Sunday, March 21, 2010

Trendspotting: Not-So-Urban Fantasy

According to Wikipedia, Urban Fantasy is:
a subset of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times or contain supernatural elements. However, this is not the primary definition of urban fantasy. Urban fantasy can be set in historical times, modern times, or futuristic times. The prerequisite is that it must be primarily set in a city, rather than in a suburban or country setting, which have their own genre subsets.

Maybe it's because I run primarily in romance circles, but it seems to me that the category I think of as "Urban Fantasy" isn't really urban fantasy at all. The UF books I read blend fantasy, horror and suspense; sometimes a little romance; they're always contemporary or near-future; and there are always some characters with supernatural abilities. The "urban" part seems largely irrelevant to me. "Fantasy" somehow doesn't seem specific enough; I generally think of swords and sorcerers when I think of the general Fantasy genre. ( Also, I think wikipedia might be lying about the other "genre subsets." I've heard the term "pastoral" as relates to romance, but if you asked a book store clerk where they shelve the pastoral fantasy? Thinkin' you're gonna get a blank look there...)

I asked my husband, who's a huge fan of classical (not so much current) Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Horror, what's the difference between fantasy-style paranormal or magic stuff, and horror-style paranormal/magic? He thought that horror is a) usually more graphically violent and b) overlaps the "real world" more; while fantasy is usually some entirely other world with its own rules. I say that's a line that's getting blurrier every day.

It's really time to re-name this category of books that includes Kim Harrison, Patricia Briggs, Kat Richardson, Vicki Pettersson, Jenna Black, Christine Warren, Mark Henry, Jim Butcher, Keri Arthur, Kelley Armstrong, and a hundred others, if for no other reason than books that are the same category in every way except setting are starting to crop up everywhere.

For me it started with Ilona Andrews' On The Edge. No reasonable person could describe this story as Urban-Anything. But it's very much the same kind of story as the Kate Daniels books set in Atlanta.

Then I got the ARC for Barbara Monajem's Sunrise in the Garden of Love and Evil (review coming up 3/30), and shortly after that picked up Diana Rowland's Blood of the Demon, both set in rural Louisiana. In Elisabeth Naughton's upcoming Marked, the "our world" parts of the story are set in a small New England town and the countryside around it. And most of the action in Nalini Singh's Psy/Changeling series is fairly countrified (another way she polarizes the Psy and the Changeling races, but that's another post!).

These are heroines that are comfortable with shotguns, The Dixie Chicks, and good old boys. They're more likely to encounter tobacco chew than Jimmy Choo.

Although I don't have a cite, I recall one of the actresses from the 1980's show Designing Women talking about audiences being "ready" for the slower, slyer pacing of "southern" humor, as opposed to the typical city settings of most of the popular shows of the time-- it seemed like everything was set in LA or New York.

What about you? Are you ready for Non-Urban Fantasy? What the heck do we call it? And should it have its own name? Or do we need a new name for these books... and what would it be? I'm thinking something like... "contemporary paranormal". Descriptive, but not restrictive.


Carolyn Crane said...

Great post! I totally agree, that there needs to be a new name, but I think we're probably stuck with this one. However, why not go over to wikipedia and revise that definition? I think your line of thinking makes more sense.

Hilcia said...

Nicole that's a great post! I know this subject has cropped up a few times and I've personally been confused more than once as to genre.

With Ilona's On the Edge, I went back and forth between calling it UF or Paranormal Romance (PNR). It was "labeled" UF, but the setting was not "urban," PLUS it had an HEA... which to me personally says, PNR. Sooo, confusion. ^-^

With Nalini's Psy/Changling series, my understanding is that it's purely PNR because there's an HEA at the end of each book, although there's an overall storyarc that continues throughout the series. That one is clearer to define, I think.

For me the most confusing part of that definition comes in with the setting: "historical times, modern times, or futuristic times." I understood that the setting for UF was supposed to be: urban in contemporary times. Huh!

I agree with you... the labeling these days is confusing. There are some books that don't fit the labels or that fall in between.

Renee said...

To me, "contemporary fantasy" seems more relevant term. It's not proscribed by location, and has more to do with the "real world"-type location/culture.

And, of course, books like Soulless or the Gardella series could be "historical fantasy".

