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Theory of Fantasy Literature 102: On Urban Fantasy


The first installment of the series covered the most prominent sub-genres of fantasy, but it has not explored everything that fantasy has to offer. This continuation of the series will look into sub-genres that have been omitted from the previous one. However, it will also discuss some adjacent genres, like science-fiction, fables, and fairy tales, all of which are fantastical, but none of which constitute an actual sub-genre of fantasy.

Theory of Fantasy Literature 102 is divided into six chapters including:

2. On Urban Fantasy

3. On Superhero Fiction

4. What About Science-fiction?

5. What About Fables?

6. What About Fairy Tales?

It is difficult to put into words why certain places feel special. Sometimes the amazement comes from beautiful landscapes, other times one might be taken aback by an architectural wonder that is centuries removed from its day of construction. Cities like London and New York possess an unknowability stemming from the totality of their urban vastness. It is thus especially interesting when such spaces (or their variations) become a setting for an actual tale of fantasy. A brief discussion on the meaning of urban fantasy will be concluded with a familiar example and context will be provided as to why urban fantasy is worthy of proper literary analysis.

The beginning of urban fantasy as a sub-genre of fantasy literature in a contemporary sense of the term can be traced to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series that debuted in 1993 and set a rough framework for the conventions of the sub-genre.

Figure 1. Anita Blake Vampire Hunter Guilty Pleasures Volume 2 Cover Art. Booth, B. 2008.

Nowadays, it is not difficult to recognize a literary work of urban fantasy: “If you have ever walked through a bookstore, you will likely recognize the urban fantasy genre from cover art alone: a singular person stands with the city in the background” (Hobson & Anyiwo, 2018, 1). Simply put, urban fantasy combines elements of magic or something commonly perceived to be outside the realm of consensus reality with an urban landscape. “Some writers began to inject magic into contemporary times and into urban areas, both real and invented” (Datlow, 2011), but these invented spaces still remain heavily influenced by actual cities.

The reflections, refractions, and (re-)imaginings of the American city provide the template for urban spaces found in the fantastic imagination. In fact, the American city, much like America itself has always been a fantastic construct. It fuses past and present real-life topographies and circumstances with divine aspirations and visionary urban geographies which often willfully ignore material, social, and economic realities (Rabitsch & Fuchs, 2022, 11).

The same can be said of other major cities the imagery of which has influenced cultural production worldwide, with London perhaps being at the forefront. The very grandeur (physical and metaphorical) of these spaces invites speculation. It is impossible to know every street or to track the happenings in every alleyway—for all anyone can know, something magical is happening in some hidden corner of New York right at this very moment.

Urban fantasy does not necessarily focus on small spaces within the cities; in fact, “the city and (sub)urban spaces play an essential role within the narrative to the point in which the location itself is a character in the plot” (Hobson & Anyiwo, 2018, 1). This is to say that the very vastness and dynamism of a city affects the plot and characters in a significant way. The city needs not be overtly personified, but it doubtlessly has an active role in the plot.

Figure 2. Gotham skyline by night. DC Comics. (n.d.).

While not an entirely literary example, Gotham, the fictional city under Batman’s protection, is the perfect showcase of what the “urban” in urban fantasy entails. Although a fictional space, there is no doubt that it exists as a darker, less hopeful New York. What is more, it is almost surreal “how quickly people can recognize Gotham’s landmarks and the stories behind them. There are few real cities in the USA that can make such an instant impression” (Joyce, 2022, 35). Almost as iconic as Batman himself, Gotham functions as a living, breathing entity that shapes the story, the hero/vigilante, and, most of all, the villains.

If urban fantasy is made of magical elements set in a developed, large city, then the Batman stories do not quite fit in—everything extraordinary in that universe is somehow explained by money and science or scientific malfunction. But if magic is seen as a force that acts outside of known laws of consensus reality, then many of the Batman villains are, in some way, shape or form, magical.

Figure 3. Joker Comic Book. Guillem, M. 2021. Perfect example of a how a city/urban setting directly shapes a character and then that character shapes the plot and allows for the development of the protagonist.

Like most fantasy (sub)genres, urban fantasy can be relegated to fun, but largely culturally insignificant literature. However, Hadas Elber-Aviram, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame's London Global Gateway, has written extensively on a specific national production of urban fantasy:

[T]he London-based fantasies of Charles Dickens, H. G. Wells, George Orwell, Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, Neil Gaiman and China Miéville form a coherent tradition that champions fantasy literature as a politically and socially engaged genre deeply immersed in the forms and fashions of urban life (Elber-Aviram, 2020, 1).
Figure 4. London Below. Tomsky, M. 2021.

The names hereby invoked belong to authors who have had enormous success on both ends of the spectrum, with the public at large and among literary critics. If a story is to include a city and if that city is to be a prominent aspect of said story, there have to exist elements that anchor the space to reality. Any real city is a merger of political, social, and cultural forces that are all fused and intertwined and that affect all people who inhabit it, regardless of their function or position within that society. When urban fantasy is at its peak, it considers all of these elements and uses them to create a story.

Gaiman's Neverwhere, to choose a single example from the aforementioned authors, paints a picture of a fantastical world underneath London, a space which merges history and fantasy. It is also prudent to again speak of Gotham because it is the most familiar example. Joker’s villainous greatness stems from the fact that he is written as a product of Gotham’s corruption and darkness—political and societal forces have caused the man to lash out, to reveal the horror of Gotham itself. The emotional impact of his actions on the reader/viewer would be incomparably lesser if he was not written as a child of Gotham’s vileness. Besides, the very fact that one can speak of a city being vile showcases just how active that space is in most Batman narratives.

Urban fantasy, like any (sub)genre of literature, can be simplified and serve merely as a fun respite, a brief escape from reality. However, it offers the possibility for a deep and nuanced engagement with complex aspects of urban life, with its magical backbone allowing for myriad unique takes on evergreen topics.

Bibliographical References

Datlow, E. (2011). Introduction. In Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy. St. Martin’s Griffin.

Elber-Aviram, H. (2020). Fairy Tales of London: British Urban Fantasy, 1840 to the Present. Bloomsbury Academic.

Hobson, A. J. & Anyiwo, U. M. (2018). Introduction: What is Urban Fantasy? In Gender Warriors: Reading Contemporary Urban Fantasy (pp. 1-10). Brill Sense.

Joyce, S. (2022). Imagining Gotham: Hard Knowledge in a Soft City. In Fantastic Cities: American Urban Spaces in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (pp. 35-49). University Press of Mississippi.

Rabitsch, S. & Fuchs, M. (2022). Introduction. In Fantastic Cities: American Urban Spaces in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (pp. 3-34). University Press of Mississippi.

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A very clean and precise writing style as always, complimenting a very interesting topic. It was a pleasure to read!

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Dino Mušić

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