Taking the Urban Out of Urban Fantasy?
As I have mentioned earlier, I’m in the early stages of an urban fantasy project, and early stages of a research project always means that sooner or later, you begin to wonder what the heck it is you are actually looking at, and almost invariably, realisation daws on you that your topic is not what you. believed it to be.
I am aware that opinions differ about what urban fantasy is. Clute and Grant’s encyclopedia define it as fantasy in which the urban setting takes a central role , but the meaning seems to have shifted via any fantasy set in a city to any fantsy set in our world in the present time. And I find myself thinking about the meaning of the word ”urban” …
In my previous post on Jim Butcher and Trent Jamieson I pointed out how little of the city enironments the reader actually encountered in these two books. Chicago and Brisbane were there in name, but left few real traces in the story. In my attempt to familiarise myself with the broad body of works that are referred to as urban fantasy today, I have now turned to works by three fantastsists that were interviewed in a special issue on urban fantasy in Locus : Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, and Marjorie M. Liu. Whereas Butcher and Jamieson made me reflect on how a city setting could feel absent despite being present, Briggs’s Moon Called made me wonder to what extent you could remove urbanity from urban fantasy.
Moon Called is the first novel of the Mercedes Thompson series. It is set in a contemporary, primary world in which the supernatural creatures have started to reveal themselves (anew) to an astonished humanity. The concerns and lives of fae, witches, vampires, skinwalkers, and, above all, werewolves are presented to the reader. A brief trip to the Montana mountains apart, the story takes place in Tri-Cities in Washington State.
Once more I found myself wonder what the place looked like, felt like, was like, but most of all, I wondered what was urban about it. Tri-Cities may be a lot of things, but an example of metropolitan city-life it is not. In the actual world, it is a place of some Briggs seems to focus more on the rural, small-town aspects of the place. Like Harry Dresden’s Chicago, Mercedes Thompson’s Tri-Cities appear more to be a handful of locations and very little inbetween: a garage, some houses, a mansion in the hills, a bar, and a farm.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, urban is an adjective meaning ”of, relating to, characteristic of, or constituting a city”. Tri-Cities, at least if the name is to be believed, certainly provides a city setting for Moon Called. So what’s my problem? In a nutshell, I believe it takes more for a novel to be of or relate to a city than just imply a city setting, not to mention be characteristic of or constitute a city. There must be a city for me to imagine, fictional or actual. Were I to visit Tri-Cities, I would recognise very little from Mercedes Thompson’s world, the map in Moon Called notwithstanding.
But I also expect urban fantasy to present me with a sense of the urban, of a metropolitan mileu, of city life. I expect the magical, mystical, fantastical creatures and events to clash with, hide from, and complement that city life. In short, I expect urban fantasy to provide me with more or less equal measures of fantasy and urbanity.