Monday, February 1, 2021

What makes Urban fantasy?

[EDIT: I've been corrected. Anita Blake took place in Saint Louis. Which tells you exactly how little of an impression it made]

What makes Urban fantasy?

If you said "It's Fantasy in a city, duh" you'd be right.

Then where's the city?

You see, one of the things I've always taken into account when writing my UF novels is that the city is a character. Like the Enterprise in Star Trek, the city itself plays a significant part in the story. It was one of my big problems with Anita Blake novels -- before they became porn-- I never got a sense that the city was a part of the story. The novels took place in Seattle Saint Louis, but they felt like they could have taken place anywhere. The same with Larry Correia's Monster Hunters or Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series.

They felt like modern fantasy, but not necessarily urban fantasy. 

For example, when I think of a sense of place, Correia's Monster Hunters live in a southern compound. There are forests. There are swamps. There aren't many cities, except in Monster Hunter: Legion, where he trashes Las Vegas, and sections of Siege that took place in Russia. With Carrie Vaughn, Kitty Norville's town could be any town with a radio station on one end, and wilderness on the other... even though it's supposed to be Denver, nothing felt that distinct. My memory may be failing me, but to be honest, if there were distinct elements of each city, they left no impression with me at all.

At the very start of Urban Fantasy, Fred Saberhagen set Dracula in Chicago. Saberhagen's Old Friend of the Family ended with a vampire throwdown, on top of the frozen river running through the city. For Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, Chicago is deeply relevant for the setting, especially in his most recent novel, Battle Ground.

On the other end of the scale, Urban Fantasy makes the setting seriously matter. 

Correia's Grimnoir series makes each city feel distinct, especially as he trashes it. 

Despite the fact that she's often listed under romance, Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunters world usually did a fairly good job capturing the setting of New Orleans and getting a feel for the city as a whole--from the atmosphere to the accents. 

John Ringo did much the same for Monster Hunter Memoirs, both in New Orleans and the other cities his hero Chad was stationed

Russell Newquist's War Demons gave me a good sense of Georgia--up to and including a final fight in a football stadium.

Even in fictional cities like Silver Empire's superhero novels, each city has a unique tone and feel to it. Morgan Newquist does a great job in building her Serenity city--which feels very corporate, with put-on sophistication that reminds me of Manhattan elitists. Kai Wai Cheah's Hollow City vividly reminds me of San Francisco culture with Chicago corruption. It was much the same in Kim Harrison's Hollows series -- she's altered the world so much that I have not idea how much of her Cincinnati is real and how much is fictional, but it is distinct.

This was very much my own thought process when I wrote Saint Tommy NYPD or Love at First Bite. And they're both less "New York City" novels as they are local neighborhood novels. New York City is made up of local areas that are as distinct from each other as cities are from one another. With Love at First Bite, Manhattan vampire bars feel different than fighting vampires in a Queens cemetery, which feels different than working around San Francisco (even before San Francisco streets turned to feces and needles). The vampire bar near Mount Sinai isn't the bar near Alphabet city. 

For Saint Tommy, he doesn't have to deal with mafiosi or a heavy street gang presence, because they're in different neighborhoods... except for MS-13, which is closing in on several fronts. Heck, even the tactics of fighting in each neighborhood is different. In Brooklyn, you can launch an armed ambush by hiding armies down side streets. In King's Point, individual homes have their own personal docks. When I wrote the books, I was certain that committing a crime in broad daylight would earn the perp a good stomping by a passerby, then move along. (... since then, my faith in the ornery average New Yorker has been massively shaken) In later books, I make use of local geography and sites that you don't have in any tour book. 

Of course, I have a car chase that requires not only knowing traffic patterns, but also ways around them. 

In fact, that's part of what gives many of the above UF novels their feel--the city has an overall feel, and each neighborhood has their own feel. A major plot point of Battle Ground involved a fae army walking into the wrong part of Chicago, as well as local architecture being tactically useful... even Chicago pizza is a plot element. No two parts of Kim Harrison's Cincinnati are alike, but the overall feel of the city is consistent. Monster Hunter Legion could only have taken place in Las Vegas for multiple reasons. The same with Fred Saberhagen and Chicago.

So, TLDR: in Urban Fantasy, the city should be a part of the story, a player in its own right, with its own feel and own distinct areas. Otherwise, it's contemporary fantasy. Don't get me wrong, all but one of the authors mentioned here have written great books. But are they urban fantasy?

I'll make you a challenge. Read any of my UF to get a feel for what I mean, then read the others. Then tell me if I'm wrong.**

**Publisher links below.


  1. Denton Salle's use Dallas and Fort Worth, complete with unis, cafes, opera houses, and parks. How else can it be said to be somewhere if the city is ill-defined

  2. I have always thought my books were urban fantasy bevause they have vampires, werewolves and witches. But they don’t really happen in a specific city. The base of operarions is in a forest and they travel to cities for “missions”.

    They definitely don’t fit the mold of other UF I’ve read.

    I guess its’s time ro rebrand to Modern Fantasy? Food for thought.

    1. Not impossible. There's also simply "contemporary fantasy."


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