Monday, July 23, 2012

My Foray Into Urban Fantasy

Back in April, I asked you, my readers, to help me pick a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy to read more of.  Urban fantasy took 61% of the vote! 

I had read urban fantasy before - the first Dresden Files book, some of the early Holly Black books in grad school, an elf-punk selection for the Sword and Laser bookclub - but none of it had really stuck with me or made me want to read more.  I started to wonder if books I really liked - Alif the Unseen, The Killing Moon, even Palimpsest - could be considered urban fantasy.  I felt like they had elements of UF in them, although interestingly, all of them are set somewhere other than in a western country.

I decided to dig deeper by reading two anthologies.  Here are my reviews, and I will summarize my feelings at the end.

Down These Strange StreetsDown These Strange Streets by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

George R. R. Martin promises in his introduction that urban fantasy is no longer an elf on a motorcycle wandering the streets of Toronto solving crimes.

Really, though, most of these stories connect to series the authors write. Without that background, they often lack enough context to figure out where you are without knowing the characters and world they inhabit. From reading other people's reviews, many people are buying this anthology because of one story they wanted to read. Most people seem to be buying it for "In Red, with Pearls" by Patricia Briggs, but see, I don't know who Kyle is.

Most of these stories have detectives in a noir-fantasy universe, with a lot of stereotypes. There isn't a lot of great writing here.

The one exception is Joe Lansdale's "The Bleeding Shadow," where a record possesses the power to unleash the evil in the air around us, but still make you want to play it. Wow, creepy stuff, and the reader on this one elevated the story.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this to anyone who isn't already a fan of these authors and their series. It isn't a good introduction to the urban fantasy subgenre, which is what I intended to use it for. It is a very narrow slice of that subgenre, and not all of it is great.

Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy (Riverside Series; The Dresden Files, #10.9)Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some great stories here, and others that I merely skimmed. Perhaps if I articulate what I liked, I will understand my feelings about urban fantasy more.

"Picking Up the Pieces" by Pat Cadigan - about the Berlin Wall coming down. I'm still not sure I understand what happened but I still think about the story.

"The Bricks of Gelecek" by Matthew Kressel - a wind in the desert befriends a human. Loved the setting, the concept, the ending.

"The Projected Girl" by Lavie Tidhar - magic combined with the Holocaust. The writing was great too. "The bookshops of Haifa are clustered like a gaggle of elderly, generally good-natured but occasionally difficult uncles...."

"The Way Station" by Nathan Ballingrud - the ghost of the city of New Orleans lives inside Trane's body. Cool concept!

"Noble Rot" by Holly Black - there are no words. This one pushes the boundaries into horror for sure.


Elf/vampire/ghoul detectives?  Not so interesting to me.  But the concepts in urban fantasy that seem successful are those that combine elements of alternative history with fantastical elements.  The stories I end up loving have nothing to do with the creature, and everything to do with the created world.  Give me more urban, in interesting ways.  Stretch time and landscape.  Make the characters thoughtful and unpredictable instead of formulaic.  And I'll keep reading it!

Authors I want to read more of, after this experiment:
  • Matthew Kressel
  • Lavie Tidhar (although he was actually already on my to-read list, and I started following him in Twitter after reading his story.  I promise I'm not a stalker!)
  • Joe Lansdale
While it took me forever to get through these anthologies - I'll be honest, I was reading them sporadically as I focused on other books - I did enjoy the experiment.  What should I do next?

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