TT: Urban Fantasy, the First Time Around

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.

Gateways into the Urban Fantasic

Gateways into the Urban Fantasic

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!

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12 Responses to “TT: Urban Fantasy, the First Time Around”

  1. Peter Says:

    Minor quibble – it’s “Ottawa”. And a big part of the beauty of Moonheart is that it managed to make Ottawa, which is a strong contender for World’s Most Boring City, magical….

    • 38fang Says:

      couldnt agree more,
      i remember a few years back someone saying if you ever have 6 months left to live move to ottawa it will be the longest 6 months ever.
      also someplace to be flying really struck a chord with me too
      then borderlands and the wood wife so many great books 😀

      • janelindskold Says:

        This error shall be corrected, thereby to puzzle anyone and everyone who reads this Tangent in the future.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    What, you’re not going to trace it back to The Golden Ass?. It is interesting to consider the Christmas Carol in this group though.

  3. Ellen Kushner Says:

    Lovely! There is some good background on Terri Windling & her contribution to the creation of Urban Fantasy (yes, she edited de Lint & Bull – among others!) here, in the introductions to the recent revival of the Bordertown series – which Terri not just edited by CREATED! – called WELCOME TO BORDERTOWN, edited by Holly Black & me under TW’s aegis:
    http://suvudu.com/files/2011/05/Bordertown-Introduction-Holly-Black.pdf
    http://suvudu.com/files/2011/05/Bordertown-Introduction-Terri-Windling.pdf
    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2011/05/25/the-big-idea-ellen-kushner/

    I’m so glad this is available and being discussed! I think it’s an important moment in the history of our field. Thanks for giving it an airing here!

  4. Emma Bull Says:

    Oooh, neat interview!

    I tell people that at the time Charles and I were starting out, two things may have influenced the writing community in general. One was the popularity of horror fiction; one of its strengths is that it tends to be set in the here and now, which makes its fantastical elements pack more punch. Many of us, I think, wanted to get that same punch into genre fantasy.

    The other influence, I suspect, was Ursula K. LeGuin’s essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” Her premise was that the language of fantasy was inherently different from that of a contemporary novel, that it called for poetry and melody that, say, a detective novel doesn’t have. Some of us responded to that with a polite, inward “Sez who?” and started testing that to destruction. Which is why I claim that Ursula K. LeGuin is the fairy godmother of Urban Fantasy. Heh.

  5. Terri Windling Says:

    Although Alan is absolute write that magical books set in cities have been around a long, long time, I too tend to credit Charles and Emma as the first major writers of the modern Urban Fantasy genre. Other ground-breaking Urban Fantasy novels of the 1980s: Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb), set in Seattle, and the Weetzie Bat books of Francesca Lia Block, set in L.A. And there is a section of John Crowley’s brilliant Little Big takes place in an urban setting.

    In the early 90s, Neil Gaiman published Neverwhere, set in London, and the genre picked up steam as the decade progressed, with works by Mercedes Lackey and many others; and, of course, Jane’s wonderful books.

    Thanks so much for your kind words about The Wood Wife.

  6. Terri Windling Says:

    Sorry, that should have been “right,” not “write.”

  7. janelindskold Says:

    I’m really thrilled to have all the comments, especially those from Emma and Terri who can speak first hand about the evolution of urban fantasy.

    Super cool!

    (And full disclaimer… I’ve only met these ladies in passing. My enthusiasm for their word\s rests on the wonder held in the works themselves!)

  8. paulgenesse Says:

    Great post and comments. This was fun reading.

  9. Vicky Says:

    Interesting discussion! Most of the fantasy books I read these days are urban fantasy. Part of the reason is that I am drawn to books/series that have a strong sense of place. De Lint is great at it; Kat Richardson is another of my favorites. Her Greywalker series takes place in Seattle.

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