When fantasy invades your reality: In search of a definition for urban fantasy

FantasyCon is more than half-way over and the challenge of introducing the sub-genres in a blog post has come round to...

Wait a minute. That can't be right...

Me?

I have been set a task by with wizards of FantasyCon--a quest that appears impossible at the outset—to define “urban fantasy” and make it stand out as a genre. But as with the heroines of all good fantasy I must give it my best shot.

Unlike those genres that can trace their lineage to Beowolf, this is a new phenomenon, having taken root in the 1990s. Among the authors who have staked the territory most clearly are Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), Laurell K. Hamilton (Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter), Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere), Kevin Hearne (The Iron Druid Chronicles) and J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter). And that diversity alone ought to give you some idea of the long odds on my quest.

It is often said that urban fantasy is simply urban, that its entire claim to fame is in the fact that it's set in cities and towns. But many other fantasy stories are set in cities past and present, and that doesn’t make such stories “urban fantasy.” Most urban fantasy is based in an industrialized or post-industrial setting and as a natural consequence it is mostly urban (because so is most of the population in such societies). And yet sometimes the story is about the fact that characters are forced out of the urban world to hide in what is left of the wilderness.

So, I’ll take another tack here. Urban fantasy isn’t only about setting. It’s a contemporary and urban form of mundane fantasy. The excellent genre-definition site bestfantasybooks.com defines “mundane fantasy” by saying it will not satisfy readers who primarily want to escape from mundane reality. Instead, “if perhaps you want to find a bit of fantasy within the mundane, maybe this sub-genre will be for you.”

And that is where urban fantasy shines. Of all fantasy genres, urban fantasy is the most close to home. A good urban fantasy tale should send shivers down your spine and make you think reality might just change the next time you step outside your door. It should cause you to look at the impassive faces on the subway during your morning commute and think, “Yes, I can see where it comes from.” It should hint that something inexplicable could happen at any moment in a banal industrial cityscape. It should transform the alleyways of a small, ordinary town into a setting for the terrible and wondrous.

In short, if high fantasy let’s you escape from your life while you read, urban fantasy captures you and invades your thoughts even when you are not reading.

Most urban fantasy is set on earth in modern or nearly modern times. It often either begins with a character who believes they live in the mundane world or with a character who must hide magic from those who don’t know about it. Its setting is important because it should mirror something very real and familiar in order to draw the reader into a web of “what if” questions that render the fantasy eerily plausible.

While all children know that Harry Potter’s magic isn’t real, they love the idea that a magical world is hiding in the city streets all around them, that a secret world could be just between the railway platforms or out the back of a local bookshop. And urban fantasy isn’t just for children and young adults.

Another way that some have tried to pigeonhole urban fantasy has been to say that it is shallow and lacking in social substance. This comes from a few popular associations but often they are misleading and belong as much to other genres as they do to urban fantasy. And look again even at Harry Potter. It may be a children’s series but the social and moral commentary run deep beyond what is usually preached at children.

Urban fantasy may not be famous for attacking huge societal issues or epic struggles yet, but I believe this is only because the other side of urban fantasy, where it connects with sci-fi fantasy, social sci fi and dystopian genres has been insufficiently explored. The defining factor in urban fantasy is its ability to seep into the reader’s world rather than forcing the reader to suspend disbelief. It poses a danger to those who have difficulty separating fantasy and reality because it mixes the two so well. It is no surprise that many urban fantasy narratives include an urban bookstore as a crucial location, given that bookstores are one place we can guarantee readers frequent. It is therefore easy for the urban fantasy writer to grab the reader’s reality with such a setting and slurp them down the rabbit hole.

Urban fantasy has the potential to be a deep literary and social genre precisely because of how it intersects with reality. There’s a wealth of possibility to explore in this sub-genre. It is a new genre and as such its depths have yet to be explored. The bestfantasybooks.com definition reads, “Urban Fantasy doesn't play by the rules.”

Join me at Virtual FantasyCon

Friday, November 6 is Urban Friday at Virtual FantasyCon, the online convention that brings all the awesomeness of the fantasy freak fests of old to the comfort of your own screen. I'll be there hosting a game where you come up with and solve fantasy-related rhyming riddles to win an Amazon gift certificate. Join me for some light and relaxing fun to round out your Friday.

