Urban fantasy

From my early teens, ‘urban fantasy’ novels have been my genre of choice. For me, and for many fellow readers, one of the most attractive elements of the urban fantasy genre is that it spans many literary categories: young adult, new adult and adult. Authors cater to a wide audience through a spectrum of unique themes, characters and settings.

But first, what is the urban fantasy genre? Stefan Ekman defines it as one where the “story occurs in a world in which the boundaries between reality and the supernatural have been destabilised or reordered entirely. This combination of mundane and fantastic appears to be central…” (460). Urban fantasy is a hybrid genre arising in the 1980s, pulling in elements from science fiction, mystery, horror, contemporary and romance. (Ekman 461). Combining the lore and mystique of the gothic, fairy tale and mythic, together with the contemporary world, urban fantasy novels offer a realistic escape for the reader; a sense that there exists, through a veil, something fantastical in our world. Such novels merely require a suspension of disbelief. As Krul observes, “It is particularly the characters who did not before know about magic that have their worlds infinitely expanded larger than they could ever have imagined. This metaphorical expansion resonates with [those]… who are just seeing their own world expand at an often-frightening rate…” (55).

Baker suggests there are five key elements which make the urban fantasy distinct from other genres, and must appear in some form for a novel to ‘qualify’:

1. Urban: the story needs to be set in a city, and it needs to takes on a significance equal to a main character;

2. Fantasy: running unseen through/beneath the city must be a supernatural element, such as a roving vampire, a haunting of ghosts, a pack of werewolves, a coven of witches etc.;

3. Mystery: a conspiratorial element that needs solving, often drawing on a noir aesthetic;

4. Point of view: urban fantasy is intensely character-driven and often utilises first person POV (often strong female protagonists, Persons Of Colour & LGBT characters); and

5. Sexy: readers want to be thrilled within a fantastical realm, where different rules and social norms exist. Eroticism is a key factor in that thrill.

If I have to put it in one sentence, I’d simply state that it is the gothic ‘unseen’—when tied to both the urban and fantastical elements of the narrative—that is the soul of successful urban fantasy. Here, I agree with Ekman that urban fantasy provides “Dark, labyrinthine, or subterranean settings that obscure our view; social outcasts we consciously look away from; fantastical beings that hide out of sight combine to produce a strong focus on that which in some sense or other is not seen: The Unseen” (463). The Vampire is perhaps the most well-known fantastical or gothic representation of the motif of the Unseen: an alluring outsider, hiding among humans but almost never seen (Ekman 464). “Nor are vampires the only fantastic beings that Masquerade as humans; shape- shifters and fairy creatures also move Unseen among the mundane citizens of urban-fantasy stories. In urban fantasy the Unseen is not just staying out of sight, it is hiding right in front of people’s eyes” (Ekman 465). The use of magic ensures that the existence of such creatures remains unseen and secret from the rest of the world—where the trope of the ‘Unseen’ is a metaphor for the “…social Other, to the less savory aspects of modern/urban life: criminality, homelessness, addiction, prostitution, and physical and sexual abuse are rife in urban fantasy, either at the center of the story or as prominent parts of its milieu” (Ekman 466).

Urban fantasy has a stigma for being superficial and fantasist, yet beneath the surface are often more subtle, figurative explorations of the most meaningful issues that beset contemporary society. Some of the most famous urban fantasy novels have been written by numerous of the world’s most acclaimed and bestselling authors, including:

Young Adult:

- Mortal Instruments Series & Infernal Devices Series by Cassandra Clare

- Daughter of Smoke & Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor

- Witch Eyes Series by Scott Tracey

New Adult:

- The Magicians Series by Lev Grossman


- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

- Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

- Rivers of London Series by Ben Aaronovitch

- Dracula* by Bram Stoker

Please keep an eye out for many of these fantastic urban fantasy titles, or those of the same ilk, at the UQ Book Fair being held in 2021.

Written by Shaun Stephen, Masters student in Writing, Editing & Publishing at UQ.

Baker, Mishell. 5 Elements All Urban Fantasy Novels Must Have. Writer’s Digest. 3 Apr 2017. https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-

Ekman, Stefan. "Urban Fantasy: A Literature of the Unseen." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 27, no. 3, 2016, pp. 452-469,554. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/docview/1933853280?accountid=14723.

Krul, Rosalind. “Young Adult Appeal and Thematic Similarity in Urban Fantasy." New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 22:2, 142-158, DOI: 10.1080/13614541.2016.1223931.

*I would argue that, while Dracula is most certainly a gothic novel, it is also an example of an early urban fantasy novel. It takes place in an urban setting (London) as well as a fantastical setting (Dracula’s castle in Transylvania). It involves a mystery over Dracula’s supernatural motives as well as the eroticism of the three vampire sisters and the Lucy character. The entire novel is overlain with a veil of the uncanny, mesmeric and fantastical.