March 22, 2012

What the Heck Is Urban Fantasy: a guest post by Michael West

Michael West has a brand new series of books coming out through Seventh Star Press, which fit nicely into the urban fantasy genre. The first book, Poseidon's Children, should be out very soon if not already, and I invited Michael to write a little something about the books and the genre as a whole. My review of the book just went up on the blog a few days ago, so be sure to check that out too (and there's even a book trailer you can watch here), but in the mean time, here's what Michael has to say:

What the Heck Is Urban Fantasy Anyway?

By Michael West

There’s an old story about a group of blind men who come upon an elephant and try to describe it to one another.  One of the men grabs the elephant’s trunk and says, “An elephant is like a serpent.”  Another feels its leg and proclaims, “No, an elephant is like the column of a great temple.”  Still another feels the tip of its tail and says, “No, both of you are wrong.  An elephant is like a thick brush.”  None of them can believe that the others are “seeing” the same animal, and all are left confused about what it is they have actually found.

Readers looking at a collection of Urban Fantasy novels on the local bookstore shelf might have a similar reaction.  If all you were to read were the Sookie Stackhouse novels of Charlaine Harris, or The Hollows books by Kim Harrison, you might think that Urban Fantasy was no different from Horror or Paranormal Romance.  Read Lucy Snyder’s Jessie Shimmer novels, however, and you will find magic and mythical creatures of an entirely different sort.  And don’t even get me started on all the Young Adult titles out there!  Yet all are considered part of one vast, all-encompassing genre.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump, Urban Fantasy is like a box of chocolates, and you never know what type of story you have until you actually take a bite.

But there must be some sort of actual definition, right? 

"Urban fantasy describes a work that is set primarily in a city 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 in city management..."

That’s probably about the best description of Urban Fantasy I’ve seen, and it fits my new novel, Poseidon’s Children, and the series it kicks off, The Legacy of the Gods, to a tee. I often refer to the creatures in the novel as chimeras.  The chimera, of course, being a single mythical creature composed of the parts of many different animals.  It might also serve as a good analogy for Urban Fantasy.

The thing that binds all the horrors, the supernatural, and the fantastic together is the modern-day setting.  I would say it was the urban setting, but I’ve read many Urban Fantasy novels that take place in suburban or rural locations.  The common thread, however, is consistently time: ancient mythological or supernatural creatures alive today, not in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but in Middle America.  In the subways, the schools, and the shopping malls.  In Urban Fantasy, the things that go bump in the night aren’t dwelling beneath the foundation of some far off castle; they’re living right under your nose.

As a writer, I’ve never been too concerned with what genre I’m writing in.  My job is to tell the best story I can.  When characters take life and go off on an adventure, sometimes the writer doesn’t even know where that path will eventually lead.  We go where the characters, the situations, and the actions take us, and when we arrive at the final destination, we just hope that it has been a captivating ride. 

Genre constraints are a marketing issue, nothing more.  Publishing houses and book stores like to put everything into neat little categories.  This is funny, so it must be Humor.  It has space ships, so it is Science Fiction.  People are crying and coming to grips with tragedy, so it must belong on the Oprah’s Book Club display. 

Urban Fantasy was created to house all those round pegs that don’t fit neatly into all those other square little holes.  And so, it is not uncommon to find dragons and vampires lurking together, not only on the same shelf, but on the same page.  And it has allowed the imaginations of both authors and readers to soar freely into fresh and wondrous tales that can be found nowhere else. 

So, faithful readers, feel free to browse Urban Fantasy novels without fear.  Because, no matter what other genre the novels resemble, be it horror or science fiction or romance, the end result is magical storytelling.  After all, even if you don’t know exactly what makes an elephant an elephant, it can still take you on some pretty amazing journeys.


  1. Nice post. Good luck with your books, Michael. I've got to say Charlain's books don't fit all that well into that definition. Although her characters do visit neighboring cities, they are mostly set in rural bon temps. It's why she's coined the phrase rural fantasy to describe them. UF, more than most genres, is hard to pigeonhole. I think it's come to encompass a particular style of fantasy set in contemporary times around settings more familiar to us, but not always URBAN in the strictest sense. Gef, nice blog. Hadn't made it by in a while.

  2. I really like the idea of rural fantasy, though I did not care for Harris' first Sookie novel.

    Thanks for stopping by, Brian.

  3. I always thought urban fantasy was set in our world as opposed a made up world like Middle Earth. They don't need to be set in cities for me, though the American definition of a city seems to be a great deal different from the UK one. I don't live anywhere near a city but I do live in an urban area. There are houses and roads and electricity ;)