This could be similar to contemporary romance and historical romance sub-genres.

Great topic! :-)

Nicola O. said...

You're right that we have romance covered, when there's an HEA like in Nalini Singh's and Meljean Brook's series... but I think that a lot of the PNR authors like to think of themselves as UF/PNR, too.

I'm thinking now that the problem is that we need to just not restrict a book to a single genre. I mean, just because there's an HEA doesn't mean Linda Howard's books are not thrillers.

I think we need a spreadsheet.

B. said...

Hmm. An interesting idea. I have a nit to pick. (How nice of me, after such an absence from commenting, right?)

I think there's a distinction between urban fantasy and contemporary romance with a fantasy element.

It's often a blurry line, but a couple of the things that (imo) tend to characterize urban fantasy (which I think of as something closer to "true" fantasy that just happens to include a strong element of romance) are:

- It tends to be a series that involve the same characters in primary roles (Kelley Armstrong, Patricia Briggs, Sharon Shinn, Kim Harrison, Tanya Huff, even Laurel Hamilton), rather than the one couple/one book model that tends to characterize contemporary romance.

- It breaks (or at least extremely extends) the timeline and conventions for contemporary romance. (It took three Mercy Thompson books before Patricia Briggs settled on a Mercy/Adam pairing, and the romance took a serious backseat to the adventure aspects of the story.)

- The adventure aspects of the story are primary; the romance is seasoning.

So, to get back on point, I don't have a problem with "urban fantasy" as a genre, nor with "contemporary supernatural romance," but I don't want to conflate them.

Nicola O. said...

I think there's a distinction between urban fantasy and contemporary romance with a fantasy element.

I think there is too, no question. But I also think that there's huge overlap in that lots of books truly qualify as both, and lots of readers enjoy both.

Although I used some examples that are clearly romance and maybe that muddied the water, I do think that the "urban" part of the "urban fiction" category isn't really the defining feature. I think it's more that it's a blend of horror and fantasy, and that the time frame is consistently contemporary or near-future (not "techy" future).

At least when it's clearly a romance, they've dispensed with the "urban" designator. But I think you could argue that romance readers *mostly* think of PNR as Urban Fantasy plus Romance, with the exception of the relatively small segment of historical paranormal romances.

Nicola O. said...

err, "urban fantasy," not "urban fiction."

B. said...

Yeah, yeah. "Paranormal romance," not "supernatural." You'd think I've never read one. Or 200.

Jackie (Literary Escapism) said...

The way I distincion between UF and PNR is a lot like what B said:
# UF focuses on the plot, the action and the development of one character. There may be a romantic entanglement, but it's not the primary focus, nor is it resolved in one novel. We're given more action sequences that end up with someone needing a doctor. The book may end on what looks likes a HEA, but the events lead into more serious trouble in book 2.

*PNR focuses on getting two people together - their chemistry. The characters are developed more quickly as they only appear in one novel and the plot becomes a vehicle to help them develop. We're given more romantic scenes - sex, love, the mushy stuff - rather than seeing if the characters are kick ass fighters. In the end, the couple gets their HEA and are not seen as primary characters in future novels, but may show up as side characters.

In my simple answer is UF is plot driven whereas PNR is character driven.

Nicola O. said...

Oh, I'm not really confused about the differences between PNR and UF (though I will continue to insist that a given book can be both).

I just think that the "urban" part of "urban fantasy" is not right. And somehow "paranormal" seems better than "fantasy" for books that are typically classed as UF.

I also sort of take issue at the notion that being part of a series is part of the definition of a genre. Not sure why, but that just seems kind of wrong to me.

Phyl said...

Nicola, I love your idea of a spreadsheet, heehee! Though I think, with books being classified in more than one genre, you're likely to need a database more than a spreadsheet. :-)

Jeffe Kennedy said...

"but if you asked a book store clerk where they shelve the pastoral fantasy? Thinkin' you're gonna get a blank look there...)" - this made me laugh! And then, I come here and I see a comment from my bud, Carolyn Crane - so fun!

I've seen authors - and industry peeps - rant that "urban fantasy" means urban, goddammit. But this emphasis on urban setting feels biased. Along the lines of the insistence that living in NYC is the "only" real experience. (Which I've heard more than once...)


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