Since its birth in the 1980’s, urban fantasy as a genre has grown considerably more popular over the years, and while it may not have yet reached the commercial heights of genre behemoths like romance or mystery, there is no doubt that UF as a genre will continue to grow and grow.
And the reason for that is simple:
Urban fantasy is immensely entertaining and just perfect if you want to switch off and escape for a while.
The beauty of UF is that it operates under a very broad scope, allowing many other genres and elements of story telling to be blended in with it. Thus an urban fantasy story can incorporate elements of horror, mystery, supernatural, thrillers, history, humor, romance…the list goes on. This is what makes the genre so appealing for many writers such as myself, because it offers quite a bit of freedom to create whatever story you want.
But of course, for a book, movie, game or RPG to be called urban fantasy, it must meet certain criteria in that it must incorporate certain tropes within itself which we will look at shortly.
So whether you are someone who recently read a Jim Butcher novel and isn’t sure what to read next, or whether you are a complete newcomer to the genre who isn’t sure where to start, this brief but comprehensive guide will tell you everything you need to know about urban fantasy…and then some!
Let’s get started!
What Is Urban Fantasy?
Fantasy such as Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones is not based in real, modern life. Urban fantasy, however, is based in real life. In a nutshell, that’s what separates UF from the rest of fantasy.
An example of a UF story would be: a bad ass dude or kick ass chick running around downtown New York hunting vampires, kicking ass and taking names.
As I mentioned earlier, the story must contain certain tropes to make it urban fantasy. Here are some of the often used tropes of the genre:
Strong male or female lead.
Largely urban setting.
Action orientated plot containing a central mystery that the protagonist must unravel.
Lots of supernatural elements like creatures (vampires, werewolves etc.) and magic use.
Humor (often snarky)
Those are some of the more broader tropes that you will find in just about every urban fantasy story to a greater or lesser degree. There are many more specific tropes, but it is beyond the scope of this article to go into them all. Check out TV Tropes for a complete list of these more specific elements.
Urban Fantasy Definition
Below you will see an excellent graphic created by Alex at K-Lytics for their report on urban fantasy for authors. The graphic gives a great visual overview of the genre’s elements.
Urban Fantasy Or Paranormal Romance?
One thing that has diluted the genre of urban fantasy a fair bit is romance, or more specifically, “paranormal romance”. Many of these books with romance at their core often get wrongly labelled as urban fantasy when they are not.
So what’s the difference?
In urban fantasy, romance is just another element to the story, and often doesn’t play that big a part, if any part at all. In paranormal romance, the romance plays the central role, with the UF elements being nothing more than a colorful backdrop to an essentially romantic story.
Despite the difference, paranormal romance books (and a lesser extent movies and TV shows), are often marketed as urban fantasy. From the covers, it can be hard to tell the difference. It’s not until you read the story or watch the movie or TV show that you realize its more romance than anything else. If that’s your thing, great. Just don’t call it urban fantasy when it isn’t!
Urban Fantasy Books
As UF is recognized mostly as a literary genre, I thought it best to give an overview of the best urban fantasy books and series before looking at other media.
Please note that the following lists are not meant to be exhaustive by any means. Neither are they meant to necessarily represent the cream of the crop. They are just some of the better known examples of the genre and as such are ideal jumping off points for any newcomer to the genre. When it comes to urban fantasy, there thousands of other books out there for a reader to explore.
For this list, I thought it best to organize the books by decade of publication. Although the term “urban fantasy” didn’t really come into existence until the 1980’s, that does not mean there were no UF books before that–they just weren’t labelled as such. Certainly, Fritz Leiber wrote urban fantasy (Our Lady of Darkness, 1977). Peter Beagle had ghosts and werewolves running through modern streets in the 1960s. And Thorne Smith wrote urban fantastic comedies (Night Life of the Gods, 1931). Those are just a few examples of early books that could easily fit neatly into the genre, though there are many more.
For our purposes, we will start with the 80’s, for this is when UF as a commercial genre truly began.
Urban Fantasy Books Of The 1980’s
War For The Oaks (Emma Bull)
This book is credited by many to be the first real example of UF literature. Bull went on to write within Terri Windling’s Borderlands universe, touted by Neil Gaiman as “one of the most important places where Urban Fantasy began”
Wizard Of The Pigeons Megan Lindholm
Moonheart Charles De Lint
Sweet Silver Blues (Garret P.I. Series) Glenn Cook
Weaveworld Clive Barker
Fevre Dream George R. R. Martin
Urban Fantasy Books Of The 1990’s
The genre began to grow in this decade, but it was still only talked about by hardcore fans and hadn’t yet entered the mainstream.
