Friday, August 20, 2010

Urban Fantasy

[This is a Breaking New Ground post]

As far as I can tell, Urban Fantasy has three definitions. The first is any work in which magic comes into the real world. It’s already well documented that I’m a fan, so I won’t be doing that kind of Urban Fantasy. The second definition is anything where the city is a main character. Again, it’s quite obvious that I’m onboard, so we won’t be heading there. The final definition is, to quote Ms. Saintcrow:

Chicks kicking ass. Well, leather-clad chicks kicking ass. Leather-clad chicks kicking ass in an urban environment where some form of "magic" is part of the world. There. That’s about it.

That is the definition that, for the next few weeks, I will be using here on the Rack. It is a definition that, needless to say, doesn’t fill me with confidence and a let’s go! attitude. But it’s the definition that we’re stuck with, and, after all, if it did fill me with those things, I wouldn’t be reading it right now.

From what I can tell (as an outsider, mind you), Urban Fantasy is generally a first person affair, usually (in the subset of it that I’ll be looking at) narrated from a female perspective, has some manner unclothed and tattooed female body part on the cover, features moral ambiguity to a greater or lesser extent, usually has some sort of romance, and often seems to be the standard magic-in-hiding scenario that almost always seems to use the same vampires/werewolves/wizards or what have you.

None of those aspects are particularly odious in and of themselves, but together they make a product that I’m somewhat wary of. And that last sentence was me lying through my teeth, because several of those do cause serious problems for me. The biggest of them (besides the cover art) is the romance element. Now, I’m not adverse to romance in my fiction. I love well drawn characters more than I love anything else, and I understand that people (and characters) fall in love, have relationships, etc. That’s fine, as long as it’s only a part of their personality and story. When the main thrust of the tale is True Love, or any variant of said Love, I start looking for the exits. I remain doubtful that there’re characters great enough to keep me engaged with stakes no higher than their imminent copulation. So the fact that this genre has ties, no matter how tenuous, to paranormal romance is freaking me out a bit.

Ignoring the romance, I’ve got a bit of a problem with the paranormal part, too. Though there are exceptions, werewolves, vampires, etc, are all creatures that, at this point, cause me to do more groaning than screaming when they appear. I’m sure that not all Urban Fantasy relies purely on those particular supernaturals, but it seems that a rather large percentage of it does, and I’m sick of it even before opening to the first page, which is, needless to say, not a good sign.

But I think it’s time to change tracks here, as I could go on forever on why I haven’t read the books, but it’s a bit pointless to do so when I’m about to actually go read them. This won’t be the absolute first time I’ve been in these waters. Going by (some variant of) Saintcrow’s definition, I’ve read: Jim Butcher. Yeah, that’s really it. I enjoyed the sarcastic narration, the character of Harry, and the feel of the whole affair, but the blatant idiocy of half the cast made me drop the series after the second book, and I remain doubtful that I’m going to pick it up again.

So, what am I planning to read?

Griffin’s concept of “Urban Magic” seems like exactly my thing. Even better, the book is almost entirely devoid of the things that I can’t help but look for. The cover, for instance, has a cheesy-but-sort-of-cool guy on it, which makes me feel sort of safe, at least in the sense that it will be, at worst, bad in a cheesy way that I already understand. Griffin is well liked on Westeros, which has rarely steered me wrong before, not to mention the myriad good reviews she’s received.

UPDATE: And the challenge has been met.

