Essay: Urban Fantasy

I have been trying to come up with a suitable reason to be writing more often but cannot think of one other than to throw thoughts together for a blog entry here or there. So, I thought I would talk about why I feel drawn to the urban fantasy genre and why it continues to hook me despite having some real love of science fiction.

I would like to say I grew into it. Which is to say that it was just a natural evolution. You start with reading The Lord of the Rings and then work your way into more fantasy and magical based books. For many that is what happened. For me, though, it started in the reverse. I do not remember what fantasy book I started with but a good guess would be a book on the same shelf as the cartoon and superhero novels shelf at my local library.

When I was quite younger, I was practically against reading. Not in some sort of antagonistic way but I was, in general, against reading. It took time away from the things I liked to do: watch cartoons about people with superpowers and playing video games about people who had superpowers. You’ll notice a theme there. I was really big into X-Men and the overall Marvel universe. Most anything that had any connection to a superpower held my interest. Superman, Spider-man and Batman all called to me with their siren songs to come to the television and be enthralled. And I was. But television shows only last so long and most only come on for a couple of hours a day. What was a kid to do?

That was the turning point for me. My mother had been dragging my sister and me to the library for quite awhile. Reading is important to her. Just pick a book, she’d say said. At least one. Then we can go. At the time, this was a chore. Books designed for children held little interest for me even then. What happened when a spider went to school or where exactly the Wild Things go was rather boring for me. That changed when I was able to go and look in the Adult Section.

I had been asking, and probably begging at times, to go look over in this elusive realm. Perhaps I thought it held some secret or mysteries untold. Who knows? What it did hold were novels about superheros. I checked out a book on Spider-man that week. Then renewed that checkout two weeks later. I had to return it and check it out a second time to finish it. A month had gone by while I struggled through an almost 400 page book about Spider-man fighting against some villains. I honesty cannot remember what it was about now, only that I really liked the experience. I began to read through all of the books in that section. When I ran out of books there I looked at the next section, a fantasy section.

Thinking back now, R. A. Salvatore’s books played a large part in cementing my love of fantasy. His details of major battles between his forces of good – including one Drizzt Do’Urden – and evil captivated my young mind. I had never really been into Star Wars but I think that had I seen those movies before reading his books, those battles would have hooked me as well.

Epic battles and noble heroes fill his stories, with the story of Drizzt Do’Urden being one of the most tragic and enduring. Drizzt was a dark elf that went into exile. The dark elves are not know to be particularly noble people and usually on the side of Bad but he was not. He left his people and went into the greater world. Through his journey he met other people, other races, some who helped him, most who hated him on sight. He gathered a collection of friends and went on to defeat great evils time and again. I think that was what called to me. The sense of honor yet sadness at being different than those around you definitely resonated with me. I devoured all the books the library had of R. A. Salvatore. When I ran out, I had to move on again, this time to Terry Brooks’ books.

Terry Brooks wrote of a different world than I was used to but one nonetheless that I found entertaining. His had Orders and Knights as well as Kings and Druids. There was a feudal system of powers that support intrigue and mysterious murders. I liked these books as much as I did the others but Terry Brooks stopped writing his medieval fantasy at one point and started writing stories with magic in the modern age.

I can point at those books as my welcoming to the the urban fantasy world. Terry Brooks’ Word and Void series saw people who were, in a sense, knights but were modern men and women who were given magical weapons to use against the Void. It was this Void, this darkness, that sought to corrupt and eliminate mankind. Terry Brooks would later shift this story into a post-apocalyptic setting but the early books were about the modern world and hiding magic while fighting Evil at the same time.

If I were to write out a formula for urban fantasy, I would include this idea. Most books in the genre have the main characters hiding their magic or abilities from humankind, often to the pain of the hero or heroine.

Another part of the formula would be a prophecy or above-average powers. Most of the stories I read and like have the main character trying to find their way in the world while either awaiting some prophecy or constantly fighting because they have great power and are the only thing stopping other Things from hurting humanity. The hero must fight, not because they are strong or for some glory, but because no one else will. A Knight-errant.

This is the same reason superheros fight. They fight villains not because they like it (maybe they do) but because there is no one else there to do it. Superman saves the world, not because he is bored, but because only he can. I would like to think that people would see a problem and fix it but that is seldom the case. In Urban Fantasy, the hero must act. Even if it means hiding their powers from those around them, they seek to do The Right Thing even it kills them, which it almost never does.

I think that is what I like the most. Sure, I enjoy reading about those with magical powers and their entertaining battles. I even like to read with an eye toward the romantic notions of Good conquering Evil. The thing I like more than anything else though is the reluctant hero.

We all like think we are the heroes of out own stories but how often do we do what we should? How often do we see a problem, even if it is not own and step in to fix it, to help someone? My answer: not often.

In Urban Fantasy though, it happens more often. The hero or heroine is not the glorious knight or the superpower but the simple wizard who decides to stick to their morals. The weak werewolves that takes on the ruling vampires. Or even the man who fights against the Void. They all take a stand against Evil both great and small.

There is something there. Maybe we should not stand up to take on some army but seek to do the small things. In our own way we become the reluctant hero.