Urban Fantasy – just say no

cyberpunk-work

In last week’s post I brought you ten magnificent reasons why Urban Fantasy is awesome and why you – yes, you! – should write it. ‘But’, I hear you cry, ‘aren’t there two sides to every argument?’ Why yes, there are. So, without further blitheration, I give you the counter: ten reasons why writing UF sucks a big ‘un.

Duality

If UF has a defining characteristic it’s that two worlds exist at the same time: a surface world that’s (more or less) identical to our own; and a second, hidden, reality. How do they interact? Who knows about the second and how have they exploited their knowledge? Is there a Rowling-esque Ministry of Magic? Do vampires have representation in parliament? Or are they entirely separate? You need to have the answers

There are no rules

As I repeatedly banged on about in last week’s blog, UF is a young genre. Thus we have to establish our own world. If we play with magic, or shapeshifters, or vampires or whatever, we have to tell people how they operate in our world. The tropes that have built up in other genres don’t exist here yet. So everything has to be worked out from scratch

History

For how long has this duality existed? Where has influence been exerted? You, as author, need to know these things. Are we dealing with a threat – and, if so, what’s brought it to a head now? Is Theresa May a wizard? Donald Trump a warlock? Have the Illuminati lapped up all the cream – and if not, why not? Hitler was, I’m told, obsessed by the occult: if so – and these secrets existed in your world – why didn’t he win the war? These questions might never crop up directly in your work, but you still need to know the answers

Society and politics

This ‘second world’ has its own rules; it must do, right? In Highlander the immortals fight to the death whenever they meet: are there similar customs/habits/prejudices in your world? Working this out takes thought – and, as you must have realised by now, I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly you have to work out your structure of government; are we dealing with an essential anarchy or is there a hierarchy to be devised and constraints developed?

It requires absolute, complete and total cohesion

The real world is full of complications. It’s messy, unpredictable and incredible. But truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. You need to obliterate all potential loopholes: one loose thread and your whole tapestry unravels. Your world must work. It may be fantastic to the nth degree, but unless you’ve worked out why, for example, your dark-demon lord didn’t conquer the (human) world in centuries past, then you’ve got nothing. Suspension of belief relies on coherence. You must not let your readers down

If everything can be anything, why isn’t everything something?

Last week I wrote about the magnificent ability for phone boxes to be portals, typewriters mystic demon-conjuring devices and so on. Which is great, but begs the question: when do you stop? If the advantage of UF is that the world is essentially normal then the more ‘normal-abnormals’ you have the less the reader can get a grip on your world. If you’re not careful the very anchors of reality slip away and you have to explain absolutely everything. In great, crunching, deathly-boring detail

It’s wish-fulfilment

And that (nearly) always leads to bad writing. Who wants to read about you? Even with supernatural powers, you’re still nobody

Urban fantasy still has a ‘fringe’ reputation

There are some magnificent authors out there. There’s also some really shoddy writing. Most of the hoi polloi still equate UF with the outer limits of erotica, horror and the like. Which is not to say that there aren’t amazing writers in those genres – there most certainly are. But UF still has an image problem. At least people know what erotica is; you’ll have to explain what urban fantasy actually is on a regular basis

It’s already passé

Remember when everyone was writing conspiracy-theory novels a la Dan Brown or Sam Bourne? Remember when you couldn’t move for sparkly vampires? And zombies? Urban fantasy might be a new genre but novelty doesn’t last; you, my friend, have missed the boatwagon. Those great authors I wrote about last week have already got it nailed down. Anybody who now writes UF will look like a coat-hanger, a populist, an unimaginative dullard. Too late, sweetheart, too late

I saw it first

It’s mine. Hands off.

 

Why write Urban Fantasy?

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Pigeon-holing: isn’t it wonderful? Like it or not, Oneiromancer will be classed as urban fantasy. But why should you write (and read) urban fantasy? Without further ado, let me present you with ten reasons why this genre is great:

It’s all about duality

Above and below. Light and dark. Familiar and strange. Urban fantasy has, by its very nature, a state of duality. Every realm (and many of the characters) has two faces: the one we all see every day and the hidden underbelly. There’s always more than meets the eye.

It supports multiple themes

Urban fantasy isn’t a genre as much as a setting, and that setting is open to so many different lines of enquiry. Oneiromancer is essentially an adventure with tiny hints of police procedural, but it could equally have been a literary novel of identity, a romance (there’s plenty of UF-erotica out there if you look hard enough), a horror, a comedy. You can be satirical and subversive; you can make serious points about our political system or you can simply escape this mundane existence. The setting is free and easy, and the author has so much room to play.

It’s subversive

Or it can be. You can take any common object and give it a new function: graffiti can be an alien language; fire hydrants can contain an ectoplasmic suppressant; phone-boxes can become portals. Modern life is littered with things we’ve become blind to. What if speed cameras were actually the first line in our defence against paranormal creatures? Take an everyday object and make it weird. Because why not?

