Posted by: Sarah | February 9, 2011

Genre Boundaries

How do you decide what genre a book falls into?  When I first started reading Urban Fantasy books, one of my first series that I read, if not the first one, was Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series.  This book series had magical creatures, crazy fight scenes, crime and mystery plots, romantic elements (then later just about outright porn), and aspects you’d be more likely to find in a horror book, including blood, guts, and unidentifiable gore.  Hamilton wrote about a strong independent female character in the beginning of the series, so I guess you could also maybe call it feminist fiction (at that time anyway). So, if you were to categorize the first several books in the series, you could use any of those genres, or the more all-encompassing “urban fantasy,” since the series is set in almost exclusively urban settings and definitely contains fantastic elements.  The later books in the series, including the last 2-3 I read, and many I didn’t read, would have a much different (and smaller) set of genres to choose from.  Before I quit reading this author’s books, I felt like the mystery and crime elements were almost completely dropped from the series, as were the horror elements.  The series became a soap box for the author to ram her sex scenes down people’s throats and to make her character more and more powerful.  I guess she felt like she was being “edgy,” but I can’t say I felt uncomfortable or like I was being pushed beyond my comfort zone or understanding by her later works.  I’d categorize the first 9 or so Anita Blake books as Urban Fantasy with the following ones as Erotica just because of the extremely high sexual content (even though I personally didn’t find those books “erotic” some people did, and probably still do – and most of the other genre elements have been dropped).  There’s really little to no romance left, at least as of the last books I read, because Anita just gives it up on the first day she knows the person, and she doesn’t even particularly like all of her partners.  Much of the page count is dedicated to such encounters, therefore there are very few genre titles I feel would really be accurate, besides erotica.

I have read posts by people who claim that what many people call urban fantasy is not fantasy at all because of their own hatred of certain series, stand alone books, or authors.  Some of those posts named Hamilton’s book series (among others) as part of the reason they didn’t like urban fantasy.  Some readers believe all novels with werewolves,  vampires, or other beings more traditionally thought of as monsters should be considered horror, or a non-fantasy genre, such as “urban fiction.”  I’m not going to argue that urban fantasy shouldn’t be considered urban fiction as well, because that would be silly.  Fiction is one of two main mega-genres (making up new terms is fun, isn’t it?) – fiction and non-fiction.  Of course urban fiction would contain urban fantasy within itself, but also contain many non-fantastical urban sub-genres.  Urban romance, urban action, urban science fiction perhaps?  Arguments have been made that the fantasy genre should only contain stories of dragons, elves, heroes on epic quests to save the world, and such other similar stories.  I consider those just plain “fantasy” myself, but I have seen the term “high fantasy” or “epic fantasy” also used.  Part of the problem with saying an urban fantasy novel isn’t a fantasy lies within the “heroes on epic quests to save the world” bit – many urban fantasy novels do indeed have world-threatening (or at least city-threatening) villains or disasters which must be stopped or the world is done for and all hope is lost.  Several urban fantasy novels also have dragons and/or elves.

I have to say that urban fantasy, to me anyway, is a mixture of an urban setting and a high occurrence of magic and/or a high population of magical, supernatural, or unnatural elements and beings.    One of my current favorite urban fantasy series is The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.  This is not your typical urban fantasy because it is not set in contemporary times, unlike almost all of the other series and stand alone novels I have read within this genre.  Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series is set in an alternate history wherein werewolves and vampires are very real and have a very tenuous peace, and takes place during Queen Victoria’s reign.  There are alternate sciences and political machinations.  The world this series is set in has a very steampunk quality to it that I really enjoy, and the main character is incredibly intelligent.  This series is much different from many of the more “mainstream” urban fantasy novels, but I think it is still a great example of the range of stories that can be told within the genre.

I do consider paranormal romance as different from urban fantasy, although the two genres tend to be similar.  Paranormal romance novels are ones in which the romance is the main plotline and the paranormal aspect is of secondary importance.  With urban fantasy, the urban is secondary to the fantastical aspects. This has been so with many of the urban fantasy novels I have read where the main concerns deal with defeating or capturing the bad guy and saving the day.

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