The Surge of Urban Fantasy

Tim Holman of Orbit Books posted an entry on their blog about the surge in popularity of Urban Fantasy:

Most people are aware of the growth of urban fantasy over recent years, but I wonder how many are aware of the degree to which it now dominates the fantasy bestseller lists? This week’s chart shouldn’t be a surprise, either. Looking back over the fantasy bestseller charts of recent years, there’s a clear trend:

2004: 1 urban fantasy title in the Top 20.
2005: 4 urban fantasy titles.
2006: 5 urban fantasy titles.
2007: 7 urban fantasy titles.

That’s rather a lot, considering how relatively recent the Urban Fantasy trend is, particularly in romance.

So I got nosy and emailed Alex Lencicki, Who is Certifiably Awesome, over at Orbit, and asked, “Why do you think it’s so popular and has reached such a diverse audience from fantasy and romance readers as well?”

He fielded my requst to Devi Pillai, who wrote:

There are a lot of theories. One of the most popular is that romance has the most active readership in the market and those readers are turning towards fantasy since the elements are so close to paranormal romance. Romance readers started devouring fantasy when they found more female centric stories/heroines versus the usual boy-on-a-quest epic fantasy (which was the bread and butter of most fantasy lines). Another theory is that that Buffy and the interest in women who can take care of themselves while being vulnerable brought on an interest for girls-who-kick-ass novels.

Personally I think its a combination of those, but more important, while SF/F has been very masculine in its history, it has slowly been accepting more female authors. Twenty years ago it was harder to find a lot of females that did SF/F.  In the past 10 years or so, we’ve definitely seen the growth of urban fantasy, but we’ve also seen the rise of authors that write fantasy for women. Examples would be Anne Bishop, Sharon Shinn, Jacqueline Carey. I do think the readership of those books are more of a female demographic. While traditionally fantasy and science fiction have gone for the male readership and the majority of authors has been male, a lot more writers in the genre are now women—and women write things that appeal to them—and to other women. So I think the urban fantasy market is more of a reaction in recent years to the fact that a) the readership and the authorship is changing b) the editors in the majority of houses are female and c) the largest readers demographically are female and for the genre as a whole to grow, it has to change.

Also, romance readers rarely stick to one genre. They are more open about reading everything—from historical to thrillers to women’s fiction. So they same way they’ve opened up other markets and genres, they’ve expanded from romance to read more fantasy, which I think was a harder genre for them to get into as for many years it was very boy-centric. But now, with more interest in the girls-who-kick-ass and with more female authors, it that has opened up to the female readership.

So in a nutshell, PIllai thinks diverse reading habits of romance readers + evolution of the genre itself to include women authors, heroines, and readers = Urban Fantasy surge. I know a lot of folks have been complaining about the ever-present flood of vampire heroes – but is anyone tired of the kickass heroine? Generally speaking, if she’s done right, I love love love her and don’t know if I’d ever get tired of heroines who could not only squeeze the hero’s ass but could also hand it to him in a fight.

What about you – is urban fantasy your cup of asskicking, or do you tire of it? And moreover, what do you think is causing the popularity build?

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Chrissy says:

    I don’t think the sub-genre is new… but the name is.  It was always out there, but some of it defied the slot-fitting that romance seems determined to embrace.

    Either way, me likes!

  2. 2

    ~don’t know if I’d ever get tired of heroines who could not only squeeze the hero’s ass but could also hand it to him in a fight.~

    Love this line!  Totally agree.  It’s not right for every character, however.  I can root for a heroine who is soft and vulnerable just as well.

  3. 3
    shaunee says:

    You know, I’m not so much tired of girl’s who kick butt as I am the covers of books about girls who kick butt.  I know Smart Bitches et al has mentioned the abundance of butt shots on covers, but I’m a little weary of the exposed midriff with pointedly placed tattoo shot.  Also I’m tired of leather pants wearing girls who kick butt covers.