It’s wish-fulfilment

Who doesn’t want to be different? Urban fantasy allows us to be special, to see beneath the surface. We might not like what we find there but we’re privileged to get a glimpse behind the curtain

It’s easy

Relatively easy, at least. Writing history or science-fiction requires us to work, to either research or invent whole new technologies. We also need to find the language to explain things without writing sentences such as ‘As you know, the televiewer allows us to converse with our colony on the moon with only a few seconds’ delay.’ Urban fantasy exists in the modern world and, as such, the reader knows what an i-Pad is. Only the weird needs work

You can have great diversity

A problem with historical fiction how you explore the role of women. Do you keep them in the margins? Or do you break the era’s gender-norms to give a modern heroine? There are, of course, ways round this but they require work and I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly, I’ve read pieces both bemoaning the lack of ethnic diversity in historical fiction, and pieces complaining about ‘tokenism’ (although ethnic diversity was probably a lot more advanced than some people realise; if you can have a Barbary ape in Iron Age Ireland you can have a few non-white people around in the middle ages). Urban fantasy can be as tolerant (or bigoted) as we want. We can have kick-ass heroines, we can have a multiplicity of races, we can have LGBT+ and disabilities to our heart’s content.

There are some great authors to follow

No two people will agree on the origins of urban fantasy. It’s a young genre and the rules aren’t yet established. Does Douglas Adams’ ‘Dirk Gently’ books count as urban fantasy? Neil Gaiman has a good claim to be its greatest populist – Neverwhere had a huge influence on many people, myself included – and Ben Aaronovich has picked up the baton and run with it. We’ve got Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’. There are self-published works aplenty. There’s inspiration wherever we look; and we’re free to mash-up any other elements we want

There are no rules

As I said, it’s a young genre. You can play the game you want to play. The tropes that sometimes seem to have overwhelmed crime, for example, or high fantasy don’t yet exist in urban fantasy. It’s up to you to forge your own path. It’s new, free and unlimited. And exciting

It doesn’t have to be ‘urban’

‘The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city’ says Wikipedia. What rot. In fact, I disagree with much of the Wikipedia UF entry. I see UF as defined by a state of ‘real world meets The Other’-ness. It’s the beneath the surface-ness that shapes the genre. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And, with that in mind, can I just coin the phrase ‘rurban fantasy’?

Because urban fantasy fits my story

At the end of the day I’m writing an urban fantasy because Oneiromancer wants to be one. I didn’t sit down and say ‘right, time to write an urban fantasy’. I had a story. I wanted to write it. Really that’s all that matters. It soon became apparent that this was the hole in which the pigeon fitted.

Act One Scene One (Draft One)

Gilly leant on the concrete balcony and stared at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. Rosenkrantz was by her side. He touched her arm.

“There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and street lamps, burst into the bowl created by the squat circle of tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Big – not especially tall, but broad-shouldered, well built – he sighted the girl and made for her.

Rosenkrantz, at Gilly’s side, hissed and drew his sword. His muscles tensed as he turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What?” The word carried urgency, impatience. Below the girl was running as fast as she could for the far exit, where the towers failed to slam shut and the main exit to the complex was to be found. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly.

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably but the sword remaining unsheathed.

Another glance back and the girl realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out an object. As the man approached she held it between them – a flick-knife, Gilly realised, as the blade sprang forwards, street-lights reflecting off the deadly metal.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them but he barely hesitated, now only a step out of range of her trembling arm.

“Gil –” Rosenkrantz began, fiddling with his sword-hilt, rocking the scabbard back and forth.

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time – almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. Numbed fingers jolted open and the blade skittered across the paving stones to rest against a wall.

The man spoke again and this time, to judge from the slight tilt of the head, it was definitely a question.

The girl had backed up against one of the stunted, bare trees that seemed so out of place. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until, Gil realised, she was actually taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo had been hiding beneath the skin and was now coming out to play –

The man stepping forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against one of the stunted trees but didn’t seem to feel pain. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades down to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid…

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have the man calmly extended a boot and planted it in the woman’s neck. And he pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boots. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she or Rosenkratz could move there was another crunch of cartilage giving – and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase, still watching as the man kept his boot on the throat for another minute – making sure, Gilly thought, that she was dead. Then, as they reached the harsh grey steps, he stepped back, let go of her arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

He was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“What about you?” Rosenkrantz asked.

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”

 *          *          *

This is the opening scene from my current work in progress, Oneiromancer. There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, and there’s a good chance this will be either heavily rewritten or cut completely as the inexorable tide of Editing swamps the novel. But, for now, all I can say is that I hope you enjoyed it. Or at least that it didn’t make you vomit coffee at the screen in disgust.