Neverwhere Neil Gaiman
Guilty Pleasures Laurell K. Hamilton
King Rat China Miéville
Finder Emma Bull
Summon The Keeper Tanya Huff
The Great And Secret Show Clive Barker
Urban Fantasy Books Of The 2000’s
The genre really began to take off in this decade, to the point where bookstores would assign urban fantasy its own shelf. Some classic urban fantasy series were released in this decade also.
Storm Front Jim Butcher
This book marked the beginning of the highly influential Dresden Files, considered by many to be the gold standard when it comes to urban fantasy. However, as with all such statements, this is only partially true. There are other series out there that are just as good, if not better. The Dresden Files, though, has been successful in capturing the attention of the public to a huge degree, gathering a massive fan following. In that sense, the series remains untouched.
Moon Called Patricia Briggs
City Of Bones Cassandra Clare
Dead Witch Walking Kim Harrison
Sandman Slim Richard Kadrey
Magic Bites Ilona Andrews
The Magicians Lev Grossman
Dead Until Dark Charlaine Harris
Urban Fantasy Books Of The 2010’s
Despite a few blimps in the road, the urban fantasy genre continues to grow in strength and popularity in this decade. Whereas the 2000’s were dominated mostly by books with kickass female leads, this decade sees the return of the badass male lead. “Tough Guy Urban Fantasy” currently dominates the market as far as literature goes.
Dirty Streets Of Heaven Tad Williams
Nightside Simon R. Greene
Hounded Kevin Hearne
Three Parts Dead Max Gladstone
Fated Benedict Jaka
Half Resurrection Blues Daniel José Older
As well as these better known authors, there is a lot more great urban fantasy authors working within the indie scene, such as Shayne Silvers, Jasmine Walt, M.D. Massey, Michael Anderle, Steve McHugh, Orlando A. Sanchez, C.N. Crawford and many others.
Also feel free check out my books as well 🙂
Urban Fantasy Movies
I’ve already written a comprehensive post on the best urban fantasy movies by decade. Check it out to see what impact the genre has made on Hollywood over the years!
Urban Fantasy TV Series
UF is very well represented in TV land these days. I’ve already written about some of the best urban fantasy TV shows in another post. If you want to know about the UF TV shows coming in 2019 then check out this post.
Urban Fantasy Comics And RPG’s
When it comes to comics there is quite a bit of urban fantasy stuff out there. By far the best IMO are the Hellblazer comics featuring the infamous Alan Moore creation, John Constantine, who has become very much a role model for many of the male leads we see in UF literature today.
Other notable urban fantasy comics are:
American Vampire (The series explores notions of vampire evolution and traces the bloodline of a new kind of vampire, an American species, with new powers and characteristics, through various decades of American history.)
Hellboy (UF but heavy on the horror.)
BPRD (Hellboy spinoff featuring the X-Files type organization he works for.)
Preacher (A darkly fun “buddy cop” style story following a possessed Preacher, a vampire and a deadly lady, now a major TV series.)
Sandman (A classic among all comics.)
Lucifer (Featuring Lucifer Morningstar with a day job, written by Neil Gaiman amongst others.)
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (Again, heavy on the horror.)
Shade the Changing Man (It’s about a guy with a magical vest and the ability to warp reality.)
Seven Soldiers of Victory (Seven “heroes” banding together to stop evil faeries from destroying reality as we know it.)
The urban fantasy genre has also been a big influence on role playing games. In the RPG world, there are many good examples of UF stories and universes, which even if you don’t play the games themselves, are still a great source of inspiration. Notable examples include:
Vampire Masquerade/Requiem (One of the first real UF RPG’s with clans of vampires.)
Werewolf-The Forsaken (Similar to Vampire Masquerade only with werewolves.)
Mage-The Awakening (A classic UF RPG that is dark and full of magic.)
Changing-The Lost (Unique take on Faery lore.)
Unknown Armies (About as UF as it gets, dark and often very weird.)
Urban Fantasy Video Games
Urban fantasy hasn’t made a huge impact on the video games industry, as a lot of games tend to veer more toward horror or full-on fantasy, but there have been a few that could sit easily within the UF genre, including:
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (A classic from back in the day.)
The Wolf Among Us (Merges both an interesting detective story with a unique setting where creatures and people from classic fairy tales live in secret in a relatively modern city.)
The Darkness (Adds a twist to a bog-standard FPS with the addition of supernatural powers.)
Devil May Cry (A classic action game featuring Dante the demon.)
The Future Of Urban Fantasy
The future of the UF genre is looking bright. There are more books than ever being released in the literary genre, and it continues to grow in popularity every day. In movies and TV we are still seeing a steady flow of UF inspired stories, so the future is looking healthy there as well. In terms of comics, RPG’s and video games, UF material is still being released, but is nowhere near as represented as other genres unfortunately. Hopefully this will change in the future.
One thing is certain, urban fantasy is certainly not dead (as some have said in the past). Not only that, it will continue to go from strength to strength.
Of that I am certain.
It’s too much damn fun not to!