Urban Fantasy is a loosely defined term to describe fantasy novels that take place in modern, often urban settings rather than imaginary realms. Some of the more popular authors of this genre are Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman and Emma Bull. It is, however, a quickly growing field, so there are many newer and lesser known books and authors out there.
In some ways, Urban Fantasy overlaps with horror and tales of the supernatural, which are also usually set in modern times. Fantasy, however, while it can be dark, usually focuses on creatures and circumstances that are very different from the everyday, but does not indulge in fright, gore or mayhem for its own sake.
Although, like many readers, I was introduced to the fantasy genre by books such as The Lord of the Rings, lately I have come to prefer urban to more traditional fantasies. I think this is because with this type of book, there is the interesting juxtaposition of the everyday with the fantastical. I see it as the literary equivalent of surrealism, where ordinary objects are placed in very unusual or bizarre positions.
I think the popularity of urban fantasy is related to television programs and movies like the Twilight Zone. In these shows, people start off in completely ordinary circumstances, but something very strange then occurs –creatures from other worlds appear; a person goes back or forward in time; objects take on a life of their own; they find themselves in a completely unknown environment (as in the movie, The Cube).
Imaginary worlds like Tolkien’s Middle Earth are certainly fascinating. However, with urban fantasy, the reader can immediately relate to the environment in which the characters reside. This also adds an additional challenge to the author, who has to find a way to transform the everyday and mundane into the unknown and exciting.
Faeries and other denizens of Otheworlds are popular characters in urban fantasy. This is probably because they represent the borderlands separating the known from the supernatural or fantastic. While creatures such as faeries and elves were traditionally found in nature, today we are beginning to imagine them existing in previously unthinkable places, such as shopping malls.
Urban Fantasy also has the appeal of helping us imagine a more interesting world just below the surface of our everyday one. It suggests that, in order to experience something very different, we don’t necessarily have to visit another planet or dimension. It may just be a matter of shifting our focus and seeing the world around us in a new way.