Does it just mean it takes place in a city? I don’t think so. Is it gritty? Dark fae? Typically futuristic dystopian?
Urban fantasy incorporates magic—wizardry, the supernatural—in modern or future urban settings. In some plots, everyone in that world is aware of magic. At other times, only some know of it. Hence the name fantasy even if it is heavily detective fiction or horror. Like steampunk, my sense is that it’s more often counter culture than opulence and upper-crust characters. It may have a complex magic system. There is likely edgy humor.
Witches, vampires and werewolves can be found in urban fantasy. The series Lost Girl and Being Human are two that would fall in these categories. Sookie Stackhouse also comes to my mind for blending many of these elements (in my humble opinion, True Blood was a terrible interpretation of books I enjoyed, which is not unusual). What is it called then? I think it likely falls into paranormal with urban fantasy becoming a sub-genre. One blogger calls urban fantasy “a melting pot of genres as it blends fantasy, horror, humor, suspense, mystery, action and adventure, and romance.”
According to blogger Cheah Kit Sun, urban fantasy is merely a fantasy story set in a city, which is where we started. “You could have a story of jinni and magi in late 19th century Istanbul, an occult detective solving supernatural crimes in 1920s New York, a half-elf mercenary working a corporate contract against a clan of dragons in the Hong Kong of 2121,” the indication here being that it does not have to be modern or future. Sun argues that it is too modern, and loses connection with the very essences of magic from which it sprung; the norms of modern culture define them and so magic is lost. I imagine exceptions could be found! But I have to agree that urban fantasy has drifted toward focus on slaying, serving graphic novel and comic motifs of violence, irradicating what is different, the “monster”. A lot of Elf killing, not to mention unicorns and dragons. I’m not looking for cozy mystery fantasy, but I prefer life-affirming.
Urban fantasy, according to some, doesn’t even have to be set in a city. In the sense of “urban legend,” it differentiates between modern and traditional. Some argue it just has to be a real setting as opposed to imagined, whether it be in medieval time or current or future. This makes it low fantasy, according to one site, since it’s set in a normal world.
So, clearly, lots of contradictions! I’d be willing to bet that those who feel they are diehard urban fantasy devotees have something specific in mind: grit and the like. Violence, maybe? What is someone hoping for when they insist their read “had better be urban fantasy and not something else”? Likely it has dark tones, the underbelly of somewhere, an underworld with a seamy edge. I’d love to hear opinions.
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