If you Google Urban Fantasy you will find a hectic range of definitions. One quote by SFF author Elizabeth Bear is a favourite of mine (I found it just now): “In urban fantasy you don’t leave the chip shop and go to another world to find the unicorn. Rather, the unicorn shows up at the chip shop and orders the cod.”
But what is Urban Fantasy, and what makes it so different to Paranormal Romance?
Once an all-encompassing term for nitty gritty Fantasy with a distinct urban setting, associated with authors like China Miélville and Charles de Lint, it’s becoming a much-narrowed term, as other SFF subgenres enter the mix.
Defined as thus in J. Clute’s Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (1997):
Urban fantasy … A city may be seen from afar, and is generally seen clear; the UF is told from within and from the perspective of characters acting out their roles, it may be difficult to determine the extent and nature of the surrounding reality. UFs are normally texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact intersect and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.
To me, to class a book as being of this Fantasy subgenre, it needs to contain the following ingredients: contemporary setting, set in the real-world and with a real sense of place, city-based, with a male or female lead who has supernatural powers and uses them to kick ass and help people, detective/crime plot, humour, and set in a slightly alternative ‘now’ as humans are usually aware or becoming aware of the existence of certain supernatural beings. These beings include, but are not limited to: vampires (new and old mythology), were-creatures (from wolves to coyotes), wizards/witches, and the fae.
This definition is subject to change, but authors whose series/titles currently fall in this category include: Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), Patricia Briggs (Mercy Thompson), Chloe Neill (Chicagoland Vampires), Kim Harrison (The Hollows/ Rachel Morgan), Kelley Armstrong (Women of the Otherworld etc), Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels), Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere), Karen Chance (Cassandra Palmer) and Rachel Caine (Weather Warden). Here’s a great place for more information.
As for comparisons with Paranormal Romance, I mean, it like totally has girls in it, right? And don’t most of them fall in hopeless, soul-entangled love with the most inappropriate of brooding rogues?
Well, yes. And, to further confuse matters, some authors crossover into both subgenres, sometimes in the course of one series (ah, ‘crossover fiction’, a blog topic for another time, you lucky folks). Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series (1993 – present) started off as Urban Fantasy. Kick ass lead with mystical power: TICK. City-based: TICK. Crime-solving: TICK. Supernaturals: TICK. Sexy: tick. And then about halfway through, the themes shifted. Kick ass lead with come-f*ck-me boots: TICK. Sexy: TICK. Bedroom-based: TICK. Crime-solving: who has the time? Supernaturals: yes please!
The eponymous lead went from celibate to, quite literally, gagging for it *blush*. This proved too much for my naive sentiment at the time and I stopped at Narcissus in Chains, book 11. It takes a lot for me to stop reading a series that many books in. Group sex ought to do it though. Inappropriate. I wanted my heroine to kick ass, not kiss it.
But what about other sensitive readers, I hear you cry? Calm yourselves, Headline took over from Orbit (presumably as scandalised as I was) and solved the problem by reissuing the whole series with new covers. Going from the typical photo-realism of Urban Fantasy:
To coming over all Gothic with black and reds, in these quite frankly beautiful covers:
Now readers know a bit more about what to expect. And my moral outrage will have to find another outlet.
To sum: Urban Fantasy made like the universe and expanded, only to contract again, becoming more specialised. If it’s a city filled with supernaturals and policed by a vigilante with burdening powers, and a enjoying a little bit of sex, why not, it’s probably safe to dub it Urban Fantasy. But if the plot is merely a mechanism to make with the happy, it’s probably Paranormal Romance. And if it’s city-based but set in an alternate time and place, it’s probably too confusing to go in to. Let’s just call it ‘Alt-reality Urban Fantasy’, and leave it at that.