Works of urban fantasy may be set in an approximation of our world in which the fantastic exists secretly or in a world (such as an alternative history) in which it occurs openly (or some combination of the above). Elements such as magic, paranormal beings, other worlds and so on, may exist here. Common themes include coexistence or conflict between humans and other beings, and the changes such characters and events bring to local life. Many authors, publishers, and readers distinguish them from works of paranormal romance, which use similar characters and settings, but focus on the romantic relationships between characters.
The term urban fantasy was used in print from as far back as the early 20th century. It originally described a characteristic of some object or place. Horst Schmidt-Brummer's 1973 book about Venice, California is subtitled "An Urban Fantasy", to denote a nostalgic appreciation for the unique city. In New York Times advertisements in 1928 through 1930 for the St. Regis hotel, the term implies that the hotel is a sort of paradise: "Never was an urban fantasy so enchanting..."
Occult detective stories, such as Manly Wade Wellman's John Thunstone stories, were written originally during the 1940s. Wellman has been noted by many current authors for bringing contemporary characters and American settings into the fantasy and horror genres. Earlier occult detective stories differ from urban fantasy in that they presented supernatural beings and sorcery as unnatural and aberrant and a danger to the lives of ordinary citizens.
A number of stories in Unknown magazine (1939-1943), conceived by its editor, John W. Campbell as roughly the fantasy equivalent of Campbell's Astounding science fiction magazine. The stories here tended to take place in the present and to take a more rational, science fictional approach. Here, writers such as Fritz Leiber (with his "Smoke Ghost", published in 1941), Jack Williamson with "Darker Than You Think" (originally published 1940), H. L. Gold (with his "Trouble with Water', published in 1939) and L. Sprague de Camp's "Nothing in the Rules" (1939) presented ghosts, lycanthropes, gnomes, mermaids, demons and more, in a modern setting, with horrific and/or humorous results. The prolific de Camp and his writing partner, war game inventor Fletcher Pratt, explored urban material with their stories of Harold Shea in the 1940s and Gavagan's Bar stories in the 1950s.
The 1974 TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker was an occult detective series featuring a Chicago newspaper reporter uncovering and battling supernatural creatures (e.g. vampires and zombies) in an urban environment. Unbelieved and unappreciated, considered by his boss, colleagues, the police and the public as something between a crackpot or an insane murderer as he struggles with both real and metaphorical demons in each episode. This series spun off from the 1972 horror movie The Night Stalker.
In the cinema, the re-write of Dan Aykroyd's original 1982 science fiction comedy script for Ghostbusters by Harold Ramis replaced the futuristic setting for the present day. This effectively enabled the film to be made, and introduced to the mainstream the idea of fantastical events taking place in New York City. Two years later, Gremlins brought another batch of supernatural beings into our everyday world. At the same time another low-budget supernatural comedy success, Teen Wolf was popular enough to generate a television show, an animated cartoon, and a cinema sequel. Before its run was finished, another general-audience teen comedy with supernatural elements, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was in production.
1980s and 1990s
Terri Windling's shared Borderlands universe, made up of a number of anthologies and novels, launched with the eponymous paperback original anthology, Borderland in 1986, followed up by Bordertown, also in 1986. The series was later touted by Neil Gaiman as "one of the most important places where Urban Fantasy began". An article in Tor.com has stated that "some say, Urban Fantasy was born in Bordertown," which provided "young, beginning writers like Charles de Lint and Emma Bull" with a platform. Emma Bull's unrelated 1987 urban fantasy War for the Oaks, where fairy factions battle in present-day Minneapolis, also received interest and attention. Both Bull's novel and the Borderlands books emphasized young, poor, hip protagonists. In this, they had much in common with the usual protagonist of the cyberpunk sub-genre of science fiction.
Shadowrun, a tabletop RPG with a similar concept to the Borderlands universe appeared. Like those earlier books, Shadowrun took place in a future Earth setting (specifically 2050, in the first edition), after the reappearance of supernatural powers and beings. Players could play humans (cybernetically enhanced or otherwise), elves, dwarves or orcs, all in a dark high tech setting. The more definitely cyberpunk approach (jaundiced and gritty) of the game's universe exerted its own influence.
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. Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series have been described by Barnes and Noble as "the gold standard" for the genre; one of the books from the series was nominated for the 2015 Hugo Award.
While adult urban fantasy novels may stand-alone (like Mulengro by Charles de Lint or Emma Bull's War for the Oaks), the economics of the market favor series characters, and genre-crossing allows sales along multiple lines.
Many urban-fantasy novels are told via a first-person narrative, and often feature mythological beings, romance, and 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. Multi-genre offerings combine urban fantasy with other established forms (e.g.: police procedurals, as presented in the Peter Grant stories of Ben Aaronovitch, or the Charlie Madigan series, by Kelly Gay, which explores 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 on a half-vampire named Catherine and a vampire bounty hunter called Bones, who gradually become lovers while battling the undead.
In contrast to the "professional heroes" found in adult urban-fantasy novels, many novels aimed at young adult audiences 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. Love triangles also play a prominent part in these and several other urban-fantasy novels. Coming-of-age themes and teen 'voices' also often distinguish young-adult urban fantasy from adult books in the genre.
