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.