Urban fantasy combines supernatural elements with a contemporary urban setting. There are precedents as far back as we’ve been telling stories about magic—we could make the case for fairy tales being the urban fantasy books of their time. But in its current incarnation, it really began to take shape in the 1980s with writers like Stephen King and Anne Rice, and flourishes today on bestseller lists with authors like Jim Butcher and Cassandra Clare. What makes this combination of magic and the mundane so powerful?
So my university degree is in folklore and mythology; the comparison of fairy tales to urban fantasy is incredibly accurate. It’s something I’ve been arguing for years—although arguing implies that the people I’m talking to regularly disagree with me. They mostly just look confused and say: “Why did you say that? I asked you to pass the marmalade.”
We tell those stories because it is human nature to come up with magical explanations for things that don’t necessarily make sense. We often say that truth is stranger than fiction, and the real world is just bursting with things that don’t make sense. I saw a picture taken two days ago of a cloud that looked flawlessly like a screaming skeleton. So, you look up at the sky and there is a giant screaming skeleton above you… the first impulse may be to say, “I’ve taken meteorology classes, I know that that’s a cloud”; but the second is, “A wizard did it”. We want there to be magic in the world because if there is magic in the world, then all these things that don’t make sense actually do make sense; and that makes urban fantasy very, very appealing.
The main difference between urban fantasy and what we sometimes call ‘second-world’ fantasy is that it takes place in our world. It’s rooted in actual things. There was a fantastic series a couple of years ago, the Matthew Swift books, and he went to Sainsbury’s, which is something I do when I’m visiting my family in England. One of my protagonists worked at a Safeway, which is the American equivalent. Having that bit of realism makes it easier for some readers to anchor into the story. It also makes it easier for some authors to get really annoying, so that’s my job.
There’s a huge variety of magic we see in these urban settings. Your first choice features perhaps the most familiar urban magical figure, a superhero. Could you tell us about the Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn?
The Heroine Complex books came out at a time when people were saying that they wanted to see more diverse urban fantasy. Urban fantasy shares a lot of roots with both paranormal romance and detective fiction, and is largely dominated by white authors. So if you line up all your urban fantasy protagonists in a row, most of them are going to be white people. But readers would like to see more diversity, and I agree; and here comes Sarah Kuhn, who is Asian-American, writing about Asian-American superheroines.
They are witty, they are fun, they are lightly written, they are extremely well handled, and they draw from authorial experiences that are not necessarily universal to everyone, but are universal to a large enough group of people that they really needed to exist. And if those aren’t your experiences, they’re well-written and relatable enough that they make sense, and you can absolutely follow them. The books follow family, and friends that are basically family, as they deal with a world where superpowers have happened.
“Urban fantasy shares a lot of roots with both paranormal romance and detective fiction”
In the first book, we have Evie Tanaka and Aveda Jupiter. Aveda is Evie’s childhood best friend and has become the most beloved superhero in San Francisco. She has turned being a superhero into being a Kardashian. She’s a star. She’s always perfect. She doesn’t eat carbs. Her clothes always fit. She can kick your butt in six-inch heels. Then there’s Evie, who is a little more relatable to a lot of us, who also has some superpowers—but her superpowers have never seemed to be quite as powerful or marketable as Aveda’s. Then Evie winds up having to step in as Aveda for a night, which pisses Aveda off—because when you’re the biggest diva in the room, you want to stay the biggest diva in the room… The two wind up at loggerheads. Then we get a bigger threat. It is two superheroines learning how to put their differences aside, learning how to let friendship be more important than ego—and then beat the crap out of something really large.
The inclusion of superheroes as a fantasy sub-genre is frequently argued, but if you look at our old folk heroes—Jack, Gilgamesh, all of those people—most of them are what we would class in today’s terms as superheroes. I would argue that superhero fiction is one hundred percent a fantasy sub-genre.
And I would agree! Your next choice has a more classic magical figure as our hero: a witch. Could you introduce us to Dime Store Magic by Kelly Armstrong?
Kelly Armstrong is a fantastic urban fantasy author, who I feel doesn’t get quite as much attention as I would expect her to. She’s well known – she’s not dying for readers or anything—but when you’re listing off who’s really solid in the genre, she doesn’t come up nearly as often as I would expect.
She started her series with Bitten, which was a werewolf romance and is, as far as I’m concerned, the shakiest in the series; because when your supernatural being is literally an infectious disease that can be passed down without consent, things get a little bit questionable. But she realized after writing the first two books that she wanted her universe to be wider, and she started introducing other types of supernatural creatures—which takes us to Dimestore Magic, where she brought in the witches.
