Friday, 8 August 2014

reading urban fantasy: a guest post by Steve Cotterill

Hi, my name’s Steve Cotterill: I’m a writer, blogger, gamer and student (amongst other things). I maintain a blog over at Shores of Night and Cara suggested we engage in a spot of guest blogging.

Out of the list of 50 topics she has, I chose to revisit the issue of genre and books, because so much of what I do is based around that kind of thing.

Whilst Cara talked about Fantasy with a pretty broad brush, I’m taking a narrower view and 
addressing a subset of the genre: in the form of Urban Fantasy. 

As most of the human race now dwells in an urban environment, the city is fast becoming our natural habitat: one with its own beauty and dangers. The way we live is constantly altering and as life gets more complex, and arguably ever safer, our desire for adventure and danger grows. It seems natural to populate our world with fantasy ideas, to explore it not only in the real world but also the world of myth and story; to bring mythology and folklore to bear in an urban setting.

As a genre Urban Fantasy takes two forms, often it’s used to refer to modern day fantasy in today’s world, but it can also go the other way, featuring urban stories in other worlds. 

Both varieties are frequently based on the idea that the fantastic may be tucked around the corner; you might turn the wrong way and find adventure, or peril; or anything else. The person who serves your coffee might be something else, something more than human. Once you get backstage, as it were, you might find legends hiding behind the world you know. 

In many stories that means that vampires, werewolves and witches (oh my) dwell in the cities, engaged in their own politics, and in many cases preying on the weak and delicious. That boy didn’t get into a knife fight, he was torn apart by a loup garou, that missing girl became a vampire’s concubine... until he killed her. This idea has become something of a cliché over time and many series do suffer from what feel like overcrowded worlds. Often the supernatural seems to remain hidden despite the odds.

Whilst the stories set in other worlds are often more blatant in how they have been designed, at their heart, they still address the same ideas as their earthbound cousins. Whether it’s New Crozubon in Perdido Street Station, Mary Gentle’s City in Rats and Gargoyles or even, reaching back to the Sword and Sorcery tradition, Lankhmar in Fritz Leiber’s Ffahrd and the Grey Mouser stories, these are living breathing metropolises with their own traditions and characters. Without them the stories would be less, somehow, to the extent that the cities are characters, as the protagonists that drive the books forward.

One of the things I like about the genre is that there’s a crossover of influences. Stories in urban settings can be as much crime or horror stories as they are fantasy, even romance gets a look in through novelists like Charlaine Harris or Laurell K Hamilton; they have a relevance to human life that epic fantasy just lacks a lot of the time.

Much as I love traditional fantasy, I’ve seen few attempts to link it to ideas like feminism (Juliet McKenna being an honourable exception) or to big ideas. Urban Fantasy, under the pens of Emma Newman, China Mieville, Mary Gentle and Neil Gaiman tackles these ideas with aplomb, exploring philosophical spaces as well as urban ones. It’s also more interesting, less tied to the shadow of writers because the genre’s composite nature makes it easier to mould and shape into something new.

So, given that I’ve banged my drum quite thoroughly, what would I recommend? I’ve selected six books that mainly focus on the city aspect.
Buy this for your kindle here

Rats and Gargoyles: Mary Gentle

One of the first urban fantasy novels I read, Rats is a heady and strange creature which features alchemy, humanoid rats, and the problem of having your gods living next door. Gentle draws in historical ideas, meshing them with fantasy ones to create a compelling world and a strong story that holds the reader’s interest from start to finish. It's deep and complex, which only makes it more satisfying to read.

Find this to buy on Amazon here
Between Two Thorns: Emma Newman

Set in the UK, in a ‘present day, present time’ sort of way, this novel bridges worlds, drawing in Faerie and a peculiar area known as the ‘Nether’, where a group of squabbling families who have served the Faerie lords for centuries dwell. Taking over old buildings they live in a fashion lost to the rest of us, as lords and ladies of estates and as people who live anachronistically; their manners
and customs are more akin to the ones in Downton Abbey than the 21.

Cathy, is the odd person out in all this. She kicks against the established order and at the start of the book has run away to hide in the human world where she can read science fiction and work towards her dream of being a human rights lawyer. At a time when British society is looking back with rose tinted spectacles to a time when there was more certainty and order, Newman provides us with a clear message that going back will only be detrimental. In addition she is brave, her faeries are not romantic, but seething beds of passion and control with the morals of alley cats.

Find this on Amazon here
Greenmantle: Charles de Lint

A Canadian hitman on the run from his old boss. A deep dark forest. A mystery under the branches and an ancient god. These are the beginning points of Green Mantle, written by Charles de Lint, one of the sub genre's defining voices. 

The novel grows from the ingredients above to provide a
satisfying tale of the clash of ancient and modern, loyalty and loss. Reminiscent of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood novels Green Mantle taps into that part of us that wonders what happened to the old pieces of the world that was lost to our civilisation.

Buy it here, and there is more, so
much more by the wonderful Neil
Gaiman to be bought on Amazon
and elsewhere.  As he told Amanda
Palmer recently - people pay him
for this.
NeverWhere: Neil Gaiman

What lies under the skin of a city? That's the question Gaiman poses here, spinning something wonderful out of the idea that the tube stations are more than just places, but a strange mix of people and fief; that London is divided up into courts and factions that the normal person never sees. 

Richard Mayhew, hapless accountant, is drawn into this world by a foolhardy act of generosity, opening a world unlike the one around him, where barter is the norm, favours are taken seriously and people can talk to rats. Add in an angel in Islington, an Earl's Court on a tube train and seven deadly sisters and you get the picture that we aren't in Kansas anymore....

Written with a particular slant on homelessness, Gaiman wanted to avoid the idea that it was in anyway glamorous; Neverwhere brings the secrets of London to life in a way that serves the city not unlike the route taken in Tom Pollock's City's Son. Rather than impose into the the city he uses it, making particular reference to places like Knights Bridge, Down Street and so on.

Spreading across worlds and bringing in so much more than just fantasy, these books are clever, full of life and, perhaps most importantly, relevant to the way we live now.