Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Guest Post: The Achilles Heel of Urban Fantasy by Paul Weimer


The Free City of Urban Fantasy has been one that has had far less appeal to me than other realms within genre. I avidly explores the baronies of Sword and Sorcery, explore the kingdoms and empires of Epic Fantasy, reave across the realms of Space Opera, have made explorations into the mechanical republics of Steampunk, and once upon a time read every Alternate History that came out. In comparison, Urban Fantasy, by and large, has left me cold, wanting, and disappointed. Herein I set to lay out what is for me the achilles heel of Urban Fantasy, and provide some counter-examples that have crossed my plate.

First, briefly, I should explain what I mean by urban fantasy. The subgenre of Urban Fantasy has slippery boundaries, and definitions can be slippery if not downright idiosyncratic. For me, Urban Fantasy is Fantasy that takes place in a close approximation of our contemporary world, and was written and takes place within living memory of a substantial portion of the population. Further, it usually takes place in an urban setting, and the Matter involves supernatural beings of some kind. Thus, War for the Oaks is solidly Urban Fantasy. Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht, written recently but taking place in 1970’s Belfast, is currently urban fantasy but won’t always be so. Thieftaker, by David D.B. Jackson, set in 18th century Boston, is most definitely historical fantasy.

In general, when I read fiction, I read for four things. The first two, plot and character, to quote Jay Lake, is enough for a lot of readers. If an author can hit those two, they have a serviceable work for a large portion of the reading public. It makes for a cheeseburger of a meal, to quote Damien Walter.  For me, though, a real novel has two more essential ingredients, Language and World Building and it is in the latter that a lot of Urban Fantasy falls flat for me.

I want a playground of the imagination that feels connected and organic with the mundane world that Urban Fantasy springs from. I want a world that makes sense, and yet evokes my sense of wonder.The Urban Fantasy I have come in contact with, by and large, has failed miserably in the worldbuilding. 

Time and again, I get no sense of the city that the urban fantasy writer has invoked, even if the city is constructed out of whole cloth. Worse, I’ve read Urban Fantasy set in places I’ve lived in or spent time in. and amateurish mistakes (as opposed to deliberate changes) cause me to get angry at the author. The 4 train in New York does NOT run underneath the American Museum of Natural History. New Yorkers never eat pizza with a knife and a fork. Saint Paul is not directly across the river from Minneapolis.

And then there is the lack of holistic integration with the supernatural element. Urban Fantasy seems to fall into two camps--where supernaturals are running around in the night, hidden from the public, or supernaturals are well known by all and sundry.  I’ve read Urban Fantasy from both strains.  

In the former, the urban fantasist breaks my suspension of disbelief by having so many supernatural elements and actors, that its completely implausible the mundane world is unaware of their existence, even if you take the tack that people only want to see what they want to see.  In vampire novels, for instance, the sheer number of vampires found in a city suggest that, in rigorous worldbuilding, either the police, the local health organizations, or both, would quickly, very quickly get wind of something extremely wrong in their city. And yet, this doesn’t happen.  

In the latter, the Urban Fantasist underplays things in the opposite direction. Vampires, or Werewolves, or what have you are out, proud, loud and it seems to have an amazingly small effect on the populace and the body politic. You can certainly argue that people get used to stuff, the counterpart to “people only want to see what they want to see”. There is an element of that.  But consider the immigrant experience. When relatively large populations of immigrants have migrated to cities, the social effects have been significant. The Hmong experience, for example, in St. Paul, Minnesota. And yet, many of the Urban Fantasists I’ve read, by and large, have eschewed engaging with those implications or doing so in a realistic manner.

So who gets it right in my experience? What Urban Fantasy has plot, character, setting AND language?

Jim C Hines is best known for his Jig the Goblin and Princess novels, both solidly secondary world fantasy. His new novel Libriomancer, however, is not only Urban Fantasy, but acts in many ways as a critique of some of the excesses and problems of Urban Fantasy creatures, protagonists and situations. And he does it with writing that leaps off of the page, and follows through on the implications of the magic revealed in the book. 

