Monday, November 12, 2012

Guest Post: Urban Fantasy Anonymous by Justin from Staffer's Book Reviews

My name is Justin, and I don't like urban fantasy. This is where everyone says, "Hi Justin" and then I regale you with the stories about how the genre has burned me so often that I can longer stand to be in the same room with it. I might finish my little speech by saying, "And I've been urban fantasy free for 98 days." Someone might even give me a pin to commemorate my unreliance. Of course, that isn't really true. . . I do read urban fantasy. I'm just scared of wasting my life every time I do.

I think it's important to take a minute to discuss what I mean by urban fantasy. It's a horrifyingly easy term that means something different to every one who hears it. As a marketing subgenre, urban fantasy means a story set in contemporary times which contains supernatural elements (examples: Dresden Files, Anita Blake, et al.) and contains some element of romance (from a little to a ton). For the purposes of this article, that's the definition I'm working with because the actual definition, fantasy set in a city, is so benign as to be useless. Based on those assumptions, I find the subgenre predictable, hackneyed, and all together boring.

Rabble, Rabble, you're reading the wrong urban fantasy, Rabble Rabble.

No, I'm not. There are several urban fantasies from this year alone that I really enjoyed. Jim C. Hines's Libriomancer, Tom H. Pollock's The City's Son, and Jennifer Safrey's Tooth & Nail are all 2012 urban fantasies I can recommend. They do their genre proud. And yet, each of them are entirely predictable. They follow a linear plot structure, they have a romance, they're faced with a supernatural problem, and they solve it. Don't get me wrong, they're special in other ways. In the case of Libriomancer, it's literally inundated with author's joy for fantasy. The City's Son is a beautiful composition of fiction, bursting with allegory. Tooth & Nail is about Washington DC. What can I say, I'm a sucker for books about where I live. But, all of their plots are essentially boring. And so few urban fantasies excel enough elsewhere to overcome that deficiency.

The more likely outcome is my reaction to Alex Hughes's novel, Clean. I'm nodding off just writing the title. First person narrator who's a drug addict detective who happens to be smitten with his grouchy, but sexy, partner. Murders abound and a mystery much be solved! This is the urban fantasy I rail against; the cookie cutter sameness. It's not poorly written. It has a good pace and I can understand why someone might love it. What I can't understand, and what I refuse to accept, is that publishers and readers continue to want to read Clean and the fifteen other novels published this year just like it. Had Clean been the first novel of its kind, I might smile and nod. As it stands now, I roll my eyes and wonder why bother?

That's why I'm writing this post today and announcing a new organization. Urban Fantasy Anonymous, an organization dedicated to eradicating the reliance on homogeneous fiction. These are the rules under which the organization is formed:

  1. Our common mental faculty should come first; personal recovery depends upon our unity.
  2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—an experienced blogger who's read enough to never recommend a sardonic heroine down on her luck, but ready to kick ass and take names.
  3. The only requirement for membership is no receipts from Pocket Books for six days.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting publishing house marketing strategies. In that case, organized guerrilla warfare is entirely acceptable.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the poor readers suffering under the thumb of lazy writing and wooden characters.
  6. A UFA group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the UFA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest those endeavors lead to further lining the pockets of publishers and editors who seek to control us with sparkling vampires.
  7. Every UFA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions—urban fantasy in sheep's clothing is too risky!
  8. UFA should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers, which does not imply sex workers, who have suffered enough as murder victims in urban fantasy.
  9. UFA, as such, ought never be organized; to be organized is to be modular, which is to behave in the image of that we are trying to reject.
  10. UFA has no opinion on outside issues; our only public affairs concern is ensuring that the 2012 Presidential Election has nothing to do with Edward or Jacob. It's a public service.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on keeping a low profile. Readers empowered by urban fantasy can often be dangerous, in roving packs armed with katanas and lower back tattoos.
  12. Finally, we must be ever mindful to place stimulation before comfort.

Who's with me?

Justin can be found on his blog Staffer's Book Reviews (formerly known as Staffer's Musings) or on Twitter @jdiddyesquire. Some great SFF content there, so don't miss out. He's also recently joined the SF Signal group.

This marks the end of the guest posts on Urban Fantasy from bloggers and reviewers who for some reason the subgenre hasn't worked for them. There'll be a few more on-topic posts coming up though.


  1. "They follow a linear plot structure, they have a romance, they're faced with a supernatural problem, and they solve it."

    Epic fantasy = much the same but with a prologue describing how the hero is predestined to solve said supernatural problem?

  2. "They follow a linear plot structure, they have a romance, they're faced with a supernatural problem, and they solve it."

    Horror = same, but they don't solve it!

    Steampunk = same, but with corsets!

    Science fiction = same, but the supernatural problem is a scientific one. And the romance is replaced by passionless staring!

    Lit fic = same, but without the plot, the problem or the romance!

    (This is fun...)

