Random (but not really)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Urban Fantasy

I am pretty sure that my definition or urban fantasy differs from everyone else’s. And I’m also thinking that I’m the only one who defines supernatural fantasy in the way I do. So perhaps I should clarify what I mean by urban versus supernatural fantasy.

Supernatural fantasy takes place in our world, or what used to be our world, and has violence, boinking, or both.

Urban fantasy takes place in our world, generally the preternatural is hidden from most of the world, and there is rarely boinking or explicit on-the-page violence. That doesn’t mean urban fantasy is all sweetness and light—Charles de Lint frequently looks at the problems of abuse—but the characters rarely see a fight as the solution.

It is, of course, more than that. I tend to classify based on how I feel about a book, but the sex and violence are the most common indicators.

Best of Index


lychfordWitches of Lychford (2015) Paul Cornell (Witches of Lychford)

Lychford lies between the borders of worlds, and there have always been three to maintain those borders. Currently the only guardian is an old woman who has problems of her own to deal with. The other two characters are the local reverend and the owner of the new age store.

First and foremost, I love Judith.

The telemarketers who called her up now seemed either desperate or resigned to the point of a mindless drone, until Judith, who had time on her hands and ice in her heart, engaged them in dark conversations that always got her removed from their lists.

There are very few fantasy books with older women as main characters. Sure there are crochety, ageless wizards, but old women tend to be background or supporting characters. So Judith is a delight.

“Oh, look at you two, like unicorns at your first orgy,” said Judith, for all the world as if that were a thing people said.

Second, these are shorts, not novels, and I love short stories and novellas.  They’re perfect for when I don’t know what I want to read. It’s an escape without a huge commitment.

There are currently three stories in this series, and the way the third ended it seems like there is more planned.

The best part of the stories, however, are the dialog. There is a constant back-and forth between the three women that is fun. And for that to have been done by a male writer is something I very much appreciate, since, as I’ve mentioned before, men don’t often write women that feel and sound like women deep down. They’ve got the shallow bits, but I don’t often feel like they really understand  what the experience of being female in the modern world is really like.


Dreams Underfoot (1993) Charles de Lint (Newford)

Charles de Lint is hands-down my favorite short story author. And the best of those stories are set in Newford. Chances are, if you’ve read a high-quality fantasy anthology, you’ve come across his work. He is in 19 of the (many) anthologies I own and have read, and I don’t think I have ever been seriously disappointed.

Dreams Underfoot is his first collection, and although you can start at any point, this was my introduction to Charles de Lint. You could also pick up any of his novels—he has both adult novels and kids novels and young adult novels, any of which (with the possible exception of Widdershins) can be read without any prior knowledge of these characters. Because, after all, he is master of telling you a complete story in few words.

His stories are, I think, best summed up in this quote from the story “Pal O’ Mine” (which can be found in The Very Best of Charles de Lint).

Gina always believed there was magic in the world. “But it doesn’t work the way it does in fairy tales,” she told me. “It doesn’t save us. We have to save ourselves.”

That’s always an important theme. We have to save ourselves if we can. Which brings me to something important to mention: his stories aren’t typically fun little romps. His characters are frequently mended people who were badly broken in the past, or people seeking help in mending themselves. He has dealt repeatedly with the themes of rape and homelessness and abuse. Yet even with these stories there is always hope.

His stories try to remind you that there is magic in the world, even if you don’t see faeries or goblins (from Somewhere in My Mind There Is a Painting Box).

Sometimes people need fairies and fancies to wake them up to what they already have. They look so hard for the little face in the thistle, the wrinkled man who lives in a tree. But then they start to focus on the thistle itself, the feathery purples of its bloom, the sharp points of its thorns. They reach out and touch the rough bark of the tree, drink in the green of its leaves, taste of its fruit. And they’re transformed. They’re in their own world, fully and completely, sometimes for the first time since they were a child, and they’re finally appreciating what it has to offer them.

Even when he takes on popular themes and ideas, he does it in his own way, such as his story Sisters, about a vampire.

I figure if the people writing the books and making the movies actually do have any firsthand experience with vampires, they’re sugar-coating the information so that people don’t freak out. If you’re going to accept that they exist in the first place, it’s much more comforting to believe that you’re safe in the daylight, or that a cross or a fistful of garlic will keep them at bay.

About the only thing they do get right is that it takes a vamp to make a vamp. You do have to die from the bite and then rise again three days later. It’s as easy as that. It’s also the best time to kill a vamp—they’re kind of like ragdolls, all loose and muddy-brained, for the first few hours.

Oh, and you do have to invite us into your house. If it’s a public place, we can go in the same as anyone else.

What’s that? No, that wasn’t a slip of the tongue. I’m one, too. So while I like the TV show as much as the next person, and I know it’s fiction, blond cheerleader types still make me twitch a little.

I know that not everyone loves short stories, and urban fantasy isn’t for everyone, but I adore his characters and his stories and would like everyone to at least give him a try. If you click on his name, there are a list of many many options you might be interested in trying.


Good Omens (1990) Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

I find it unlikely that any fan of fantasy has not read Good Omens, but I still wanted to mention it because it is one of my favorites.

Every bit of this story is hilarious and wonderful and marvelous and a delight. Even the “footnotes” are wonderful.

