Where The Streets Have A Name

Some Thoughts On The True Nature of Urban Fantasy

“There are 8 million stories in the naked city” but not all of them are Urban Fantasy.  Not even all of those marketed as Urban Fantasy really are, and some not labelled UF really could be.  A comment on Floor To Ceiling Books blog said ‘I’d never really understood what Urban Fantasy was before’ and that seems so typical of much discussion of the sub genre.

A panel I attended at the 2009 Bradford Eastercon seemed determined to focus on what one panellist termed ‘Hot vampires in leather’ much to my personal dismay and the obvious frustration of panellist Tim Powers.  Audience member John Clute valiantly attempted to challenge this in reference to the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy entry on UF

“UFs are normally texts where fantasy and the mundane world intersect and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city”

Not every story set in a city is Urban, as Clute also says the city must be “not just a backdrop but an environment” so, for instance, much of Gwyneth Jones’ Bold As Love takes place in cities, but as the city itself doesn’t play a role it would be inappropriate to call it Urban Fantasy.  This is one reason why although Urban Fantasy is often used as synonymous with Paranormal Romance that is erroneous.  Some PR is UF, but not all, and not all UF is PR of course.  In the massive bestseller Twilight (cited by Amanda Rutter on Floor To Ceiling Books as a UF archetype), almost all the significant fantasy action takes place not in the city but in the woods and mountains outside.  Regardless of any opinion on the quality of this series, surely it is immediately obvious that this means it isn’t Urban?  The clue is in the name.

So what is Urban Fantasy?  That Clute definition says “significantly about a real city” and I’ve seen it argued that Secondary World cities cannot be Urban Fantasy.  I’d like to break UF down further for now, into four groupings: Real Cities, Imaginary Cities in the Real World, Secondary World Cities, and Other Edifices.  These separate on superficial grounds, and maintain many common features, but have individual aspects of interest.

Yes, Urban Fantasy is a marketing category too, but so are SF and Fantasy.  If we, as bloggers, reviewers and critics are to discuss Urban Fantasy properly with any meaningful insight, then we must forget that and look at what it really means.

1. The Real City

Clearly this is the most obvious group, probably what most people think of as core UF.  These are works set in recognisably our own world, where specific cities lend their individual characteristics to the story.  Although I would want to claim the UF subgenre ought to backdate to include Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Avram Davidson and others, arguably it really takes off with early 1980s works such as Emma Bull’s War For The Oaks set in Minneapolis, The Wizard Of The Pigeons where Megan Lindholm vividly brings Seattle to life, and the New York set Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.  Each of these novels feels as though it couldn’t have been written about any other place.  Imagine Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire set not in old New Orleans but modern, shiny, industrial Dallas, it wouldn’t work at all would it?  It can be the atmosphere of a city, as in Rice, or Lindholm, or Pat Murphy’s excellent post-apocalyptic The City, Not Long After (one of several great UF’s where the City really does play a role as an entity, a darker, punkier variant is John Shirley’s City Come A Walkin’ and more recently Ben Aronovitch assigns character to Rivers of London.)  Or in cases like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere  the Underground is unique to London, not just an atmosphere but the significant plot device.

London is, with New York, probably the most common setting for UF, but Las Vegas (Tim Powers, Elizabeth Bear), Paris (Lisa Goldstein), Moscow (Ekaterina Sedia), Vienna (Jonathan Carroll), Helsinki (Johanna Sinisalo), Johannesburg (Lauren Beukes), Chicago (Jim Butcher), Galveston (Sean Stewart) and many others have been used to great effect.

London, of course has great history to exploit.  Outside of genre fiction Peter Ackroyd has made a career on this with mixed results, the excellent Hawksmoor, Jay Leno & The Limehouse Golem and Chatterton and the poor Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein.  (Another non-genre Fantasist who utilises a specific landscape is Steve Erickson who sets works such as Arc d’X in Los Angeles.)  As with many true UF writers it is a history and detailed geography of London that Ackroyd uses.  I would argue that his writing, and there are many examples within genre too, offers something different to UF in its historical setting.  The UF ought, I believe, to have an approximately contemporary setting, either current, or as with Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places reflecting back from recent times (in this case a 90s narrator tells of events in the 70s and 80s.)  Goldstein’s earlier novel Strange Devices Of The Sun & Moon is one of many set in Elizabethan times incorporating Messrs Marlowe and Shakespeare (see also Elizabeth Bear, Michael Moorcock, Mark Chadbourne etc.)  For me, in these books it is not so much the City that plays a role but the Court and/or the Theatre.  A fine distinction perhaps, but one I will come back to.

