The Rise of Urban Fantasy

Buffy Season OneIn 2003, I walked into an obscure little shop, away from the main drag in Parramatta (just west of Sydney). I was attracted to the Buffy display in the window. In addition to the Buffy merchandise and other geeky delights, I discovered a wall of sci-fi books. The owner quickly established my interest in Buffy and suggested Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series. I was instantly hooked.

I knew of Anne Rice and Bram Stoker. They had not interested me. I wanted a Strong Female Lead. I wanted a female version of Jack Reacher, a GI Jane (the Demi Moore kind) kicking arse in the world of the supernatural. In 2003, the variety of these books was limited. I knew about fantasy and magic (thank you Eddings, McCaffery and Jordan) and Elves & Goblins (thank you Tolkein), however my knowledge of vampires was based purely around Buffy (thank you Whedon). I should quickly mention Charmed, Angel, The X-Files, Dark Shadows and Forever Knight. At the time though, I had always been into the fantasy element of novels. Sure, as a teen, I also loved Sweet Valley High, Trixie Belden and anything associated with horses. For Australians out there – remember The Silver Brumby series? Ahh, bliss.

Anyway, 2003 was the year I discovered the paranormal romance/urban fantasy genre (PR/UF). I delved a little between the two, deciding I am more the UF type whereby the ‘Strong Female Lead’ and her investigation/situation is the story and romance second place. In PR, the romance is the main purpose and the paranormal a second. Wikipedia describes UF as ‘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’. Funny that, about being set in a city as for me, the prerequisite was ‘Strong Female Lead’. And call me dumb, but figuring out the tri-cities thing in the Mercy Thompson series baffled me at first.

The Laughing Corpse (cover)BUT When did the UF/PR become ‘acceptable’? When did the genres even separate from sci-fi? In larger book stores now, you can walk in and find ‘Urban Fantasy’ or ‘Paranormal Romance’ next to horror and sci-fi. Interestingly, most of Anita Blake is in the Horror section, instead of Erotic Fiction. Next to Cujo. Scary. Anyhoo…

When did these genres become ‘in’? If you look at the NY Times Bestseller List – in the last five years, UF has featured heavily with Stephanie Meyer, PC Cast and Rachel Vincent. Now, I studied writing at Uni for one semester (via an Arts degree before changing to a Science degree) and I remember touching base on all the genres with fantasy focusing on the extreme elements and classic authors (ie: Asimov). The only romance mentioned was Mills & Boon and did that ever get a beating! I did go to an alternative University not far from Byron Bay, but I have read a Mills & Boon book – just once. You know, just to see what it is about.

For me though, what got me into this whole genre was Buffy. Buffy started it. Sure I watched Dark Shadows, Forever Knight and The X Files and I know Star Trek created a massive fan base, but for me, I wanted a ‘Strong Female Lead’ and I was more interested in the supernatural of vampires, weres, witches etc., I really enjoyed Mysterious Ways too but again, it did not have the focus of a Strong Female Lead nor the wisecracking remarks. The star of Buffy, was of course a female, an ex cheerleader (before she attended Sunnydale HS) who was told she was ‘The Chosen’ and born to kill Vampires. Buffy took many of us on a journey through a world of vampires, werewolves, witches, army special forces and beings from other worlds. When Buffy ended, I was devastated and struggled to find another show. There was a short lived UK program Hex and of course the ever brilliant and scrumptious Supernatural, but it does not have the Strong Female Lead. Then there was Alias. I was blown away by Sydney Bristow. Ok, so there were no vampires or weres, but it portrayed a Strong Female Lead and there was a sci-fi element. It was hidden, but it was there.

Laurel K Hamilton appears to have influenced many authors and started a craze amongst readers looking for a gap to fill from the absence of Buffy, as well as capturing the new interest in vampires and weres. When I think about Gen X and Gen Y and the history of women, not only in reality but in movies and TV, I wonder about the fascination with a lead female character doing battle against all odds and falling in love with a mythical being and how does this fit in with women in this day and age? In the private sector, we continue to do battle for an equal salary our male counterparts receive. In Australia, there is current debate around women fighting on the frontline, there are no female Archdiocese or Rabbis. It is 2011 and yet so much of the present is based in the archaic. So, with UF and PR having a strong female fan-base, is it a part of us identifies because the Strong Female Lead helps us escape the day to day battles we face, but in a fantasy setting?