Jim Butcher likely needs no introduction to this audience. Although I’ve only read a few of the Dresden Files novels to date, the novels I have read have impressed me particularly with his worldbuilding, complexity and rich world. Some of the readers here who are aware of my roleplaying game interests will be not surprised that I own a copy of the two volume Dresden Files Roleplaying game. The second volume is a massive tome that collates and collects the rich diversity of factions, characters, powers and locations from Harry’s world. Harry’s Chicago feels real to me. It’s a strong and abiding contrast to a lot of the paper thin worldbuilding in other Urban Fantasy.

Carrie Vaughn is another author readers here likely need no introduction to. Her Kitty novels follow an engaging heroine, yes, and the plots are well done. In addition, however, the implications of supernatural creatures revealing themselves to the world is a theme Vaughn has been unspooling through her novels. Events from previous novels have well thought out implications in future novels. Her world feels real, plausible, organic and as messy as ours.

Still, even given these exceptions, the Urban Fantasy I have read and enjoyed have been outweighed and outnumbered by some very disappointing misses. More than a few times over the last few years, my attempts to step into the Urban Fantasy field have resulted in various levels of disappointment. The fact that some of the authors in question are extremely successful suggests that what I am reading for is not what they are writing. I’ve been extremely reluctant to engage with the subgenre. Life is too short for books that don’t work for you, and since such a large portion of Urban Fantasy doesn’t, I mentally classify the entire field as such.

Still, there are temptations out there. Tad Williams, author of the massive Otherland quartet,  has a new urban fantasy novel, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, that looks interesting. Jacqueline Carey, whose I really have enjoyed, is entering the urban fantasy field this fall with Dark Currents, with a half-demon heroine who serves the Goddess Hel.  And a check of my shelves (virtual and otherwise) shows I have Hexed by Kevin Hearne, Geekomancy by Michael Underwood and Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire, all waiting for me sometime. And I really should read more of Laura Anne Gilman’s urban fantasy, especially given that I liked her Vineart War trilogy and the first of her P.U.P.I. novels.

So, perhaps I’ll be tempted into the free city of Urban Fantasy yet. But we’ll see if those works can hit plot, character, setting and language together.

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You can find Paul Weimer on Twitter @PrinceJvstin and on his personal Blog, Jvstin Style. He's also a contributor on SF Signal and on the The Functional Nerds.

A few weeks ago, he organized an on-topic Mind Meld about Urban Fantasy which I think is worth a read. In any case, thanks for sharing your thoughts Paul, certainly gave me a few things to ponder on as I look back on some of my UF readings.

20 comments:

  1. Some good points there Paul. I say this much, the "people only want to see what they want to see" bit is dead-on. Seems like I've stumbled quite a few times with stories that drop that line as a means to explain how all of this has remained a secret to this point, and in my opinion it's becoming a bit harder to swallow each time.

    It's nice to see when novels take it a step further, like Seanan McGuire you mention has death penalty solutions for example. And of course, capability to mess with human minds.

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  2. Good point on the lazy worldbuilding. I myself prefer the more mythic-flavored urban fantasy - Emma Bull's War for the Oaks (and also Finder), Terri Windling's The Wood Wife, lots of Charles de Lint's work, etc. But I do LOVE the Dresden Files...if you've only read a few of the books, you simply must keep going. It's one of the few long-running series that gets better and better as you go along.

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    1. Yeah, I fell out of reading it because of "Hey, new shiny" but I should catch up. I have been spoiled a bit by the DF worldbuilding book. I know a lot of what happens! :)

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  3. Hi Paul

    Those are some pertinent points you bring up in regards to urban fantasy books and the worlds described in them. I think what is happening is UF is still in its nascent stages, like fantasy was in the 70s. After the explosion in the 80 & 90s, readers wanted more from fantasy and that's when RJ, GRRM, & Steven Erikson arose. The last decade has seen even more variations in the fantasy genre thanks to Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and the likes.

