Urban fantasy is one of my all time favourite genres. As a reader genres are helpful, when we want a particular flavour of book, so it is worth examining what we mean when we talk about urban fantasy.
Edit 2023: All of the examples was published before 2013, so I might do an overhaul of this post in the future and update both the content and the examples with the thoughts I have today, but for now I am leaving the post as is.
What is Urban Fantasy? (2013)
Why did I write this post?
In discussion with Tansy R.Roberts
After listing to Galactic Suburbia episode 30 & reading Tansy Rayner Roberts’ post “25 Urban Fantasies! (or: The Angry Trousers Treatise)“, I had to share my thoughts on the urban fantasy genre. What the genre is and some trends I see in the genre. I see four big strains of urban fantasy, I will try to define them and come with a list of books that fall into each group. I also have 24 urban fantasy books that I recommend.
Urban fantasy is for me an umbrella term that has a number of sub-genre under it, most noticeably paranormal romance. I think such subgenres are useful because the help guide me as a reader and actually tells me what I can expect of the book.
Unlike Tansy I do not consider steampunk urban fantasy, it is its own big sprawling genre with its own tropes and conventions. I do not consider alt history books set in medieval time urban fantasy either, but rather first world fantasy. I do not want to exclude either because I don’t like them – I adore both, but I think the genre becomes less useful if we stuff everything set in some version of our world into it.
I don’t think it is useful to include second world fantasy that happens to be set in cities either, to me that is just straight fantasy – but awesome fantasy. Tansy included some really cool examples on her list, however I wonder if she would include books like Harry Potter on her list. I think one easily could under her definition, the same goes for much other fantasy aimed at middle school readers. But I have no problem including that in my definition. Ok lets see if I can write something that could work as genre definition.
Urban fantasy as a genre
The story must include paranormal or magical elements. The setting has to be recognizable as our world, but it can include strong twists. It can be set in an alternate version of our world or in history, but it has to be fairly recent. Urban fantasy tend to have a strong sense of place as an important element of the genre. So like steampunk the borders of urban fantasy has a lot to do with the setting.
Set in a world that is recognisable as our own world, but include strong fantastical elements and has supernatural creatures living in it. It is set in the modern world (the last 0-150 years). I do not want to include medieval first world fantasy, because I think modernity and a recognisable world is very important to the urban fantasy genre. Part of the appeal of the genre is how easy it is to slip into it because you already know the world. Short hands and stereotypes from our world apply and can be played with.
The books often have an alt-history of our world. The story does not have to be set in an urban setting. However the stories tend to have a strong sense of place and where the book takes place is important to the plot and flavor of the story.
Common for all urban fantasy is the idea that there is more to the world than what we normally sees. In many types of urban fantasy there is a whole hidden world just waiting to be discovered. This hidden world might be dark and gritty and a place of nightmares or it might be a magical wonderland where you want to escape to. Not only are magic real but so is all the things that go bump in the night. Urban fantasy shows us the magical in the mundane which tend to look a lot like the sense of wonder that science fiction always goes on about.
The protagonist has a high degree of agency and fairly quickly become either part of the supernatural world or at least fairly comfortable navigating this world. Sometime they have supernatural powers, sometimes they do not. Not all urban fantasy books has more than one supernatural creature but often all the creatures you can think of exists.
The genre borrows tropes and story elements from epic fantasy, crime/mystery, gothic literature & romance. The genre also have its own tropes that is rarely found outside the genre.
As in much of fantasy there is a tendency towards long series, but many of the series take care to be readable as standalone books, restating the setting for the reader (to my great annoyance). This is probably another thing drawn from mystery novels.
Closely related to urban fantasy is: Portal fantasy, first world fantasy, alternative history, steampunk, magical realism and contemporary fantasy
Subgenres of urban fantasy is: Paranormal romance, monster romance
Different strains of urban fantasy
It seems to me that there are different strains of the genre. These strains are present in all sub-genres of urban fantasy.
Discover the hidden world
In one strain the protagonist discovers that there is a hidden world and that supernatural beings inhabits our world. The protagonist in this strain becomes involved in this magical world that the rest of the world pretty much ignores. This strain generally requires less initial explaining of the world to the readers because it is revealed to the reader as the protagonist discovers it. Sometimes the protagonist has supernatural powers and sometimes they do not.
Examples: Harry Potter, Twilight, House of Night, Artemis Fowl, The Dark is Rising, American Gods, The Mortal Instruments, War for the Oaks, White Trash Zombie, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Rook, Peter Grant,
A world you don’t see
Like in Discover the Hidden World, most humans don’t know that the supernatural exists. It is either hidden from them or humans just do not notice or choose to forget. In this strain the protagonist is part of the supernatural world and has some kind of preternatural powers. In this strain the narrator takes the reader into a hidden secret world. A big part of this strain is the fact that the protagonist has to lie about who and what he/she is to the people around them.
Examples: Georgina Kincaid, The Dresden Files, InCryptid, Indexing, Fables (Graphic novel), October Daye, Magic Ex Libris, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV-series), Kara Gillian, Vampire the Masquerade (Role playing game), Kitty Norville
The big reveal
Alternative-history where the supernaturals came out to the human population some time ago and the world has accepted them as fact. The world is trying to come to terms with the fact that the supernatural exists. Often there is heavy resistance to the superlatives
Examples: Sookie Stackhouse, Jane Jameson (Nice Girls don’t…), The Hollows, Jane Yellowrock
This post was originally posted: October 31, 2013. Updated and edited June 24, 2023