Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back to come and play in the center of the galaxy where new stars – oops! I mean “words” – are born. Then join me and Alan as we pull out our machetes and venture a few steps into the complex jungle that is urban fantasy.
JANE: I’m eager to continue our exploration of urban fantasy with what might be termed “classic” urban fantasy. Where would you like to start?
ALAN: Well, to begin at the very beginning, I suspect that the story that probably best defines the genre is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It has all the elements we’ve highlighted as important – the city and the people in it loom large and are the most important of the story. But the supernatural elements (the ghosts) have a large part to play in tying together the threads of the plot and bringing it to a satisfactory conclusion. The one could not happen without the other and that, I think, is the whole secret of a successful urban fantasy.
JANE: Interesting! I don’t think I would ever have thought of A Christmas Carol, but I certainly see your point.
I first became aware of the term urban fantasy in the days when my novel Changer was written, but not yet published. Editors and such like kept referring to Changer as urban fantasy. I had to ask what they meant. The inevitable answer was “You know, like Charles de Lint’s stuff.” And so I finally read de Lint and immediately became a fan.
Now you see why your comment last week made me grin.
ALAN: Indeed I do. And now I’m grinning…
JANE: If I had to pull one of de Lint’s novels out of the many I’ve read as a favorite, it would be Someplace to Be Flying, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the rest. I’m very fond of the Crow Girls, for one… For another, the cosmic level de Lint was able to take his plot without losing the very human element really impressed me.
ALAN: My first de Lint novel was Moonheart which is set in the city of Ottawa. As with some of the other books we’ve discussed, it draws heavily on mythology (Celtic and Native American in this case) but it is set firmly in the modern city and tells the story through modern eyes and modern perceptions. I’d never read anything quite like it before and I was blown away by it.
JANE: De Lint also has the gift of writing short stories that tie into each other so that they become more than a single story but something other than a novel. I got Jim hooked on his work with the collection Dreams Underfoot – and Jim is not usually a short fiction reader!
ALAN: For me, and for a lot of people, de Lint’s most impressive work is an on-going series of novels and stories known collectively as the Newford stories. They are set in a fictional city (the eponymous Newford). Many characters (both natural and supernatural),appear again and again in the books, sometimes in major roles and sometimes as minor players and you can dip into the series almost anywhere (always a good thing about a long series). However, there is a trilogy somewhere in the middle which tells the tale of Jilly Coppercorn – an artist who has a significant role to play in the stories of some of the other Newford characters.
Everyone (including me) is a little bit in love with Jilly, but in Promises to Keep, The Onion Girl, and Widdershins, we learn some of her backstory. It’s harrowing. Newford is not a real city and the supernatural elements are pure fiction but nevertheless the stories are firmly rooted in reality and Jilly’s story epitomises this. The words “Charles de Lint” and “Newford” on the cover of a book mean that I have to buy the book immediately and everything else stops until I’ve read it all the way through.
JANE: Ah… Jilly! Yes. She’s a great character and her personal history, although harrowing at times, is a survivor’s tale. I sat up all night reading Onion Girl when my beloved elderly cat, Gwydion, died suddenly. Far from the dark elements of Jilly’s story making it harder for me to read, her determination was a balm for my grief.
Shifting (reluctantly) away from de Lint…
One of my personal favorite urban fantasy novels is War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull. The opening didn’t grab me, so, despite many recommendations, I didn’t read it for the longest time. Then David Weber jumped up and down and said: “So skip the opening! I promise you, you will love this book.” So I did and he was right.
In War for the Oaks, the fairy folk are warring for a park in Minneapolis. For reasons too complicated to go into here, the members of a local band are drawn into the conflict. Although the point of conflict may be a park, the setting is very urban: bars, rock and roll, motorcycles…
ALAN: I also recall that you mentioned the name Terri Windling when we were chatting. That’s not a name I’m familiar with – can you tell me a little more about her?
JANE: Terri Windling is a very high profile editor. She’s less prolific these days, but for quite a long time she edited The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies with Ellen Datlow. Windling also was the editor for a lot of the early urban fantasy authors. I believe she edited both Charles de Lint and Emma Bull. Additionally, she was the editor for the urban fantasy Borderland anthologies. She has a fondness for both myth and fairy tales as themes and has been responsible for a lot of the best work in those areas for many years.
As a writer of fiction, Windling isn’t very prolific, but her novel The Wood Wife is an excellent urban fantasy piece. Unlike much that had been done to that point, it’s set in the American southwest, near Tucson, Arizona. Although a great deal of the action is set in the desert, there’s a distinct urban fantasy vibe to the piece.
ALAN: Interesting. I wonder how she slipped underneath my radar? Obviously I need to add her to my reading list.
Although the urban fantasy that we’ve been discussing here has come out of the New World, Dickens isn’t the only Old World author to write urban fantasy. There’s quite a lot of it that comes from the UK.
JANE: Absolutely! Let’s touch on some of these next time. Right now, I’d better get to work. I hear a puma screaming my name!