Our first witch is Paige, who is a delight. She’s a little bit of a fashionista. She’s a plus-sized urban fantasy heroine, which is not something you see super often. Then in addition to the witches, you have the sorcerers. Now, it is a little bit gender essentialist: in this universe, witches and sorcerers are gender-locked types of magical beings. All witches are girls, all sorcerers are boys. In Dimestore Magic, we meet the unthinkable, the daughter of a witch and a sorcerer: Savannah. She should not exist. She is technically a cross-species individual, and an abomination in the eyes of many – both witches and sorcerers—because they’ve been at war for centuries.
Sorcerer magic is officially more powerful than witch magic. They have a reputation for having better spells and better capabilities, and Paige is obsessed with the idea that it wasn’t meant to be like this – that there used to be other spells that the witches have lost, or have cut themselves off from because they are trying too hard to play it safe and be the nice kids. You follow Paige through her coming of age as she’s trying to figure all this stuff out, deal with Savannah, and of course inevitably have a romance with a sorcerer—because you don’t have a setup like that without it turning into a star-crossed romance.
This is book three of Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Other World sequence, and she went on for quite some time. I believe the series ended with book thirteen, and really my only complaint about the series as a whole is that I like the witches best of all. We got two books with Paige, and then she didn’t go back. Having written my own series with a shifting narrator, I feel that part of that may have been that people were not as open to Paige as they could have been because she was the first narrator after Elena, who is the person they met and fell in love with in Bitten. There’s resistance to your second narrator.
The next book in your urban fantasy reading list develops its own idiosyncratic magical figure in the form of the ‘keeper.’ Could you tell us a bit about Tanya Huff’s Summon the Keeper?
Tanya Huff is one of the mothers of urban fantasy as we currently recognize the genre. She was there pretty much from the beginning. She was one of the first people writing really detailed vampire detective fiction, which is something we are very, very fond of. And for some reason, while she has always performed solidly—there’s been a TV adaptation of one of her series, and she’s been publishing consistently for more than thirty years now—most people don’t know her. And I just don’t understand that!
Summon the Keeper was the first book in the Keeper Chronicles. It’s about a woman named Claire Hansen. She’s a keeper: she uses magic to keep reality from unravelling, basically. She gets called to come and take care of a hotel that has a hell gate in the basement, and another keeper who is kind of evil stuck in one of the rooms, and she needs to try to figure out how she’s going to fix this—how she’s going to close the hell gate and keep literal hell from getting loose. And, because it’s an urban fantasy, figure out how she’s going to deal with the fact that there are two hot guys she’s into. One of them is a ghost and is very, very dead. The other is technically her employee—and that makes things a little awkward.
There are three books in the Keeper Chronicles. I loved all three of them, and then Tanya just stopped. She went off to write other things. She has since become a friend of mine, and I finally did get to ask, “Why did you stop?” If you pull up the cover to Summon the Keeper, you will find that the main cover, at least of the U.S. edition, is dominated by this black and white cat. His name is Austin. In this series, when angels come to earth to try and maintain the order of things and work with keepers, they always take the form of cats. So Austin talks to Claire. He is her guide. He helps her through this book. He was Tanya’s cat. And when he died, she could no longer continue the series. And I didn’t understand that at the time—it didn’t make sense to me. Unfortunately, I am now aware of why someone would do that. So I have a lot of empathy for these books.
They’re beautifully written. Her love for the setting and for her cats comes through on every page. And I miss Austin very much.
Your next urban fantasy book choice features a bespoke magical figure: the titular figure in Libriomancer by Jim Hines.
Jim Hines is absolutely fantastic. He has not mostly written in urban fantasy—he started out with a pure fantasy world, and he is currently writing a science fiction world, I believe. But the Magic Ex Libris series is about Libriomancers—Isaac Vainio, to be specific. He can use magic to pull objects out of books—whatever he wants, as long as it hasn’t already been pulled out, which is the limiting factor. It’s just such an innovative form of magic. And it’s very meta, because he interacts with all of the books we know and love. He’s got Excalibur, or he’s got the magic demon-killing gun, or whatever, because he’s pulling them out of literal books.
The main limiting factor, other than the singularity of things, is that intelligent creatures can’t be pulled out of books. You can’t take a person out – it breaks them. They’ve gotten around that in various ways… He has a fire spider named Smudge, who is from one of Hines’ own earlier works, a red-kneed tarantula that’s on fire all the time. Smudge is not fully intelligent, so he came out okay. His bodyguard—and maybe his girlfriend, he’s really not sure, and she’s not sure either, because of squishy consent that he doesn’t want to overstep—is a dryad named Lena, who he pulled out of the book in the form of a seed. So she was not a thinking creature at that moment in time.
