Urban fantasy is, basically, a subgenre of fantasy where the story takes place in an urban setting. The genre is defined by the place, primarily; and, technically, can take place in any era as long as it fits the requisite of being in a city. But recently, urban fantasy has taken on a new meaning: mixing magic and the supernatural with the modern day world. It’s a subgenre that’s received a fair bit of limelight—both good and bad—due to its sudden spike in popularity. Most often, urban fantasy falls under the classification of young adult and is occasionally taken less seriously than full-fledged adult fiction. But really, if J.R.R Tolkien is considered the crème de la crème of adult fantasy authors, then there’s something to be said for people’s tastes.
… Bias aside.
Urban fantasy isn’t just about werewolves in London, or vampires in New York. It isn’t just about wish fulfilment, as some critics would like to believe, or about shiny pretty magic in the modern world. Now, in this decade, it’s about using the conventions inherent in the fantasy genre to portray a message; a message better suited to an urban setting, if only because this makes it immediately more relatable to teenagers than, say, the 1600s.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a prime example, even if the show encompasses other genres like horror and sci-fi. It’s a show that, in its early seasons, depicts high school as literally being hell, or at least built right on top of it. Maybe some people believe that this is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Maybe some people believe that a show about vampires and demons, with a titular character by the name of Buffy, is inane. But what they fail to see is that the writers of the show use these fantasy tropes as metaphors for issues that are socially and politically important in our world.
For instance, a familiar scenario: a girl sleeps with a guy, who later turns out to be much more malevolent than he originally seemed. The show tackles this metaphorically through Buffy and Angel—if he achieves a moment of perfect happiness, he loses his soul and becomes a monster. By using Angel’s vampirism as the metaphor, the show states that this is not okay, that this is something teenage girls should be aware of, that sometimes Mr. Right is not very right at all. Perhaps it does so in a subtler way and perhaps it does so through the use of an urban fantasy setting, but this does not invalidate what it portrays. After all, the demons and vampires are only one very superficial layer of what the show is actually about.
In fact, it’s successful because it confronts these kinds of issues head-on, but it does so in an entertaining way. Buffy draws in younger and older women alike, and gives them a strong female protagonist to relate to: in a genre where, sometimes, strong female protagonists are rather absent. (Like in Supernatural, where all the female characters either die, are a villain or both.)
Another example is The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy by Sarah Rees Brennan. Perhaps the issues it tackles aren’t as far-reaching, but it does use the setting to its advantage. At first glance, The Demon’s Lexicon appears to be a story about two brothers who fight off demons and other supernatural creatures. And yes, Supernatural did this too! A few years earlier!
But what makes The Demon’s Lexicon unique is, firstly, its plot twists that keep the reader guessing until the very end. And, secondly, the way it realistically portrays teenage relationships. It doesn’t glorify the power of romantic love or insist that said romantic love is a cure all for any kind of evil, much in the way that Buffy doesn’t. Instead it is about familial love—it’s about the love between two brothers, the love between brother and sister. It’s about the importance of family, family that’s both related by blood and family that isn’t. It’s about acceptance of these family members, and it’s about shining the spotlight on the strength of these bonds.
The female protagonist in this novel, Mae, is also a relatable hero for female readers: not because she saves the world or is a vampire slayer, but because she is confident in herself. Often, teenage girls in various mediums are portrayed as self-conscious and insecure about their appearance—which is a fair portrayal, as a good portion of teenage girls are self-conscious and insecure. Actually, it’s a bit of a Catch 22: the media continues to portray them this way, when really it’s partly the media’s fault they’re like that in the first place.
But Mae has relatively high self-esteem, confidence in her attractiveness and she does not define herself by her relationships with men. She’s the one who proves that, even in a setting with magicians and demons, you don’t have to have amazing supernatural talents to be badass. She uses her strengths to her advantage and yes, at times makes extraordinarily bad decisions, because she’s still human. At the end of the day, though, she is a relatable and strong female character. But in a different way to Buffy, she is somebody that teenage girls can aspire to be without requiring super strength or otherworldly boyfriends, which is a plus.
Urban and contemporary fantasy makes these kinds of characters possible. It makes it possible to bring certain issues to the forefront; issues that are delicate and should be handled delicately, and issues that aren’t and don’t need to be. This subgenre is a vehicle—a vehicle that more and more writers are taking advantage of (and not all of them are doing it because of the success of Harry Potter and Twilight, shock horror!).
Yes, maybe the storylines can be unrealistic, because really, everyone knows vampires and werewolves don’t exist. But that doesn’t make the genre any less valid because of that. After all, living happily ever after doesn’t really exist either, and everyone seems to love Disney and fairytales.
Fantasy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but it does deserve to be taken seriously. And so does young adult fiction, because most of the time, there is no difference in quality: just because a book is marketed at teenagers does not mean it is any less worthwhile than a book marketed at adults. Just because it has magic in it does not mean it is silly. Buffy especially is an integral part of our popular culture, and it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future, so it’s better to get used to it now. Urban fantasy is gaining more and more popularity for a reason, folks.