The dystopia of today's popularity cult: The Kyrennei premise part 1

There's the high school cafeteria with its ironclad rules about who sits where--tables for the gamers, the emos, the jocks or the geeks among the boys and for the girls the clusters around this or that social magnet. Just about everyone has been there. If you're lucky you might fit in with one group or another or at least squeeze through relatively unnoticed. A few actually thrive in this acrid environment. And some are torn to bits.

Creative Commons  image by Autoskabar of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Autoskabar of Flickr

On one particular gray Tuesday, there's a girl sitting on the steps leading to an upper level. She's alone - as always. She has a pad of paper and colored pencils and she's practicing drawing lines of perspective, capturing the crazy, obtuse angles of the modern cafeteria.

Does she bother the groups at the tables?

She sits there every day in the same spot. She is weird. At first she tried to talk to people, but she looks a bit different and she won't play along. She won't dress the way you are supposed to. She won't wear makeup or not in the right ways. She never pays attention to what was in style. She doesn't make small talk. She talks about why things are the way they are in the Arctic and what happened in a book more than about the other girls.

Yes, she bothers people. 

A couple of the guys catch a nerdy kid with glasses at the top of the stairs. He should have been paying attention. Never should have walked by them. He knew he should take the other stairs to avoid them, but he was in a hurry. He bothers them too. He doesn't give them their due.

So, they grab him and hurl him down the stairs. He crashes into the girl's back, scattering her colored pencils, shattering them into pieces, pulverizing the delicate cores within. They'll be useless now.

She saved for those pencils. There's no way she can afford a new set. But that isn't even the important part. They were her lifeline, the way she survived the hell of this place, the disdain and the shame. Now her lifeline is broken.

She believes the boy jumped on her from the stairs to taunt her, and in a split second brain chemistry flips and years of isolation coalesce into rage. 

She grabs the boy's hair at the tender nape of his neck in her left fist and pounds him with her right fist. Again and again. She sees white, not red. She hears only her own ragged breath. She doesn't scream but her face holds such intensity that they leave her alone for a while after that.

She knows that she has failed again. She played right into their hands. The crying, beaten boy wasn't the attacker. They should have been allies.

We left such things behind in high school. Didn't we? 

I hoped so. Once. But then I discovered Mommy cliques. When you're a mother with small children, you need other mothers. You need companionship with those who understand and the occasional conversation of multi-syllabic words. And you need playdates so your toddlers don't drive you crazy. But if you thought high school had cliques... watch out! 

Mommy cliques are a tad more sophisticated, but the rules are still pretty much the same. The ammunition is still fashion, makeup and small talk, but you have to add in home decor, flashy birthday parties, magazine-quality Pinterest photos of crafts and cooking, kids fashions, kids behavior, parenting styles, how early you potty-trained and how well you can talk about it all without seeming to brag too blatantly. 

The stakes are the same - inclusion or exclusion, street cred or isolation.

Does this mean that men get it easier? Maybe. But both men and women have to run the race for "success" in academia and then in career. Men have to dress the part too. If you don't, it's your loss. You can't blame anyone but yourself. Sure, the fashions are arbitrary, but only geeks can differ and they can only differ in certain ways. 

Creative Commons  image by Martinak15 of Flickr

Creative Commons image by Martinak15 of Flickr

A random perusal of my Facebook feed shows that it isn't just mommies who didn't leave the social rat race behind in high school. Everything is measured in "likes" these days. I've been studying a lot about effective online business, but I still can't figure out how "likes" help exactly - except that they give that street cred. It's essentially the same thing as having the popular kids give you a considering look and an oh-so-minuscule nod to show that you are allowed to sit in their vicinity.

Except "likes" have the illusion of democracy. They make it appear that the more you have the more people must really support you.

I inadvertently ran a small experiment on "likes" recently. I was trying to choose between two possibilities for the new logo of my dystopian fantasy series and I posted it to various groups asking for gut reactions. In every group there would be one enthusiast who would pipe up quickly and give their answer, either  "right" or "left." The first time this happened I was thrilled. The first person chose "right" and that was the option I secretly favored. There followed a stream of agreement, "right," "right," "yes, right's the best," a dozen or more responses. I was vindicated! 

