Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Elementary, My Dear - Fantasy Going Urban

And I think to myself, What a wonderful world...
When it comes to high fantasy, each series has a world of its own. Whether it's Tolkien's Middle Earth, Piers Anthony's Xanth, Lisa Shearin's Mid, or Anne Bishop's realms of Terreille, Kaeleer, and Hell,  high fantasy gives readers worlds that are entirely based on their authors' imaginations. These are places where the laws of physics have been tossed out the window, where every creature, plant, and object is something completely foreign even in its familiarity, where the geography is uncharted and comes to light one word at a time.

Urban fantasy, in contrast, takes the elements of fantasy and incorporates them into the everyday cities we know. For example, Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels lives in Atlanta, GA, Vicki Pettersson set her Signs of the Zodiac series in Las Vegas, NV, and Devon Monk has Ally Beckstrom running around Portland, OR. Even unidentified cities, such as the setting for Stacia Kane's Downside series, still allow that familiar urban tone that sets this genre apart.

But the city setting is just one facet of this genre. Another is the world-building; how does the author take that everyday city you're familiar with and infuse it with elements of another world? It's not as easy as it might sound; you can't just replace airplanes with dragons and call it a day. There's a certain degree of weaving to be done as authors draw in the fantastical to blend seamlessly with the ordinary.

For some, the presence of magic and its various creatures is hidden, comprising its own hidden world right beside our own. For Charley Davidson, lead heroine in a series by Darynda Jones, the supernatural takes the form of ghosts and demons only Charley and those of her ilk can see. In Kristen Painter's House of Comarré, a covenant made between angels and demons masks the existence of the vampires, demons and their world from the humans. Other authors have the paranormal world hidden with assistance from within regular society or from networks and agencies devoted solely to ensuring the fantastic remains secret. Take Meljean Brook's Guardian series. An organization is set up in the first book taking the existing good guy warrior force and turning into an agency supported by American senators but without the knowledge of the American people. As a result, one of the agency's jobs is to put a spin on any supernatural event that catches public notice. Similarly, the vampires in Jeri-Smith Ready's WVMP Radio series fall under the provision of an agency called the Control which ensures those vampires able to blend in with society are provided with blood when necessary and that those vampires unable to control themselves are kept away from the general public - either by containment or execution. In a nice twist, the vampire DJs of WVMP actually came out to the public as vampires...but, a la Lestat, no one of course believes it to be more than a gimmick.

Several series are actually set either just before or immediately after the public revelation of the supernatural world's existence. Molly Harper had vampires outed to the world in her Jane Jameson series when one recently fired vamp challenged his dismissal by claiming he was being discriminated against on account of his vampirism. Other series take it one step at a time; in Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson series for instance the werewolves announce themselves to the world in a controlled manner following the earlier success of the Fae using similar methods. And then there are the times when some supernatural creature forgets to put their glamour on one morning and ends up on national news. Not all worlds, after all, come complete with MIB Neuralyzers or Charmed Cleaners. Take the outing of the Monère in Sunny's Mona Lisa series; their big reveal to the world comes when one of their own saves a friend from a burning building in front of sprouting wings and flying to safety.

A particularly creative twist - or perhaps "combination" would be a more appropriate word - of both these last two styles is seen in Vicki Pettersson's Signs of the Zodiac series. On the one hand, mortals who get  too entangled in the battle between the Light and Shadow Zodiac signs have their memory erased, Star agents live under assumed identities that are discarded the moment they become suspect, and each side has a sanctuary located (and hidden) in an alternate dimension. On the other hand, the exploits of both sides are published in graphic novels sold to the public, specifically children and teens.

My personal favourite approach is the jump-to-the-future method employed by such authors as Ilona Andrews and Stacia Kane. At some point in the past, magic revealed itself. In Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series, magic returned - literally - in the form of unstable waves putting the world in a flux between magic and technology. For Stacia Kane's Downside series, one day ghosts rose up in droves and went on homicidal sprees among the living. Jump ahead a decade or two or more and that's where the story picks up, at a point where society has already settled in and grown accustomed to the presence of magic and monsters.

Similarly, some authors seem to shift their story into a parallel world when magic has always been a known entity. Take the Portland of Devon Monk's Allie Beckstrom series, where magic has become something of a commodity, the price of which is paid in pain...your own or someone else's. Wen Spencer literally has Pittsburgh, PA shift into a whole other world - called Elfhome - for all but three days of each month in her Tinker series. Caris Roane has her Guardians of Ascension series taking place on several plains of existence but all in the same cities.

For me personally, the appeal of these books, of this genre, is how author after author takes the extraordinary, wraps it in the ordinary, and puts their own twist on it. Whether its magic waves in a futuristic Atlanta, a magic price-and-payment system in Portland, outed vampires selling books in Kentucky or they-told-because-they-wouldn't-be-believed-anyway DJs, urban fantasy at its core suggests that even in reality magic and fantasy are a possibility just waiting to be  discovered beneath the surface.

And what UF bookworm can't get behind that?

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