Think about some of the women characters popular UF today (possible spoilers here):

Dead Until Dark (cover)Sookie Stackhouse (part elvish)
Rachel Morgan (a witch-born demon)
Kate Daniels (a mercenary)
Mercy (a coyote shifter)
Kitty Norville (a werewolf)
Joanna Archer (fighting on the side of Light)
Faythe (a werecat)
Sabina Kane (vampire-mage hybrid)
Riley Jensen (a vampire-werewolf hybrid)
Raine (a sorceress)
Cat (a dhampir)
Jaz Parks (a vampire hunter with a spirit-eye)
Georgina Kincaid (a succubus)
Women of the Otherworld (various by Kelley Armstrong)
Cassandra Palmer (clairvoyant)
Mira (a vampire)

These are some of many out there – a few series that stand out for me though include Vicki Petersson’s Signs of the Zodiac, Keri Arthur’s Guardian, Kim Harrison’s Hollows, Jocelyn Drake’s Nightwalker and Rachel Vincent’s Shifters. For me, these books contain well rounded women, with strong allies and a sense of family which are important to me and which in my opinion, provide for great reading.

Weapons Specialist by Michael KomarckAlso in urban fantasy, the Strong Female Lead is not human although for some, part of the storyline has started with them thinking they were/are human. Others we know are either born as a supernatural or are made, and then of course, there are those that have faerie blood. They have the Alpha in love with them and the Alpha in this case, being the strong masculine type, not necessarily an Alpha werewolf only.

In amongst these of course, is the notorious Bella Swan and her sweet drip-drip honey-schmoney Edward. Firstly, this is not a Twilight bashing, I enjoyed the books, I watched the movies, I have a Team Jacob shirt. But I feel she does not quite belong here and I will tell you why. The women at the forefront of these books are for want of a better term: ‘Heroines’ (albeit reluctantly). They live in a world not that much different from our own, some have a full time job, but most have jobs linked to the supernatural and are (more often than not), in some kind of law enforcement. Others are in their line of work due to a family obligation (revenge perhaps) that leads them into this area. They often discover their link to an ancient prophecy/power and as such, they generally have a strength or power unlike others. They are able to coexist with these paranormal beings and keep this away from human knowledge.

Also, they tend to have all the luck – things just fall into place for them. They usually fall in love with a different species to their own, there is often conflict related to some internal moral or value which is great for us readers. There is usually a second love interest and again, their internal battle against loving two men. They are usually sarcastic and have a seemingly tough exterior when really they are quite vulnerable and just want to be held and not feel like the fate of the world rests solely in their hands.

Companion by ButjokThey tend to have no siblings and when they do – they are dead, missing, evil or a half-sibling. They tend to be orphans or at least have a parent who is missing or being held captive (except for Kitty and Faythe for example). However, there was also someone who helped raise them and they are either a) close to them or b) dead or about to die. It is this missing family/death of a parent/abusive step-parent etc., that lead to our Strong Female Lead having some personality issues which means they are not always capable of making ‘sane’ decisions and often act irresponsibly, irrationally as well as keep the nice, loving man (be him human or other) at a distance and the not so nice loving man (be him human or other) in close contact. The past issues inevitably link to current events and future arc.

In any case, the Strong Female Leads tend to be clumsy – leaving room to be saved or fall into the arms of Mr Silent-and-Gorgeous Alpha Male. Who is strangely attracted to her even though they are often of the wrong species or just on the wrong side of wrong.

The women are never described as ‘stunningly gorgeous’, no no, they all tend to have faults – slim but curves in all the right places or their mouth is too big (but like Angelina, not Mick Jagger). Despite their small circle of friends, there are rarely any positive female relationships and where there are other women – they are usually the ‘other woman’, evil, a bitch, dumb or a much younger/much older woman not in direct competition.

Twilight (cover)Before Twilight came out, I found a resurgence of interest in the genre, purely due to the range of novels on offer. At a time when I still relied on the book shop as my prime provider of new books (before I moved to the UK in 06 and discovered Amazon), the detail on the front cover was my main reason for buying. Sure, the blurb had something to do with it – but if the cover featured a toned and hard looking female, I bought it. If the main picture was a half naked man looking longingly into the distance with a picture of a women clinging to him, looking at him or some other part of his body – then I didn’t buy it. If I wanted romance I would just watch Dirty Dancing.

But why is it in now? What has made it acceptable? I think there was a resurgence when the Twilight movie came out – at least that is when my girlfriends swore me to secrecy, saying they wanted to watch the movie and asked to borrow the books.

