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Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Urban Fantasy Anthology"

Plot Type: Supposedly Urban Fantasy (UF), but not really
Ratings: low-to-mid levels of violence, no sensuality, and little humor
Publisher: Tachyon Publications (2011)

     Just for the record, the single best description of modern urban fantasy that I have ever read was written by George R. R. Martin in "The Bastard Stepchild," a brief introductory essay to the anthology Down These Strange Streets (Ace, 2011). I recommend it to any reader who wants to know exactly what modern UF is, where its roots lie, and what drives its heroes and heroines.

     Here's the opening sentence: "There's a new kid on the shelves in bookstores these days. Most often he can be found back in the science fiction and fantasy section, walking with a certain swagger among the epic fantasies, the space operas, the sword-and-sorcery yarns and cyberpunk dystopias. Sometimes he wanders up front, to hang out with the bestsellers. They call him 'urban fantasy,' and these past few years he's been the hottest subgenre in publishing." (p. ix)

     And just one more quotation: "The new urban fantasy may be some kin to that 1980s variety, but if so, the kinship is a distant one, for the new kid is a bastard through and through. He makes his home on streets altogether meaner and dirtier than those his cousin walked, in New York and Chicago and L.A. and nameless cities where blood runs in the gutters and the screams in the night drown out the music." (p. ix)

     And now, on to my analysis of The Urban Fantasy Anthology, which is a major disappointment, primarily because most of the stories aren't really urban fantasy, but a mixture of ghost stories, traditional fantasy, horror, and post-apocalyptic fiction. I was turned off right from the beginning when I read the Introduction to the book and found the following totally inaccurate statement made by Peter S. Beagle in his discussion of the modern urban fantasy heroine: " have cheerful werewolf heroines running radio call-in showsas in Laurell K. Hamilton's ANITA BLAKE series..." (p. 10) As we all know, Carrie Vaughn, not Laurell K. Hamilton, is the author of the series with the werewolf radio star (her KITTY NORVILLE series). The heroine of Hamilton's ANITA BLAKE series makes her living as a necromancer and a vampire hunter. This gaffe is particularly egregious because Carrie Vaughn is one of the featured authors in this anthology, and her entry is a KITTY story! It's difficult to put much faith in an essay that includes such a glaring error. Fact checker, please!

     Beagle does make a few statements about urban fantasy that are worth repeating. Here, he discusses the difference between traditional fantasy and urban fantasy: "I still think that urban fantasy's most important distinction is that it isn't The Lord of the Rings: that is, it doesn't happen in a comfortable rural, pre-industrial setting, where people still ride horses, swing swords, quaff ale in variously sinister pubs, and head off apocalypses and Armageddons that would make a Buffy episode look like a tussle in a schoolyard." (p. 9) 

     The book is divided into three sections, which Beagle believes are the "three distinct subgenres of urban fantasy." Each section begins with an essay defining that sub-genre:

Mythic Fiction (5 stories): 
     According to Beagle, this sub-genre interweaves myths and fairy tales into tales of contemporary life. Charles de Lint writes the introductory essay for this section, in which he quotes Terri Windling's definition of mythic fiction as follows: ..."a way to describe novels and stories...that make conscious use of myth, medieval Romance, folklore, and/or fairy tales, but that are set in the real world, rather than in invented fantasy landscapes." (p. 18) The authors included in this section are Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, and Peter S. Beagle. The stories in this section come closest to meeting the definition for the sub-genre (in this case, mythic fiction) given in the introductory essay.

Paranormal Romance (8 stories): 
     The sub-genre descriptions for this section come the closest to the real definition of urban fantasy. Too bad the stories don't match up with the descriptions. Beagle describes this type of fiction as having "dark, tawdry, and dysfunctional" characters living in urban settings. Beagle goes on to say that "our heroine, walking through the empty subway station, is no longer the meek shrinking-violet of previous generations. She is precocious, athletic, sexually aware, and regards kicking demonic ass, in Buffy's words, as 'comfort food.'" (p. 10) Paula Guran writes the introductory essay for this section, where she describes urban fantasy as follows: "More recently, readers wanted a type of fantasy novel that was set in an alternate version of our contemporary/near-contemporary (but not always urban) world with a female (sometimes male) protagonist who usually (but not always) has (or develops) a certain amount of 'kicassitude.' She possesses supernatural powers or a connection to those with such powers (or gains them for herself). The books often had a detective-style plot—or at least something that had to be revealed/discovered—with (usually but not always) a romantic relationship as to at least one subplot. Action-oriented, they often included horrific elements balanced with humor. The comedy might be snarky, twinged with morbidity, or downright funny, but the universe was still, overall, dark. When romance (and/or sex) was involved it was written either from the female perspective or a balance of female and male. The protagonist was also usually involved in a journey of self-discovery. This evolving character development, complex universe, and complicated storylines usually required more than one book to resolve." (p. 137) Guran summarizes by saying that UF is "An intersection of 'the other'—the magical, the strange, the weird, the wondrous, the dark that illumines, the revelation of the hidden—with the mundane, the world we know." (p. 145) The authors included in this section are Charles de Lint, Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Francesca Lia Block.

