Natalie’s Theory of Urban Fantasy

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. Fuck around and find out.
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November 14, 2012

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton (cropped)

I’ve been reading urban fantasy since the early 1990’s and I’ve been watching it expand like whoa in the years since Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series were first published.

However, as Hamilton and Harris’s books became increasingly popular, the sub-genre metamorphosed into something very different from what I started reading: books with “strong female characters”, sometimes sympathetic monsters, extended action sequences, and a lot of dodgy worldbuilding.

I can usually tell within a handful of pages if an author I’ve never read before is writing from a SF/F or romance perspective. While it will earn me no love from certain quarters, I’ll say it anyway: The dodgier the worldbuilding and the more supernaturally hot the monsters, the more likely the author either writes romance or has read a lot of romance. And conversely, writers that come from SF/F  often fall short on characterization and emotional development. This isn’t a slur against either genre–I love both–it’s just that the emphasis tends to lead to different kinds of books.

In late 2005, when it came time for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominations, I requested a new category for urban fantasy. I was seeing more of these books show up–some were quite good and I didn’t want to use up all my nominations on them because I had other fantasy novels I liked, too. After a lot of discussion (I still have the emails), it was agreed that I could have a “modern-day fantasy” category as the general feeling was that the word “urban” was potentially confusing and that “contemporary fantasy” was too likely to be mixed up with “contemporary romance”. I was pretty unhappy about it but I took it–better than nothing, after all.  By late 2006, there was a separate urban fantasy section in the magazine and the “modern-day fantasy” category morphed into the urban fantasy one that we all know and love today.

So. Here’s the thing. Since that moment, that year before urban fantasy really burst onto the scene–damn near fully formed–I have been musing over a half-assed theory of urban fantasy.

See, I think these new style urban fantasies–I am going to call them paranormal fantasies to differentiate them from what came before–have a lot more in common with gothic novels and what I’ve always called romantic suspense–Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart–than they do with the initial iteration of the genre through the mid-1990’s.

All these type of books have, at their heart, a kind of anxiety about how women fit into the world and I don’t think it’s an accident that here in the United States, in a post-9/11 world, there is suddenly a proliferation of paranormal fantasy.

In all these genres, the protagonists are often women in a transitional phase in their lives. They find themselves with more responsibility–they have inherited property, they have supernatural abilities, they and/or those close to them are in peril. There are unseen and possibly magical enemies and difficulties that must be surmounted and dire consequences if they are not.

However, there is one thing these books are focused on in a way that romantic suspense is not–and that is the Other. The world has either changed or aspects of the world have become known that were hidden and there are monsters. Some of them are allied with the protagonist, but most of them are not. Alliances shift–a friendly monster in the first book may become an enemy by the end of the series and vice versa. You can’t count on what you thought you knew about the world because it is constantly changing. The speed at which things change in our world is, at times, frenetic, and this is reflected in paranormal fantasy. American society has–I am deliberately using a very broad brush here–deemed certain cultures to be monstrous (whether or not they actually are) and that tension is reflected in a lot of paranormal fantasy.

Despite the fact that these books are generally written by and for women and usually have female protagonists (and a headless woman in an unnatural pose wearing leather pants on the cover), these protagonists tend to not have a lot of agency. Their roles are prescribed by the kind of book they’re in and it is the rare book that deviates from the formula of kick-ass woman with a mysterious past and magical abilities.

Once in a while, the protagonist is delighted to be living this kind of life but it is typically portrayed as a duty, something to be gotten through until a heteronormative romantic partnership can be established while the enemy is getting its ass kicked. There is a persistent will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic running through many of these books that I find problematic and reductive and more than a little bit distracting–if the protagonist is trying to save the world from the evil vampires, why is she mooning over the nice vampire’s steely blue eyes and taut ass? I mean, I get that one can’t be all business all the time but does her non-ass-kicking time always have to be taken up with dating? Can’t she do jigsaw puzzles or knit? I hear that decorative gourds are very interesting, too.  If her role in this world is biologically determined by her having magical abilities, must it also be tied to her hormones? Are there any paranormal fantasies where the protagonist is bitten by a radioactive spider (or its equivalent)?  Or do bites from sexy vampires only count?

And while I’m talking about radioactive spiders, what about the responsibility that comes with these magic powers? There is an awful lot of killing of people who, apparently, deserve to die because they are evil due to their inherent abilities or who they are related to. There are rarely any repercussions for these murders and while the protagonist may pay lip service to feeling bad about it, there is rarely any true atonement for these actions. These characters typically live in worlds that are black and white with very little nuance. The minute one discovers one’s magical ass-kicking abilities, one loses whatever moral compass that one may have had previously.  The reader rarely, if ever, sees these characters wrestling with any kind of moral dilemma regarding these actions which they feel they must take. All too often, protagonists descend into moral bankruptcy through the course of a series–they become less human, less relatable, less heroic. And at the end, they’re all used up–and then all they’re good for is making a commitment to their supernatural lover and (if possible) having babies.

There are only so many books I can read about a kick-ass woman with a mysterious past and unexplained magical abilities and her adventures (and possible sexy times) with supernatural creatures while fighting evil before hitting overload. After a while, they all start to feel like the same book. Even making your protagonist a dude doesn’t really help much.

I want to see characters who struggle with the choices they have to make, who know that all their choices are shitty choices, and who have to live with the consequences of the choice. I want them to lose friends and allies and gain enemies. I want them to have to fight for their survival and I don’t want the happy ending to be assured from the get-go. I want unhappy endings and ostracized protagonists whose only consolation is that they did the best they could with the lousy cards they were dealt. Most of all, I want stories that are honestly written by authors who know what kind of fire they’re playing with and who understand that demonizing those that are different from the mainstream hurts actual real people in this world. In a world that is changing so quickly, today’s friendly vampire is potentially tomorrow’s bad vampire, and who gets to make that decision anyhow?  When the world in a book is defined only in shades of black and white, what happens to everyone in between?  And what happens when another Other comes along and redefines everything again?

If the protagonist is going to don leather pants and kick ass in order to save the world, I’d like her to stop and think about what she’s doing and why–because someday she might find herself on the other side of the ass-kicking equation because someone, somewhere, has decided that she is Other.

And I sure would like her to rethink the leather pants and high heels, too.

(Many many many thanks to Donna and Fran for their help hammering this into shape. Without them, this would be a crazy train heading into crazy town with a boring history lesson at the beginning. Fran would also like the record to reflect that she doesn’t know diddlysquat about urban/paranormal fantasy and that her primary role in this was to help me get the train on the tracks, to belabor the metaphor.)

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