A tattooed back? An Amazon blurb that includes: Until one moment – and one man – changes everything? Uh oh. The reasons that The Iron Hunt survived, despite triggering every safeguard and warning, are twofold. The first is that, a few weeks ago, Marjorie M. Liu and Kelly Armstrong had a conversation on Scalzi’s Whatever. Over the course of the conversation, Armstrong said: One thing I admired about [your writing] is the depth and richness of your writing. Your prose is very lush, but you still keep up the pace and the action, which is a rare combination. Good prose is definitely one of the main things I look for in a novel, so this was very comforting. The second reason came from the first half of the amazon marketing blurb that I quoted just above, which reads: Demon hunter Maxine Kiss wears her armor as tattoos, which unwind from her body to take on forms of their own at night. So those aren’t just overrated decorations? Alright, this all seems to have been given some thought, so I suppose it deserves a chance. Besides which, Thea (of The Book Smugglers) gave it a very promising review that reaffirms the excellent prose.

UPDATE: Challenge met.

The Mercy Thompson series features a shapeshifter as a protagonist, with the twist that the prime mythology that it draws from is Native American, rather than Twilight. I’ve also been told that Mercy is a realistic and well drawn character, and that romance (though present) is not the dominant aspect. On the subject of the series, Thea said: Seriously, this is one of the finest ongoing urban fantasy series’ around – Mercy is the ideal, genuine heroine, and Patricia Briggs’ gift for storytelling is damn near unparalleled, which sounds like damn fine praise to me.

Huston’s work is highly regarded on Westeros, coming up again and again in this thread. I’ve heard that his novels are gritty and fast paced, as well as possessing a fairly original take on the standard pantheon of supernaturals. On the review front, (gulp) said: This book is the perfect antidote to the romanticised vampire.

Though not quite a fit for my definitions (being , from what I can tell, a near-future setting merged with magic, rather than a present day one) I’m counting Snake Agent here. The oriental basis for the magic sounded interesting, as did the overall concept of the book, and the positive reviews got me interested.

So, what does the whole list mean? Well, I’m determined to get through a minimum of five books from each new genre, and, while I reserve the right to replace one of them, those look like the likeliest candidates. I can’t promise a review of every book read for this, but I will, at the least, do a more informal post on them. So, without wasting any more time, I’m off to go kick read some demon ass fiction in my new leather pants.


  1. Huston is a damn good author and I really enjoyed Snake Agent. I picked up A Madness of Angels (but haven't read it) based solely on the plot sounding exactly like that of another book I loved, also this newer sort of Urban Fantasy (though it does not follow the St. Crow definition, just as Huston and Williams doesn't), Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim.

  2. Looking back over my list, it's probably not a good thing that three out of the five books don't meet the definition. My actual selection process pretty much boiled down to going through the comments on the original blog post, as well as the reaction threads on Westeros and SFF blog, and just seeing what looked (potentially) good, so I guess I'll have to retroactively expand my definition a tad.

  3. My feelings on urban fantasy match yours exactly. China Meiville? Yes Please. Neil Gaiman? Why thank you, yes. Bare midriff ass kicking chick? Erm, I think I left the oven on...

    Maybe your upcoming efforts will be enough to make me carefully dip my toes in as well!

  4. I feel like I have to step in to defend Butcher. The first two books are now generally considered to be sub-par by the fans and they think the books greatly improve after that.

    As for the idiocy of the cast, I suspect you're mostly talking about Karen "I AM ARRESTING YOU DESPITE THE FACT THAT IT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE" Murphy, the tiny policewoman with a huge inferiority complex. God, I loathe her so. Thankfully, Butcher wised up to the fact that she was insufferable in the first two books and retooled the character.

    You probably have other things to read, but if you were mostly enjoying the Dresden books, but were too annoyed to continue, I'd advise you to take a look at the third book before passing final judgment.

  5. I've heard a lot that they do get better as they go on, and I probably will give them another chance at some point when I'm looking for something light. That being said, the one scene that would not stop bugging me in Fool Moon was the turf war between Karen/Harry and the agents. Karen wouldn't go away, and the agent...shot a gun at her? And then said that Harry shouldn't intervene, because she could take care of herself? What!? Another cop just SHOT A GUN at you, and you don't even care enough to report it? They tried to kill you, damn it! I mean, I know it's not that important a scene, but it really stuck with me.