Urban Fantasy: Ignoring the big question?


In a recent episode of Read It and Weep, one of the hosts criticized urban fantasy’s strange habit of ignoring what I call “the big question.”  The criticism was fairly light — being a humorous podcast and all — but it convinced me to blog about it here.

First, the big question:

Why do so few urban fantasy novels explore the spiritual, religious, and historical impacts inherent in discovering the existence of the supernatural?

This is a huge question for me, in part because it is also a little pet peeve of mine.  Some of the least interesting UF novels avoid the question altogether.  And they do it at the expense of the smidgen of realism necessary to make such a work, well, work.  If your characters go through life believing dragons and fairies and what not don’t exist, why would they suddenly buy into some relatively mundane hints to the contrary?  Even big, in-your-face hints (i.e., seemingly irrefutable evidence) would be taken by a lot of us with a grain of salt; many would assume they’ve gone completely
mad.  But most UF novels don’t bother addressing this problem.  Something weird happens; someone waltzes up and says “dragons be real”; and the disbelievers respond with “Okie dokie.”  In the real world, this would not happen, unless you magically stumbled upon the very tiny minority of folks who believe such things in our present world.  Human beings are naturally skeptical of a lot of long-since-debunked nonsense, with rare exception.

Similarly, a lot of UF novels fail to address the religious or historical aspect of the question.  A lot of UF novels are set in America with American protagonists and antagonists.  This means that it is statistically likely that the majority of these characters are believes in some version of the Christian God.  How would Christians respond to the existence of vampires?  How would that response vary depending on the denomination or the religious dedication of an individual?  One great example is Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey and its sequel, And Blue Skies From Pain, which imagines that the Fae and the fallen angels from the heavens actually exist (the novels are set in 70s Ireland).  Leicht actually explores the big question in a unique way:  making the Catholic Church part of a war with the Fae (basically); the Church responds by creating a division specifically trained to deal with the Fae, assuming they are all part of the Fallen (angels who led the rebellion against God and were cast out of heaven), thereby keeping the gears of their religion intact and providing the Church a rationale for its power structures.  It’s a clever bit of worldbuilding.

For me, the failure to address this problem from both sides (the impact of knowledge and the natural inclination for calling B.S. on stuff that lies outside contemporary belief systems) creates a shitty book.  You’re already asking me to suspend my disbelief to buy into a world where dragons and vampires and werewolves actually exist, a leap that requires me to shut off parts of my brain to enjoy the ride.  But when your characters can’t be bothered to question, as most of us would question in the real world, the events around them, you’re basically saying “Eh, whatever.”  It’s lazy and it makes for bad characterization.

There are probably a lot of exceptions, though.  Great UF books.  Great UF writers.  And so I’d like to ask everyone this:  Which urban fantasy novels actually take the “big question” head on?

Suggestions welcome in the comments.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

11 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy: Ignoring the big question?

  1. Religion (or lack thereof) is a major part of most people's lives. Whenever it is ignored in any sort of story, that story looses a little reality; a little failure. Most of these primary world fantasies (I prefer to use the term urban fantasy for secondary world fantasy cities such as King's Landing, New Crobuzon, etc) don't deal with much besides beating the supernatural baddies. It's definitely possible (and would be welcome) if popular works explored tough subjects, but I doubt it'll happen.

  2. Eh. I don't mind if science fiction set in the distant future completely ignores religion, but that's because the trend of the future is towards progressive secularism. The more advanced we become and the more we know, the less outwardly religious people become. Not in the U.S., of course. We're as fundamentalist as the people we hate.

  3. Jim Butcher does this well, I think (again involving the Catholic Church). In his world, most people don't believe, and normals like the main character's friend the police lieutenant have to see a lot of strange stuff before they believe. Most of the force, at least early on, think the main character is a charlatan because he calls himself a wizard.

    The Walker Papers by Catie Murphy does similar stuff. And in the Kitty Norville novels by Carrie Vaughan, where some of the supernaturals are "out", there's space given to the various reactions that people have to that, including the fundamentalist religious one.

  4. I'm commenting here because I don't want Myke Cole to get hurt. It's all about protecting him. Because, you know, he needs *me* to protect him. And stuff. πŸ˜‰

    One minor correction: I didn't create the Catholic Church's stance on the Fey. That pre-dates my writing by… well… quite a few years. They categorize the Fey (and basically all other spiritual entities that don't conform to Christian norms) as fallen angels and/or demons. (As, I assume, any Christian church would. To do otherwise would lead to admitting the validity of other belief systems.) My made up organization is designed to combat fallen angels. They fight the Fey because they consider them to be a subset of fallen angels. πŸ™‚ Nit-picky. I know.

  5. While I'm totally okay with an atheist character in a novel, not all characters will be. I also think that by including things such as religion and history, authors can ground the story more in the "real world" and make it easier for the reader to "suspend disbelief". Perhaps some authors exclude things like this out of fear of offending someone. For example, some people might be offended by the pro-wiccan stance of Forever Girl, especially as in parts it's juxtaposed with "Christian's" that aren't painted in the most positive light. Though there's some sensitivity later in the story that made it more comfortable for some readers, other readers were outraged. Some people really don't like religion to be addressed in fiction, or, if it is addressed, they want to see what they are comfortable with. The majority of people are comfortable with Christianity, so when we do see religion in fiction, we often see that or Catholicism. Some authors "play it safe" by staying "religion-neutral". Everyone is so worried about being "PC" these days, that sometimes we take resonance and realism right out of a story. Great post.

  6. I think the problem people have with religion in fiction is that it will be preachy (or taken with full condemnation). Stories always have messages, but I agree with a lot of folks that I don't want to feel like I'm reading some kind of morality tale.

    Thanks for the comment!

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