    Beyond that I think what makes these books and urban fantasy in general so popular is definitely the blending of genre elements you find in them, i.e. 1 part romance, 3 parts good v. evil, strong heroines to taste, a quart of world building, several cups of saving the day, garnish with a pinch of dirty, nasty sex/sexual tension with the bad guy et voila!  The perfect literary mojito.

  4. 4
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Doesn’t seem all that new to me, either. Charles de Lint’s been writing it forever. Ditto Marion Zimmer Bradley. If I wasn’t so brain dead today I’m sure I could come up with more.

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    I stand corrected. Not “new” per se but newly everywhere. From the large, shady rock from under which I blog, it seems that a few years ago, there weren’t so many examples of the asskicking urban fantasy/romance heroines, and now they are much more common. Which is gooooood.

    *rubs hands together*

  6. 6
    Robinjn says:

    I’m a former romance reader who now reads primarily urban fantasy, and yes, my kick into the genre was Laurell K Hamilton. I still think her early books were revolutionary. At least they were to me.

    I’ve now left LKH in total disgust, but have picked up a new cadre of authors I love. Just finished the latest Kim Harrison and every book of hers gets stronger and stronger.

    I think I was just burnt out on romances as a whole, after years and years. I now love books with a romantic element that have something other than romance as a central pivot point. Hence Harrison, Kelly Armstrong, Lilith Saintcrow, Ilona Andrews, etc.

  7. 7
    LiJuun says:

    I’ve always been primarily a fantasy fan who also often loves romance novels.  Romance novels with fantasy elements are like candy to me.  Urban fantasy, with or without romance, has become like crack.  Kickass female heroines rock my literary world.

    I can’t imagine ever getting over this phase; in my mind, I’ll love the kick-ass female heroine for ever and always.  That being said, I seem to have recovered from my Dara Joy addiction quite well.  So who knows?  I may tire of reading about women who can take care of themselves, thankyouverymuch.  But not for a long while, at least.

  8. 8
    rebyj says:

    I think that there are more urban fantasies being featured online in blogs and reviews. The places I read online seem to review them more often than other sub genres.
    Good word of mouth makes me be more likely to put out 8 bux for a book.

    Also, I agree with Lijuun, fantasy is my crack lol, the diversity of world building, character development , sequel possiblities all just get my motor running. I do have to be in a certain mood to enjoy the darker urban fantasies but they have their place on my bookshelf.

  9. 9

    I remember being a 12 or 13 year old girl, devouring fantasy and science fiction, and hungering for some girl heroes.  All the boys got to do the fun stuff and the girls so often where just so… prissy I guess.  The thing is I was and can be prissy myself but also have in general been capable of taking care of myself.  So it seemed ridiculous that girls had to be the boring part of the story, that they couldn’t kick, well, butt—since I was afterall 12 oe 13 afterall—and wear a dress. 

    The first time I encountered Charles de Lint it was like freaking lightening.  A whole new world where girls weren’t necessarily cyphers.  And Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Be still my 13 year old heart. So I just lapped those up.  Afterall, most everyone was telling me and the other girls we could do anything.  Here was fiction that showed girls doing anything. 

    So I guess in a way I fit the idea that as more women filled into the genre, they wrote what I wanted to read and I followed it.  It was never necessarily about the urban part of urban fantasy, but I began to know that that was where I would find girls and women I could relate to… at least more than yet another girl who most have a bath and frilly clothes every day of her adventures across the backwoods of the world.  (Yes, Polgara and Cenedra I am bloody well thinking of you!)

    Will I ever get tired of the kick-ass heroine? In general no.  I get tired of poor imitations or badly drawn versions of said heroine.  I want kick-ass afterall, not dumb and too stubborn to stop arguing with everyone.  I with SB Sara on this one, I love a good kick-ass heroine. Just expect her to be well done. =)

  10. 10
    Wry Hag says:

    Quite frankly, kickass heroines hit my gag button.  Hard.  But so do sooper-dooper alpha heroes.  I’m just generally sick of Unrelenting Badasses…and I mean, really sick of ‘em.

