26 September 2011

The Urban Fantasy Anthology

Here is a review of mine, which has recently been published in Interzone.

The Urban Fantasy Anthology
Edited by Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon Publications, 432 pp., $15.95 trade pb

It’s raw, it’s vibrant, it’s undeniably popular, but just what is urban fantasy? The editors of this new anthology from Tachyon attempt to define the genre by offering us twenty short stories they regard as typical. These stories have been subdivided into three categories: mythic fiction, paranormal romance and noir fantasy. By way of introduction, Peter Beagle offers a useful critical overview of the book as a whole, while Charles De Lint, Paula Guran and Joe Lansdale do the same for each of the three subdivisions.

Mythic fiction is the oldest and best established of the three types of urban fantasy. However, as Charles De Lint points out, the term was originally chosen by him and Terri Windling precisely to avoid describing what they were writing as ‘urban fantasy’. It is probably the most easily definable of the three categories. Essentially, mythic fiction refers to any story that takes traditional fantasy tropes and/or mythic elements and places them in a (sometimes loosely) contemporary setting. In this collection, the category is illustrated by stories from Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford and Peter Beagle. All the stories chosen to represent mythic fiction are excellent reads, but the Jeffrey Ford offering (‘On the Road to New Egypt’) seems rather out of place in this company: there is a surrealism about it that to my mind makes it more akin to the category described here as ‘noir fantasy’.

The term ‘paranormal romance’ immediately put me in mind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Twilight saga and Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake novels. Paula Guran’s take on the category certainly overlaps with those works, but she puts more emphasis on ‘kickassitude’ and detective-style plots than on any element of romance. The stories chosen to represent this category are by Charles de Lint (again), Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas and Francesca Lia Block. Again it is a strong selection of stories. My particular favourite was Patricia Briggs’s ‘Seeing Eye’, perhaps because I have a soft spot for paranormal detective stories.

Finally, Joe Lansdale introduces what in their wisdom the editors have decided to call noir fantasy. I think this is a misnomer because, to my mind, it suggests a connection with film noir and hardboiled crime fiction; it leads me to expect a cynical take on the world, a morally ambiguous (possibly darkly humorous) central character and possibly a erotic dimension that is not constrained by (or at least is in tension with) conventional attitudes. In fact, the term ‘noir fantasy’ leads me to expect precisely what Paula Guran highlighted about ‘paranormal romance’. However, for Joe Lansdale it clearly means (urban) fantasy with a strong component of horror and/or surrealism. The stories presented here as ‘noir fantasy’ are a disparate collection by Thomas Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Steven Boyett, Joe Lansdale, Tim Powers and Al Sarrantonio. They are all twisted, dark and surreal . . . but noir? Of these, I found Susan Pawlick’s ‘Gestella’ (a werewolf betrayed by her human lover) and Steven Boyett’s ‘Talking Back to the Moon’ (ex-werewolf and centaur on a road journey in a post-apocalyptic California) particularly memorable.

The sheer diversity of stories anthologized here does a good job of highlighting the breadth of contemporary urban fantasy. I am less convinced by the editors’ attempts to classify the stories. But more important is the fact that they have brought together an excellent collection of stories that showcases the best of urban fantasy writing (however you define it). Definitely a must read!

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