So the Real City UF should feel, look, sound like a real city.  Only the best writers really do this well, regardless of genre.  Compare Megan Lindholm’s living Seattle to Stephanie Meyers’ wallpaper Seattle, or mixing genres crime writer George Pelecanos’ Washington DC, vibrant, multicultural, working class, memorable, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s political DC that is really just backdrop (though I do love the books for other reasons.)

2. The Imaginary City

Some of you may wonder at the absence so far of Charles De Lint but the majority of his work is set in the fictional town of Newford.  This is an instance where categories clearly do overlap, Newford is a US city in its legal systems but is also largely based on De Lint’s hometown of Ottawa, Canada.  Although Newford is imaginary, it shares much with the real and as a primary text for UF should be considered alongside Bull, Lindholm etc.

Lisa Goldstein’s Tourists is not so clearly mapped onto a real location, its city Amaz is closer in its shifting geography to Secondary World cities such as Viriconium.  I’ve read Tourists several times (it is one of the great neglected women’s fantasy classics, and would be one of my desert island books) and yet I cannot say for sure if Amaz is central America or Middle East, it shares aspects of each.  It has a magical realist feel exaggerating an an approach occasionally used in UF where the fantastic and mundane are implicitly meshed rather than explicitly revealed to each other.  Note that a number of real world UF are also Secret Histories, notably the work of Tim Powers and James Blaylock.

Ray Bradbury’s Green Town, Illinois is another such case, revealed in a semi-autobiographical work Dandelion Wine, that leads into Bradbury’s most famous UF, the dark fantasy classic Something Wicked This Way Comes. Dandelion Wine has a timeless air, like childhood it seeks to represent, that the world of faerie which often intersects the real world in UF is shown to have.  Bradbury also echoes another urban work, the gothic Winesburg, Ohio of Sherwood Anderson, both books conveying the variety of characters a city needs to be real, and in their rootedness, imbue the city with a mythic nature.

I’ve already written about Beszel/Ul Qoma in The City & The City suffice here to say that the cities there overpower the story.

3. The Secondary World

Ah the truly imaginary city, obeying less of the rules of realism than even the magical realist, shifting city.  Their names are famous, Lankhmar, Viriconium, Ankh-Morpork, Bas-Lag, Ambergris, Neveryon and Palimpsest.  They are cities created for a purpose, and if written properly, cannot be other than engaged in the story.  Written poorly, of course, they are illogical and mere playground for the characters.

As mentioned, some argue that these secondary world cities are not truly UF but again Clute considers the role played by the city to be the determinant factor.  Generic fantasy cities including Minas Tirith, the Emerald City, and the many pseudo-medieval walled cities of epic fantasy, sword & sorcery etc, are rarely significant players in the story.  This again, is what distinguishes the Urban Fantasy from Fantasy.

As with the supposed UF/PR overlap, here we find that many Secondary World Urban Fantasy texts share ground with the so-called New Weird.  The eclectic, sometimes surreal cities of Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville may have been considered new by some, but their antecedents are many, obviously M John Harrison’s Viriconium but also theBritish women writers Mary Gentle’s Rats & Gargoyles and Gill Alderman’s The Archivist should not be ignored.  These are cities created to host ideas, the Escher-like geography of Gentle’s city offers a twist that nature, reality cant.  Whereas the real city offers the author, and the reader, an entry point or an anchorage, the secondary world doesn’t.

The city in works such as Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy Of Stone dont obey natural laws, they have a semblance of consciousness, and frequently they undergo major upheaval whilst the real city sees a restoration of natural order in many UFs.

4. Other Edifices

In many UF novels their is some form of labyrinth, the grand old building, the subway, the library, the London Underground especially, even the network of streets in the city and these all have roots in the Gothic edifice, the castle or monastery with its dark secrets and mysterious history.  There are UFs which make great capital of aspects of their city, in Blood & Iron Elizabeth Bear has the great stone lions on the library steps talk to the right person.