But then I looked at another group. There the first person to answer had said "left" and the whole string of replies had agreed that the left-hand choice was the better one. Out of six different groups, the responses were about even, but they always followed the leader, like little ducks... or lemmings. 

What I learned from this is that "likes" are far from democratic. What is popular is popular because of how people follow the leaders, not because of popular appeal or true support. I call it "the cult of popularity," but I might as well call it a "cult of power."

Political organization, social structures and economic entities all use it and the underlying psychology isn't that different from high school cliques.

I just read an article about a blind citizen detained by US border patrol between Montreal and New York because the way his pupils were dilated looked suspicious. He and his friends laughed and the border patrol was incensed. "You think US Customs and Immigration is a joke?" they bellowed. Then he was subjected to hours of intimidation and interrogation. The guy's eyes "bothered" those with power. His failure to "play the game" of mild intimidation bothered them even more. 

Does nothing ever change? Are humans just wired to ostracize - to pick sides, pick out and pick on? When will those who are bullied stand up together instead of fighting one another? Will bystanders ever wake up and say enough is enough? 

For as long as there have been poets and bards and storytellers by the fire, some of us have tackled these questions with stories. That's why I wrote The Kyrennei Series. It started there in the lunchroom in high school. I watched the florescent lights and escaped from purgatory by making up characters, names, places and fantasies.  

The story is dark because it comes from that darkness. But it's also essentially the anatomy of hope. First, how can you survive? How do you struggle and hang on to those who stand by you? Then how do you choose your own path no matter how hard you're pushed down? How do you use the power you have - great or small - to make something meaningful? 

I'm going to write a few posts about the premise of the Kyrennei series. This is the first. The Soul and the Seed is a story that faces the human desires to to build cults of popularity and reject difference head on. 

I love your comments on these posts! Do you thrive in the social rat race? What do you think would happen if the cult of popularity literally ruled the world? 

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Must all modern female heroines be unbelievably strong, fearless and invincible?

Maya Gardener is a college student with practical dreams. She's a dutiful daughter, attending church even when she goes away to Michigan Tech. But she doesn't feel like she belongs--not at church, not with the sororities on campus, not with her parents nor anywhere else. She assumes that's because she is both adopted and biracial in a country where the rift between black and white is widening.

And yet that's the least of her troubles. Shadowy authorities are trying to track her down, authorizing "lethal force" to capture her. A guy she thought she liked turned into a maniac, shot up the university and kidnapped her. Maya has good reason to be frightened. Most of us would be.  

"But she isn't like Katniss of the Hunger Games!" a friend who is also a prolific author protested.

"That's true,"  I answered. "She isn't Katniss... or Tris of Divergent for that matter. Her name doesn't even end in 'iss' as seems required of best-selling modern heroines.  But more importantly, she is more like a real woman." 

"But who wants to read about regular old people who aren't superhuman?" my colleague argued. "I want to escape into a fantasy world when I read, not experience a life that is even more miserable as my own." 

"It's easier to fully enter the world of the story, if the characters are like real people." I tried to explain but I wasn't entirely invested in the argument. "Katniss and Tris will always win. You know that from the outset. They don't give me a sense of hope, because I always knew they were in a class apart, superheroes, who I can never measure up to." 

My correspondent wasn't convinced and neither was I. We simply disagree. And readers are bound to disagree as much as writers on this issue. 

Aranka Miko, the heroine of the initial trilogy of The Kyrennei Series, has been compared to Katniss and Tris on occasion. She is feisty. She gets hit with bad stuff and she bounces back. The minute she has a spare breath, she is ready to help rescue others in a similar predicament, regardless of the danger to herself. She stands up to torture and refuses to surrender valuable information to the bitter end.

And there is a kind of hope in that. We need strong heroes and heroines.