    Seems to me it’s entirely possible to write an absorbing fantasy, urban or otherwise, with fairly flawed (or even slightly unlikable) characters who have multifaceted personalities that come into play when they struggle to deal with extraordinary events.  No standout “heroine”; no standout “hero”; maybe not even the ol’ HEA (although a bit o’ boink and romance never hurts).  Just multifaceted men and women trying to handle whatever crap is thrown at them.

    Gee, what an outside-the-pigeonhole concept.  I’m sure publishers would freakin’ hate it.

  11. 11
    Cristin says:

    I’m intrigued by that explanation purely because one of the best selling urban fantasy authors right now is Jim Butcher, and the main character of the Dresden Files is male.

    But I have to say that I’ve been scouring the sf/f section for what would now be considered urban fantasy for nigh-on 15 years, and it’s always been there.  It’s just easier to find now.

  12. 12
    Rinda says:

    I love it!  I’d better since I write it.  I put strong romance elements into my work, so I hope it appeals to romance as well as UF fans. 

    I tried to break into the category romance market for a few years and every editor told me the same thing.  Your heroines are too strong.  I’m very into the emotional and mental traits that make women strong like compassion, etc—but sometimes I love writing or reading about a woman who also kicks ass. ;) 

    UF has a strong noir feel.  This is under discussion now at  Thin.k that appeals to a lot of us.

  13. 13
    Kalen Hughes says:

    The Urban Fantasy well seems to have been befouled by a never ending lineup of Mary Sue protagonists, or maybe that’s just the dregs of the LKH poison working its way out of my system . . . I’ve tried a bunch of them (they’re one of my best friend’s drug of choice), but have yet to find a series where I bothered to read past book one.

    But I keep trying ‘em . . .

  14. 14

    Alex is indeed Certifiably Awesome.

    As for Charles de Lint et al—there’s been a real shift in UF over the last few years.  De Lint’s brand of urban fantasy is pretty far removed from the LKH-style trend that’s such a boom right now, to the point where some older writers of urban fantasy are getting annoyed by how they feel their subgenre has been hijacked.  Not necessarily a fair term for it, but I can see how they’d be a bit irritated that everybody now expects their books to have tattooed girls in leather pants and hawt sexxoring on a regular basis.

    Heck—after my second book, Devi said she’d be interested in seeing me do an urban fantasy.  I said, hey, I have one already written!  But it’s UF of the older kind, and now doesn’t seem to be the right time to publish it.  I may try again in a few years, when this boom has subsided back to less gargantuan proportions.

  15. 15
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Neil Gaiman. How could I have forgotten him!!!

  16. 16
    Rinda says:

    I think it’s hard to narrow down the current definition of UF.  Some believe it’s first person, femine driven books.  Jim Butcher and a few other new male writers are disproving that. 

    Some of the books are very sexy, but there are great UF books without all the sex.  Patricia Briggs Moon Called, Blood Bound, etc.  Also Kim Harrison doesn’t focus a lot of attention on love scenes, though there is some great tension. 

    The one I’m marketing now doesn’t focus on sex, my heroine wears jeans and she discovers her magic accidentally while getting her butt kicked. (g)

  17. 17
    Andres says:

    Diane Duane…Does the ‘Silicon Mage’ series by Hambly count?

  18. 18
    Nifty says:

    I like the kick-ass heroine as long as she has real limitations.  Like…Anita Blake was fun back in the day, but now she’s just a dead bore because she has no limitations whatsoever.  Every time she turns around she’s amassing some new power or compromising on some previously-held value that used to shape her life and her character. (Not to mention the obvious, of course:  that Anita is too busy having sex to actually kick any ass.)  On the other hand, a kick-ass heroine like Mercy Thompson who DOESN’T have that convenient and bottomless storehouse of power and who saves the day while still relying on her friends for help is an interesting character.