But there are works of fantasy that are more exclusively set in an edifice rather than a city.  It is arguable that in this context the city is an expansion of the edifice, but Michaela Roessner’s Vanishing Point, a fascinating fantasy with SF underpinnings, occupies one building, the Winchester House in California.  Jenny Jones’ last novel, the horror fantasy Where The Children Cry is set in York and takes that city’s guilty past as its core, but remains confined largely to one building, a school.  Robin McKinley’s unique vampire novel Sunshine by its basic premise is trapped in one room.  Thomas Wharton invents a fantastical castle with moving rooms for Salamander.  And most famously, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast occupies an edifice, the eponymous castle, yet is clearly not Urban Fantasy.

However there are works of UF where the edifice is the city.  I’m going to give two examples now of Urban Fantasy that could not exist as they do without the city, yet do not for the most part take place in the city.  Jim Dodge’s road trip ghost story Not Fade Away uses that edifice that outcrops from the city, the major highways of the US.  Likewise Neal Barrett jr’s brilliant masterpiece The Hereafter Gang (another Desert Island book) is largely set on highways and trailer parks between cities, but in environments explicitly defined by cities.  Another road trip haunted by events at roadside attractions, small town motels, and so on, with more than a nod to Bradbury, is Patricia Geary’s unjustly forgotten Strange Toys.  These books in my mind, although largely outside the city, are so dominated by the edifice of the city, and its protuberances, that they are very much Urban in identity.

I mentioned earlier the Court, in particular the Elizabethan era, whether Shakespeare or John Dee or others at the heart the curious closed society of court is the focus rather than London, however detailed.  Similarly there are several novels and stories set in the artificial environment of theatre or rock band where the city doesn’t come into play much.  One of my all time favourite short stories Fritz Leiber’s ‘Four Ghosts In Hamlet’ is a rare example of a theatrical story breaking the barrier into the city.


So those are the four aspects of Urban that make a Fantasy into an Urban Fantasy.  It’s not about vampires, though there are some very good UF vampire series, Charlie Huston’s Already Dead being one; nor zombies, which don’t interest me at all; nor rogue faery as in Seanan Maguire’s Rosemary & Rue; nor fairytale and myth, the underworld, angels or ghosts.  These are all present in some Fantasy and some Urban Fantasy, but only the role of the city matters in determining the Urban Fantasy sub genre label.

Some Recommended Urban Fantasy 

A few more less well known or less discussed books and authors that i think make UF so interesting, and form the core of the subgenre as well as testing the city limits.

Neal Barrett jr — The Hereafter Gang

Elizabeth Bear — The Promethean Age series

James P Blaylock — The Last Coin

Emma Bull — Finder

Lisa Goldstein — The Dream Years

Mary Gentle — The Architecture Of Desire

Patricia Geary — Living In Ether

David Herter — Evening’s Empire

Richard Kadrey — Sandman Slim

Fritz Leiber — Conjure Wife

Martin Millar — Lux The Poet; Good Fairies Of New York

Tim Powers — Last Call

Ekaterina Sedia — Secret History Of Moscow

Liz Williams — Snake Agent


About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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2 Responses to Where The Streets Have A Name

  1. Mike Shevdon says:

    Some great examples of the genre here, but I think you may be in danger of making the same mistake as those who confuse UF with PNR. Your point, if I’m not misunderstanding, is that Urban Fantasy is anything where ‘The City’ is more of a character than a setting, regardless of which world it’s in. I think this is a misunderstanding. Urban Fantasy is a sub-genre of Contemporary Fantasy, and is therefore has magic in our world, or a version of it.

    Under this definition, Newport and Sunnydale, although fictional, could exist and therefore qualify as Urban Fantasy, but Ankh-Morpork clearly isn’t either contemporary or co-existent with our world – so the Discworld, however wonderful, wouldn’t qualify. Equally, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is not UF because it’s historic, even though the magic in 19th century London is well-depicted. The City & The City doesn’t qualify either, since there’s no magic and therefore it’s not Fantasy, unless you count the unexplained ancient technology. Urban SF?

    Whether UF can be set in the near future is, I think, a matter for debate. Liz Williams’ excellent Snake Agent contains some futuristic aspects, but for me is pure UF. Maybe I’m biased on that one. Perhaps the point is that it ‘could’ exist, and therefore becomes contemporary.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  2. kev mcveigh says:

    Thanks Mike. I take your point about secondary world fantasy and many would agree with it. Clute in the Encyclopaedia does accept it as UF hence my inclusion of it here, but I must admit I’m undecided myself.
    As for magic, I think I’m probably using a broader definition of Fantasy than of Urban, and some examples above incorporated the uncanny or unexplained rather than explicitly magical or supernatural.

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