Urban fantasy

One of the wonderful things about academic research (aside from the excuse to live in the library and read endlessly) is the startling information that springs up, unexpected new facts that leap off the page when you were looking for something else, as if they were just waiting to take you by surprise and press into your hands the gift of delight. And when you pursue the avenues these facts open before your feet, they tend to lead to a whole new perspective, something like walking through a canyon and coming to a cliff that looks over a new and bright land, while just to the side a winding trail leads down to the vista below, if you dare take that path. Sometimes you don’t; sometimes you look for a while, then return to where you were before, with your world a crack wider with the mere knowledge that that other place exists; sometimes you scramble down swiftly and walk around. Not all that long ago I was delighted to come across in my research, in Charles Butler’s analysis Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children’s Fiction of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper (Toronto: Scarecrow Press,  2006), this:

“Only Diana Wynne Jones [of the four] has regularly set her books in towns and cities, and in doing so has significantly contributed to the creation of a tradition of urban fantasy (Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman, for example, were amongst her early admirers).” (125)

Reading on, I found to my surprise that Jones’s Witch’s Business, The Ogre Downstairs, and Archer’s Goon to name but a few of her city-set stories, were exceptional in bringing magic – fantasy – into the here-and-now, instead of resolutely insisting that magic belonged to the past, or, if it intruded into the present, was fixed firmly in the countryside or in ancient ruins. Magic, most stories insisted, did not happen in cities – which by extension implied that that magic did not happen for the urban poor, runaways, the homeless, mixed families, or immigrants. (There were a few exceptions, but very few.)

Jones - ogre downstairs

Jones was one of the first authors, possibly the first author to consistently bring magic into the mundane, urban world to today, and in doing so, helped establish the sub-genre of urban fantasy, a genre which has been enthusiastically taken up and enriched by the writings of Neil Gaiman (think Neverwhere and American Gods), Terry Pratchett (think of the Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork), and Charles de Lint (think of… well, pretty much everything he has ever written). In recent years, urban fantasy has expanded tremendously, such that I cannot even begin to name all the authors who have contributed to its growth. I’m sure you can name plenty more. Ankh-Morpork - The City and the game board

One of the fascinating things about recent fantasy (recentish – say, written within the last thirty years or so?) is the use of shared worlds. One particular shared world, which I don’t know too well but have heard a lot about, is Bordertown. Created by Terri Windling, who was joined by Ellen Kushner, Midori Snyder, Charles de Lint, Will Shetterly and Emma Bull, Bordertown is a city on the edge between the Realm (the elven world) and the human world, populated largely by runaways and outcasts from both worlds. Other authors and artists joined the crew: Rick Berry, Steven Brust, Thomas Canty, Kara Dalkey, Brian Froud, Iain McCaig, Patricia A. McKillip, Dennis Nolan, Delia Sherman, and Ellen Steiber. Five anthologies and two novels were written between the mid 80s and the mid 90s. Life in Bordertown involves politics (both human and Trueblood, aka elfin), gangs, racial conflict and tolerance, art, and a lot of music. A LOT of music, some of which preexists (which the authors say would fit right in with Bordertown style) and some of which was created by fans. Life as an underdog in a tough urban environment isn’t glossed over but delved right into, but no matter how harsh things get, there is usually someone – a friend, a lover, a kind stranger – who makes the struggle worthwhile, and brings a spark of beauty into the darkest slum. Around two years ago a new anthology, Welcome to Bordertown, has come out, which includes stories by the original authors as well as by Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Cassandra Clare, Dylan Meconis (creator of Bite Me!),  Cory Doctorow, Catherynne M. Valente, and a whole bunch more.


I haven’t read much of Bordertown, but I’m beginning to think that it’s something I should try more of.

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