Vampires are a big, big problem. Because if you stick your hand into a book that has an infectious vampire disease and get bitten, the disease is not intelligent: you’re just going to pull it out of the book with you. So there are locked books that they have shut down, so nobody can get into them. One of my own books features as a locked book!
“Maybe if non-intelligent diseases can get out of books, we should pre-emptively lock the zombie apocalypses…”—That’s good thinking. That’s the kind of good logic that appeals to me as a reader. It makes it easier for me to buy into the ridiculousness of the rest of the premise. This is a series of four and they are all a lot of fun, and I read them all in fairly quick succession. I highly recommend picking it up.
I’m interested in that kind of humdrum logic. Magic is often workaday in these books—in Heroine Complex, superheroes need secretaries. What’s the appeal of that?
I have a very logical mind, which I know is a weird sentence for someone who writes fantasy novels with all of her spare time and her not-so-spare time. But I like it when things make sense: the fastest way to lose me as a reader is to have things not make sense. I could never get into the Song of Ice and Fire books because when you look at the agriculture posited for that setting, it doesn’t work. I don’t need to know every single law or bylaw, but I do need to know how you’re growing coffee in a pre-industrial-revolution European climate! Show me your orangeries if you’re going to have oranges!
That is very much a ‘me’ thing, but it’s not unique to me. I know a lot of people who work that way. And for a lot of us, we never really fall very far outside our ‘flavour condition.’ It’s not a genre—‘explain things’ is not a genre—but it is a flavouring that gets applied to all different genres.
One of the biggest, most successful zombie novels in recent memory was Max Brooks’ World War Z, which a lot of people truly, truly love. People who do truly, truly love World War Z, please don’t come after me with sticks… I hate that book because the virology makes no sense at all. There is nothing, not even the venom of a blue-ringed octopus, that is so virulent that the second you are exposed, even in the slightest amount, you’re dead. It doesn’t work. And because it doesn’t work, I kept getting bounced out of the book by knowing too much. I just could not immerse.
Now, opposingly, you have Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which is one of the classics of the zombie vampire sub-genre, where the main character in the book is not a scientist. He is not an epidemiologist. He has no idea what the hell is going on. He attempts to explain what he thinks is going on, but if you read closely, it’s very clear that he’s talking out of his ass to make himself feel better, which is a thing every human does. And because the main character doesn’t know, the author is not committing, and you don’t have to grapple with the logic of it on any level. When they made the movie adaptation, they not only made their main character an epidemiologist rather than an everyman, but they gave us an origin for the zombie vampire virus and said that it was a modified strain of measles that had been designed as a cure for cancer. Then they were all shocked when the measles mutated and became airborne. Now, there has never been a modified strain of measles that stayed not airborne for more than four generations: measles wants to be airborne. So the only way I could take the movie seriously was by viewing it as the aftermath of a successful act of bioterrorism.
In your own work, Middlegame, there’s a real sense of the logic to the magical concept, and part of the drive to keep reading comes from learning more about it—you don’t tell us everything at once. Could you tell us about the magic for Middlegame, and how you developed it?
Middlegame is the book that I was not good enough to write. I spent ten years writing other books to get good enough to write Middlegame. I want to find the next book that is beyond my current skill level, because then I have a goal to reach toward.
Middlegame was essentially inspired by a song written by Dr. Mary Crowell called ‘The Doctrine of Ethos,’ breaking down this Greek philosophical term that is frequently used in music education. I thought it was the most fascinating song ever. It’s a beautiful piece of music. So I started hitting that with a hammer and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with it. I ended up with alchemists trying to bring about the Doctrine of Ethos by creating human embodiments of concepts—and that’s Middlegame.
I had had the idea of a universe of incarnate concepts kicking around for ages – I think everyone has, it’s a very classical folklore trope—you know, the idea that sometimes death or time is a person. You see that in Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, all over the place, because it is human: we want the things that run our lives to be like us in some way. That all led me to alchemy, so I spent a couple of years reading every book on alchemy I could get my hands on, and it wound up turning into this ridiculous time travel superhero story. Keeping the timelines straight… there was a point where my bedroom wall looked like a crime scene tracker, because I had to know what had shifted when and where.
I try not to get frustrated at reviewers who critique my work, because your feelings are your own, and I am okay with that. But I will periodically have somebody reviewing Middlegame who gets annoyed with my ‘sloppy continuity’ at the midpoint of the book, and I’m like, “That is not sloppy continuity! There was a timeline reset between the two things you’re talking about.” Every time the timeline resets, we’re essentially in a different book.
