Why We Need Urban Fantasy

Why We Need Urban Fantasy

By Neal Martin/ May 14, 2023
Last Updated May 14, 2023
urban fantasy

Ah, urban fantasy – the dark and mysterious cousin of your garden-variety fantasy, trading in lofty castles and sprawling forests for bustling cityscapes and shadowy alleyways. It’s a genre that enchants us with tales of the extraordinary lurking within the ordinary, of vampires running nightclubs, werewolves for neighbors, and magic hidden amidst the concrete and steel of our modern world.

But why, you might ask, should we care about these fantastical urban tales? Isn’t urban fantasy just a trashy genre that no one takes seriously?

Well, certain “critics” and literary snobs may diss urban fantasy as being lowbrow trash for people who can’t appreciate “real” literature. But I can assure you, there are millions of fans out there who could care less what others think of their beloved UF genre.

And while we’re at it, trashy books exist in every genre – so do downright bad books. But that doesn’t mean the genre itself is worthless. On the contrary, the urban fantasy genre – thanks to authors like Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey, Richard Kadrey, Jim Butcher, Poppy Z. Brite, Anne Rice, and a whole slew of others – has had plenty of importance to say over the years, and has had a significant impact not only on literary culture, but on popular culture as a whole.

So, join me as we take a journey through the neon-lit streets of urban fantasy, and by the end, you’ll see why this genre truly matters.

The Role of Fantasy in Literature

fantasy literature

Fantasy, as a genre, is as ancient as the human propensity for storytelling itself. It is deeply rooted in our collective consciousness, harking back to an era when we huddled around campfires, our shadows dancing on cave walls as we wove tales of gods, monsters, and heroes. These narratives served a multitude of purposes – they were cautionary tales, moral fables, and explanations for the inexplicable mysteries of our universe.

In the contemporary sense, fantasy continues this tradition but adds a layer of introspection to it. It allows us to explore humanity’s hopes, fears, and complexities by creating a mirror, albeit one that’s slightly skewed. When we read fantasy, we’re given a chance to grapple with profound philosophical questions, moral dilemmas, and social constructs, all safely cocooned within the framework of a world that’s different from our own.

However, urban fantasy is a particularly fascinating subgenre that dials up the intimacy of this reflection. It doesn’t whisk us away to distant lands or bygone eras. Instead, it brings the fantastic right to our doorstep, embedding it in the hustle and bustle of our modern lives. The resulting blend of the supernatural with the mundane creates a powerful resonance that’s uniquely urban fantasy.

In a high fantasy novel, you might encounter a dragon hoarding gold in a remote, mountainous lair. But in an urban fantasy setting, the dragon could be your eccentric, wealthy neighbor living in the penthouse, with an inexplicable fondness for shiny trinkets. The subway isn’t just a mode of transportation, it could also be a portal to other realms. Your favorite cafe could be a neutral meeting place for witches, vampires, and other magical beings.

This is the charm of urban fantasy. It turns our mundane world into a playground of magical possibilities. It suggests that the ordinary can be extraordinary, that magic can exist in a traffic jam, a city park, or a high-rise building. It teases us with the idea that the fantastical isn’t tucked away in distant lands, but is hidden in plain sight, waiting to be discovered. It makes the prospect of the extraordinary as real and tangible as our next cup of coffee. And that, my friend, is the true power and allure of urban fantasy.

The Power of Escapism

urban fantasy

In a world constantly buzzing with information overload, burgeoning to-do lists, and relentless deadlines, who hasn’t fantasized about escaping, even just for a little while? This yearning for respite, for a temporary refuge from the pressures of our day-to-day lives, is where the magic of escapism shines.

At its core, escapism is a psychological mechanism that allows us to disconnect from our current realities and immerse ourselves in an alternative universe. It’s a mental vacation, a way to recharge our batteries without stepping foot outside our homes. It’s not about denial or avoidance, as some might suggest, but about finding balance and nurturing our mental well-being. And what better way to do so than through the boundless world of urban fantasy?

Urban fantasy, with its unique blend of the familiar and the extraordinary, offers the perfect escape.

Imagine this: you live in a world much like our own, with the same rush hour traffic, the same office politics, the same coffee shop on the corner. But, in this world, the traffic could be caused by a dragon taking a nap on the freeway, your office rival might be a mischievous fairy, and the coffee shop could serve potions alongside lattes.

This is the essence of urban fantasy’s appeal. It takes the gray-scale routine of our lives and infuses it with vibrant hues of enchantment and adventure. One moment, you’re crunching numbers for your monthly budget; the next, you’re deciphering an ancient prophecy that could save the world.

