Diving Into Sub-Genres: Urban Fantasy

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We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.

Urban fantasy is a very distinct sub-genre of the larger fantasy genre. I believe it’s a fairly polarizing one as well: fantasy readers either really love it or really dislike it. Like some other sub-genres in much greater sprawling genres, it also gets a lot of snobbery directed to it as “low brow” fantasy literature. I think most of this comes down to the fact that urban fantasy is typically fast-moving, action packed, and focused more on an individual lead character than on creating a massive, complex world, magical system and cast of characters.

A few features that are common in urban fantasy typically come down to setting and the type of fantasy elements involved. As the title of the sub-genre implies, most urban fantasy is set in an urban environment. Almost always, urban fantasy takes place in some alternate version of our own world, with real cities featured as the backdrop. However, “urban” by no means is limited to major cities, as there are plenty of urban fantasy series set in fairly small to medium sized metro area (or even some that take place mostly in rural locations). The thing that mostly stands out is that they are decidedly NOT second world fantasy and don’t include entirely made up lands.

They also typically feature a cast of magical creatures. The leading character usually has some connection between these worlds, the world of the humans and the, often underground, world of magical beings. You see a lot of vampires, werewolves, demons, and fairies in these types of books. Urban fantasy also typically features one or two leading characters and is highly focused on following their particular tales across a series of books. And, as I mentioned above, the writing is often fast paced and has an emphasis on quippy dialogue and action set pieces.

Book: “Moon Called” by Patricia Briggs

Patricia Briggs writes almost quintessential urban fantasies. She has two major series, but her “Mercy Thompson” series is her longest running with the other series coming in as a spin-off. Mercy is a coyote shapeshifter, but she starts the series trying to live primarily in the human world as a mechanic. This doesn’t last long, however, when she gets caught up in an on-going mystery involving her handsome werewolf neighbor, Adam. As the series continues, the world expands massively to include vampires, ghosts, demons, and a bunch of other less well-known magical creatures. This is a fast-paced story with a heavy emphasis on Mercy’s own quippy narration.

Book: “Storm Front” by Jim Butcher

I haven’t read a lot of Butcher’s “Dresden” series myself, but there is no way to talk about urban fantasy and not mention this incredibly popular author. There’s a pretty large stereotype that urban fantasy is written by women, for women, and features women, but Butcher’s “Dresden” series puts paid to that idea as it’s probably one of the biggest series out there. The story follows Harry Dresden, a wizard who also works as a private investigator for the Chicago P.D. when ordinary crimes present with decidedly unordinary elements. Because the main character is a P.I., these books mix elements from urban fantasy, mysteries, and crime fiction into action-packed bundles of fun.

Book: “Forest of the Heart” by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is the author I go to when I’m looking for cross-over between urban fantasy and literary fiction. Unlike the first two books on this list, de Lint’s stories operate at a slower pace and place a stronger emphasis on description and scene-setting. Technically, “Forests of the Heart” is in the middle of one of his series, but many of his books stand alone, and this was one of my personal favorites of his. The story features Bettina, a part Native American, part Mexican woman who is a witness to the ongoing conflict between the spirits that came over with settlers and the native beings who roam the land. She calls these dark beings, the ones from the other lands, los lobos and stays well clear. Until one shows up on her doorstep.

Book: “Feed” by Mira Grant

This is another book that has a lot of cross-over appeal, this time between urban fantasy and horror. Zombies exist in a kind of nebulous realm where both horror and fantasy claim them as beings to be found in their own genres. So, we’ll give zombies to urban fantasy with this one. The story is of two siblings and bloggers, Georgia and Shaun, who are documenting the ongoing zombie apocalypse. This is also a YA book (all the rest of these are technically listed as adult fiction, though I’d say they can also count as new adult). The story does lean into the gore and horror side of things, so strict fantasy fans should be aware of that. But the story does meet a lot of the other criteria for urban fantasy: fast-paced storytelling, a contemporary setting, and two main characters featured heavily at the heart of the story.

Book: “Written in Red” by Anne Bishop

Anne Bishop’s “Others” series is another wildly popular urban fantasy series. And, while it meets many of the standards of the genre (urban setting, werewolves, nature spirits, etc.) it is decidedly not a fast paced book. Instead, this is the urban fantasy series for those fantasy fans who really like to revel in the world itself. A lot of emphasis is placed on the characters and the world structure, and a lot on the politics between the humans and the fantasy creatures. Less emphasis on action, with there often only being one or two action scenes, some even happening off page. It does present an incredibly unique setting and world where the colonizers of North America found that they were by no means the most powerful to walk the land and have to find ways to not tick off the powerful magical forces that rule this continent.

Book: “Rosemary and Rue” by Seanan McGuire

And to round out my list, we return to another very popular, very traditional series of urban fantasy. Seanan McGuire’s ongoing “October Daye” series is probably one of the best out there. I, for one, am a huge fan! The story follows the titular October Daye, a changeling who is part human and part fae. Like many of the main characters in urban fantasy series, she starts out trying to maintain a life that distances herself from Faerie, a place where she feels she has been betrayed. But, so too, she doesn’t quite fit into this human world either. After a murder falls into her lap, Toby is pulled back into the fae world and must take up her old role as a knight errant. From there, the series unfolds with her becoming more and more enmeshed in the goings on between Faerie and the human world. This series stands out because of Toby herself. Given her unique situation (no spoilers!), she’s a bit of a darker character than some of the other leading urban fantasy ladies we’ve seen.

What are some of your favorite urban fantasy books?

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