)
- Glen Cook (the Garrett P.I. series)
- S. J. Day (Marked series)
- P. N. Elrod (The Vampire Files series)
- Jennifer Estep (Elemental Assassin, Mythos Academy, Black Blade series)
- J.M. Frey
- Jeaniene Frost (Night Huntress series)
- Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere)
- Yasmine Galenorn (Wild Hunt, Otherworld, Indigo Court)
- Kelly Gay (Charlie Madigan series)
- Michael Grant (Gone series)
- Claudia Gray (Evernight series)
- Simon R. Green (Nightside series)
- Kate Griffin (Matthew Swift series)
- Laurell K. Hamilton (The Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series)
- Cynthia Hand (Unearthly series)
- Charlaine Harris (The Southern Vampire Mysteries series)
- Kim Harrison (The Hollows series)
- Rachel Hawthorne (Dark Guardian series)
- Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles)
- Mark Henry (Amanda Feral series)
- Tanya Huff (The Enchantment Emporium and Blood series)
- Faith Hunter (Rogue Mage series, Jane Yellowrock series, and the Soulwood series)
- Benedict Jacka (Alex Verus series)
- Carrie Jones (Need series)
- Lauren Kate (Fallen series)
- Caitlin Kittredge (Nocturne City and Iron Codex series)
- Mercedes Lackey (Elves on the Road universe and the slightly steampunk ‘’Elemental Masters’’ books)
- Charles de Lint (Newford series)
- Sergei Lukyanenko (Night Watch series)
- Melissa Marr (Wicked Lovely series)
- Seanan McGuire (October Daye series )
- Richelle Mead (The Georgina Kincaid and Vampire Academy series)
- China Miéville (Bas-Lag series)
- Devon Monk (Allie Beckstrom series)
- Courtney Allison Moulton (Angelfire series)
- C.E. Murphy (Walker Papers series)
- Alyson Noël (Immortals series)
- Jackson Pearce (As You Wish and Sisters Red)
- Marlene Perez (Dead Is... series)
- Diana Peterfreund (Killer Unicorns series)
- Vicki Pettersson (Signs of the Zodiac series)
- T.A. Pratt (Marla Mason series)
- Kalayna Price (Alex Craft series)
- Jennifer Rardin (Jaz Parks series)
- Natasha Rhodes (Kayla Steele series)
- Kat Richardson (Greywalker series)
- Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians series)
- J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series)
- Oh Seong-dae (Tales of the Unusual)
- Thomas E. Sniegoski (The Fallen series)
- Lucy A. Snyder (Jessie Shimmer series)
- Jeanne C. Stein (Anna Strong series)
- Shanna Swendson (Enchanted, Inc. series)
- Anton Strout (Simon Canderous series)
- Mark Teppo (Codex of Souls series)
- Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville series)
- Rachel Vincent (Shifters series)
- Catherine Webb (Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous series)
- Kiersten White (Paranormalcy)
- Terri Windling (Borderlands series)
- Yvonne Woon (Dead Beautiful series)
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