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Dark Urban Fantasy - is it a genre?
By. C.T. Phipps
Yesterday, while working on my upcoming book Wraith Knight, I was contacted by a friend of mine who'd just finished my newly-released novel, Esoterrorism. The conversation went more or less like this:
"Hey Charles, I loved the book! Really dark and plenty of black humor. Good action, too."
"Thanks, glad you enjoyed it."
"What genre do you call this?"
"Is something wrong?"
"I dunno, I just kind of thought that was full of girls like Buffy and their vampire boyfriends."
"You need to read more."
My friend, of course, was confusing the genre of Paranormal Romance with Urban Fantasy due to the considerable overlap between the two readerships. I'm a fan of both genres, having met my wife on the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter forums in the years before the, uh, genre shift of the series from monster-hunting mysteries to porn.
Some Paranormal Romance has incredible world-building, plots, mythology, AND manages to tell a convincing romantic story arc in the process. I, particularly, recommend Lindsay J. Pryor's Blackthorn series. Some urban fantasy manages to have incredibly fun female protagonists with supernatural boyfriends who, in fact, have romances.
I love Patricia Brigg's Mercy Thompson books, for example, and they're about the plots first and foremost. As my wife mentioned, you could easily also dismiss Esoterrorism as about a sarcastic assassin and his succubus partner.
Still, the question weighed on me for a while and I decided it would be a good idea to go over my collection of urban fantasy and see if there were any themes which stood out amongst them. Also, questioning whether or not my friend was perhaps not entirely over the "girls are icky" stage of his development given his seeming aversion to seeing them kiss men alongside stabbing people with swords.
What was urban fantasy, after all? It was in the name, fantasy in a city-like environment. I've always loved urban fantasy whether it was light and fluffy like the Dark Swan series by Richelle Meade or serious bleak works like just about everything I've ever written. It's a genre that transcends easy classification now because it covers everything from the trials and tribulations of a certain lightning scarred wizard to the cigarette-smoke filled ruminations of a sleazy magician who pronounces his name "Constan-Tine."
Urban fantasy is a genre which has exploded in recent years, as well, moving beyond the easy classifications of yesteryear. Much like the greater genre of fantasy, it has split into various subgenres. In fantasy, you can get a vague idea of what the book is going to be about by looking at what sort of fantasy it used to be. There's high fantasy, low fantasy, sword and sorcery, grimdark, and, of course, urban fantasy.
But what are the genres of urban fantasy? Urban Fantasy tells you a place but it doesn't tell you a mood or a theme. As mentioned, you could consider Paranormal Romance to be a genre of urban fantasy but this is stretching the definitions as there's plenty of both groups which fit both as well as books which fit one or the other exclusively. What about the funny, snarky lighthearted works? What about the dark and heavy stories of personal horror with a bit of wonder tied in?
Where did my book fit, basically?
In the end, I determined that it would be good to create a new subgenre of urban fantasy for it. Because that's not arrogant or anything. I decided, for lack of a better term, to call it the dark urban fantasy subgenre. I'm a little iffy on the title because it sounds like something a fourteen-year-old would come up with but nobody's perfect.
Besides, one of my favorite fantasy/sci-fi subgenres is grimdark.
So what do I know?
But what is dark urban Fantasy? What do the words mean?
And how do I put it on a backcover to appeal to the sophisticated amongst us?
Dark Urban Fantasy should walk the line between horror and action as well as other genres. It should be the place between terror and triumph for its protagonists. When Jim Butcher created the Dresden Files, he drew very strongly from the early Anita Blakes (Guilty Pleasures to Obsidian Butterfly) which strikes me as still a gold standard to stand by.
There are terrible things which go bump in the night which only our hero or heroine (or both) can stand against. A place where there are no moral certainties, only an acknowledgement that if you don't gaze into the abyss, it will probably rip your throat out. Be a monster lest a monster eat you, but not too much of a monster lest death be better.
I think for a lot of us, this is a genre we're all familiar with as it's been around a long time. As long as there have been terrifying, spooky, and horrible things that go bump in the night, there have been equally dark and spooky heroes who hit back just as hard. These champions aren't of the light, bringing its brilliance into the shadows, but of the shadows themselves who punch back just as hard.
In short, it's a well-traveled road full of anti-heroes, half-demons, half-vampires, bastards, conmen, assassins, and killers. I'm just erecting a signpost and naming the street. Maybe building a house alongside the road with a tavern to the side for travelers. There's a need for us to believe the monsters can be people too. Whether these monsters are government sponsored assassins and wizards like in Esoterrorism or folk like Wesley Snipes' Blade.
And strangely, their chief opponent will usually be other monsters with less human qualities.
Because we all secretly know good is hard rather than easy.
And maybe, sometimes, the heroes aren't good at all.
Just very good at getting rid of those who are worse.
It's a genre I'm proud to consider Esoterrorism part of.
C.T. Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular blogger, reviewer for The Bookie Monster, and recently signed a deal with Ragnarok Publications to produce the urban fantasy series, The Red Room.
C.T. Phipps is also the author of The Supervillainy Saga, the first book of which, The Rules of Supervillainy, was released this June.
Find C.T. Phipps and his books
PRAISEThere are no good guys in the world of shadows…but maybe some bad men are better than others.Derek Hawthorne was born to be an agent of the Red Room. Literally. Raised in a conspiracy which has protected the world from the supernatural for centuries, he’s never been anything other than a servant of their agenda. Times are changing, though, and it may not be long before their existence is exposed.When a routine mission uncovers the latest plan of the magical terrorist, the Wazir, Derek finds himself saddled with a new partner. Who is the mysterious but deadly Shannon O’Reilly? What is her agenda? Couple this with the discovery the Red Room has a mole seeking to frame Derek for treason and you have a plot which might bring down a millennium-old organization. Can he stop the Wazir’s mission to expose the supernatural? And should he?
“Phipps blends a menagerie of 007, Hellboy, and Dresden Files into a high-octane mix of intrigue, action, and brash characterization, all topped off with a dose of good old-fashioned monster hunting. Can’t go wrong with that!”
—Tim Marquitz, Demon Squad author