    I enjoy SOME urban fantasy (and paranormal romance) but what’s really bugging me is how overly sexual so much of it has become.  I feel like the oversexification is detracting from the story that’s being told.  I mean, face it—the more pages an author devotes to sex, the fewer pages she can devote to the real plot or story.  Plus some of the sex just seem so…gratuitous.  Sex sells, so it seems like authors are just cramming it down our throats.  (Er…)

    I’m also tired of 1st person POV.  It’s so incredibly limiting as far as storytelling goes.  It also seems to feed the ego of the protagonists, turning them into a 7-headed (were)hydra in the blink of an eye.  So much self-absorption!  So much self-indulgence!  (So much of my vomit in my mouth.)

  19. 19
    dangrgirl says:

    Women change any former male bastion that opens up to them. I really like the Patricia Briggs covers—here’s a female character who shows a little skin, but she’s not doing it to titillate men, in fact she looks like she’d kick your ass if you looked at her funny. Every time I see those covers I think “I gotta read that!” once I get through my ginormous TBR pile.

    I profile kick-ass heroines on my blog just about every Friday in both Romance, Science Fiction and Fantasy in books, TV and movies and there’s always many characters to choose from.

    I loved this part of your post, Sarah:

    I love love love her and don’t know if I’d ever get tired of heroines who could not only squeeze the hero’s ass but could also hand it to him in a fight.

  20. 20
    Miranda says:

    The Urban Fantasy well seems to have been befouled by a never ending lineup of Mary Sue protagonists

    This is my problem. I’m all for strong women characters, but a lot of the urban fantasy gorgeous/feisty leather-panted heroines seem interchangable to me.

    I’ll shout out for Carrie Vaughn’s “Kitty Norville” series. Kitty has some real limitations and vulnerabilities, and they’re intelligently handled. She grows as a character throughout the series.

    I also like Rachel Caine’s Morgantown Vampire series. Claire has brains, not brawn and at 16, is younger than the standard heroine. My complaint is she’s a little too good to be true. I actually prefer Eve, the Gothy sidekick.

    And of course, Tanya Huff’s Bloodties, with Vicki, whom I worship and adore.

  21. 21
    Fiamme says:

    I’m a pure fantasy addict from way back, and have slowly warmed to Urban fantasy. When I first experienced it, it felt like a shortcut (I want to write about fantasy style magic and powers but I don’t want to bother to do any world building).  This was /never/ true of some of the masters of Urban fantasy, it was just my initial prejudice.  I think CE Murphy is awesome, and obviously de Lint.  There one some short stories (I think called Borderlands?) with fairy urban fantasy once that knocked my socks off, can’t recall the author, but one that riffed on the Tam Lin story, but the heroine (with elf like hair) was being played.

    Right now, I’m completely over “Over powered” kick arse heroines.  Don’t go down the Superman route, where each time she meets a snag, she grows a new superpower.  Examples of paranormal/urban type fantasy that I think does it right with the mix of kick-arse and vulnerability? Carrie Vaughn (Kitty and the Midnight Hour). Charlaine Harris’ Sookie character.  Kim Harrison.  Karen Chance. 

    And people who oh-so-nearly get it right but then give people too many powers?  Kelley Armstrong, (mostly love her, but PLEASE, how unbelievable is that ‘only one female werewolf evarrr’? LKH (but hell with it, I’m still reading her stuff … I’d just like her to tone down the bulletproof). I fear some of it is just the great love for a character that makes series continue, rather than switching to a new protagonist.

    And then there’s what another rant referred to as the paranormal “Bridget Jones” stuff which mostly just makes me want to throw books at the wall.

  22. 22
    Lara says:

    Another factor (I think, anyway) is that our society now allows women more and freer reign, and so in authors’ minds it becomes more possible and more likely that heroines can kick ass and look good while doing it. My first experiences with strong heroines in non-urban fantasy still had women in non-traditional roles—Tamora Pierce’s Alanna disguised herself as a boy to become a knight, and Robin McKinley’s Harimad became a champion horseback rider/fighter. Now that it’s completely accepted that heroines can do whatever they like, Anita Blake can be a professional necromancer (when she’s not having screamy-sex with a Were—but don’t get me started), Mercy Thompson can be a mechanic, and Rachel Morgan can be a runner and witch, and they can be all these things and still be feminine. Even Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre and Richelle Meade’s Georgina, while essentially sex workers, are the very best (dominant?) at what they do, and are respected for it.

