March 30, 2012

Square Pegs in Coffin-Shaped Holes: a guest post by Jaye Wells

Square Pegs in Coffin-Shaped Holes
By Jaye Wells

It comes up at every convention I attend: Just what is Urban Fantasy? Or more often the discussion is what is not UF.

While I have dived into these discussions with varying levels of zeal over the years, I find myself tired of it. The truth is that unlike traditional genres—romance, mystery, westerns, science fiction—Urban Fantasy is not a neat box that books either fit neatly into or must simply be discarded as something else entirely.

That is because urban fantasy is not a single genre, but a blending of genres. Further, the books that are lumped into the category exist on a broad spectrum. Over here, we have the books that tip their fedoras to Raymond Chandler with their noir sensibilities and heavily mystery-influenced plots. Over there are the more romance-heavy stories, where the protagonist’s relationships move a good portion of action. But it’s not even a straight line, this spectrum, because there are UFs that borrow heavily from the classical fantasy quest, the thriller, the classical vendetta story, satirical comedy, etc, etc, etc, and mix them all up to create a stew of awesomeness.

The truth is that there is an urban fantasy out there for everyone. Every time I talk to people about why they read my books I hear a different reason. Some love the action elements—explosions and fight scenes. Some love Sabina’s relationships with her team. Some like watching her journey and struggle from the broken ragecicle she began the series as to a warmer, more evolved heroine. Some adore the political intrigue of the dark races and the complex world building. Others still love the irreverent humor. 

So let’s stop trying to shove UF into a tidy box. Part of its appeal is that the stories and their authors don’t play by traditional fiction rules. We borrow and discard genre conventions at will and with blatant disregard for The Rules.

That is also, I suspect, why so many people love to read these books. They’re just good fun.
What’s your favorite type of urban fantasy?

BLUE-BLOODED VAMP, the fifth and final book in Jaye Wells’s Sabina Kane series releases in June. For more about Jaye’s urban fantasy novels, please check out her web site at www.jayewells.com or follow her on twitter www.twitter.com/jayewells.

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Gef: I'd like to thank Jaye for a great guest post to cap off the Urban Fantasy Marathon. I've had a lot of fun all this month reading the great contributions from everyone generous enough to give a little time and a few words through March. I'll also encourage folks to hop on the SABINA KANE bandwagon, as I've been having a blast with this series. I have SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL on my to-be-read pile, and I'll hopefully have that read and reviewed by the time the fifth and final installment is published.

March 29, 2012

Rabid Reads: "Green-Eyed Demon" by Jaye Wells

Green-Eyed Demon
by Jaye Wells
Orbit (2011)
376 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316037778

After reading Green-Eyed Demon, and reading the product info for some other urban fantasy novels that have caught my eye over the last several months, I think New Orleans might be the third most popular city to use as a backdrop, surpassed only by New York City and Los Angeles. Regardless of which city Jaye decided to set her third novel in the Sabina Kane series, I was looking forward to this one. Red-Headed Stepchild was a great debut, and The Mage in Black was a strong followup, so I hoped Jaye could really make the third book a home-run.

The book kicks off with Sabina abducting one of the vampire head honchos in order to extract information on the whereabouts of Lavinia, her estranged--that's putting it mildly--grandmother and leader of the vampire races, and her twin sister Maisie who's been kidnapped by Lavinia. After learning they're in New Orleans, Sabina charges off to rescue her sister, with the help of her demon minion, Giguhl, and mage love-interest, Adam. The trouble is Sabina is going to have to be on her best behavior when she's in the city, because she's relying not only the mage hierarchy, but the fae royalty now as well, and she already has developed a reputation of not playing well with others.

In one sense, the novel is pretty standard fare. There's a damsel in distress and a band of heroes are out to rescue her. They visit a new and strange city, meet some interesting characters, fight some foes, and then it boils down to a big showdown at the end. But what really made the book so enjoyable was Jaye's attention to detail with the characters. Sabina Kane is already a character I'm fully on board with thanks to the first two books, and it's the emotional turmoil and maturing she goes through in this third book that won me over even more. Giguhl is as entertaining as ever, and there's even more to his character that gets revealed. As for Adam, I thought this book probably highlighted him more than the other two books put together. He really stepped up to become the number two character in the series next to Sabina, and the hot-and-cold relationship those two have is one of the more fun--and contentious--relationships I've read in urban fantasy.

New Orleans is used to great effect when it is used, but for a city so rich it is really not explored as much as I thought it would be. Nowhere near the degree New York City was in the last book, I thought. I guess you could argue the city is highlighted through the local characters that Jaye introduces into the mix, with a voodoo witch, a fae burlesque dancer, and overtly gothic vampires, not to mention a mage turned rock singer that stole a couple of scenes in the book. The fight scenes are great and the big showdown at the end--I really don't think I'm spoiling anything by just saying that--is satisfying both in scope and consequences. It's not a brush-off type of ending where someone is shaking their fist in the air and shouting, "I'll get you next time!" This book really makes it clear that things are going to be different going forward. If this book capped off a trilogy, I'd be satisfied overall, but with the promise of two more novels (Silver-Tongued Devil released at the start of 2012 and Blue-Blood Vamp slated for the second half of 2012) I am heavily anticipating what is happening next--and where.


CymLowell

And the winner of the Kick Butt Characters Giveaway Is ...

... GISELE! 

