When I was young there wasn’t much urban fantasy to choose from. I remember the delight of Which Witch (a story I recently read to my own children), and a multitude of children’s stories about witch schools (all pre-Hogwarts and all of which I desperately wanted to visit). I was an avid reader of Maurice Gee and Margaret Mahy, and The Changeover and The Halfmen of O were perennial favourites. I’m not sure I would call The Halfmen of O urban fantasy so much because, like the Susan Cooper Dark is Rising sequence books and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, children leave the real world here and are whisked off to a magical realm. The magic happens elsewhere.
I loved magic. I so wanted it to be real. When we played witches at school I was always the witch. Except that one time they said someone else could be the witch. I wasn’t happy about that. #notstillbitter #okayjustalittle
Fantasy was my real love for most of my teens and early adult years. I lost myself in epic tales about warriors and elves and dragons and magic. I still love fantasy and still write fantasy, but despite its amazing opportunities for clever and challenging worldbuilding, it doesn’t have the same impact in terms of being able to imagine yourself waking up one day with magic in the world. The real world.
Werewolves and vampires in my teens were firmly in the realm of horror for me, as were ghosts and other paranormal creatures. And, as I’ve discussed in this earlier post, I am not a fan of horror because it turns me into a massive ‘fraidy cat. So my first real ‘vampire’ experience was the movie version of ‘An Interview with a Vampire‘. I overcame my dislike of Tom Cruise to see it – mainly because of Brad Pitt (let’s be honest). I loved it, but much of it was still really set in historical eras. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series, not the movie), was really the gateway (or hellmouth?) for me to get into paranormal genres. I remember when I lived with family in London and binge watched Buffy with my cousin until I was seeing it in my sleep. Not a bad thing…
But my real introduction into the more recent paranormal romance and fiction came later. I was in the library with my small sons and, to keep them busy while I browsed the shelves, I asked them to find me two books each. One boy brought back Patricia Briggs’ Iron Kissed. The cover wasn’t really one that would have previously drawn me in and I had successfully avoided Twilight and wasn’t sure a book about vampires and werewolves would appeal. But the point of getting my kids to choose me books was so that I would read more widely. So I read it. And I loved it. I loved it so much I made my mum read it and then I tried to find all the other books at the library and hunted them down in shops. When I had caught up I realised I had to satisfy the craving it had engendered. My mum suggested the Nalini Singh Psy-Changeling series she’d been loving. I fell in love with it. I haven’t looked back since then.
For me, the biggest appeal is the usual made unusual. It’s the idea that magic or otherworldly things are happening here, under our very noses. Often it’s hidden, but other times you get a great crossover where it’s just a part of every day life. This is probably why I also love superhero stories. Just like the possibility of being invited to witch school (or Hogwarts now), it appeals to that part of me that always wanted to be able to use the magic myself. To always be special. But the paranormal genre also allows for the exploration of the fact that special people don’t always fell special, and that difference can be a curse, meaning that questions about identity can surface and swirl.
It’s also a genre that has really allowed for very strong women protagonists or side-kicks. None of the authors I enjoy tend to write about the damsel or the ditz without making her a fully rounded character. Strong female characters don’t have to be kick-arse (see this post about all the different ways I think we can write a strong female character) but I think when you’ve grown up as a woman encountering idiots and social threats, it is almost therapeutic to read about women who have the skills and power to take down those threats. But again, the authors I have listed at the bottom of the post are particularly my favourite because their characters are fully rounded. Not all of their strong women are warriors. Nalini Singh in particular, in her Psy-Changeling series, has a wide range of character types, and the nurturers and healers and scientists are strong in their own ways.
The hero in paranormal romance in particular is often attractive because of his strength, his loyalty, and acknowledgement of his partner’s own strengths and autonomy. The big bad wolf who is really a protector and playmate.
Another aspect that I think draws readers to this genre, and it certainly pulls me in, is the fairy tale aspect of good versus evil. Evil is given a name, an entity, a face, and the heroes have to fight it. There are moral choices and grey areas and sacrifices made. It showcases loyalty and determination and community. It also allows for the anti-hero, who is always a favourite of mine. I’ve just been watching Wynonna Earp, and am loving the fact that the title character is a reluctant hero, but someone whose moral code is so strong that she can’t turn away from those who need her. And Doc Holliday is a classic anti-hero in the Han Solo mode and that’s always something I love.
I still write fantasy and love it, but given my enjoyment of the interplay of what we deem reality and the magical, it is not surprising that my recent projects have been urban fantasy or dealt with the paranormal in some dystopian future. Even the Merlin fanfic I wrote was based in the current day. Which leads me to a question I will leave you with – is urban fantasy just fantasy without the medieval setting, or is it a completely different beast?
Some of my favourite authors in this genre are:
Nalini Singh – the Psy-Changeling series and the Guild Hunter series are both fantastic, and showcase incredibly strong world building and character development.
Patricia Briggs – the Mercy Thompson series as well as the Alpha-Omega series are perennial favourites. Dealing with the supernatural in a world of humans who are only just becoming aware of who they are living with makes for some very interesting plots, and the characters are fantastic.
Ilona Andrews – Kate Daniels series, and the Edge series. I love the Kate Daniels overall arc, and the mix of changelings and demons and magic is a great one.
Julie Kagawa – The Talon Saga and the Blood of Eden series. I loved the idea of dragons walking among us, and the Blood of Eden series turned expected ideas about vampires on their head.
Jim Butcher – the Dresden Files series. Harry Dresden as a wizard detective was a great concept and the ever expanding influence of the supernatural on the natural world allowed for some exciting plots.
Ben Aaronovitch, the PC Peter Grant series. Almost like a British Harry Dresden but with a slightly different tone. I loved reading something not set in the States to be honest.
Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. Another recommendation from my mum. Some great exploration of identity and destiny and purpose.
Kim Harrison – the Rachel Morgan series. I discovered this in the library and tried to collect as many as possible to read. I really enjoyed the interplay between the characters and the use of magic was interesting.
Who are your favourite paranormal writers? Any suggestions?