Saturday, January 10, 2009

Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a fantasy subgenre that has become quite popular in the last 5 years or so. The novels in this genre are usually set in a contemporary world with some magical influences and typically other species. They also often feature strong, hot chicks who solve mysteries and kick ass. The fact that they are kickass very often makes it to the cover of the book:

As with many other genres there are plenty of people who love it and plenty of people who will go to great lengths to explain to you how it's trash. A great example of the controversy showed up in Pat's Fantasy Hotlist post by an urban fantasy author, Lilith Saintcrow, defending the genre and the replies it got in the comments and other genre blogs.

This week, another urban fantasy author, Carrie Vaughn, posted a series of blogs discussing the genre, what she dislikes about it, and why it has become so popular recently. It makes for an interesting reading, so the links are below:

6. The book has a strong woman character. But only one. You’d think a genre that supposedly celebrates kick-ass women ought to be able to have more than one per series. You’d think a genre that’s supposed to be all about empowering women would be able to pass the Bechdel Test more often. The test: The story in question has 1) at least two women, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than men.
The Bechdel Test is not something I have heard of before or thought about. But in retrospect Carrie does have a point, most of the heroines in urban fantasy novels usually have a male sidekick/love interest and very rarely female friends. On one hand that may be understandable, with the lifestyle they typically lead, I am sometimes surprised they have friends at all. It also probably makes the author's job easier in portraying this particular woman as exceptional, after all her friend would need to be pretty kickass too just to keep up.

On the other hand, this neglect of secondary female characters is a loss. I have been thinking how Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my all-time favourite series predates, but fits into the urban fantasy phenomena. And I think Buffy's relationship with Willow on the show and the fact that they are both strong though in very different ways has a lot to do with how much I enjoyed watching the series.

So what is the take away? I enjoy reading urban fantasy. Some of it is good, some of it... not so good. A lot of the UF novels have their flaws, but their popularity shows at the very least that they have a great entertaining value. Let's hope we'll see lots more quality authors in the genre as the time passes and I think I will be watching for secondary female characters from now on.

Finally, if you are new to the genre and want to try some urban fantasy I would suggest picking up Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking, Emma Bull's War for the Oaks or Laurell Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures.

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