Congrats, I've sent an e-mail your way and highlighted your name on the original Rafflecopter post. If I don't hear back from you within a week, I'll draw another name out of the proverbial hat. That's only ever happened once though, so I'm not worried.


Thanks to everyone who entered and keep checking back for book giveaways in the future.

March 27, 2012

Rabid Reads: "Grave Witch" by Kalayna Price


Grave Witch
by Kalayna Price
ROC (2010)
325 pages
ISBN-13: 9780451463807

I don't read many novels with faeries in them, let alone urban fantasy novels, so Grave Witch helped bump up that number a notch higher. The fae element was actually a bit of a surprise, because when I read the back cover of this one I was expecting witches and ghosts and that's all. Shows what assumptions get you.

This book was a change of pace from the other UF novels I've read lately. It went light on the humor, but didn't take itself too seriously, and the flow of the book felt more like a straight up mystery novel--but with magic. I was a little worried early on that the book was going to play out like a police procedural, which is a genre I still bristle at, but it actually felt closer to something like a Janet Evanovich novel as far as the investigative elements went. That I can readily enjoy.

Alex Craft makes her living as a grave witch, communicating with shades of people who've recently died. She's not a ghost whisperer though, as the shades are like echoes of the dead with the nifty ability to talk. Kind of like the black box of the soul, you might say. But, it's when one of these shades actually attacks her when she summons it in the morgue that things go haywire for the cash-strapped societal outcast.

A detective friend of hers is investigating the assassination of the governor and needs her to raise the guy's shade, which only leads her to get attacked, marked by a soul-sucking spell, the detective in a coma after a botched hit, and a case that may involve her own father, the deputy governor and leader of the Humans First Society--yeah, she's got daddy issues, big-time. Along the way, she finds herself seeking help and butting heads with not just a ghost that's tailing her, but the lead detective on the governor's case, and even Death himself. Not to mention the gang of faeries that seem to have it in for her.

Oddly enough, I was more entertained by Alex and all her interactions with the characters in the books than I did with the actual mystery. One of those experiences where the characters were more rewarding than the plot. The plot offers enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, but what kept me hooked the whole way through was the cast. Little moments like Alex's little dog, PC, who was on the mend with a broken leg in a cast, and his constant begging of food. I'm a dog lover though, so that was an easy hook for me. There was her estranged sister too, and the strained relationship they have as the prospect of their father's involvement in the case comes to bear. I thought that was something that really helped give Alex's character some depth. One of my favorite characters had to be Roy the ghost, with his earnest attitude coupled with a desire to see his murderer brought down. I just thought the notion that a ghost would hound a witch almost incessantly once he realizes someone can finally see him was the much-needed bit of humor that the book needed.

It's not high-octane stuff, but it's a world Kalayna has laid out really well. The whole history of a city and state existing on a neighboring plain of existence after faeries and witches come out of the woodwork felt just believable enough to have me suspend my disbelief. I could have used a little bit more differentiating that world from the preexisting mundane world, but that's a minor detail, and one I'm sure gets worked out as the series continues. It took a while to get round to reading this book, so I hope I don't procrastinate quite so long when it comes to the second installment.
CymLowell

March 26, 2012

Strange Love: a guest post by Ian Rogers

 It's always great to discover an author who is remarkably talented at what they do. It's an added bonus when you find out they're Canadian, too. We're a humble country, yes, but we do love rooting for the hometown. With Ian Rogers' Felix Renn character, I figured it was an easy choice in getting him to opine on the urban fantasy genre. Enjoy.

Strange Love or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the “Urban Fantasy” Label
by Ian Rogers

Genre labels mean different things to different people (if they mean anything at all). To some they’re a useful way to categorize various types of stories. To others they’re nothing more than a marketing tool.

My feelings fall somewhere in the middle. I think genre labels can be useful, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t think they’re terribly important.

Normally this isn’t a subject that would interest me much, but last year I read a review of one of my Felix Renn stories, and one part in particular got me thinking. Here it is:

Temporary Monsters dwells in the gray area between horror and fantasy. It is essentially an urban fantasy, or what urban fantasy was for a short time before it became synonymous with tattooed female slayers and their supernatural bad-boy boyfriends. (To read the rest of the review, visit Nick Kaufmann’s blog.)

The review touched on something I’d been noticing for a while now, that the term “urban fantasy” is becoming synonymous with “paranormal romance.”

Let’s start by taking a look at the label “urban fantasy.” What does it mean exactly? Well, simply put, it’s a story that takes fantasy elements and puts them in an urban setting. More or less. “Urban” doesn’t necessarily mean the story has to take place in a city. Same goes for the “fantasy” part. It means different things to different people. “Fantasy” is often used as an umbrella term to describe any type of story with fantastical elements, be it horror, science fiction, etc. Having said that, outside of my author friends, most of the people I know who hear the word “fantasy” tend to think of The Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. These types of stories are typically referred to as “high fantasy.” Confused yet?

You can’t delve too deeply into this subject without coming to a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Are publishers marketing paranormal romance novels as urban fantasy because that’s what readers want (or expect), or are readers merely associating urban fantasy with paranormal romance because that’s what they truly feel urban fantasy has become?

I suspect that Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series has gone a long way toward blurring the lines between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Maybe I’m showing my age, but when I think of urban fantasy, I think of books like Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks and Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show. Both books feature fantasy elements in a real world setting, and yet they don’t quite fit into either the horror or fantasy genres. Both books even contain some romantic elements, but I wouldn’t call either of them paranormal romances, either.