As readers, we recognize the strength and courage it takes for the character to survive and even fight back in the face of enormous evil. But how difficult is the path of such a heroine really when she begins with tenacity and ferocity as her strengths? And what can she really do for the world, when you get right down to it? She brought a flicker of hope, but unless the author (ahem) engineers a series of extremely unrealistic events (as some authors have... no naming names here), Aranka won't be able to bring down the powers of tyranny alone. 

To do that, it will take something more than tenacity and ferocity. It will take the kind of strength our own world is in such dire need of.

That kind of strength comes from a real battle within. Deep and authentic hope comes from the understanding that even those of us who do not start out as superheroes, who are small, terrified, wounded and broken can choose our own path in the face of the most horrendous odds. The battle is within us as much as on the outside. 

And that is why Maya Gardner is the heroine of Code of the Outcast (Book 4) of The Kyrennei Series. She is like most of us. She isn't particularly strong or fast or good with a bow. She avoids fighting and conflicts. She freezes up in a crisis. But within her she carries a hidden potential, a spark of something waiting to bloom. If only she can reach out and choose her own path when most of her choices have been taken away. 

Then we would have hope in the darkness of our own world as well. When the choices are hard and uncertain, choosing your own path is an act of great courage.

I love your comments on these posts! What is your favorite type of hero or heroine? Share this article using the icon below and find out what your friends think.

Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of the Kyrennei Series) is out!

Code of the Outcast, the long-awaited next installment in the series, is now live on Amazon. This book departs a bit from the first three, focusing on new characters, but it is more of the desperate adventure in the world ruled by the Addin. The series is best if read in order. If you're new to it and looking for a gripping read, try The Soul and the Seed.

Please don't be shy and drop a review of Code of the Outcast on Amazon. Reviews matter. They don't need to be long or convoluted, but they're a big part of what keeps your favorite authors writing. 

Here's the story

When a masked gunman barges into a university acoustic-dynamics class and abducts Maya Gardener, she knows she has to fight for her life. But her supposed rescuers may want her dead, and the kidnapper insists that the world as Maya knows it is a lie.

It’s present-day America and society is as dysfunctional as always. Democracy and even the “freedom to shop” is a sham. A powerful elite wields clandestine control over human will to maintain hegemony in every aspect of modern life. 

It’s been that way for a thousand years, but today there are finally a handful of people who might possess the power to resist and to shield others… if they only knew how. Maya isn’t a fighter by nature, but the random chance of genetics chose her and now she’ll have to learn to help herself and others. 

She was always an outsider—trapped in the borderlands between races, cultures and families. Now she’s hunted through the biting cold of a Wisconsin winter, and the only thing that holds her body and soul together is her love for Kai Linden, the fierce-eyed musician and comp-sci major who claims there is one place she truly belongs.  Read more.

What's in a word? "Outcast"

"You must think the whole world is against you. Why else would you write about an outcast?" 

That was one interesting reaction to the upcoming publication of the fourth book in The Kyrennei Series, entitled Code of the Outcast.  (I'm beginning to like criticism. It provides good blog fodder.)

Obviously the word "outcast" stirs up some intense emotions. I'm well aware of it. For some, that word has more gut-punch power than the worst curse words. It isn't a word we say or hear very often, but it's between the lines a lot. 

I wrote about the issue of a community shunning a person, making him an outcast, because I believe that it's the duty of writers and artists to open up the dark corners of society and the mind.

Whatever is too painful to touch directly, we must touch and try to heal with stories. For centuries that has been our role. Where the healing of doctors cannot go, where the words of public figures dare not go, artists and writers should go. 

And no, the world isn't "against me." The world is very troubled and mostly doesn't know I exist. And that is quite difficult enough for anyone to cope with. 

Code of the Outcast is the fourth book in a series. Even though this book starts with new characters, you will probably still enjoy it more if you start from The Soul and the Seed (Book 1). For those who know the series, this book is a bit of an answer to a lot of reader questions, wondering about what happens to those who don't have the protection of the legendary fighters of J. Company.

The answer isn't always pretty. And yet there is something of great value here. 

Code of the Outcast begins with a person facing the realization that he and only he can make a difference, save a life... change the world. Yet in order to do it he must commit violence and take the consequences. 