(24) So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life…
25 And the Lord spake unto the Angel that guarded the eastern gate, saying Where is the flaming sword which was given unto thee?
26 And the Angel said, I had it here only a moment ago, I must have put it down some where, forget my own head next.
27 And the Lord did not ask him again.

The story is neither Neil Gaiman nor Terry Pratchett, but a beautiful combination of both, with their sense of humor feeding off one another.

…courting couples had come to listen to the splish and gurgle of the river in the Sussex sunset. He’d done that with Maud, his missus, before they were married. They’d come here to spoon, and on one memorable occasion, fork.

If you haven’t read much fantasy, or any Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, then I highly recommend picking up Good Omens. Especially if you need a good laugh.


American Gods (2001) Neil Gaiman

This is another story that many many people have already read (heck, my MOM has read American Gods) and there was recently a film of it.

But if perchance you haven’t read it, you really should do so.

Shadow stared, impressed in spite of himself, at the hundreds of full-sized creatures who circled on the platform of the carousel. Real creatures, imaginary creatures, and transformations of the two: each creature was different—he saw mermaid and merman, centaur and unicorn, elephants (one huge, one tiny), bulldog, frog and phoenix, zebra, tiger, manticore and basilisk, swans pulling a carriage, a white ox, a fox, twin walruses, even a sea serpent, all of them brightly colored and more than real.

It is full of mythology and folklore and stories of America. In some ways, it belongs more with supernatural fantasy because there is sex and violence, but those things are written in a way that almost feels like the sex and violence of mythology and folklore—something from which we are a step removed.

What should I believe? thought Shadow, and the voice came back to him from somewhere deep beneath the world, in a bass rumble: Believe everything.


A Fistful of Sky (2004) Nina Kiriki Hoffman

I picked this book off the shelves solely because I liked the cover. (Take THAT Avon.) And I instantly fell in love.

Gypsum comes from a family of magicians, hidden from the regular population and living lives as normal people. Gypsum, however, has always felt different from the other members of her family, and the fact that her magic has not yet manifest doesn’t help, leaving her to believe she might be wholly without magic.

Gypsum also has an extremely complicated family.

Mama said, as she always did when things like that happened, that in her family, it was customary to let the kids fight it out. Dad said maybe that was why she hadn’t spoken with her two older sisters since they were teenagers.

But despite that, she loves her family and they love her. They might not understand her, but they do want what is best for her.

This story is not just of her coming to discover her magic, and to accept what that magic turns out to be, but also of learning to accept herself.

Like I said, it’s one of my favorite books and I wish everyone would read it—especially teenage girls.

She has written several other books, and also short stories. And her short stories are marvelous. Take this one, The Devil You Know. Here is the first paragraph:

When Dominic Cross was nine, he watched a monster his father summoned from the netherworld escape its ensorcelled circle, kill both his parents, and devour them.

The demon then decides to adopt the boy and see to his magical training.

That has nothing, of course, to do with this story, but gives you an idea of how she thinks up and writes the unexpected.


Child of a Rainless Year (2005) Jane Lindskold

Jane Lindskold is another author who writes stories that unfold. This is a story of discovery and learning and beauty. It is also a story about a middle-aged woman, a teacher.

Not your typical main character for a fantasy book.

As I walked back to the House I felt thoroughly sad that I was now so old and so unattractive that I could be found alone in a man’s house early in the morning and not even raise an eyebrow.

This story is full of passages that catch my fancy, popping up at unexpected times, sticking in my brain.

(L)ike so many who look at themselves too often in mirrors, she thought that this reverse image, seen rigidly straight on as we are so rarely seen by others, was her truest self.

“Here we face an old dilemma. How much must we give up of our traditional ways in order to thrive in the modern world? New Mexico is a poor state with a low population, yet we are rich in heritage. Do we sacrifice that heritage for the benefit of our children? What must we give up to attract teachers and doctors?

Sometimes we need beauty and grandeur to inspire us to be the best we can be— to remind us of what humans are capable of when they turn their minds to something beyond the purely practical. We have the capacity for art, for beauty. I think we should use it.”

The story is very unlike most fantasy I’ve read, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend another book by her, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls which might be more SF than fantasy, but which is also a unique and fascinating story.


legionLegion (2012) Brandon Sanderson (Legion)

I know that Brandon Sanderson is a huge name in SFF, but as I’ve mostly quit reading epic fantasy, I had found little of his to interest me, until I came across Legion, a novella that isn’t quite fantasy, but isn’t straight-up fiction either.

Stephen Leeds is a genius, however, to deal with his photographic memory and the other issues that cropped up with it, he has created a variety of characters that only he can see and interact with, who take the volumes of information he ingests, and return it to him in a manageable form.

“Stan is mostly harmless. He gives us weather forecasts, that sort of thing.”

“I . . . see,” she said. “Stan’s another one of your special friends?”

I chuckled. “No. Stan’s not real.”

“I thought you said none of them were.”

“Well, true. They’re my hallucinations. But Stan is something special. Only Tobias hears him. Tobias is a schizophrenic.”

She blinked in surprise. “Your hallucination . . .”


“Your hallucination has hallucinations.”

They also provide companionship. Of a sort. But mostly they help him solve mysteries and find things. In the first story, he is asked to find a man who has stolen a prototype of a camera he has created, from the company for which he works.

I love both the idea for these stories, and the implementation. How a man who created aspects to hold information would also have created personalities for them, and how for him they would take up physical space.

There are two books in this series, and I wish there were more. Maybe soon.

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