Of course, my feelings are completely subjective. Maybe this whole discussion is simply a matter of one person’s urban fantasy being another person’s paranormal romance. Having said that, I think most readers would agree that there is a fundamental difference between Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. One might classify Ms. Hamilton’s books as urban fantasy, but I think it would be stretching things a bit too far to call the Dresden Files paranormal romance.

Genre labels are truly in the eye of the beholder. The one used to describe stories featuring private detectives pitted against supernatural forces is “occult detective.” I’ve never really liked it myself. I find it a little clunky. But that’s just me. I suspect the term came into use because “supernatural detective” implies that the detective possesses some sort of paranormal abilities, which he usually doesn’t. In regards to my Felix Renn stories, I tend to call them “supernoirturals.” It’s kind of a cutesy term, but I find it rolls off the tongue a lot easier than “occult detective.”

I think of my Felix Renn series as a kind of anti-paranormal romance. Not that I have anything against PR, because I don’t, but I wanted to make it clear to readers that I’m doing something very different with these stories.

In your typical paranormal romance, you’ve usually got some sort of sexual action taking place, be it man-on-girl, girl-on-girl, man-on-man, girl-on-vampire, man-on-demon, girl-on-werewolf… you get the idea. Throw in a third character and you’ve got yourself a lover’s triangle that you can usually milk for at least a trilogy of books if not more.

Felix Renn is a Toronto-based private investigator in a world where the supernatural exists. Back in the 1940s, a dimension called The Black Lands was discovered, and since then portals to this dark world have been popping up all over the planet.

Felix doesn’t have a love interest. He has an ex-wife named Sandra. When we first meet her in Temporary Monsters, Sandra is undergoing a premature mid-life crisis as the result of a flagging acting career. Even though she’s only in her early thirties, all of the choice roles are going to younger girls. She ends up working for Felix part-time as his assistant.

There’s definitely a tension between Felix and Sandra, but it’s not sexual in nature. It’s a tension of old feelings, hurt feelings, and a history that binds them together in ways they don’t quite understand.

When I created Felix Renn, I knew I had to make him stand out among the other private detective characters out there. I decided to go back to the roots of the archetype. What comes to mind when we think of the early PIs? For the most part, we picture heavy drinking, fedora-wearing loners with sharp-tongued, backtalking secretaries.

So I wondered, What would happen if all the flirting actually led to a relationship? I took it a step further and asked, What if the PI actually married his secretary? That was good, but I decided to go further still: What if the PI and his secretary got divorced, but still managed to be… well, maybe not friends, but at least civil to one another? What if they decided that they couldn’t be married but they still needed each other in their lives?

I thought this was the basis for a interesting set of characters, and to this day I feel that the relationship between Felix and Sandra is one of the best things about these stories. I suspect they still love each other on some level, but it’s a strange sort of love, one that even I as the author don’t completely understand.

Ultimately, when it comes to genre labels, I adhere to the Groucho Marx way of thinking, in that you can call me whatever you want, just as long as you don’t call me late for dinner. So if you want to call the Felix Renn series “urban fantasy,” I say go right ahead. Call them “occult detective fiction” if you want. Or “horror-boiled.” Or “supernoirturals.” In the end I don’t really care, just as long as people are reading them.


**

Ian Rogers is a writer, artist, and photographer. He is the author of the Felix Renn series of supernatural-noirs ("supernoirturals"), including "Temporary Monsters," "The Ash Angels," and "Black-Eyed Kids" from Burning Effigy Press. Ian's first book, a collection of dark fiction called Every House is Haunted, is due Fall 2012 from ChiZine Publications. For more information, visit ianrogers.ca. To find out more about Felix Renn and the Black Lands, visit theblacklands.com.

What Is Your Favorite Urban Fantasy Movie?


Urban fantasy is a popular genre when it comes to books, but what about movies? Leading up to this month of all things UF, I had a heckuva time trying to list some movies that could be classified urban fantasy, let alone movies that blatantly promoted themselves as such. I suppose the easiest example would be the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I'm not going to bother with that movie, since I really never liked it all that much--and I'm not even sure there was any mention of "urban fantasy" at any point by anyone during it's release. Instead, I've five films that aren't expressly UF, but I think there's a case to be made for each. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know just how wrong I am.

Underworld - This one is pretty easy to sling into the UF category. It's got vampires, werewolves, a sprawling city scape, and a boatload of action and intrigue. It's a movie that relies more on style than substance, but the whole notion of a longstanding war between Vampires and Lycans offered some great bits of drama. And considering the franchise saw the likes of Michael Sheen and Bill Nighy going for broke as a werewolf and vampire respectively, the movies were a treat to watch--even at their worst.

Hellboy - Guillermo Del Toro's visually captivating style, couple with Mike Mignola's unique blending of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror make Hellboy an easy pick. The second movie might even be better, at least in the visual department. It was like they gave Del Toro carte blanche to whip up whatever fantastical creature that popped into his head. And seeing Ron Perlman as Hellboy stomping around the city rooftops and sewers while bemoaning his relationship with Selma Blair.

The Craft - This movie established two things when I saw it with a group of friends at the drive-in--Hey! Remember drive-ins?--and that was Robin Tunney was a little cutie and Fairuza Balk knew how to play crazy. It's not a movie with any real sense of city as character, so far as I recall, but the dynamic among characters and using high school life as the backdrop gives this movie enough of a UF vibe for it to count in my book.

