Thursday, November 1, 2012

Guest Post: The Bizarre Mixture that is Urban Fantasy by Kathryn from The Forged Forest

Bastard asked me to do a post about urban fantasy, as it's something that is a touchy subject for me. Those who know me know that I tend to have a bad time with urban fantasy, and I really don't trust books that are marketed as such. Why? Well, it's really not that simple, and I've struggled to make points I'm comfortable with over about seven or eight draft versions now, so instead I'll just rant for a bit.

Urban Fantasy is, well, something I'm not too keen on. In fact, I'd say I'd go out of my way to avoid it for the most part. Covers with women with an inability to wear clothing made of anything but leather and malformed skeletons 'grace' a plethora of books, whereas many of the others feature a man with an allegy to clothing above his genitals and the most yawn-inducing chiseled figure. Sometimes, if you're really unlucky, you'll find a cover which has both!

Firstly, how can a publisher or a marketer expect me to take their books seriously if that's how they market them? I'm sorry, but I'm really not interested in Miss Rubber Spine's ass/side-boob pose, nor Mr McPertPecs' manboobs. Really, publishers? Really? Are you really so unimaginative that all of your models just have to show a minimum of 25% of their skin on your book covers?

And then we get to what's inside the books. Now, I'm probably missing some really good stories, but if you're going to have romance in your book then for the love of all that's unholy, put down those Mills & Boon titles and go and find out how couples really get together. If your heroine starts having an orgasm at the first sight of Mr McPertPecs (who's probably a werewolf or a vampire or both), then I'm really not going to read your book any further. If your heroine is drooling over him whilst she's supposed to be fighting, then I'm not going to read your book further. It's just bad.

Simply put, I hate this perpetual weakening of female characters in UF/PNR/DF/Whatever it's called today. I want to read about strong, capable women. I don't want to read about Sally Simple and her 'mate' (vom), I don't want to read about Mary Manlover and her insatiable thirst for manlove (vom) – I don't want any of it in my books. If you're going to write porn, go and write porn. Stop masquerading it – and, publishers, stop marketing it – as something else. You're doing yourself and fiction a disservice. That's not to say it doesn't happen in more traditional fantasy settings, because it does, but I find it much easier to avoid elsewhere. Whilst I must confess I've never particularly fancied reading them, it appears that UF books about gay male protagonists have the exact same marketing and 'taste' issues. It seems, bizarrely, that gay or bisexual women tend to be relegated to support roles in this genre (an exception being J.A. Pitts' Sarah Beauhall books, which I recommend, even considering the explicit sex).

This was my expression when I wrote this. Genuinely.
Do you get the idea? Yup. I appear to have stepped in paranormal romance or some sort of erotic sub-genre by mistake. Except it's massively pervasive in urban fantasy. The covers, the women (even if strong and independent) being beholden to men – I just can't seem to find anything without these elements. I've nothing against romance, but I get very annoyed when it overshadows the plot, or when it comes across as unrealistic.

See, for me, my vision of urban fantasy would probably be closer to contemporary fantasy. You know, books like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or Paul Cornell's upcoming London Falling. At a stretch, I'd go so far as to say books like many of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld titles, Jon Sprunk's Shadow series and Ari Marmell's Widdershins novels are urban fantasy – books that are fantastical and take place primarily in urban settings. What I'd love to see is publishers, and authors, differentiating more between romantic/erotic works and those focused more on plots.

I've probably come across as a bit harsh, maybe even hypocritical. Sure, I am - I know it. But to me, urban fantasy is this bizarre mixture of erotica and, well, contemporary fantasy. And the lack of clear separation makes it hard for me to find what I'm looking for.

Kathryn has her own blog The Forged Forest with all sorts of sci-fi and fantasy content, including some comics commentary. Alternatively, you can follow her on Twitter @Loerwyn.

A few months back she wrote a romance themed post titled Romance in Genre Fiction which I think is worth a read.


  1. "Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or Paul Cornell's upcoming London Falling. At a stretch, I'd go so far as to say books like many of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld titles"

    So, er, male protagonists, then?

    1. Those were examples off the top of my head, but as I implied within the post I do tend to steer away from UF books with female protags (which is the opposite of my tendency to steer towards them) because of the marketing issues.

      I could have just as easily said books like China MiƩville's Un Lun Dun (which I never finished), which has two young girls as its protags.

    2. in my limited experience, UF with male protags tend to be less romance/relationship focused than UF's with female protags.

  2. Damned skippy! I really don't care if the protagonist is male, female, or a hermaphroditic android. I DO care that they don't spend half the freaking book either having or thinking about sex and relationship drama.

    I want plot and believable character development. Deliver or GTFO.

  3. Very good points made. I have a hard time because I don't read romance books for a reason, I don't want all those erotic romance elements. I read fantasy and occasionally urban fantasy (but only those books heavily recommended by people I trust), not romance!

    1. Yup, that's my line of thought.

      I tried to make it clear that I have nothing against romance, but it's better for that story (and author) and the genres as a whole to make the distinction clearer. If your romance book is marketed as UF, you're not necessarily tapping the wider romance market, so the book is being passed around a circle it might not be wholly welcome in.

      But thank you, Bryce!

  4. And here's the problem with many of this issues... Romance readers are very peculiar (better yet, informed) on what Romance actually is. As such, they see a distinct difference on what is found in UF vs. what is found in a PNR.

    So what many of us don't like, and argue about not liking romance, the PNR readers would argue that they don't see the "romance", that we're all wrong, etc.

    The bottom line, is that us that don't care for romance, really don't care for those distinctions... as far as we're concerned, they're one and the same.

    I've been forced to use the term "relationship drama" or "love drama" as a safety net, else I be accused of using the term romance incorrectly.

    1. I think the term "lovey-dovey bullshit" is better.

  5. Kathryn, you and i are completely on the same brain wave about this whole thing! annoying marketing, badly written romance/eroticism, it just doesn't work for us.

    i don't mind romance, or sex, or eroticism, I want it in a very different package than how most UF publishers present it. Give me Ellen Kushner any day over all this UF/PNR/whatever.

  6. Fabulous post! I do read a lot of UF and very little PNR and I do know what you are talking about. I've had my rants on this topic before. I tend to like a lot of male authors as well because they concentrate on less multiple-orgasms-drool-over-hot-alpha-males nonsense, more action oriented. Still, I've recommended Ilona Andrews before as one of the best author-couples in UF, but I'll add J.F. Lewis, Kevin Hearne and Dakota Banks to that list as well.
    I've got London Falling on my wishlist as well :)

  7. That's pretty much my biggest problem with urban fantasy these days, too. All too much of it involves females who are "strong" because they're sexy and can use a weapon (at least, that's what the cover art tells me), and they spend their time lusting after a man with serious alpha male syndrome while duking it out with the forces of evil. In that order. Urban fantasy has become synonymous with paranormal romance, and that both bores and bothers me because there's so much more the genre could be doing. There's nothing wrong with romance in a book, but I prefer it as a side dish rather than the main course, and I have a very hard time finding that in most UF books now.

    1. Yes yes yes yes yes! This!

      Thanks to publishers, UF and PNR have merged into this ugly mutant thing that doesn't really make sense. Certain publishers are bigger offenders than others (and this DOES happen with 'traditional' fantasy too, by the way), but it's near-impossible to tell a UF book from a PNR book - same quote sources, same cover styles, same kinds of titles, blah blah blah.

      You do get some that aren't marketed that way (e.g. Gaiman's Neverwhere), but I think it's easier and safer to group them as "contemporary fantasy", maybe. I 'unno.


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