Liburnicon: The Urban Fantasy Panel

This is a brief write-up of the Urban Fantasy panel at Liburnicon, which featured Jacqueline Carey and myself. I’m doing this mainly for the benefit of the Croatian fans who attended, because we mentioned an awful lot of authors and no one was taking notes. Hopefully others will find it interesting.

I note that we did not attempt to define Urban Fantasy. Farah Mendlesohn attended an Urban Fantasy panel at Dragon*Con today and she tweeted that when the panel was asked for a definition they fell about laughing. I can see why. Rather than attempt to state definitively what Urban Fantasy is, Jacqueline and I attempted to look at the range of things that could be described as Urban Fantasy.

On an historical note, I mentioned that Dracula could be seen as an Urban Fantasy novel. It is set in 1893 and was published in 1897, so Stoker was clearly writing contemporary fiction for his time. However, it might be disqualified on the grounds that it is Horror. See below for discussion of the difference between Urban Fantasy and Horror.

We then looked at the origins of the term Urban Fantasy in the 1980s with the work of Charles de Lint (the Newford stories) and Emma Bull (particularly War for the Oaks). These books use fairy mythology, don’t have a crime novel plot, and have a strong musical element to them. For further information about The Flash Girls, the folk duo that Emma formed with Lorraine Garland, see here.

After the panel someone asked me if I could recommend some other writers who are like Charles de Lint. I could not think of anyone at the time, and still can’t. The various suggestions I got from the hive mind on Twitter didn’t seem very close to me. I’ll try again here. Any suggestions?

Next up came the 1990s and the rise of the vampire slayer: both Buffy and Anita Blake, who appear to have been invented in parallel. Incidentally, Laurell K. Hamilton books are all over the newsagents in Croatia, but it is the Merry Gentry series, not the Anita Blake books. I have no idea why.

The phenomenal success of the vampire slayers brought us a whole slew of similar material. The books featured “kiss ass” heroines, paranormal creatures usually found in horror novels, and crime novel plots. Other writers whose works have some similarity to Laurell K. Hamilton include: Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia, Patricia Briggs, Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison, C.E. Murphy, T.A. Pratt.

Mention of Tim Pratt and his cunning disguise led us to discussion as to whether Urban Fantasy was only “for women”. We noted that writers such as Jim Butcher (Dresden Files) and Mike Carey (Felix Castor) produce books very similar in style to the women writers, but often don’t get recognized as Urban Fantasy because the writers are not men and the lead characters not female. We also established that although Jacqueline has a brother called Mike he is not the same Mike Carey who wrote the X-Men and produced the fabulous The Unwritten and the Felix Castor novels.

I also addressed the issue of the supposed characteristics of Urban Fantasy heroines. Tim is reported to have said of Marla that she is, “an ass-kicking sorcerer who doesn’t wear a leather catsuit, doesn’t suffer from low self-esteem, doesn’t wallow in angst, and is almost always absolutely certain she’s right… even when she’s dead wrong.” However, I noted that Felix Castor also suffers from low self-esteem and wallows in angst. I suggested that what is going on here is not necessarily belittling of a female heroine, but giving urban fantasy characters weaknesses in the same way that Stan Lee gave his superheroes weaknesses to make them more interesting than Superman. Jacqueline added that there is a lot of similarity between and Urban Fantasy and Superhero stories: both involve lead characters with super powers in an urban setting.

Jacqueline asked whether stories set in small towns, such as Santa Olivia, count as Urban Fantasy, or if the books have to be set in big cities. I suspect that the distinction is lost on non-US readers.

Finally we went on to discuss other fantasy stories in an urban setting that might appeal to Urban Fantasy readers. These are the ones I can remember.

Nalo Hopkinson’s Toronto stories: Brown Girl in the Ring and Sister Mine (which are unrelated except by the setting).

Gwenda Bond’s YA novels: Blackwood and The Woken Gods (two very different novels).

Emma Newman’s Split Worlds books: Between Two Thorns, By Any Other Name and All Is Fair (the latter not yet published).

Liz William’s Inspector Chen series (though the later books tend to be set almost entirely in the fantasy worlds, not in Singapore 3).

Nene Ormes’ books, which are set in Malmö and feature creatures from Swedish folklore (and are written in Swedish).

Tate Hallaway’s Precinct 13. (And for that matter, as Tate is also Lyda Morehouse, the AngeLINK books would probably be marketed as Urban Fantasy today as they contain angels.)

The Engelsfors Trilogy by Sara B. Elfgren and Mats Strandberg: Chosen, Fire and a third book currently in copy edit. They are YA, set in Sweden but available in English translation.

Lou Morgan’s Blood & Feathers books.

I’m sure that there are lots more, and people are welcome to add their own suggestions in comments.

There was time for questions from the audience, and the best one was the person who asked me to distinguish between Urban Fantasy and Horror. This led me to giving a quick precis of the basic ideas of Farah’s Rhetorics of Fantasy. I suggested that Urban Fantasy is usually set in a Secondary World, albeit one very similar to our own, in which magic works and paranormal creatures exist. In contrast Horror is a form of Intrusion Fantasy in which the fantastical element is not normal in the world of the book, and is expelled from that world at the end of the book.

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One Response to Liburnicon: The Urban Fantasy Panel

  1. Martha says:

    Sounds like a dynamite panel. Thanks for the report.

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