Big Trouble in Little China - Oh god, The Thing is my absolute favorite horror movie, and the best collaborative effort between John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, but this pulpy gem ranks a very close second. This action-packed smorgasbord of one-liners might be one of the best things to ever come out of the 80s. Kurt plays Jack Burton, the cocksure braggart who stumbles into a turf war between Chinese street gangs only to find himself battling ancient gods and demons. Love. This. Movie.

American Werewolf in London - Okay, I may be blaspheming by trying to fit this film into the UF genre, but it does have a couple key elements: werewolves and London as a character. The movie really is a horror movie, and a very fun one at that, but if you took out the gorier elements of the film, it'd be really easy to call this a UF movie. I mean, a young man falls in love in London after being bitten by a werewolf, and struggles with the idea that he is either going insane or really is a werewolf.


There are probably some movies out there that are better suited for the urban fantasy label, but I'll leave it up to you to name them. So, leave a comment and tell me which of these movies do not belong on this list, and which ones do.

March 23, 2012

Rabid Reads: Ian Rogers' "Felix Renn" Trilogy

I reviewed a trio of novelettes from Burning Effigy Press by fellow Canadian, Ian Rogers, during the winter that managed to blend horror, fantasy, and crime genres with a Toronto backdrop in a highly entertaining fashion. I reviewed each book as I read it over on Skull Salad Reviews, but I thought I'd compile all three reviews here to go along with the Urban Fantasy Marathon.

Temporary Monsters by Ian Rogers (ISBN 9781926611073)

Set in a world in which monsters do exist and the borders between our dimension and a hellish one known as the Black Lands exists as well, Felix Renn is a burned-out private eye with an ex-wife and bills to pay. His latest job has him looking into the background of a movie star who went on a psychotic rampage, in the guise of a vampire, before someone killed him in self-defense--that someone being Felix, no less. Felix soon learns the rising star was not only doing one helluva job as a vampire when he went outhouse crazy in a restaurant, but the movie he was working on in town had him playing a vampire. And when things go wrong with the actor's co-star, who is playing a werewolf ... well, one guess how that turns out.

The world Ian has created here is surprisingly robust when barely using thirty pages to know only set the stage, but tell the whole story. The added twist of a drug that seems to temporarily morph users into monsters of choice is both macabre and original. There's a good payoff at the end with enough of a teaser for future installments. In fact, The Ash Angels is the next story in the Black Lands series, which I hope to read sooner rather than later.

Seeing Canada portrayed as something other than a snowbound land of overly polite syrup-suckers is always welcome, and Ian did a heckuva job layering grime all over Toronto. I'm looking forward to reading what else he has in store for the great white north and abroad.

The Ash Angels by Ian Rogers (ISBN 9781926611099)

It's Christmas time, and while Felix and his ex-wife are civil to each other these days, he'd rather be alone--and drunk. He needs something festive for a chaser while home alone, so he heads out to find some eggnog and wides up with a mystery involving piles of ash shaped like angels. It's a case that leads him from a funeral home and ultimately to a familiar location from his recent past, all the while trying to keep from winding up like the ashen corpses he finds.

The Ash Angels has the same hard-boiled approach to urban fantasy that I've come to enjoy from several authors, and Ian has a great character with Felix Renn to explore this world he's created. That said. this second installment didn't come off quite as strong as the debut effort. The curse of the sophomore book in a series, I suppose. It's not bad, quite the contrary actually, but with such a powderkeg as Temporary Monsters, I had my hopes set really high on this one. Still a satisfying read, and I'm eager to read the third installment, Black-Eyed Kids, in the near future, which Ian intimated is his strongest work of the three. Good to know.

If you're not on board the Felix Renn bandwagon, and you're a fan of gritty urban fantasy, I suggest you remedy that.

The Black-Eyed Kids by Ian Rogers (ISBN 9781926611136)

This time around, Felix is doing some work in Toronto that is much more mundane and far less life-threatening--for a while, anyway. He's been hired by a guy to keep an eye on his wife whom is suspected of being unfaithful, but while Felix has her apartment staked out she is murdered right under his nose--cut in half with the lower half missing, and there's no sign of anyone coming or going. It doesn't take long to realize there is something supernatural going on, as that sort of thing seems to just gravitate to ol' Felix. A big clue that things are on the paranormal side of things is when two kids, a boy and a girl, begin stalking him. Maybe not so disturbing when put like that, but these kids are Village of the Damned caliber creepy thanks to eyes that are orbs of pure black. When Felix finds out the kids are connected to the murder, he also learns the guy who hired him isn't who he says he is, and there's been more than one death linked to those kids.

Whoa Nelly, this one was a dark treat to read. The first two books certainly had their fair share of sinister vibes, but there was more--how do I put it?--rollickingness. No that's not right. Maybe sardonic tone is what I mean. Felix is the kind of guy who will let his world-weary side shine through. This time around there isn't a lot of room for that, because his life is in imminent danger even more than the last two times. The story is the most intense of the three with a threat that Felix comes to believe he can't defeat. Everything plays out really well with an episodic quality I've come to expect and appreciate from Ian's work.

I think this would have to be Ian's strongest effort yet of the three novellas published so far, which bodes well for future iterations, including a Felix Renn novel that's apparently in the works. If you enjoy gritty urban fantasy, this should be right up your alley.

