Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Why I like Fantasy, or, Location, Location, Location

...or why Urban Fantasy makes me cringe.

Looking at book blurbs made me realize something. When looking at fantasy (in broad sense) books, if I see the mention of a known city (and by known I mean our world) or nationality, I immediately skip that book. Unless I know and like the author. Or a lot of people keep telling me I should read it. Why does that happen?

I tend not to delve into the realms of urban fantasy. But there are lots of great books that are urban fantasy. I even love some of those. Part is because I like my dragons, and they don't go well with the huff-huff of city life. But part is that by being in a city, it tends to be a real city.

True, this mostly happens with young adult books. True, that sometimes is great to imagine something magical happening where you live. But here comes part of my pickle. It never happens where I live. I need to go into historical fiction to get that, and even there it is very rare.

Doesn't it seem like a good place for Fantasy?
Photo (c) Clara Vale

Furthermore, it seems to happen all on the other side of the ocean. And I've never been there. I know a fair bit of American geography because, well, if I want to understand the majority of geographical references in films and books, I need to know that, for instance, Washington in not in Washington (it took me awhile to get that). That there are 2 big rivers going from north to south. That it takes a freaking long time to drive from one place to another. But the layout of the cities? That I don't have to know.

I always get my kicks when the action takes place in a city I've been to. Because suddenly I can visualize what the author meant. But I think that even if I can do it, there is surely someone who can't, and isn't enjoying it as I am.

In (regular, high, epic) Fantasy, on the other hand everyone stands in the same foot - it's an unfamiliar place, and the author has to show us how it is. Not always done brilliantly, I admit, but at least there is a certain democracy to it. It could be just a map, it could be the slowly unravelling of details and places during the story. But every reader learns at the same time that there is a shop at the end of the street. There isn't an instance where some know, and some don't.

Also, I get a bit of the feeling that setting it in our world is the easy way out – the world is already built, no need to elaborate on that, no need to construct anything. Again, this certainly can be true in some books, where the author tells you is set in New York and assumes you know what the city is all about, but there are lots of others that take the time to characterize the place, so the reader at least has a feeling of what it is like to be there.

And I can use the books I've read to explain my point. In White Cat, it takes place in the States. There are a bunch of locations that are known to me and some that aren't. Are them north or south in relation to the ones I know? No idea. Is it near the ocean or the mountains? I don't know. I know their names and that the character goes there. And that's it.

As an example of urban fantasy in a complete new city I'm going to use China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. There is a map at the beginning, because this is a huge city. I had to refer to it quite a few times. But I started to get a sense of the city as I kept reading. Salacus Fields as the bohemian quarter. The scientific district of Brock Marsh. The places you ought to go, the ones you better stay away from.

And last we have Sunshine. Sunshine made it to this list because while being urban fantasy, and set in an alternate America, it takes place in a fantasy city - New Arcadia. Also because discovering the city and getting to know it is part of the narrative - we are discovering the city at the pace the character needs us to. How a place evolved to what it is. What lies beyond that park. Why people avoid the outskirts.

There are other books that are all about the cities, real or imaginary, or good specimens of fantasy set on cities. And although I’ve realized that I really avoid this kind of books, and it’s kind of hard to find other examples, here are a few (besides those 3 up there) that come to mind:
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • The City & The City by China Mieville
  • Valiant by Holly Black
  • Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  • Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente *new*
  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner *new*


  1. How curious. One of the reasons I like Urban Fantasy is because of the cities. If a book happens in, say, NYC, and since I've never been there, the city is as good as an invented one, because I don't know it. But there are plenty of maps and stuff in the web, so if I don't understand something I have a lot of things available to help me out. The point is, I suck at imagining things, especially when it comes to geography. If a book is Epic Fantasy and there is no map I'll be way lost when I'm reading. So when things happen in a real city I feel more grounded and can relate to the story and the characters. I hope I made sense. ;)

  2. I'll have to agree with p7 on this. Even though most urban fantasies happen in places I've never been too, when I start reading a book (be it urband fantasy, or pure fantasy), I hope the author will guide me through their chosen places. If an urban fantasy authoir doens't give me every detail I need on a cioty, than I won't like the book. Authors can't assume people know the places they're describing, they have to assume they don't, and describe accordingly.

    Still, too much description can be a bother, so I guess, all in all, equilibrium is the best.

    But I guess it depends from person to person. Personally I think I'm much more lost, for example, in epic fantasies (where everything is invented), especially when the book comes with a map, and the author never gets to describe things as he should, because he assumes people will just look at the map. That's just lazy!

    Still, I wish more urban fantasy writers would use our beautiful, beautiful country. It's quite sad if you think that even most portuguese fantasy authors don't use our grounds (I'm a bit guilty of this as well, even though I've used Portugal in a few of my stories). After all, this is a beautiful land, filled with misteries.
    And to those authors who dare write about Portugal, I always give their books a chance, just for that. :)

  3. Yes! That would be a very nice place for fantasy to happen. I volunteer to be the heroine! *smart ass*xD

  4. @p7
    You do have a point, with a real setting if there is something missing in the book, we can always check a travel guide. I just preferred if there was no need for a travel guide. (Also you made perfect sense :D)

    I also hope the author will guide me through the place when I start a book. But I have this notion (maybe wrong) than when it's in an imaginary world, the author has no choice but to do so.

    Also, maps and no descriptions are a no-no for me. Be it in any genre.

    As much as I love my country (warts and all) and hope fantasy really kicks in, I am still a bit wary of the things written in Portuguese. I've read good thing, but I've also read bad ones and I guess it put me off a bit. But I can see Fantasy definitely happening in Portugal. Porto could have something pretty much like London in Neverwhere. Not old underground stations, but tunnels, lots of tunnels, an hidden city!

    (I have yet to read one of your stories, I have to check it out)

    Mmm... Carlita e o Dalmata Malvado (eu já sugeri isto noutro sitio qualquer?)

    Anyway, get to work then. Fantasy in Porto, I dare you to write it! (or in Gondomar, if you prefer)