Noir Fantasy (7 stories): 
     Joe R. Lansdale writes the introductory essay for this section, and he explores the connection between UF and horror: "The fiction has the stink of the urban about it...either because they take place in the city, or display the weaknesses of humanity in large numbers and close quarters. The terror is often due to the actions of people: pollution, street crime, over population, dehumanization, and so on. What supernatural elements there are, are dragged out of the haunted house and into the tract house and walk-up apartment, or they take place in the wasteland of some horrid aftermath brought on by the mistakes of civilization." (p. 276) The authors included in this section are Thomas M. Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Steven R. Boyett, Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Powers, and Al Sarrantonio.

     Of all the definitions of "urban fantasy" that are included in the four essays, I believe that Guran is the most accurate. But why, then, is her section entitled "Paranormal Romance" when paranormal romance is NOT urban fantasy. Paranormal romance is a fiction in which the romantic relationship of the hero and the heroine is the center of the plot, and they ALWAYS have happy endings (aka HEAs). Only one of the stories in the "paranormal romance" section features a relationship with a happy ending (Patricia Briggs's "Seeing Eye"), and it is really more UF than romance. 

     Using Guran's excellent UF definition as a guide, you definitely won't find much UF in this book. As far as the "paranormal" aspect goes, there are some sidthe (fae), werewolves, zombies, elves, and ghosts, but only one story features vampires (although another does include imaginary vampires), and there are no demons or evil spirits anywhere. There is also a shortage of kick-ass UF heroines (or heroes)—a vital element in modern UF.

Here are the stories come closest to actually fitting Guran's description of urban fantasy:
Holly Black's "The Coldest Girl in Coldtown" (recycled from The Eternal Kiss: 13 Vampire Tales of Blood and Desire, 2009) (vampires in the city) This is the truest example of UF in the entire book, and one of the best stories.
Steven R. Boyett: "Talking Back to the Moon" (previously unpublished) (female protagonist, zombies, post-apocalyptic California) One of my favorite stories in this book. This would make a great UF series.
Carrie Vaughn: "Kitty's Zombie New Year" (an older KITTY NORVILLE story recycled from Weird Tales, 2007, and included in Kitty's Greatest Hits, 2011) Click HERE to read my review of the KITTY NORVILLE series. Click HERE to read my review of Kitty's Greatest Hits.
Patricia Briggs: "Seeing Eye" (recycled from Strange Brew, 2009) (female witch and male werewolf in Seattle's MERCY THOMPSON world) Click HERE to read my review of the MERCY THOMPSON series.
Norman Partridge: "She's My Witch" (an older story, recycled from 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories, 1995) (male zombie and his mortal girlfriend)
Tim Powers: "The Bible Repairman" (recycled from The Bible Repairman and Other Stories) (male protagonist, voodoo-ish story concerning the restless spirits of the dead)
Joe R. Lansdale: "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks" (an old story, recycled from Book of the Dead, 1989) (male protagonist, post-apocalyptic, zombies in the Southwest)
     All in all, I can't recommend this anthology. You'd be better off reading the better UF stories listed above in their original anthologies, since almost all of them are recycled.


  1. Just FYI, the Boyett story *is* part of a UF series. It's from the upcoming third book in his "Change" series that started with Ariel and Elegy Beach. The third one is called Avalon Burning.

  2. Interesting review. This review by science fiction reviewer John Clute

    takes the book to task for not following a different definition of Urban Fantasy, a definition more akin to the first fiction section, the so-called mythic fiction section. Other reviews I've read praise the third section very highly, but are baffled by the other two. It seems that the editors have thrown their hats into a situation where they weren't able to please anybody, even though all the reviews seem to be unanimous in their praise for the individual stories.