Enter to win first 2 books in Cassandra Clare's "Mortal Instruments" saga (Kick Butt Characters Giveaway Hop)


Time for another book giveaway. This time it's hosted by Good Choice Reading & I Am A Reader, Not A Writer.

The theme for this hop is kick-butt characters in YA, and since this blog is still in the middle of its Urban Fantasy Marathon, I decided to make it YA urban fantasy.




Up for grabs are a couple of books from my own bookshelf that I'll ship out to one lucky winner. They are the first two books in Cassandra Clare's His Mortal Instruments series, City of Bones and City of Ashes. If you live in Canada or the U.S., and are a follower of this blog--new or old--you're more than welcome to throw your name in the hat. You can even earn an extra entry by leaving a comment below telling me who you think is the most kick-butt character in urban fantasy.

Just fill out the Rafflecopter form below and you're all set. Good luck and thanks stopping by.





a Rafflecopter giveaway
Good luck and be sure to visit the other giveaways going on by clicking on the links below:


March 22, 2012

What the Heck Is Urban Fantasy: a guest post by Michael West

Michael West has a brand new series of books coming out through Seventh Star Press, which fit nicely into the urban fantasy genre. The first book, Poseidon's Children, should be out very soon if not already, and I invited Michael to write a little something about the books and the genre as a whole. My review of the book just went up on the blog a few days ago, so be sure to check that out too (and there's even a book trailer you can watch here), but in the mean time, here's what Michael has to say:


What the Heck Is Urban Fantasy Anyway?

By Michael West

There’s an old story about a group of blind men who come upon an elephant and try to describe it to one another.  One of the men grabs the elephant’s trunk and says, “An elephant is like a serpent.”  Another feels its leg and proclaims, “No, an elephant is like the column of a great temple.”  Still another feels the tip of its tail and says, “No, both of you are wrong.  An elephant is like a thick brush.”  None of them can believe that the others are “seeing” the same animal, and all are left confused about what it is they have actually found.

Readers looking at a collection of Urban Fantasy novels on the local bookstore shelf might have a similar reaction.  If all you were to read were the Sookie Stackhouse novels of Charlaine Harris, or The Hollows books by Kim Harrison, you might think that Urban Fantasy was no different from Horror or Paranormal Romance.  Read Lucy Snyder’s Jessie Shimmer novels, however, and you will find magic and mythical creatures of an entirely different sort.  And don’t even get me started on all the Young Adult titles out there!  Yet all are considered part of one vast, all-encompassing genre.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump, Urban Fantasy is like a box of chocolates, and you never know what type of story you have until you actually take a bite.

But there must be some sort of actual definition, right? 

"Urban fantasy describes a work that is set primarily in a city and contains aspects of fantasy. These matters may involve the arrivals of alien races, the discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence between humans and paranormal beings, conflicts between humans and malicious paranormals, and subsequent changes in city management..."
-Wikipedia 

That’s probably about the best description of Urban Fantasy I’ve seen, and it fits my new novel, Poseidon’s Children, and the series it kicks off, The Legacy of the Gods, to a tee. I often refer to the creatures in the novel as chimeras.  The chimera, of course, being a single mythical creature composed of the parts of many different animals.  It might also serve as a good analogy for Urban Fantasy.

The thing that binds all the horrors, the supernatural, and the fantastic together is the modern-day setting.  I would say it was the urban setting, but I’ve read many Urban Fantasy novels that take place in suburban or rural locations.  The common thread, however, is consistently time: ancient mythological or supernatural creatures alive today, not in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but in Middle America.  In the subways, the schools, and the shopping malls.  In Urban Fantasy, the things that go bump in the night aren’t dwelling beneath the foundation of some far off castle; they’re living right under your nose.

As a writer, I’ve never been too concerned with what genre I’m writing in.  My job is to tell the best story I can.  When characters take life and go off on an adventure, sometimes the writer doesn’t even know where that path will eventually lead.  We go where the characters, the situations, and the actions take us, and when we arrive at the final destination, we just hope that it has been a captivating ride. 

Genre constraints are a marketing issue, nothing more.  Publishing houses and book stores like to put everything into neat little categories.  This is funny, so it must be Humor.  It has space ships, so it is Science Fiction.  People are crying and coming to grips with tragedy, so it must belong on the Oprah’s Book Club display. 

Urban Fantasy was created to house all those round pegs that don’t fit neatly into all those other square little holes.  And so, it is not uncommon to find dragons and vampires lurking together, not only on the same shelf, but on the same page.  And it has allowed the imaginations of both authors and readers to soar freely into fresh and wondrous tales that can be found nowhere else. 

So, faithful readers, feel free to browse Urban Fantasy novels without fear.  Because, no matter what other genre the novels resemble, be it horror or science fiction or romance, the end result is magical storytelling.  After all, even if you don’t know exactly what makes an elephant an elephant, it can still take you on some pretty amazing journeys.

March 21, 2012

Rabid Reads: "The Mage in Black" by Jaye Wells


The Mage in Black (Sabina Kane #2)
by Jaye Wells
Orbit (2010)
340 pages
ISBN 9780316037808

It's been too long since I read the first book in Jaye's SabinaKane series, Red-Headed Stepchild. That was the first time I purposely sought out an urban fantasy novel, after reading a couple rave reviews for it, and found it highly enjoyable. But while I've been acquainted myself over the last three years with other urban fantasy tales, I've neglected the one that introduced me to the genre. For shame. Well, I'm remedying that now, and back in the thick of things with The Mage in Black.