  3. Excuse this if it sounds ranty, but this hit a nerve with me.

    I don't think any of us are qualified to tell others what sort of fiction they should wish or desire to read. As bloggers, that's not really our place. We can tell them what we feel is good and what we feel is not worthy of their time and why we believe so, but it should end there.

    My significant other, for example, reads very rarely. When she does, it's usually this type of cookie cutter romance or UF. She devours it the same way that people keep coming back to CSI or VAMPIRE DIARIES every week. Sure it's a bit of been there done that, rinse and repeat, but if that's what they enjoy...why the heck not?

    As to publishers continuing to publish these books and readers continuing to read them. One imagines they must enough droves to warrant 12 books with the same protagonists(s) and general tropes revisited in only slightly differing ways. It makes no sense otherwise. So clearly there is a demographic who want 25 titles in one UF series with only slightly altered stakes.

    But here's my question to you Justin. This is the type of book those readers obviously like to read. Who are you to "refuse to accept" that? You are well within your right to say "Hey, this book is bad and lazily written, you shouldn't bother"...but and I'm not trying to get down on you here, but this whole post had me questioning that. It just sounds like "if you like this type of book, then something is wrong with you"...or at least it comes across that way a bit (especially in the numbered list stuff).

    My great aunt, in the last five years of her life as she lay in a rest home with a myriad of ailments afflicting her would read slim volume after slim volume of Harlequin romance novels. She had hundreds in the end. They were all fairly the "same" and one day I asked her why she read them. She said to me something along the lines of "I'm not sure why I'm still here. Here on earth. These keep me entertained every day." and I think I responded "But wouldn't you rather read some more diverse stuff (I had bought her ATONEMENT previously and she left it to get dusty on her shelf)?" and she said...and I'll never forget this...."Why. I know what I like. This is what I like." I actually go to her grave year after year on the anniversary of her death and lay a new one I've bought on the plaque in lieu of flowers. It just seems more appropriate.

    ...and quite frankly, I don't see anything at all wrong with that.

    People like what they like. If folk find different UF that challenges them and the medium and enjoy that....GREAT! But if they like their books to be comfy re-treads that keep them company, I think that's great too.

    Just my two cents, spend it as you may.

  4. Then again, if this post was meant to be tongue in cheek, I withdraw my complaint.


    I was unsure.

  5. I think Jared hit it on the head. All fiction is this way. There is no new idea. The basic narrative structure is the basic narrative structure for a reason. I could write this post about epic fantasy, or romance, or anything else.

    I'm hoping people will read it and make that leap, to point out that it's merely a matter of taste. My mindless drivel tastes trend toward epic fantasy and space opera. I forgive them a lot of ill because it triggers my sense of wonder like nothing else. For others, it's UF.

    But, the great UF, epic fantasy, space opera, etc. all do something unique for themselves. Either they play with basic narrative structure, do the basic exceptionally, display phenomenal prose, or turn tropes on their heads (or a host of other things).

    I do wonder if UF does this *less* often than other genres, if only because there's just so damn much of it being published.

    And to some degree, I do think it's a legitimate complaint to point the finger at publishers. Yes, they have to buy what sells, but they also have some responsibility to art. We're not talking about a mechanical device here; we're talking about an artistic expression. Or something.

  6. I'm going to second Jared. He nailed it.

  7. Hmm, maybe UF does do it less, but that doesn't mean there aren't great books out there, with plots as diverse as anything else.

    But ofc whatever the Big Thing is atm, there will be a hundred clones - because people want more of the same. There's still room for (and books getting published) that break the mould. Sometimes though they don't get the attention because people are actively looking for more of the same. Sometimes they're a real breakout novel. Maybe UF is just waiting for an Abercrombie to come and shake it up?

    *hides current UF project up jumper, where the problem doesn't exactly get solved, there isn't exactly paranormal elements and there isn't exactly a romance either*

  8. Yeah, I can't back you if you're going to include romance as a requirement for UF. For the past couple years I've been refusing to buy any UF that even mentions romance in the blurb; its a near certainty that it's cookie-cutter garbage. Especially if it has a half-dressed heroin holding a weapon on the cover. My reading experience has been several orders of magnitude better for it.

  9. What about those of us who enjoy UF that really does have zero romance? Are you telling those readers, and those books, that they don't exist?


  10. I liked Clean *ducks head and looks around guiltily*


  11. My response may sound simplistic, but yes, we like what we like, and I don't necessarily believe that because they idea has been done or it contains certain elements, it's not good. I read for pure enjoyment, and if it's well written and I enjoyed it, I'm a happy camper.

  12. Two quick comments.

    1) I'm just venturing into the world of writing (published my first book on Amazon) and I'm glad to hear what readers do and don't like. Even if my book gets panned, the next one will be the better for it

    2) Scott has a point too. Sometimes folks just want variations on a favourite theme, and if that's what they like, and if there are writers willing to give it to them, everybody wins as well.

    Finally, the putting of a book on a grave instead of flowers brought a tear to my eye. That's really thoughtful, and sad.


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