  23. 23
    Reileen says:

    And then there’s what another rant referred to as the paranormal “Bridget Jones” stuff which mostly just makes me want to throw books at the wall.

    I’ve never heard of this. I can guess at what it might be, but would you mind elaborating? I’m curious.

  24. 24
    jessica says:

    Never been a big fanatasy/sci fi fan. My first love has always been romance. That being said, I love the paranormal romance and that has led me to a few UF books which surprised me because I never thought I’d look in that section, ever. I do love the kick butt, take no prisoners, but still have feeling character that many female writers write about.  I think that male authors sometimes have trouble writing a female character that is multi-dimensional and since up until a few years fantasy/sci fi was mostly male authors I think alot of female readers never bothered. I want more kick butt female characters although the covers do get boring after a while.

  25. 25
    Denni says:

    I’ve come to enjoy UF quite alot.  The elements of here and now, with withever interesting, magical, fantasy elements the author chooses.  It’s fun…real life amped up.

    Historicals are past tense, society as it used to be and we’ve grown out of.  I’m easily bored with them.

    And, you can only read so many “millionare, virgin, sheik, who’s your daddy” books before the brain totally turns to mush and you find yourself fitted for a little white jacket.

    Urban Fantasy is fun, adventure, mystery, and romance without the “romance” label.

  26. 26
    Sandy D. says:

    There one some short stories (I think called Borderlands?) with fairy urban fantasy once that knocked my socks off, can’t recall the author, but one that riffed on the Tam Lin story, but the heroine (with elf like hair) was being played.

    The Borderlands stories/book I think is Emma Bull’s “War for the Oaks” – an early and under-appreciated part of this genre.

    Is the latter maybe Wen Spencer? I think the title of the first book was “Tinker”.

  27. 27
    michelle says:

    One of my favorite Urban Fantasy books is Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks.  If you haven’t read it-go now and order it.

    Also agree with Tanya Huff and Mercedes Lackey.

  28. 28
    Tracey says:

    I do believe the influx of female authors and kick-ass, take no prisoner heroines have brought a wider audience to what is now termed Urban Fantasy. It’s always been there, just not as “out there” so to speak.
    Having a larger pool of authors that are not afraid to take chances and are really stretching the boundaries breaks the previous molds as well.
    Besides, publishers jump all over each other when sales jump in a particular area. Look at all the new Women’s Erotica lines. There has always been erotica in the romance novels but it wasn’y packaged as such. Now that publishers know there are sales to found in books with heavier erotic content, once only acceptale to the shelve space of the Anonymous books, the publishers have practically fallen all over themselves to start a new imprint.
    So now you get the edgier fantasy, women characters. There are sales to be found and women buy more books than men.
    Whatever the real reasons behind the trend, Yippee. Bring ‘em on!

    Having been a Fantasy and Romance junky for fucking ever, how awesome is it that I can get my fix in one happy little package?

  29. 29

    Fiamme said “There one some short stories (I think called
    Borderlands?) with fairy urban fantasy once that knocked my socks off,
    can’t recall the author, but one that riffed on the Tam Lin story, but the
    heroine (with elf like hair) was being played.”

    The Borderland’s series of short stores was edited by Terri Windling.  There are several collections, most out of print, but worth it if you can find them.  Both Emma Bull and Will Shetterly wrote stand alone books in this world.  “War for the Oaks” was not part of this series but certainly is similar in content. 

    Why do I know this?  Because I love the Borderlands stuff and have tracked it all down.  I thought about selling my soul for a couple of hard to find volumes but managed to find a more reasonable price. ;)I especially recommend the later volumes as I think the world is more fully devoloped and the stories stronger across the board.

  30. 30
    oakling says:

    This totally makes sense, especially the theory about us being broader-minded in our reading tastes. I mean, if you’re willing to deal with the heaving breast covers and the stigma of reading romance and so on, you’re ready to read ANYTHING.

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