Middlegame allowed me to pull off the biggest and most ridiculous party trick of my life. That series is built around the idea that a lot of authors are alchemists who are trying to sway consensus belief toward the ideas about how the world works. A woman named Asphodel Deborah Baker started writing a series of books about a place called ‘The Up and Under,’ and in The Up and Under, you can follow the Improbable Road, which is basically a rainbow soap bubble road to the Impossible City—which is very intentionally never fully described. The Impossible City has to remain a little nebulous because it’s Camelot, it’s Olympus, it’s every aspirational city in human folklore. She wrote these books to try and influence the way people thought, and then the American Congress of Alchemists got mad at her, and they had one of their own men write the Oz books to flip around thinking and destabilize Deborah’s idea of things.
Excerpts from the first of those books, Over the Woodward Wall, are scattered throughout Middlegame, and my editor said, “Hey, have you considered writing Over the Woodward Wall? And I said, “Would you like me to send the manuscript over?” The fourth book in the Up and Under series recently came out under the name A. Deborah Baker. They are middle-grade fantasy. They are written very much as a pastiche of the language of that time, and they are real physical artifacts that you can have in your home. This is the coolest merchandise I will ever manage to get made.
Your last choice is also officially a children’s book, although it’s incredibly complex. Could you introduce us to Diana Wynne-Jones’ Fire and Hemlock?
Fire and Hemlock is actually based on two old tales, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer.’ The two of them are, I would say, about 50-50 in that book’s DNA. My university thesis was on Tam Lin. Somewhere I’ve still got some cassette tapes of me singing every single verse that I could find, just so I would have an auditory reference point for some of the ways the story has changed over the years. It’s six and a half hours long.
Fire and Hemlock is the story of Polly and Tom. Polly meets Tom when she accidentally commits a home invasion during a funeral as a child, something which makes perfect sense in the context of the book. You follow Polly from her childhood all the way into adulthood, and it’s about their relationship, as she grows up and tries to become a person on her own, and Tom tries not to get fed to hell by the Queen of Faerie.
Their ages are always a little nebulous. Tom is probably about ten years older than Polly, which on the one hand makes it a creepy age-gap book, but on the other hand, means he was nineteen or so when the Queen of Faerie took him. And he’s just trying to survive. So there are a lot of questionable choices in that book that were a lot less questionable to me when I was younger, but can I say anyone would be any better under those circumstances?
It is intricate. It is beautiful. Diana Wynne-Jones, as a writer, was incredibly fond of things that recontextualized everything. She puts in little things so that if you were looking at things one way, everything was fine; but if you looked at it from another way everything was awful, or magical, or whatever. She included a conceit in Fire and Hemlock of these vases which would rotate when you pulled a lever: sometimes they would say ‘now here,’ but if you got them at exactly the right angle, they would say ‘nowhere.’ And that blew my mind as a nine-year-old; that was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen—and it is still impressive, from a literary standpoint.
Fire and Hemlock is not an easy book. It’s complicated. It is urban fantasy mostly on a technicality, because it takes place in cities—mostly Bristol and London, and it’s a very accurate portrayal of both—and it’s some very old folklore. And it’s very respectful toward the Fae, which is most of what I ask for out of life.
Urban fantasy is flourishing. Which contemporary writers should our readers look out for?
It is flourishing, which is very, very nice and makes me very, very happy. It thrives best at series length: there are very few completely standalone urban fantasies. There are some – like War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, or Tam Lin by Pamela Dean—but mostly urban fantasy thrives in a series. With publishing as unstable as it’s been in the last couple of years, a lot of those series will get one, maybe two volumes in and then be cancelled—even authors that are fairly well established. So I haven’t been reading as much urban fantasy as I would like to.
For modern authors, right now I’d recommend T. Kingfisher, who is writing more fantasy-fantasy—a pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, who sometimes plays turtle bingo with me when I’m out in North Carolina. We drive around on the back roads, getting out of the car and rescuing turtles. She gets very antsy every time I want to save a snapping turtle; she says, “Your agent will kill me if you come back with fewer fingers than you left with.” But she’s a delightful human being, and she writes delightful books.
Also Travis Baldree, who is another straight-up fantasy author. His debut came out last year, Legends & Lattes. He’s got a sequel coming very shortly called Bookshops & Bone Dust, which I have read and which is delightful.
I like the Witches of Thistle Grove books by Lana Harper, which are paranormal romance, not urban fantasy—it’s important to recognize that distinction, because an urban fantasy will not play by romance rules, and a romance will not play by fantasy rules. You need to know what tropes are in play. And I’d say Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series. The trilogy has just wrapped up. It is three books, set at a magical school you really don’t want to have attended.
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