Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Urban fantasy exists on one side of a spectrum, opposite high fantasy, which is set in an entirely fictitious world. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include fictional elements. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.
Urban fantasy describes a work that is set primarily in the real world 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 to city management.
Although stories may be set in contemporary times, this characteristic is not necessary for the fiction to be considered urban fantasy, as works of the genre may also take place in futuristic and historical settings, real or imagined. Author Marie Brennan has set urban fantasy in Elizabethan London, while author Charles de Lint has featured the genre in the fictional city of Newford.
Many urban fantasy novels geared toward adults are told via a first-person narrative, and often feature mythological beings, romance, and various 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. The Charlie Madigan series, by Kelly Gay, explores the challenges a police officer faces while trying to balance her paranormal cases with life as a single mother.
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 around a half-vampire named Catherine and a vampire bounty hunter called Bones, who gradually become lovers while battling the undead. Other series such as Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series and Hazel Butler's Deathly Insanity series feature different protagonists who offer varying perspectives on overlapping plots, and may be in different locations. For example, Chasing Azrael in the Deathly Insanity series is narrated by necromancer Andee Tilbrook, as she navigates a serial killer case, while Death Becomes Me is told from the perspective of Evelynn Dempsey, whose life in Manchester is thrown into chaos when she discovers her boyfriend is a demon, and has stolen something very precious. Armstrong's books are similarly narrated by various characters, including werewolf Elena Michaels, and witch Paige Winterbourne.
While several adult stories focus on professional heroes, many teen urban fantasy novels 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. In addition, love triangles play a prominent part in these and several other urban fantasy novels.
In certain books, a boarding school or similar institution holds a significant role in the story. 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 around 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.
A common thread running through almost all teen urban fantasy is that, in addition to these teens dealing with stakes possibly as large as the fate of the world, they're also coming into their own and learning who they are. These coming-of-age themes and a teen 'voice' are what distinguish young adult urban fantasy from adult books in the genre.
Distinction from 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.
In the case of urban fantasy novels, the use of other media has become a common part of creation and promotion.
Several urban fantasy authors cite music as an inspiration. On their official Websites, certain writers recommend numerous songs (or "playlists") which can be listened to while reading portions of their novels. In addition, authors such as Courtney Allison Moulton, Jaye Wells, and Sarah J. Maas have linked to services which offer such tracks. Publishers have also used music for book videos, 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.
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
Several tales of urban fantasy have appeared in live-action format. Additionally, some stories have debuted as films before finding further success as television shows. 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 throughout 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 around heroines, live-action works have regularly featured both genders in leading roles. Shows such as Supernatural, The Tomorrow People, Beauty and the Beast, Forever Knight, Moonlight, The Dresden Files, and Grimm are based around male protagonists, while other programs, including Once Upon a Time, Lost Girl and Witchblade, focus largely on women.
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.
The term "urban fantasy" has been in use in print from as far back as the early 20th century. However, when used then, the term described a characteristic of some object or place. For example, in Horst Schmidt-Brummer's 1973 book about Venice, California, he adds the subtitle, "An Urban Fantasy", to denote nostalgia for what he feels is a bygone lack of appreciation for the uniqueness of the city. And in various New York Times advertisements in 1928 through 1930 for the St. Regis hotel, the term appears to imply that the hotel's setting is a sort of paradise: "Never was an Urban fantasy so enchanting..."
It was not until the 1980s that the term began to describe a style of fiction, either written, performed in theatre, or filmed for Hollywood and television. An example of this is Marta Randall's San Francisco Chronicle review of Down Town by Tappan King, illustrated by Viido Polikarpus. In it, Randall states that the book is "the most engaging of the current crop of urban fantasies". Another example is a 1987 New York Times article concerning the conclusion of a study conducted by the BBC about violence in U.S. television, which calls the television series The Equalizer a "highly popular urban fantasy".
- Contemporary fantasy
- Paranormal fiction
- List of literary genres
- List of genres
- List of urban fantasy novels
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