    I believe in a few years we'll be coming to the saturation point in UF when the readers will demand a complicated world and when the "people only want to see what they want to see" won't fly by so smoothly in readers minds as it does now. That's when I believe this subgenre will begin its true rise and we will get stories worthy and rivaling ASOIAF, WOT, POT and many more...

    Mihir

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    1. Possibly. It depends on how UF evolves as a genre.

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    2. True and I hope that it evolves the way Epic fantasy has. Its a very promising sub-genre and one which interests me greatly. I can second Kara-Karina's reco about Ilona Andrews. The first book in their Kate Daniels series is their least favorite one so I would suggest you begin with Magic Burns (the 2nd book of the series).

      Also they have a novella out called Alphas:Origins which is a dark SF, UF blend which I think you might enjoy more.

      Mihir

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  4. Fantastic post, Paul! How about you try Ilona Andrews? The authors have fantastic world-building and their world feels very organic. I'm making a note of Libriomancer as I have had Jim C Hines on my wishlist for a very long time. You must read Kevin Hearne, his writing is beautiful. I hopy you will find more UF to your satisfaction, and like you I'm very curious about new Jacqueline Carey. Thanks to you and your host for a discussion on a much needed topic!

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    1. Thanks. I have read the first Kevin Hearne, and should continue that series at some point. I'll take a look at Ilona Andrews.

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  5. Even as a serious UF fan, I can't disagree. Fortunately, that's not a huge issue for me. To the contrary, one of the big draws of UF for me is it keeps the author from having to do much in the way of world building and lets them put that effort into the characters and plot. Most importantly, it keeps them from going Full Tolkien.

    Butcher is a definite exception but he's an evil genius and has figured out how to do it well with minimal effort. He's even published his methods, so nobody else has an excuse.

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    1. I don't think you need to go the full Butcher, but stopping and thinking about the implications of stuff is what I want. Having more supernaturals undercover in a town than actual inhabitants does NOT work.

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  6. Paul, another series that you can give a shot is Mark del Franco's Connor Grey series. It heavily focuses on the impact of Fey population both in the social and political ambiance.

    It started a bit dull for me, but after a while it became one of my favorites, specifically because of the focus on these aspects.

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  7. You make some really good points. The thing with world building is - it must be so difficult for authors trying to balance how much information against whether the reader will just become bored with major info dumps and also how to introduce all the description without it seeming a bit trite. I must admit that I read some books and know for a fact that I'm just picturing things as I think they're meant to be - but not because of the inclusion of any description from the author. It doesn't necessarily put me off though.
    I've really enjoyed Kevin Hearne's series and also like Jim Butcher. I have read a couple of Ilona Andrews and also enjoyed the first few by Patricia Briggs - the Mercedes books - although, a bit like Butcher the series gets better and the first couple are sort of hit and miss!
    Thanks
    Lynn

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  8. Oh, this is the quality of articles you wanted? ...whoops. :)

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    1. Don't worry Bryce, no one will be judging you. Yours is fine...just...fine :P

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    2. Thank you for the compliment

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  9. What about Charles de Lint? He's the godfather of urban fantasy if you ask me. And there's also Little, Big by Richard Crowley - it builds slowly, but the book as a whole is breathtaking.

    In terms of world building, I always thought a lot of urban fantasy made use of magical realism.... but your argument makes me wonder if perhaps I was just being overly generous towards the authors.

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    1. I read some De Lint years ago...he's really proto-Urban Fantasy in my mind. Too, Crowley.

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    2. I disagree with you, Paul. Charles de Lint is very much the godfather of Urban Fantasy. (but you knew that.)

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  10. I've never read UF, but I totally get the grinding of teeth when someone writes something totally screwy when they could've fact-checked it in twenty seconds.

    And thanks for the tip on Thieftaker - it's a time I'm most interested in.

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  11. Wow. I have to say you really hit on a few great points here. I do enjoy my UF but there are some slips in many of them, and you are right on. Thanks for the great post.

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