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Urban fantasy: Why it’s risen so far

Today’s post is a savvy opinion piece on the hugely popular genre of urban fantasy. Editor and writer Cat Rambo is our guest blogger, sharing her thoughts about why this kind of story appears to have endless appeal to the modern fantasy reader.

Urban fantasy deals with the intrusion of the fantastic into our own urban world. It’s the genre that produces vampires living from blood banks, zombies living in trailer parks, werewolves dealing with modern hairstyles. And it’s enormously popular, seemingly more and more every day.

Why? One could argue that a couple of media phenomena paved the way: Anne Rice’s vampire books but (to my mind more importantly) the rise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as Harry Potter. Together, the latter two have prepared a new generation of readers whose tastes are influencing what’s appearing on the shelves.

But more than that, urban fantasy speaks to us because it expresses our anxieties and hopes about a strange new world that helped shape the results of the last American election: the plurality. A world where the mainstream is shifting from its old stratifications as a result of new cultures, new customs, new demands, and new citizens.

Urban fantasy so often seems to be about culture clash, whether it’s Anita Blake’s lover Micah trying to unite the were-animals of his day or Sophie Lawson’s work at the Underworld Detection Agency trying to help the supernatural creatures of her day fit in. And so many of the heroes of urban fantasy seem trapped themselves, not fitting in due to race, biology, or some other aberration. Look at Rob Thurman’s Caliban series, where the protagonist is half-human, half-Sidhe, a heritage that almost kills him more than once.

The series True Blood makes a clear connection to another culture clash, comparing the act of revealing you’re a vampire with that of coming out of the closet and showing, in its opening credits, a sign reading “God Hates Fangs,” referencing the homophobia of the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s a link that’s been around, I think, since Rice’s Lestat first appeared along with the first sign of the AIDs epidemic.

Is this an accurate reading of urban fantasy’s impetus? It’s one that occurred to me a couple of years ago, and my belief in it hasn’t faltered. Indeed, the more I read in the field, the more I see the echoes, the insistence on a multiplicity of supernatural creatures coming to terms with each others’ existence while trying not to upset the humans too much.

There is no monolithic Supernatural world – the only mainstream in most of the books remains that of the dominant culture, and it’s the exploration of cultural intersections that make it most successful, most intriguing, and perhaps even the most revolutionary.

Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Find links to her fiction, podcasts, and information about her online classes  here.  Her most recent book is an SF short story collection, Near + Far, available from Amazon and Hydra House.


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