Disclaimer: I know that genres are messy, fluid, and often slip and slide all over each other even in the same story. But there are still some delineations that can be made, and I ask you to work with me during this post as I try to make sense of this stuff. Thanks in advance!
I’m usually a Fantasy Fantasy guy. As much as I harp on orcs, I like them a lot. I like castles, and dragons, and elves. I follow an instagram page of an artist who constantly posts artwork of knights, because I love arms and armor. No other genre of literature has really occupied that space for me.
That is, until I read a few books: Tananarive Due’s My Soul to Keep, L.A. Banks’ Vampire Huntress Legend series, Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in The Ring, and most recently, Daniel José Older’s Half-Resurrection Blues have completely altered my understanding of Fantasy works, and made me a fan of the genre of Urban Fantasy (in Literature. Disney’s Gargoyles will forever be one of the greatest representations of Urban Fantasy to elementary school TroyLWiggins).
All of those books might not be able to be neatly and completely categorized into the genre of Urban Fantasy (because defining works of the genre itself often contain bits and pieces from other genres), but for my purposes, I consider these four books superb representatives. For those of you who don’t know, Urban Fantasy is defined by its sense of place just as much as vanilla fantasy is defined by swords and shields. Urban Fantasy works take place in an urban environment–cities and the like–but otherwise retain a lot of the standard fantasy elements. There are often high-octane stakes, a quest or two, and, magic or magical creatures hiding in the shadows (in my city, if you take Pear street during the height of the full moon, you’ll see a cadre of streetwear-clad sorcerers performing an ancient summoning ritual in the skeleton of an abandoned factory, which is why it smells like the funk of 40,000 years in North Memphis). I dig this genre because it’s fun to imagine fantastic elements to our mundane world, and it’s always extremely entertaining when done right.
More than one author has pointed out the interesting oddity that the word “urban” is coded to serve as a stand-in for blackness and poverty, but “Urban fantasy” as a literary genre is defined by stock white characters, overdone western mythological/spiritual references, and cities populated with extras from Friends or Sex and the City. There is, however, hope for these elements finally abandoning their spot as the norm–as Older pointed out in his piece for The Guardian last year, speculative fiction’s spaces, faces, and demographics are changing, and Urban Fantasy is in the very midst of the change.
Let’s be clear, though: This post isn’t going to be a complete examination of the genre of Urban Fantasy, nor is it a review of Older’s Half-Resurrection Blues. It’s more an analysis of setting, and a praise of Older, for getting a key component of his work right on the money. (For those of your wondering, yes, this is essentially an non-review).
I’ve written on this topic before, but I’ll restate my thesis for new readers. For many writers of speculative fiction, their work pulls double duty. Whether or not its our intent, our work is simultaneously entertainment and activism. Speculative fiction that uses the urban as a setting for its plot, to me, is at its best when it uses that setting as an examination of the social environment–ills and all–of the people who go through their daily lives there. These people are more than just NPC’s, just as the setting is more than just a backdrop. All of them, the spirit of the cities and the lives of the people, must be skillfully combined in a way that transcends mere environment and setting. If you’re looking for a masterclass in this being done as right as it possibly can be, I suggest you get amongst Half-Resurrection Blues.
I guess here is where I should do one of those full disclosure thingies, about how I’ve interacted with Older in private communications and things like that, but hell, nobody’s paying me to write this, so whatever.
Half-Resurrection Blues opens up in Park Slope with guns blazing, tackling hipsters and the many-headed suckbeast that is gentrification in the very first paragraph. Here is a world that is in dangerous flux. The old and the new mix here, and not peacefully. The blues is “watered-down” (what’s worse than watered down blues? Watered down Kool-aid, that’s what), and we see the original inhabitants of this place have been pushed to the outskirts, made to feel unwelcome outsiders in a place that they filled with their culture, their lives and laughter. The whole place is infused with hipsters–“the cats are everywhere”, Carlos complains, but the city and scene is still vibrant and lively despite the foreign agents.
I prefer it when cities are lively, full of character, and an essential part of a story that takes place there. I realize that this makes me sound like a creepy version of Jack Hawksmoor, but it’s true. In Urban Fantasy works, its best to have the city be a character unto itself, else the work feels as wrong as the most lazily contrived medieval knockoff. In Half-Resurrection Blues, Brooklyn has character, Brooklyn is a character, in his work. It has moods. You can feel the city groan and lash out in anger. Patches of the city descend into peaceful slumber, and when it is happy, you can feel it beaming from the page. Brooklyn isn’t a brick and mortar zombie here. It breathes and the beings that inhabit it are its lifeblood, pulsing through its streets. You can practically hear the borough as it inhales and exhales all around Carlos. The ease and familiarity with which Older presents all of the different faces of Carlos’ Brooklyn makes me jealous, and the love that Older (and Carlos) has for the place leaps off the page.
Brooklyn’s characterization in Half-Resurrection Blues is especially impressive when you realize that Older has filled this book with great human (and inhuman) characters. The interplay between the important ghosts and the physical places that they inhabit is central to the book’s plot, and I don’t think this would have worked so well if Brooklyn had been a lifeless backdrop. Each of the people and spirits in the book occupies an essential physical space, and these physical spaces add up to depict one of the most well crafted preexisting worlds that I’ve read in a long time. When I compare the feel of Carlos’ Brooklyn to, say, Harry Dresden’s Chicago, the differences are stark,
but I’m a Dresden hater so that may be coloring my comparison. My hateration aside (looks like I won’t be getting into the dancerie) I am a fan of worldbuilding, and I am always excited to get into a piece that uses cities-as-setting to the maximum of their potential. In so many ways, the setting of an Urban Fantasy work is as essential to the success of the work as the protagonist, plot, and characterization, and Older’s Half-Resurrection Blues knocks this aspect, along with all the others, out of the park.
You can get Half-Resurrection Blues on Amazon and/or Barnes and Noble. If you wanna test it out before you buy listen to a snippet of the book HERE. Older’s newest work, Shadowshaper (a YA Urban Fantasy with a WoC as protagonist), is also available. Also, check out his list of Urban Fantasy Writers of Color. You might see a familiar name amongst those giants.
And as always, love, thoughts, and recommendations are welcome in the comments. Tell me about your favorite Urban Fantasy!