Despite the time away from Sabina and company, it took very little time to get warmed up to the story and have Sabina regale me with her snarky point of view as she slays vampires and makes nice with magicians.

After a falling out her grandmother, the leader of the L.A. chapter of vampires, Sabina moves to New York City with her demon sidekick Giguhl, magician pseudo-love interest Adam, and meets her long-lost sister Maisie. While in the Big Apple, Sabina sets out to learn the other side of her heritage. Born half-vampire/half-mage she's fully embraced her vamp side, and now that she's in the company of mage society it's time she finds out how the other half lives. There's a bit of culture shock though, not only from trying to navigate through an unfamiliar metropolis, but also a way of life as all sorts of paranormal beings intermingle, including vampires, mages, werewolves, faeries, and even a few demons like Giguhl. And when enemies start coming out of the woodwork to off Sabina, well, what's a girl to do?

I was really charmed by Red-Headed Stepchild and had big expectations for its followup, but I wasn't quite as wowed as I was with the first book. Oh, it's really fun and the introduction of mage society was intriguing as heck, especially with a New York City backdrop and the introduction of a new love interest. The big showdown at the end just lacked the same epic quality as in the first book, in my view, and it wound up being all of the buildup and subplots through the meat of the book that offered the most rewarding moments. Stalking prey in Central Park only to get into a fight with werewolves, managing Giguhl as he enters a demon Fight Club in the "Black Light District", and learning magic through trial and error in training sessions (and sneak attacks) were some of the most amusing and adrenline-soaked scenes in the book.

Like a lot of seconds in book series I've read, The Mage in Black feels a bit like a setup for the third book, Green-Eyed Demon. Thankfully, there is enough of a stand-alone story with its own resolution to let this sequel hold up more than other seconds out there. I'm definitely geared up for book three--as well as book four and five, for that matter.

March 20, 2012

Urban Fantasy World Building: a guest post by Lucy A. Snyder

I posted my review of Lucy A. Snyder's first Jessie Shimmer novel, Spellbent, last week. You need only read my review of that novel to know why I wanted her to write a guest post for this Urban Fantasy Marathon. And if you need further convincing as to why I'd ask her, then just keep reading.

Urban Fantasy World Building: The City and its Magic and Monsters

When I was preparing to write Shotgun Sorceress (the second book in my Jessie Shimmer series), my then-editor blew my carefully researched plot entirely out of the water by telling me, "Our readers don't like alternate dimensions."

When I gathered my jaw off the floor, I asked her about their opinion of books such as The Chronicles of Narnia. This did not sway her one tiny bit. Her view was colored by a desire to make my books appeal not to science fiction/fantasy fans but to paranormal romance fans, who make up a much larger share of the book-buying public. To her market-focused eye, urban fantasy readers also don't like alternate histories; they don't even like foreign settings. What they prefer (according to her) are modern-day American cities, although they might accept London and Toronto and Sydney. Mars would be right out.

I would certainly hope that other editors wouldn't take such a narrow view of where an urban fantasy novel can take place, but clearly some do. If you're a dedicated SF/F/H reader who's wondered about the seeming blandness of many UF settings, well ... now you know where that's coming from.

If you're a writer interested in tightly targeting your urban fantasy novel to editors at large publishers, you'll want to set it in the present-day in a reasonably major U.S. city, preferably one that hasn't been overused in other popular series. And for the sake of being able to sell your setting to readers who reside in your city of choice, you'll want it to be a place that you're personally familiar with.

You can alter pieces of the landscape, make up businesses and schools etc., but overall Peoria has to seem like Peoria to the people who actually live there. You can use public locations like monuments, parks, etc. pretty much as you see fit; you can refer to real local businesses provided you aren't portraying them in a negative light. For instance, in Spellbent I based the run-down apartment complex the protagonists live in on a real one, but changed the name. The grounding details are all there, but the risk of a libel lawsuit is removed.

Once you've picked your city, you need to think about how the fantasy elements fit in. If Peoria has to seem like real-world Peoria, wizards or vampires can't have been running around in it out in the open from the city's founding, because then the city would be a very different place and you'd be in the realm of an alternate history.

Hidden-world magic is a common and very useful trope in urban fantasy – JK Rowling uses it in the Harry Potter series, and Neil Gaiman uses it in a lot of his work. Another possibility is that the magic or supernatural creatures are coming right out in the open but it's just happened due to some world-changing event, and your book's plot might center on the characters dealing with that event. Or, as with Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series, it could be shortly after the event, rather like most zombie apocalypse stories but with less focus on horror and more on adventure. You can also use all three if you have a series.

Next, you need to consider the finer details of the magical creatures that you'll be using in your novel. If you're venturing beyond vampires and werewolves – oh, please, do! – you can mine local legends or borrow from the myths of the people that live in your city of choice and find some really interesting possibilities. For instance, if you have a Jewish community, your characters could be dealing with a golem; if you have a Mexican immigrant community, you could include a variation on the Crying Woman legend or have a chupacabra, etc. (Yes, lots of writers have used chupacabras in recent fiction, so that's not really breaking new ground. I just enjoy the excuse of using that word. Chupacabra. But I digress....)