Urban fantasy isn’t just about the thrill of the unknown, although it offers that in spades. It’s about reimagining our world and seeing it through a lens of wonder and possibility. It’s the promise that beneath the veneer of the mundane, adventure awaits. The city you walk through every day is transformed into a place of secrets and mysteries, where anything is possible.

This sense of wonder, of endless possibility, is an antidote to the mundanity and stress of our daily lives. It allows us to step outside of ourselves, to live vicariously through characters who navigate both the ordinary and the extraordinary. In doing so, we can find a sense of relief, of liberation, and return to our own lives refreshed, with our perspectives subtly shifted, our minds a little more open to the magic in our own world.

Urban Fantasy as a Tool for Social Commentary

urban fantasy

While urban fantasy is indeed a thrilling rollercoaster ride through a landscape teeming with supernatural entities and magical occurrences, it is far more than just an entertaining jaunt. It is a genre with the capacity for profound social commentary, reflecting our world back at us through a distorted, yet illuminating, magical lens.

The beauty of urban fantasy lies in its inherent paradox – it is our world, yet not our world. This juxtaposition creates a unique storytelling platform where authors can unpack and critique modern societal issues, while simultaneously engaging readers with riveting, fantastical narratives.

Take, for instance, the “Rivers of London” series by Ben Aaronovitch. On the surface, it’s an electrifying tale of wizarding policemen and river goddesses set against the backdrop of contemporary London. Yet, woven into its magical narrative are threads of biting social commentary. It explores issues of race, class, and the implications of modern urban living, presenting these topics in a context that is at once removed from our reality and intimately tied to it.

Urban fantasy’s unique setup allows it to tackle real-world issues in a way that’s both accessible and thought-provoking. It can address topics that might be difficult or contentious in a non-speculative genre, providing a safe space for readers to engage with these issues.

Consider how urban fantasy often explores themes of identity, belonging, and otherness. Characters who are supernatural beings trying to navigate a human-centric world can serve as metaphors for marginalized groups in our own society. By portraying their struggles for acceptance and equality, these stories can open up dialogues about prejudice, discrimination, and social justice in a way that’s poignant yet palatable.

Furthermore, the urban setting in these narratives is not just a backdrop but a character in its own right. It reflects the diversity, vibrancy, and challenges of city life, highlighting issues such as wealth disparity, gentrification, and the ecological impact of urbanization.

By cloaking these real-world issues in a veneer of the fantastical, urban fantasy stimulates introspection and discussion. It invites readers to question, to reassess their preconceptions, and to see their world from new perspectives. All this, while keeping them hooked with tales of magic, mystery, and adventure.

So, while you might start reading an urban fantasy novel for its promise of magical escapism, don’t be surprised if you come away with a deeper understanding of the world around you. It’s this clever blend of entertainment and enlightenment that makes urban fantasy a powerful tool for social commentary, and one of the most engaging genres in contemporary literature.

The Cultural Influence of Urban Fantasy

dark urban fantasy

The influence of urban fantasy on pop culture is undeniably significant. This relatively young genre has grown rapidly and has permeated various aspects of media, from TV series and movies to literature, video games, and even art.

Take a look at the TV landscape. Shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Shadowhunters” have not only achieved commercial success, but have also set a standard for blending the supernatural with the modern world. They’ve introduced a generation of viewers to the thrilling premise of magic hiding in the shadows of our everyday lives. These shows have forever transformed our expectations for TV narratives, proving that fantasy need not be confined to medieval realms or distant galaxies, but can exist right here in our own world.

Literature, too, has seen the profound influence of urban fantasy. The success of book series like Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files” has demonstrated the genre’s wide appeal. Readers have shown an insatiable appetite for these narratives, where detectives solve mysteries with magic, and mythical creatures lurk in city shadows. It’s a testament to the popularity of urban fantasy that these books have spawned countless other series, creating a thriving sub-genre within fantasy literature.

Urban fantasy’s impact doesn’t stop at entertainment. The genre is continually evolving, with authors constantly pushing the boundaries of what urban fantasy can be.  Check out these articles for examples, especially in the dark urban fantasy subgenre:

In essence, urban fantasy’s influence extends far and wide. It has made a significant impact on our pop culture landscape, inspiring new storytelling styles and narratives. The genre’s ability to merge the familiar with the fantastical has not only captivated audiences but also inspired a new wave of creators. It continues to redefine our understanding of fantasy, proving that magic can exist not only in enchanted forests or alien planets, but right here in our own bustling cities.

So, why does urban fantasy matter?

Urban fantasy is important because it blends the familiar with the fantastical, offering both an escape from reality and a unique lens to explore and critique our own society.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s also hella fun, and anything that provides fun in a safe way can only be welcomed in this day and age.

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