Everyone has a different idea about what urban fantasy is. For me, I go with the simple definition of it being a story where the city is as much a character as anyone else running around such that if you were to remove the city, the story doesn’t work as well. Keep in mind, when I was told my novel was “urban fantasy”, I had an entirely different definition in mind.
I hear “urban” and I’m used to it being in the context of “urban radio” or “urban fiction” (aka street lit) and any of a number of other code phrases for “we mean black people but we need to tip toe around saying, you know, stuff black people are into”. So I thought maybe I had stumbled into the perfect genre to write my brand of “magic ghetto realism”. Imagine my surprise when I found out that’s about as opposite a landscape as possible.
About a year ago, Jim Butcher’s Twitter feed erupted into a bit of a kerfuffle about the whitewashing of urban fantasy. Apparently folks were bent out of shape by his depiction of Chicago, essentially whitewashing it as his Chicago comes up a bit short on the amount of black folks (or other people of color) living there. Frankly, I wasn’t too bent out of shape over this as somehow every week people used to tune into Friends who lived in a New York remarkably bereft of black folks. It’s to the point where I go into an urban fantasy expecting not to encounter minority characters other than in a “magical Negro”-type capacity.
To be straight, I have a very urbanized tale. It is set among homeless teens, gang members, and drug dealers and thus has what I will generously call a highly select lexicon. Some readers, expecting a different sort of urban fantasy, have reacted poorly to it (one reviewer called it “too ghetto”, but I’m going to generously assume that they refer to science fiction stories set on Mars as “too Martian”). Since the book is billed as The Wire meets Excalibur, so it’s not like the warning’s not right there on the cover. (You may also note that my publisher, Angry Robot, does not believe in whitewashing covers).
Jim Butcher’s Chicago may have been a “fictional Chicago” (as he put it), but my Indianapolis apparently is less so. I write from what I have experienced (which I suspect is what Mr. Butcher does also and should’ve just copped to the fact that he has the option of living in a “different” Chicago). My old neighborhood was a lower middle class one, not one that folks might think of as hard core hood (though there were elements of that too). We had a neighbor who liked to lean out of her window and shoot at her father-in-law when he pulled up. We had a “Big Momma” which every neighborhood should have. I wrote about the characters of the neighborhood. My neighborhood. My story.
The Knights of Breton Court series works in Indianapolis. It’s about my Indianapolis story’s as much about it as the playing out of the Arthurian legend. There are more stories to tell in urban fiction than Boyz N the Hood or Menace II Society or baby mama dramas. Just as there are more characters to write about in urban fantasy whose stories aren’t as often told or voices always expressed. With the legends of the Green Knight, Red Knight, and Black Knight (in each of the books, respectively), Tristan and Isolde, trolls, zombies, a dragon, elven assassins, Red Caps, griffins, gangstas, and thug life tossed in, I guess I’m putting the “urban” in urban fantasy. This isn’t your father’s King Arthur tale, but it is mine.