Lately I have been thinking a lot about doing a series of posts focusing on the evolution of Young Adult Literature, particularly within the broad spectrum of Fantasy. While writing my mini-thesis I’ve been dealing with sub-genres and genre variants of Fantasy, Science Fiction and the Gothic and have noticed that the term Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance gets thrown around so often and yet no-one seems to have a clear understanding of what this means.

I am in no means an expert in this topic, I am merely an avid reader and scholar of literature hoping to open up a discussion with whoever has an opinion on this particular topic.

Elves in Rock Bands

In my research I have come across various definitions of Urban Fantasy. On the one hand we must consider the history of Urban Fantasy and understand how the term came to fruition. While there are various opinions on where or how the term was formed, one thing that most scholars and authors can agree on is the fact that the term cropped up significantly often after Emma Bull’s publication War for the Oaks (1987). While the hardcore academic would argue that the term ‘urbane folklore’ is one used as early as the mid-nineteenth century in reference to Gothic tales such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and later Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and without a doubt these classics have influenced Fantasy, Science Fiction and the Gothic in so many ways I could dedicate an entire book or website discussing. However, what I am more concerned about in this particular post is how do we classify Urban Fantasy when it is constantly evolving?

War of the Oaks incompasses the definition of traditional Urban Fantasy, a fantasy novel set within the ‘real world’. Carrie Vaughn describes it as “elves in rock bands, it was traditional fairy tales set in the modern world, usually urban settings.  Before that, urban fantasy might have meant any kind of fantasy set in a city.” (Vaughn 2012) However, Urban Fantasy has evolved to such an extent that a definition as such cannot account for all literature that has been classified as Urban Fantasy.

Urban Fantasy - Book Covers Graphic

Kickass Heroines and Supernatural Romances

On the other hand we must consider the popular understanding of what makes an Urban Fantasy. Both Carrie Vaughn and Leigh McLennon emphasises the feature of a strong female protagonist who encounters the supernatural. The protagonist must now deal with the blurring and destabilizing reality through either an alliance or conflict with the supernatural. Often these narratives involve a romantic relationship between the protagonist and the supernatural. (McLennon, 2014) While this definition is rather broad, it is necessarily so. We can apply this definition to a number of the most popular Urban Fantasy novels and series such as Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy and Alyson Noel’s The Soul Seekers.

But what about Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone or J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter? These novel are set within the ‘real world’ but feature secondary worlds within. Can we still classify these as Urban Fantasy? Or can it be argued that these are in fact Fantasy novels. Also, where do we draw the line between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance?

Engaging in conversation

I’ll be continuing this conversation in a couple of blog post, the next one will be focused on the world building conventions of Urban Fantasy and will exploring the influences of various genres within Urban Fantasy. At some point I’d like dedicate a post to the role that TV shows such as Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Charmed played in the development of Urban Fantasy as we know it today.

I’d love to hear your opinion on this topic, so please feel free to comment below.

What is Urban Fantasy really?

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