Localism in Urban Fantasy

Posted: August 20, 2013 in Genre, Junk
Tags: ,

krakenUrban fantasy and it’s nebulous cloud of variants take all those tropes from the elder statesmen of fantasy and mash it up in the real world. It quickly built up all it’s own special tropes. Personally, I think that as a subgenre, UF is finally starting to grow up. Back when I could go to Borders, the majority of UF was “Hey look, another Buffy rip off.” Girl with a [insert weapon] kills [insert magical baddie.] That’s the past. I don’t think it’s a needle in the haystack situation to find good, fresh UF anymore. These are fantastic things. Some of my favorites are Kat Richardson’s Greywalker series, Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series and Kraken by China Mieville.

So we’ve got all sorts of new takes on the old fantasy tropes.

But there’s two parts to Urban Fantasy… what about the urban part?

Well, take a look at those three examples above… they represent the majority of where urban fantasy takes place. Pacific Northwest, New York City and London. A quick perusal of the bookshelves in my office prove this. Chalking up every book that takes place in a real world location (including bleed over from steampunk and godpunk), London creams everything. It doubles up on the Pacific Northwest which has a sleight edge over New York City. Not a single other location has more than two. In fact, most of the non-Big Three Settings are because that’s where the author lives.

Why do these places attract our imagination more than others?

New York City is somewhat easy. It is one of the oldest places in America and has always been one of the most important in just about every category you can qualify as an important city. So much of American culture comes out of New York City that I think it’s almost hard to avoid it. I think any writer worth half a damn could pull off a passable New York City without ever setting foot in that town. It’s also got age on its side, something that not a lot of American places have. We’ve got states that aren’t a hundred years old yet so New York with its 1624 founding means there’s been a lot of time for the magic and hoodoo of UF to take hold.

New York isn’t the only place in America with age. St Augustine in Florida is the oldest European settlement in the US. But since we speak English in America, most people forget about all those Spaniard settlements down south. Boston, Providence, New Haven, Baltimore, Philadelphia, hell almost any major east coast city can lay claim to age, but New York gets all the buzz. It’s a safe location. It’s weird and wild and this giant mishmash of the world’s cultures. That makes it both attractive and easy.

London fascinates Americans. There are pubs older than our country out that way. It’s older than New York by what, a thousand years, so London lays claim to the same “it’s old” argument that New York uses. I think that London in UF fascinates people so much because Niel Gaiman introduced a lot of us to the subgenre. Neverwhere is considered essential reading. Period. Doubly so for urban fantasy.

Pacific Northwest? Gah. I have no idea really. I’d like to go there on a vacation some day. I don’t really think that counts. But more than the other Big Three Settings, the Pacific Northwest has created its own set of tropes.

At least it seems that way to someone on the East Coast.

blackbladebluesThe example that set off this pontification on locations has been sitting in my head for months. It came out of Black Blade Blues by JA Pitts. The main character was driving down the highways out of the suburbs back into Seattle, frantically trying to get away from some baddies. It’s a first person past tense book so she was all “I’m just gonna have to push it to seventy and hope no cops are out, or maybe yay cops they could protect me from the baddies.” I’m paraphrasing obviously. The point is, the main character was freaked out by going seventy miles an hour on the high way.

Seventy. Miles. Per. Hour.

I stopped and out of disbelief, reread the passage about four times. Then I guffawed.

Look, I’ve never been out there, but my sister lives in Portland and my parents go out to Seattle for work and vacations. I’ve heard how driving is out there and have been thoroughly advised to not ever attempt to drive out there. Apparently police will pull you over for going one mile over the limit. In Rhode Island, unless they’re gunning for quota, the cops won’t even look up unless you’re doing twenty over. Even then there’s a good chance you’re safe because someone is going faster than you. On my daily commute, I’ll pull 65 in a 45 and still get the finger for going too slow. You’ve got to top 100 to get people to raise eyebrows on the highway. That one guy in Rhode Island who thinks it’s smart to obey the 55 speed limit on I-95 is way more dangerous than the guy doing 85 since most people are driving 70. Apparently it’s not a thing out west to drive eight feet behind the person in front of you. If I leave more space than that, someone is going to jam their car in there. Hell, they might anyways.

Okay, you get it. East Coast drivers are way different that west. I’m getting to the point.

This little localism of the Pacific Northwest completely and totally threw me out of the narrative. I read this book six months ago and it’s still poking at my brain. How does someone reconcile this sort of thing? What tropes of a city add to it’s character and what ones will just distract everyone else? I’ve got this one the brain because I started outlining my next novel which takes place in Rhode Island. There’s going to be a car chase set from Route 4 up to 295 and the four people from Rhode Island who might read that are all nodding knowingly. My commute is a half step from a car chase as is.

But that’s normal for me. That’s normal for anyone who drives around here. But when I talk about cars flying by at a buck ten, darting in and out of traffic with zero response from anyone beyond extended middle fingers, that’s going to gobsmack all the nice kindly drivers out yonder. How is this fixed?

And now concludes my 1100 word rhetorical question. Ponder and enjoy.

  1. mari says:

    1) Excuse me, how fast do you drive??!! and 2) don’t use actual numbers in your description of a car chase, fast enough to peel the paint off the side of the car, and slow as molasses, etc. people can insert their own relativistic speeds.

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