We float through so much of our life in numbness because most of the time there is very little we can do to change the terrible things that happen in the world. We hear about them at a distance and we can only write letters to politicians and protest. We can't really change it. 

But there are moments when you can.

Such a moment will usually not come when you expect it or come at a convenient time. But there are moments when one person can make a great difference. Code of the Outcast is essentially the story of one of those moments and the two people it uprooted and turned into outcasts.

You don't get to change the world without sacrifice and in this case the sacrifice is just that - to be shunned and lose home and family forever. Could you make such a choice, if it would save the life of a person you cared about? 

Is this a worthy topic for a novel? Comment using the icon on the lower left. And please share this post with your friends using the icon on the lower right. :)

Time to order Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series

Code of the Outcast is now available for preorder as a Kindle ebook. Until July 1 it will be on sale for 99 cents. Then the price will gradually go up until it's $3.99 like the other books on publication day (JUly 7). It's both cheaper and a boost to the series if you preorder now and have the book delivered to your Kindle on July 7. 

If you haven't read The Soul and the Seed (Book 1 of The Kyrennei Series), it's recommended that you start there.

The paperback book and other ebook formats will be up soon. 

If you need a read-for-review or pre-release copy either in the Kindle format or another ebook format,  send me an email. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, here's your chance to get a free book. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at The Soul and the Seed (or check the Books by the Fire tab to find the next book in the series if you've already read that one.) 
  3.  Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Violence in fiction and the concept of deep hope

Violence in real life is brutal, traumatizing and usually over before you have a chance to think or react. 

I've been mercifully fortunate to undergo only a few incidents of real violence or narrowly averted violence in my life.  I was once grabbed by a man in a dark, deserted street, but I managed to trick him into believing that I had friends in the doorway of a nearby building, so that he let go of me for a second. And I had fast feet.

As a journalist during the conflicts in the Balkans, I often saw the aftermath of violence, but only rarely was I in the middle of it. One terrifying night in the summer of 2001, I ran for my life through dark deserted streets to escape from a mob firing automatic weapons. When I was finally able to get indoors, a man who was out of his head with terror leaped on me and tried to sexually assault me. I fought him off and then had to lay on the floor of a room while bullets whizzed by the open windows and pinged off of the gutters just a few feet away.

Those experiences have given me an idea of what real violence is like, and the discrepancy between that reality and the way violence is usually portrayed in books and movies is often disturbing. Before I had those experiences I found gratuitous violence in fiction to be merely boring. Violence that is divorced from emotion and real human reactions of shock and trauma felt meaningless. After my experiences in conflict areas, it feels both meaningless and disrespectful, dismissive of the experiences of those who have undergone far worse than I have.

Arie's rules of fictional violence

I am reasonably tough and I wasn't traumatized by my experiences. I'm not all that disturbed by reading violence. But I usually avoid books that seem to be primarily about violence.

And yet my books have fictional violence in them. My contemporary fantasy The Kyrennei Series has even been called a thriller by reviewers, due to the violent content. 

Let me lay it out clearly then. I don't write violence the way 80 to 90 percent of action and thriller books are written. Here are my rules of violence in fiction:

  • The violence in a good thriller isn’t where the greatest suspense is. The suspense is in our emotions about the characters.
  • And yet the violence must be integral to the plot. It should not be an aside just stuck in there to titillate. 
  • Violent scenes should be brutal, even traumatic, and avoided when possible by both the characters and writers alike.
  • Violent scenes should not be entirely pleasant even for the reader. Making it purely entertaining is a betrayal. 

That said, there are times when you can’t avoid violence in fiction. And it is better to have it out there than in real life. The story must be told. And The Kyrennei Series is a hard and desperate story. It’s fiction—even fantasy—on the literal plane. And yet there is a deeper level of reality where this story is true. And that truth has to be told. Even when it’s hard.

The road to deep hope leads through darkness

A reader recently told me that my books are like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a great book, and at first I was simply pleased to be favorably compared to an awesome author. But then I realized that The Road is categorized as literary fiction, not popular dystopia. I've been categorizing my books with things like The Hunger Games, not with literary dystopia. 

So, how in the world is The Soul and the Seed like The Road?  

