Defining Urban Fantasy

Earlier in the year, I made on post on my definition of the term “epic fantasy.” I feel like “urban fantasy” is a bit more clear cut, with its definition centering around setting. However, questions arise once you start trying to sort books into the genre.

There are some stories, based upon setting and plot, which I am completely confident fall under the heading of urban fantasy. Other’s give me pause while I’m tagging my reviews.

Urban Fantasy
From top to bottom, how certain I am that the book in question is urban fantasy.

The general definition of urban fantasy is a fantasy story set in an urban environment. For instance, Kate Griffin’s novel A Madness of Angels is an urban fantasy set in London. London based urban fantasy is a common enough that I think it could be its own sub-subgenre, but there’s stories set in other cities as well. The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews is set in a magical version of Atlanta. Borderline by Mishell Baker takes place in LA, and The Long Way Down by Craig Schaefer is set in the seamy underbelly of Los Vegas.

The first question I think of here is, how large does the urban environment have to be? Is the small town of Henrietta, Virginia in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys really urban enough to be classified as urban fantasy? Over six hundred people on Goodreads have shelved it as such. Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest is set in a fictional small town surrounded by the fae and is another novel commonly classified as urban fantasy. I’m not sure I would consider either strictly urban fantasy novels, although I think Black’s novel comes closer than Stiefvater’s. For me to consider something definitely urban fantasy, it has to be set in a large city.

What about time period? Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke is set primarily in various cities in England, such as London and York. But it’s also set during the early 1800’s. Yet it too is sometimes listed as urban fantasy, where I think of it more as historical fantasy. I myself have shelved The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wrecker as urban fantasy, and its set in early 1900’s New York. What about fantastical books that take place in the future, such as Tenea Johnson’s Smoketown? Ilona Andrew’s Kate Daniel series also technically takes place in the future. However, most of what I consider urban fantasy is contemporary as of when it was written.

Does the urban environment in question have to be a real world city? Plenty of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are set primarily or entirely in the fictional city of Ankh-Morepork, but I don’t usually consider them to be urban fantasy. For me to consider something something as urban fantasy, it usually has to be a recognizable version of our own world. Yet, there’s books that challenge the word “recognizable.” I can see traces of our own world in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. For instance, I believe the city Dresediel Lex is a version of Los Angles, but the differences in the world are so great that it can be hard to say for certain.

There’s also the question of overlap with the paranormal romance genre, since those books also tend to involve magical elements in cities. I would try to answer this question by looking at which receives the most narrative focus: the romance or the external plot? Even then, the distinction lies at the behest of the reader.

Then there’s books that somehow meet all the “totally urban fantasy” requirements I just listed (contemporary, recognizable version of a large city) but somehow still don’t “feel” like urban fantasy to me, such as The Bartimeaus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. I think this is because urban fantasy has its own tropes and expectations. For instance, the plot is almost always a mystery of some sort although there are clear exceptions (War for the Oaks by Emma Bull). The speculative elements also fall into clear trends with vampires, werewolves, fae, or witches/wizards all being very popular. But there’s also books like The Rook by Daniel O’Malley where the speculative elements are people born with specific powers, more reminiscent of X-Men than anything else.

If there’s one thing I can see from all this, it’s that all my attempts at rules or qualifications will ultimately result in exceptions. So don’t expect to much underlying order from my “urban fantasy” tag.

Do you disagree with any of the books that I’ve classed as urban fantasy? Do you think urban fantasy has to be contemporary? Set in a city? Set in a version of our world? What are some of your favorite urban fantasy novels?

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6 thoughts on “Defining Urban Fantasy

  1. Oh, wow! You opened a real can of worms there. I’ve read most of the ones you’ve listed and some of them I can’t honestly say are Urban Fantasy, either, although they take place in such a setting. And the overlap with paranormal romance confuses things quite a bit.

    I pretty much class British Urban Fantasy as its own genre. It’s very distinct from American urban fantasy. And then there’s Urban Urban fantasy like Maurice Broaddus, which I really like, but it’s rare. Is it Urban fantasy, Street fantasy or what.

    I’ve pretty much given up trying to classify some of these books, like Superhero books, for example. The Marcus Sakey Brilliance series is like a darker, more urban version of The X-Men.

    I think you’re probably taking a short walk to the insane asylum to try it.😊 But good luck!

    1. I also tend to classify superheroes as their own thing, but I also consider it a subgenre of science fiction even when there’s fantasy elements? I’m not sure there’s a logical explanation for that.

  2. I had a related discussion with a friend not too long ago. I’m also quite liberal with my categorization of “urban fantasy”, and on book sites like Goodreads I usually shelve on a case by case basis. It’s also why my label is simply “urban”, so that way I have some wriggle room for books that don’t fall squarely in the “totally urban fantasy” genre.

  3. I read very little urban fantasy so I am not qualified to judge BUT — going on the principle that I know it when I see it, which is very shaky in any case and very VERY shaky here — I think it does have to be contemporaryish (let’s say, post-WWII), and set in a large city (towns don’t count, Stiefvater doesn’t qualify), and a version of our world. All three of those conditions must apply, in my opinion, with the last one being maybe the one I could ignore.

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