Let’s talk about urban fantasy.

Note: This is a repost from a literature/film analysis blog I ran for a college class in 2020. The original post was published on October 25, 2020.

Last week, I was hit with the dreaded condition that plagues all readers at some point. That’s right — I hit a reading slump. I was in the middle of Dark Corner by Brandon Massey (which is, objectively speaking, a very good book and one I highly recommend for fans of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot) and suddenly I just… wasn’t into it anymore. I got into this weird headspace, and suddenly I just didn’t want to read.

Whenever this happens, there is one genre that can always break me out of my funk and get me excited about reading again: urban fantasy.

According to GoodReads, “urban fantasy is a subset of contemporary fantasy, consisting of novels and stories with supernatural and/or magical elements set in contemporary, real-world, urban settings–as opposed to ‘traditional’ fantasy set in imaginary locations.” That’s one way to put it. I think a less wordy (and perhaps more honest) definition would be one coined by a bookseller in my hometown: “urban fantasy is somewhere between fantasy and paranormal romance.”

If you search for urban fantasy books on Kindle, you’ll quickly pick up on some common themes. Nearly all of the top books in the subgenre have female protagonists (usually of the tough-girl-who-takes-no-shit variety), fast-paced first person narratives, and some sort of romantic subplot (usually involving a sexy vampire/werewolf/angel/whatever). They also have a mindblowing ability to generate sequels — the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series currently has 27 books out, with a 28th releasing next year; the Mercy Thompson series has 12 books and counting; and the Black Dagger Brotherhood series has 18 books out with a 19th scheduled for release in 2021.

There’s another thing you might notice about urban fantasy — they’re the kind of books that ordinarily get labeled as “guilty pleasures” by the people who enjoy them.

Why is that? Sure, most urban fantasy novels aren’t going to change your life or make you think deep thoughts about the nature of reality, but the same could be said of lots of media. No one feels guilty about enjoying superhero movies or formulaic horror films. Why does the addition of vampires and the occasional sex scene suddenly make a whole subgenre “trashy”?

Part of it is probably just good, old fashioned sexism. Most urban fantasy books are written by women for a primarily female audience. As Mia Mercado points out in an article for Bustle, “Work created by a woman is seen as ‘niche’ while work created by a man is presumed to be applicable to everyone.” For proof of this, just look at the slang we use to refer to primarily woman-centric media: chick flicks (romantic movies), chick lit (romance novels and women’s fiction), etc.

And that really isn’t fair. It leads to some damn good books getting swept under the rug because of their genre.

For example, to break myself out of my reading slump I picked up Angel’s Blood by Nalini Singh, which is the first book in the Guild Hunter series. And it was a fun read. The plot was fast-paced, the characters were compelling (and weren’t all white, which is a common issue with urban fantasy), and the action was well-written. This book has one of the most original takes on vampire lore I’ve heard in a while, and there were some horror elements that would have made Stephen King jealous.

And, yes, there was a romance subplot which, if you must know, was also handled fairly well. The romance did not diminish any of the fantasy, action, or horror elements.

It makes me sad that books like Angel’s Blood often get overlooked or written off as “guilty pleasures” because they were written by women. I think people who refuse to read “trashy” books end up missing out on a lot of fantastic stories, and this is definitely one of them.

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