If you're using human wizards and sorcerers, be careful if you're basing your magic on a real-world religion; in particular, be careful to portray Wicca, Vodou, and Yoruba/SanterĂ­a accurately and steer clear of stereotypes. If you're dealing with characters who call themselves witches, and if they're not Wiccans, make that clear. You can have a character who has twisted a "good" religion to his or her own purposes; make it clear they're violating tenets of their own faith. Cults are fair game; however, the difference between a cult and a strange-to-you but legitimate religion may be in the eye of the beholder. Do your research before you decide. Avoid cackling evil wart-nosed witches; in their own way, they're just as old and offensive as blackface minstrels.

Magic doesn't just happen – it has to have rules and internal logic, or it won't seem believable. Making up a magic system is perfectly fine, but basing your system at least in part on authentic historical folk magic or historical religious practices can help you maintain its internal logic and also can help you give it more depth and grounding detail.

There are a lot of books out there on magic and mythology, and you can find a tremendous amount of information online, especially at http://www.sacred-texts.com ... many of these texts are pre-1923, so be aware of cultural bias, but it is more than a good start for a wide variety of subjects. Offline, I've found the Witchcraft and Magic series from the University of Pennsylvania Press to be useful. These are academic books, and consequently they tend to be dry, but they're packed with research and historical details. (Bear in mind that reading about the witch trials is going to be depressing and infuriating; you can probably get good details from reading about other periods unless your book deals directly with the trials in some way).

The upshot is, the information is out there, so there's no excuse for not doing your research. But at the same time, don't fall into the trap of doing so much reading that you don't actually get around to writing.

Whether you base your fantasy elements on authentic folk magic or make up something new, be sure to ask yourself these questions:

  • Where does the power for this magic come from? (Gods or spirits granting powers to mortals, or something innate/inborn to the wizard or witch?)
  • Who can use this magic? (A naturally-empowered elite, or pretty much anyone if they get the right instructions/possess the correct items/learn the right languages?)
  • What is the "cost" of using the magic? (Expensive or elusive spell ingredients, the wizard's own energy or life force, sanity, etc.)

And most important:
  • What effect does the presence of the magic or supernatural creatures have on your protagonist's daily life? What effect does it have on the residents of the city?

Think about that one hard – being able to portray realistic, believable consequences is crucial in selling the fantastic elements to the reader. Imagine how your own life would (or wouldn't) change if this fantastic element entered your own world.

And remember: your protagonists don't have to fully understand what's going on – and you can increase plot tension if they have to guess and guess incorrectly – but you as the author have to have a grip on how things work in the world you've created.


Lucy A. Snyder is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the novels Spellbent, Shotgun Sorceress, Switchblade Goddess, and the collections Sparks and Shadows, Chimeric Machines, and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger. Her writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Hellbound Hearts, Doctor Who Short Trips: Destination Prague, Chiaroscuro, GUD, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.




March 19, 2012

Rabid Reads: "Poseidon's Children" by Michael West


Poseidon's Children (Legacy of the Gods #1)
by Michael West
Seventh Star Press (2012)

Maybe it's just me, but I don't read many books involving sea creatures, let alone mythical ones. One of those little oversights from my reading habits I suppose, so this novel was going to be a departure for me, at least in that regard. When I first read about this new urban fantasy from Seventh Star, I wondered if the "urban" actually meant Atlantis. I don't know if I could read an entire novel set underwater with mermen swimming about, so I was relieved that a lion's share of this book takes place above sea level.

Colonial Bay is one of those quaint seaside towns along the New England coastline. The island on which it sits is a nice little tourist trap just off New Hampshire's shores, but things turn bloody after a supposed shark attack and a young couple goes missing. Sound a bit like Jaws? Well, maybe if Jaws had a baby with Jason Vorhees, because what artist Larry Neuhaus saw from his balcony didn't look entirely like a shark--it looked more like a man.

Meanwhile, off the coast of Portugal, scientist and explorer, Carol Miyagi has discovered what she believes is Atlantis, relics of a long-lost city shrouded for centuries in a giant cavern beneath volcanic rock. The place is a veritable paradise for anyone in her field, but her claim on the spot is threatened as her team is running out of funding from their billionaire benefactor, and she doesn't want to risk having to leave the place unattended searching for more backers in case another team swooped in and takes the spoils. The billionaire in question, Roger Hays, however, is distracted from his business dealings because his son is one-half of that couple who went missing in Colonial Bay. As the assorted players converge on Colonial Bay, each for their own reasons, the violence escalates and it becomes clear that the town holds more than one secret, including a connection to that lost city, and there are forces at work attempting to let those secrets out.

Where most urban fantasy novels I've read focus on the viewpoint of a single lead character, with a deeply personal narrative most of the time, Michael West has created a story that is as much event driven as it is character driven, with several characters offering viewpoints for the action and mystery to play out. Michael doesn't hold back on the gruesomeness, either. The introductory scene involving the "shark" attack gives a pretty clear idea that there will be more horrific elements than what readers might expect from conventional urban fantasy. What comes as no surprise, however, is the richly laid out history of the underwater progeny that are making their presence known. And by the time you reach the third act, all bets are off, and you wonder just where the story is going to lead in the next book.

The ensemble cast, while engaging most of the time and offering several viewpoints, got mish-mashed for me at times. Just as I was settled into one character's take on events, the focus would switch. It didn't happen enough to really detract from the story, but it was a distraction for me at times. A couple standout characters for me really hit their stride towards the end of the novel, namely Earl Preston and Horror Show, a Coast Guard officer and hitman for Roger Hays respectively. Their interactions as the descendents of the underwater city come out of their shells--pun intended--and Roger Hays true intentions come to bear added a great bit of unlikely chemistry. Aside from them, I had trouble rallying behind the good guys, and really found the so-called villains to be the scene stealers.

