Place, Setting, Location
For the past eight or so years, my research has focused on how fantasy relates to its environments. I have been fascinated by how story and location have worked together to create, for me at least, a sense of the marvelous. When I turned to Urban Fantasy, I thus gravitated naturally to stories in which the city played a major part. Now, as part of a wider project concening Urban Fantasy, I decided to familiarise myself with a number of (to me) new writers.
The first two books that I picked up were Jim Butcher’s Storm Front (2000; first of the Dresden Files novels) and Trent Jamieson’s Death Most Definite (2010; first of the Death Works novels). I knew that both authors used a city setting for their books; Chicago and Brisbane, respectively. And in both cases, I was dismayed.
I should make clear before I continue that my disappointment with these books has nothing to do with plot or characters. They are both enjoyable reads, and Jamieson in particular surprised me with some interesting twists and turns (often by doing to me what is also done to the protagonist: keep things moving so fast, there is no time to stop and think). My dismay comes from how the two city settings are treated.
The wizard Harry Dresden lives in a contemporary Chicago. The reader is occasionally told so, and there are some references to Lake Michigan and the O’Hare Airport. But there is very little of Chicago in the text. No street names or descriptions that emphasise the Chicago-ness of the setting. Locations such as the police station, a murder scene, or a vampire-run bordello are given a fair amount of description, but even they are not anchored to the social, historical, and cultural web that is a city. If the few names had been changed, it could have been set almost anywhere in North America. There is a blandness to city, a lack of concern with it.
Steven de Selby, whose job it is to pass dead souls from this world to the next, lives in Brisbane. This is made exceedingly clear. Streetnames, districts, cemetaries, the meandering river and the looming Mount Coot-tha are mentioned over and over again, along with the CityCat ferry, ”flat white” and ”long black” coffee, Queenslander houses, and the XXXX brewery. Stevens adventures takes him all over the city in what seems to be a race to include as many bits of Brisbane as possible. Having recently spent some time in Brisbane myself, I started out enjoying it, but soon realised that names were mostly what they were. There was nothing of Toowong in Steven’s frequent visits there, and the Regatta Hotel regained nothing of its cultural importance. In fact, had I not lived there for a while, I would have felt terribly put off by the whole thing. It felt like an in-joke – and I was only just in on it.
Maybe it is because I come from a diet of mostly high fantasy that I expect the world to have a roll in the story – I expect it to be a central character, and as such, have some attention given to it. And although Death Most Definite could take place nowhere but in Brisbane, Jamieson has given the city not a roll but a function; it is a setting, alright, but a rather passive one. Dresden’s Chicago is even less. It is a place, or just a place-holder, not even a back-drop.
I have found myself enjoying the cities that are given the same attention as the main characters. I want to be close to the world, to the environment, in the same way that I get close to the hero. This does not necessarily mean long-winded descriptions, but it does mean that the setting is, not a label, nor a list of names, but an active part in the story.
And what about Urban Fantasy?
Oh, that project is still running, and I will surely get back to that in the future.