Many women today – teens, those in their 20s and perhaps some in their early 30s have parents or know somebody close who has parents that are separated/divorced/never married/never even together. It is more common in this day and age. For many who were raised without their father present (and I have many, many girlfriends like this), there has been a range of broken relationships and trying to find ‘the right man’ and a renewed interest in the fantasy genre, where often sex with many men is okay, where loving two men is okay and where women have had to ‘tough’ it out, go it ‘on their own’ and make a life as an adult when they were abandoned/rejected/abused as children.

A Local Habitation by Chris McGrathThe Strong Female Lead in these novels presents a way out from the drama and crime of other novels. These books are easy to read. They don’t challenge us to think about reason or choice – there is no underlying message to take away from the book. They certainly do not leave us lying in the fetal position depressed (like Tully). The Strong Female Lead often talk the way we wish we could (sassy &, sarcastic & alluring at the same time – what a gift!), is often told in a first person perspective giving us the chance to be the Lead in the book who gets the gorgeous silent guy with no baggage. What is there not to like?

We also want to be consumed – perhaps getting sexy with a vampire or a werewolf is part of our subconscious mind telling us to ‘live a little’. We like the fantasy of it; we like the role play – if we can’t read Mills & Boon on the tube or the bus, then please let us at least read our urban fantasy in public! Do we like our sex to be a little dangerous – hell yeah!

Deep down, some of us (ok, maybe perhaps just ‘I’) want to be the Alpha female, want to be the leader, want to be admired, want to be respected, want to have the choice between two gorgeous guys who are literally willing to lay their life on the line, who challenge us but ultimately let us have our own way.


By Jo Warne

Jo Warne is a long-term fan of Sci-Fi and paranormal/urban/romance type novels. She has a crush on Jack Reacher and a tenancy to collect and read books like a 13-year-old comic book hound, waiting for his next fix.

10 thoughts on “The Rise of Urban Fantasy”
  1. If UF was defined by ‘strong female characters’ wouldn’t it be called Female Fantasy instead? The clue is in the title Urban. Without making value judgements about these works otherwise, if the city environment doesn’t play a significant role in the work then it isn’t Urban Fantasy. Hence classic Urban Fantasy by the likes of Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Megan Lindholm, Emma Bull, Tim Powers, Mark Helprin, Lisa Goldstein etc. which don’t have kick ass heroines as described above.

    As the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy entry by John Clute points out, merely being set in a city doesn’t qualify a story as UF. Clute also suggests that some argue that it needs to be a ‘real’ city eg Bull’s take on Minneapolis rather than Leiber’s Lankhmar. Personally I’m tempted to include imaginary cities purportedly in ‘our’ world, where one could conceivably travel by conventional means but discount full secondary worlds.

    So having said that, Urban Fantasy as a useful critical label has been seemingly usurped by Urban Fantasy the catch all marketing category. Your thoughts on the rising popularity of that kick ass female fantasy genre are interesting, but I wonder why the UF label has been wrongly applied? Is it part of the dismissive attitude Joanna Russ described, a progression from rejecting women’s SF as not proper SF but Fantasy, to a modern variant its not proper fantasy its UF?

  2. I read this article wondering what was meant by ‘Urban Fantasy’ and it was really interestingtonfind out about what you thought about this genre. I always called it ‘chick-lot horror’ because I found them to be normal chuck lot with a few zombies, werewolves, etc. I have read some and find them a really nice easy read after a 700+ hard going war type fantasy novel.
    I do love Buffy too (-and Supernatural) but I found Anita Blake a cheap imitation and you don’t want to hear my Twilight rant! But it’s given me another spin on this so next time I think I’ll read an easy filler I may look at it slightly differently!

  3. It took me a while to define UF from PNR and in the end I made my own rules
    UF -kickass women, fights, perhaps some romance
    PNR -lots of sex

    As for the Urban, there are many UFs taking place in the countryside too, and then I get confused again, lol

    1. I disagree. PNR/PR has strong female leads. And when did it simply become about the gender of the character? With me, a good book is a good book, whether or not it’s a “strong female lead” or a “strong male lead.” As long as it is well written, has a good plot, and has memorable characters, that qualifies as a good book to me. I don’t really pay attention to sub genres nowadays because as long as it’s good, it doesn’t really matter.