It's a very good start to a series that offers a broad scope, but I have the feeling it will be the second book where the series really hits its stride. Poseidon's Children is a strong blend of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, and it seems like it's about time some Atlantian-style source material got the spotlight.

March 17, 2012

Burton, Spizzico and Dropbox - Attorneys at Law: a guest post by Mike, Linda, & Louise Carey

The Steel Seraglio
Chizine Publications has amassed quite a catalog over the years, and of the few books I've had opportunity to read none have disappointed, so when I was approached with the prospect of participating in a blog tour for one of their new novels (not to mention the chance to read and review it), I didn't hesitate.

The new novel, The Steel Seraglio, didn't seem like the kind of book I'd gravitate towards at first glance, but as I checked out the synopsis with the idea of a harem turned small army, my interest grew. Add in the fact that the three authors are a family and I'm downright intrigued. So, here's a guest post from the familial trio on how they decided to work on a novel together, and how the idea for that novel came to pass. Enjoy.



Burton, Spizzico and Dropbox - Attorneys at Law
by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, & Louise Carey

So we decided to write a novel. The three of us, together.

The three of us are:-

Middle-aged woman who writes YA fantasy – works in a museum three days a week, is halfway through an MA in Modern History and raises three kids in her copious spare time.

Middle-aged guy who writes comic books, novels, screenplays – works from home, if typing counts as work, and is much given to a form of Eastern meditation called “staring out of the window”.

Twenty-something (actually twenty-nothing) student in the second year of an English Lit degree – commutes between London and Oxford, is heavily involved in peer-counselling, and has most of The National’s lyrics playing in her brain on a continuous loop.

That’s Lin, Mike and Louise, respectively; or alternatively, that’s mom, dad and daughter.

We had some previous form, as far as working together goes. Mike and Lin had been on the script team for a kids’ fantasy animation series, Meadowlands, that never actually got made. Lou and Mike had co-written a graphic novel called Confessions of a Blabbermouth. But a three-way collaboration was something we’d never considered. Too hard, we thought, and too time-consuming – bound to run aground on the massive differences in our daily rhythms. How the hell would we ever get in synch?

But we had this great idea. We wanted to do a story that would be heavily based on Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights Entertainment – but didn’t borrow a single word or plot or situation out of that book. We wanted to use The Arabian Nights as a formal model – to write a book that would have a frame narrative and a LOT of digressions. Stories within stories, stories branching out of stories, stories used as confessions, weapons, seductions, disguises, disinformation, and covering every genre under the sun.

We went back and forth on it a lot, really excited about the idea but really baffled by the question of how to implement it. This stage of the project was dominated by a lot of long working lunches at an Italian restaurant around the corner from where we live – Spizzico’s, in Barnet. Except that they weren’t really working lunches, at all: they were “let’s talk about the fun idea some more” lunches. They weren’t a preparation for work, they were an alternative to it.

But somehow, along the way, we accidentally came up with a working plan. It was okay, it was fine, we were in no danger of actually having to write the book because we didn’t have a commission.

Until Mike and Lin bumped into Sandra and Brett of ChiZine Publications at 2010’s Eastercon. We got on like a heretic on fire, and after a while we moved from the dealers’ room to the bar – where we had a conversation that went something like this.

“So what are you guys working on right now?”

“Oh, you know. This and that. We’ve been playing with this Arabian Nights homage thing – a suite of stories that turns into a novel when you’re not looking.”

“Sounds interesting. We’d publish a book like that.”

“…”

So now we had a commission, and suddenly the whole thing was real. Burton and Spizzico had left us in a fine mess.

But the actual writing of the book was kind of effortless, after all that. Our saviour was the free-to-casual-users Dropbox programme. Dropbox allowed us to build a skeleton of the book, to which we all had access, and then to lift out individual chapters for writing, editing or reference whenever we needed to. We could all monitor how the book was coming in real time, instantly get alerts when new stuff was added to the folder, and give feedback to each other even when Lou was in Oxford and Mike was a comic convention in Dublin or Norway.

So we built this novel. And ChiZine published it.

It’s set in an ancient, more or less mythical Middle East – the Arabia of Haroun Al-Rashid, Shahryar and Scheherazade. It’s the story of a group of concubines, exiled from the city of their birth, who decide to retrain as an army and conquer the city so they can come home again. And if that makes it sound light-hearted, it’s because we suck at summarising. It’s actually… well, it’s kind of a tragedy, kind of a love story, kind of a fantasy adventure. Like Richard Burton, we throw every spice we’ve got into the casserole and turn the heat right up.

To quote the book, which puts it better:-

This is not my story. It’s the story of Zuleika and Gursoon, Hakkim Mehdad, the legate En-Sadim, Imad-Basur, Anwar Das, Bethi, Imtisar, the Lion of the Desert and the seven Djinni. It’s the story of the City of Women; of how it came to be, how it flourished, and how it was destroyed by a reckless and irrevocable act of mercy.


Louise Carey
Linda Carey
Mike Carey

-----

Thanks to the Carey family for the great guest post. I'm really looking forward to reading this novel now. And the fine folks at Chizine were kind enough to provide a link to an excerpt in PDF format, which everyone can read by clicking HERE. There's even a book trailer via YouTube that you can watch: