Anybody who's paid the slightest bit of attention to the publishing industry over the last several years, whether as an industry professional or simply as a reader, probably knows that urban fantasy has generally outsold more traditional fantasy for some time now. There are exceptions, of course--George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss immediately come to mind. But time and time again, the people I hear about who are the better-selling names in the SF/F genre are urban fantasy. I've heard more than once about authors who've made the jump from writing traditional fantasy over to writing urban fantasy, just for the sake of strengthening their careers. And clearly, at least for the time being, it's the intelligent career choice if an author wants to increase her chances of getting her book into the hands of readers.
As a reader, I certainly have my own share of urban fantasy in my library. As a writer, I've got my own urban fantasy series, The Free Court of Seattle.
I could tell you that Tolkien was a critical influence on my early reading years, and that he was closely followed up by Terry Brooks' original Shannara trilogy as well as David Eddings' Belgariad and Mallorean series. I could mention Esther Friesner or Gael Baudino or Mercedes Lackey--especially Lackey, given that her first Valdemar novels came out when I was just getting into college. And of course I could mention Elfquest yet again, which in its long and venerable history has generally always been about as non-urban as it's possible for fantasy to get.
All of which would be true, but none of which would really answer the question of what draws me to straight-up, no-qualifiers, fantasy?
- Locale. Sometimes I don't want to be reading about an alternate, magical version of the real world; sometimes I just want to be reading about another world entirely. Don't get me wrong--in the hands of a gifted writer, our own world's magic and complexity can be made to shine. And there's great wonder to be found in the idea that magical things may be lurking right around your neighborhood corner. But I learned very early on, thanks to the authors I've mentioned above and many others as well, that the boundaries of my imagination need not be limited to just our own world.
- Worldbuilding. This is where fantasy really gets a chance to shine, for my money. Sure, every fantasy novel ever written is going to have a society in it modeled on aspects of the real world; we can't escape that, since we are after all all writers living in the world we know, so of course we're going to be extrapolating out from that. There will still be connections to and reflections of our own world. But oh, the fun of just taking all those bits and pieces of the world we know, mixing and matching them, honing and crafting them, until something emerges that we can call our own.
- Adventure! Huh! Excitement! Huh! A Jedi craves not these--ahem. Er, sorry, wrong genre. Which is not to say urban fantasy can't be adventurous; certainly, the Dresden Files come to mind as an example of urban fantasy chock full of adventure. For me as a reader, though, fantasy tends to provide the kinds of high adventure plots I find more appealing. Good old-fashioned quest plot? Sign me up. Hard treks through wilderness country? Bring it. Defeating an ancient rising evil? On board. And I go as well for smaller-scale adventures--thievery capers, mixing it up with mystery and solving attempted or actual murders, just to name a couple of the sort that Patricia Briggs wrote before she switched over to urban fantasy. Anne Logston did quite a few smaller-scale fantasy adventures too, with the tales of her elf thief Shadow.
- Escapism. Some might actually look on this as a negative, if they're of the school of thought that says that a fantasy novel needs to be dark and gritty and realistic. But escapism comes hand in hand with adventure for me, and dammit, escapism isn't a dirty word. I have enough of dark, gritty realism in the real world. Give me a big, bold colorful escapist fantasy and I'm a happy reader.
What do you think about the fantasy genre in general, readers? Tell me about your own favorite reasons to read a fantasy novel in the comments!
Angela Highland is the author of Valor of the Healer, book 1 of the Rebels of Adalonia series. As Angela Korra'ti, she writes Faerie Blood, book 1 of The Free Court of Seattle. Come say hi to her at angelahighland.com!