      I actually prefer PR (not for the sex, trust me), but for the fact that the characters change per book, and the author is forced to create new and interesting story lines per book because of the shifting protagonists. For me, that’s a sign of skill. Anita Blake was bad because there was only one protagonist, and after about a dozen books, it’s become much worse than the worst PR there is, so it’s really a question of whether or not she can be considered a strong female lead, or from Jo Warne’s standards, UF.

  4. Blodeuedd there aren’t any Urban Fantasies in the countryside, those are just Fantasies. Or in a few cases where the countryside is significant you could consider them Rural Fantasy? Think Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood novels, or Neil Astley’s End of My Tether, or the first part of Terry Bisson’s Talking Man.

    Please all of you take note: UF is only ever UF when the urban elements play a significant part. So some PNR is UF, much isn’t, and most of what is marketed as such really isn’t UF. Without this fundamental understanding of what we’re talking about there is very little point or meaning to the discussion.

  5. This is an interesting article, but I’m not sure I agree with a lot of the details of it. While it’s true that UF is technically required to be set in an “urban environment” I’d argue that a pretty large percentage of it at least wanders through suburbia and rural areas pretty frequently. They may be primarily set in cities, but, the cohesion of the genre has a lot more to do with when it’s set than where. I’d much sooner consider something set in a town of 400 Urban Fantasy (IE Twilight) than I would something set in 18th century London. You can say that it’s not the ‘proper’ definition of urban fantasy, but at the end of the day what matters is marketing and genre cohesion, not definitions. In actuality it’d probably be better to call the “Urban Fantasy” genre contemporary fantasy, since the books don’t seem to share many commonalities with other “urban” genres and works.

    Beyond that, I’m also interesting in your analysis of the genre you focus on the “Strong Female Lead” character. I’m not sure I really find that to be a genuine analysis of the genre. While I can’t disagree that there are a lot of absolutely fantastic leading female characters, (like Kitty Norville, October Daye, Joanne Walker, Brynna Malak, or Kate Daniels) there are also plenty of leading male characters (IE: Harry Dresden, Simon Canderous, Jack Fleming, John Taylor.) who for the most part are no less iconic than the female characters. It’s true the preponderance of the genre does lean towards female leads, but, the male characters are no less iconic, and at the more popular levels of the genre I’d argue that the split between the two is fairly even. I certainly wouldn’t consider one side to be more “true” than the other. I’d even argue that the defining character tropes of the genre aren’t related to what gender the character is, but rather how they behave and who they are.

    Anyway, that’s just my view on the issue. I found your article interesting, though I don’t think you quite accounted for everything that feeds into the rise of Urban Fantasy. Still, I haven’t read the views you’ve expressed before, and it’s been a very interesting and well crafted read. I’m not sure I really agree with all of your points, I think you make them well. I’d argue that, at least in my own reading experience, most of the Romances aren’t “wrong species” or a “Silent an gorgeous Alpha” if it lasts more than one book. Even in your own examples, most romantic partners are well characters for several books before the relationship starts. Just look at Kitty and Ben. Similarly, I’d argue that most urban fantasy protagonists are human. Even if they’re half Faerie or a Werewolf, one of the defining trends of the genre has tended to be “Just because I’m something else doesn’t mean I’m not human.” In many ways the genre is a reclamation of horror archetypes, and pointing out that these things aren’t always evil.

    Anyway, sorry, getting off topic. Over all I’m very impressed with this article. I strongly look forward to reading more from you.

  6. Interesting article. I’d agree with you that much of UF started with Buffy.

    However, like many of the other commenters here, I disagree with the idea that UF *has* to take place in a city. The “urban” in urban fantasy can also refer to Earth – as opposed to the Middle Earth or other planet in other types of fantasies. In other world, UF has to have a contemporary “this world” feel.

    I’ve also seen some UF have a male lead, so the strong female heroine isn’t a requirement, it just seems to be more common now (probably because of Buffy). 🙂

  7. I have grown up watching and reading many of the tv series and books you have mentioned here and love them because they show women strong and powerful, and sassy. Don’t we all want to be like that! I don’t have much to say on the term “Urban Fantasy” because its a vague term, but it works and most people research books they are getting anyway. I know I do.
    Just in case you haven’t come across them before I would recommend Shelly Laurenston and her shifter series. Yes, her covers are of half naked totally ripped guys (which put me off at first) but every single one of her women leads are strong, powerful and full of sass and can kick major ass. The series starts off mostly as PR but as the series progresses it develops a much larger plot. Also for TV series check out Dark Angel, with Jessica Alba.
    they filled the buffy gap for me! 🙂

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