Boarding schools are a common setting in teen urban fantasy. 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 on 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.
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.
Use of other forms of media has become a common part of the creation and promotion of urban-fantasy works.
"Sometimes the songs influence the book and sometimes it’s the other way around, but either way the playlist eventually comes to epitomize the feeling of the book to me."
Several urban-fantasy authors cite music as an inspiration. Certain writers recommend songs or playlists on their official websites, including Courtney Allison Moulton, Jaye Wells, and Sarah J. Maas, who couple their recommendations with links to music-providing services. Publishers have also used music for book trailers, 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
Works of urban fantasy have been adapted to or have originated in film and television. 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 in 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 on heroines, television programs have regularly featured both genders in leading roles. Shows such as Beauty and the Beast, The Dresden Files, Forever Knight, Grimm, Moonlight, and Supernatural are based around male protagonists, while other programs, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Witchblade, focus largely on female protagonists.
The following is an incomplete list of notable authors of urban fantasy. According to 2013 statistics by the fantasy publisher Tor Books, among writers of urban fantasy or paranormal romance, 57% are women and 43% are men, whereas men outnumber women by about two to one in writing historical, epic or high fantasy.
- Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London series)
- Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels series)
- Kelley Armstrong (Women of the Otherworld and Darkest Powers series)
- L. A. Banks (Vampire Huntress series and Crimson Moon novels)
- Holly Black (Modern Faerie Tales series)
- Marie Brennan (Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie)
- Sarah Rees Brennan (The Demon's Lexicon series)
- Patricia Briggs (Mercy Thompson series)
- Terry Brooks (Word & Void series)
- Emma Bull (War for the Oaks)
- Jim Butcher (Dresden Files series)
- Rachel Caine (Weather Warden series)
- Mike Carey (Felix Castor series)
- Karen Chance (Cassandra Palmer series)
- Cinda Williams Chima (The Heir Trilogy)
- Cassandra Clare (Mortal Instruments series)
- Glen Cook (the Garrett P.I. series)
- S. J. Day (Marked series)
- P. N. Elrod (The Vampire Files series)
- Jennifer Estep (Elemental Assassin, Mythos Academy, Black Blade series)
- J. M. Frey
- Jeaniene Frost (Night Huntress series)
- Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere)
- Yasmine Galenorn (Wild Hunt, Otherworld, Indigo Court)
- Kelly Gay (Charlie Madigan series)
- Michael Grant (Gone series)
- Claudia Gray (Evernight series)
- Simon R. Green (Nightside series)
- Lev Grossman (The Magicians trilogy)
- Kate Griffin (Matthew Swift series)
- Laurell K. Hamilton (The Anita Blake and Merry Gentry series)
- Cynthia Hand (Unearthly series)
- Charlaine Harris (The Southern Vampire Mysteries series)
- Kim Harrison (The Hollows series)
- Rachel Hawthorne (Dark Guardian series)
- Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles)
- Mark Henry (Amanda Feral series)
- Tanya Huff (The Enchantment Emporium and Blood series)
- Faith Hunter (Rogue Mage series, Jane Yellowrock series, and the Soulwood series)
- Benedict Jacka (Alex Verus series)
- Carrie Jones (Need series)
- Lauren Kate (Fallen series)
- Caitlin Kittredge (Nocturne City and Iron Codex series)
- Mercedes Lackey (Elves on the Road universe and the slightly steampunk ‘’Elemental Masters’’ books)
- Charles de Lint (Newford series)
- Sergei Lukyanenko (Night Watch series)
- Melissa Marr (Wicked Lovely series)
- Seanan McGuire (October Daye series )
- Richelle Mead (The Georgina Kincaid and Vampire Academy series)
- China Miéville (Bas-Lag series)
- Devon Monk (Allie Beckstrom series)
- Courtney Allison Moulton (Angelfire series)
- C. E. Murphy (Walker Papers series)
- Joseph Nassise (Templar Chronicles and Jeremiah Hunt series)
- Alyson Noël (Immortals series)
- Jackson Pearce (As You Wish and Sisters Red)
- Marlene Perez (Dead Is... series)
- Diana Peterfreund (Killer Unicorns series)
- Vicki Pettersson (Signs of the Zodiac series)
- T. A. Pratt (Marla Mason series)
- Kalayna Price (Alex Craft series)
- Jennifer Rardin (Jaz Parks series)
- Natasha Rhodes (Kayla Steele series)
- Kat Richardson (Greywalker series)
- Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians series)
- J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter series)
- Oh Seong-dae (Tales of the Unusual)
- Thomas E. Sniegoski (The Fallen series)
- Lucy A. Snyder (Jessie Shimmer series)
- Jeanne C. Stein (Anna Strong series)
- Shanna Swendson (Enchanted, Inc. series)
- Anton Strout (Simon Canderous series)
- Mark Teppo (Codex of Souls series)
- Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville series)
- Catherine Webb (Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous series)
- Kiersten White (Paranormalcy)
- Terri Windling (Borderlands series)
- Yvonne Woon (Dead Beautiful series)
- Contemporary fantasy
- Paranormal fiction
- List of literary genres
- List of genres
- List of urban fantasy novels
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