Monday, July 8, 2013

Is Urban Fantasy a Genre Hodge-Podge?

We're taking a look at genre bending and blending this month in the Salon, and I have to start with my go-to favorite for this one: Urban Fantasy. I actually feel like most of the modern genre categories are a mix of two or more types these days. We blend thrillers with romance, horror with comedy, or fantasy with.... well, anything really. But UF in particular seems to get a bad rap for being a little too loose with its content.

Maybe that's because it can be difficult to define. Technically the name is pretty self explanatory; a fantasy story set in an urban setting. However, that does leave us with a broad range of options at our disposal. Usually there is at least one other genre added to this that gives a UF its particular flavor. The most common is probably the mystery/thriller aspect, which is often what drives a UF plot. Much of the earlier versions of the genre were originally classified as horror, and those that pile on the gore and fright could easily still carry the label. Humor is also being blended more frequently, while those that focus on romance already have their own genre now: paranormal romance.

Let's face it, there's no easy way to identify these differences with genre clarification. There will likely never be a shelf in the bookshop for the "urban fantasy comedy romance". In fact, most are simply shelved in the fantasy section anyway without distinction between its more traditional cousins. Isn't that because fantasy is innately a catch-all that can include almost endless possibilities? Why should urban fantasy limit itself when it doesn't have to?

Some critics of the genre have accused it of having a kitchen sink quality, where writers simply take the basic definition into account and then throw anything and everything that catches their fancy into it. This implies a lack of forethought and attention to craft that I think is a little unfair.

Classic fantasy novels are able to pick and choose which creatures and magic to include or not and no one ever calls foul. Some urban fantasy is super simple, only focusing on one thing like vampires or a particular supernatural ability. When I reviewed In a Fix last year, I was excited that the author invented a new kind of paranormal element that enabled some of the characters to use auras to look like anyone they wanted. Even better that it was the sole piece of fantasy in the entire novel and worked just fine on its own.

Sometimes a lot of fantasy works too. Personally, I love being surprised by what might pop up next when I'm reading a UF with multiple mythologies and paranormal elements. Nicole Peeler, Kevin Hearne, and others have successfully used this technique to mix things up. As long as it feels true the world the author has created, I'm less inclined to wonder why?, and lean toward the why not?

Do you think urban fantasy is too much of a hodge-podge? Tell me what you think, or recommend your favorite genre bending books.


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