They are in wildly different settings after all. The Road is in a grim, future in a destroyed world where people resort to cannibalism to survive. The Soul and the Seed is set solidly in the present. The dystopia is inherent in today’s socially harsh and physically unsustainable society… with one fatal twist that isn’t even apparent on the surface. 

The similarity is more in the way that violence, despair and emotion are dealt with. Much of the violence in popular urban fantasy and dystopia is “justified” and almost enjoyable to read.

And the violence in my books isn’t fun. It’s all too real. 

Why read it then?

To the readers of books like The Road or The Soul and the Seed, it’s partly the authentic spirit of the people that keeps you glued to the page. It's also the burning questions we carry inside whether we read this sort of thing or not. 

How do we live with despair? How do you go on through anything, no matter how terrible and gut-wrenching? Is hope just wishful thinking?

Authentic answers to these questions have always come hard. But they can be answered in bits and pieces--in the gentleness of a person forced to fight, in the need that binds the strong and the weak together, in the fact that you still seek life and comfort amid horrific circumstances, in the play of children in wartime, in the courage those who know they cannot win..

If you don’t have the darkness--real darkness--true and desperate, how can you have an story about hope?

I wanted to write about these things, but I also wanted to do it in a gripping story without the tiniest whiff of moralistic preaching. I am as much a seeker as the reader. The story is there to sweep you away to another reality while simultaneously making you question your own world, to terrify you and help you feel deeply.

And it may just help you find hope. Or not. Depending. But it will grip you and make you fall in love with the characters, regardless.

An example from The Soul and the Seed

Let me put it technically. The Soul and the Seed has three or four incidents of violence in it, depending on if you count hearing violence at a distance or not. That’s not a peaceful book. But it isn’t that much violence when compared to a book like The Hunger Games, which is (after the first third) essentially a sequence of violent incidents.

And yet readers who have read both The Hunger Games and The Soul and the Seed will often say the latter is scarier and more intense. People who can read about teenagers slaughtering each other in The Hunger Games, sometimes find The Kyrennei Series to be “too much.”

And that's how it goes. a writer can't please everyone. If I want the reader to feel hope deeply, I have to make the reader feel pain deeply as well.

The only problem is with telling readers that. I want to give fair warning about the violence in the series. And yet violence isn’t at the core of the story. There are other readers who find modern fiction too violent who will actually like The Soul and the Seed better than The Hunger Games. Which is more "intense" or "violent" Is to some degree subjective and bases on what kind of violence the reader is prepared to handle.

Sometimes a thing is described best by saying what it is not. I liked the idea of The Hunger Games up until the middle of the first book. But then the violence became mechanical. The emotion slid into melodrama, even though it didn't need to. By the third book the violence read like the description of a video game. It wasn’t painful to read. It was a game.

Not everything must be painful, but if you want real hope, it is likely that getting to it will hurt.

And that is what The Kyrennei Series does. It goes for real hope. Hope that doesn’t pull any punches. And it is wrenching to get there.

Books for 99 cents

Code of the Outcast (Book 4 of The Kyrennei Series) will be published on July 7. As of today, it is available for preorder. For just a few days you can get it for 99 cents. Next week the price goes up to $2.99 and then to $3.99 when it's published on July 7.

Book 3 of the series, The Taken and the Free, is on sale this week at 99 cents too, for the last time. Time to get your summer reading. 

Free books!

If you think you might like my books or have read one of them but not the rest, I have a special offer going. Join my hearth-side email circle, where readers get an occasional email with links to my blog posts plus a sort of virtual cup of tea. And you get a free ebook. Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to my hearth-side email circle here
  2. Then look at the books under the Arie's Books tab at the top of the page and pick the book you want. (It's highly recommended that you read the books in order and the first book is The Soul and the Seed. But if you've already read the first book, here's your chance to get the second for free. ) 
  3. Next go to my contact page and send me a message. Include your email address, your preferred ebook format (Mobi, Epub or PDF) and which book you would like. Presto! You'll have it in your inbox soon.

Note: If you are already subscribed to the Hearth-side Email Circle, you can also get a free book. Reply to the latest By the Hearth email and let me know which one you want.