Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What Is Urban Fantasy?

By Kate McMurry

Many reviewers and publishers use the term "urban fantasy" (UF) to describe a book set in our recognizable, modern world if it has any amount of fantasy elements inserted in the story. I personally don't consider that a book merits the descriptor, UF, unless there is an extensive amount of magical world-building. In most books that I consider true UF, a magical universe exists side-by-side with the normal, modern world. The story's magical creatures purposely keep their world, in varying degrees, hidden from ordinary humans in order to avoid constant battles with frightened, angry mortals. In such stories, humans also consciously and unconsciously collude to keep the existence of the magical creatures secret in this manner: When magical events impinge on the mundane world, if the humans directly involved don't refuse, on their own, to believe anything magical could possibly have happened to them, authority figures such as police, spy agencies, the military, and politicians intervene. They use lies and, if necessary, force, to cover-up magic's existence, their standard excuse being, "to avoid chaos."

In UF, two crucial sources of conflict occur in virtually every story, secrets and lies. These are, of course, staples in every genre of fiction, but they have these unique twists in UF:

(1) The protagonist carelessly, or because she/he has no other choice to protect others from harm, displays magic in front of humans and gets into major trouble for it with magical-world authority figures, as in Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins. (2) The protagonist is forced to deal with the fallout of magical villains carelessly or purposefully causing damage to humans with their magic, which occurs throughout the Harry Potter series. (3) The protagonist is either part of or closely connected to a species of magical creatures who have recently "come out of the closet," allowing humans to know that they exist. The magical creatures are struggling to construct a d├ętente with humans in the midst of many humans trying to wipe them off the face of the planet. Famous non-YA examples of this are the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris and Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson series. (4) In UF stories which focus almost entirely on magical beings, with the only non-magical humans existing as relatives, friends, or employers of magical creatures, the main focus in the story is often a power struggle between warring factions within the magical world. Examples of this include the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher in adult UF, and in YA UF such series as Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, the Svatura by Abigail Owen, and the Witch duology by Carolyn MacCullough.

The tone of UF is usually dark, and if they start out funny, they usually end up grim, as does the Hex Hall series mentioned above. One rare example of a YA UF that is comic in tone throughout is Oh. My. Gods. by Tera Lynn Childs.

When a story is set in our recognizable, modern world but magic intrudes in a limited way, reviewers and publishers often use the generic labels "paranormal" or "fantasy" to describe them rather than UF. By limited magic I mean that there is only one type of magic in the book. For example, the heroine sees one or more ghosts (Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough), or she encounters something or someone magical which/who grants her wishes (Wish by Alexandra Bullen, My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison, Coffeehouse Angel by Suzanne Selfors, As You Wish by Jackson Pearce), or she gets struck by lightning and now has a magical power she did not have before (1-800-Where-R-You by Meg Cabot, and the adult Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris). All of these examples are set in the recognizable present and, thus, each is a "contemporary paranormal/fantasy."

When a paranormal/fantasy is set in any period of the recognizable, historical past other than medieval times (the classic setting for "sword and sorcery" and "epic" fantasy), it is a "historical paranormal/fantasy"--except when the magic involves an a-historical form of technology. In that case, the term most often used to describe it is "steampunk," for example, the YA series The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare. An example of a YA historical paranormal series is Poison Diaries by Maryrose Wood. An example of YA sword-and-sorcery is the Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore.

What I personally enjoy most in UF, along with great world building, is a protagonist who is committed and loyal in his/her personal relationships. I believe this quality is absolutely essential for a great UF book for this reason: In any kind of action/adventure story, which most UF is, the protagonist needs to be both sympathetic (a decent person), empathetic (taking actions which are well-motivated and relatable), and above all, active (vs. listless and passive). Something that accomplishes all three in one fell swoop is to make the protagonist a terrific best friend and/or loyal mate or family member who will stop at nothing to protect, defend and rescue people (or magical creatures) she/he cares about. In addition, this type of protagonist will never stand by and let a bully prey on someone weaker, and if the weaker one is a child, look out! The protagonist will "charge hell with a bucket of water," as the saying goes, in order to save that child from harm.

This kind of protagonist inevitably, as a UF series progresses, gains an ever-growing network of magically powerful friends who owe the protagonist big time for saving their lives. Often, the protagonist will call in those favors not for him/herself, but for someone else the protagonist cares deeply about whose life is in danger. This serves to create a continuing thread of never-ending, dramatic action and over time builds the protagonist's appeal—both to readers and characters within the books of the series—to near mythic stature as a noble, sympathetic hero.

Two adult UF authors who accomplish this hero requirement in spades are Jim Butcher in the Dresden Files and Patricia Briggs in her Mercy Thompson series and Alpha & Omega series. The YA Raised by Wolves series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes does a very good job of that as well.

Another segment of the science fiction/fantasy market is the dystopian. This is a subgenre of science fiction because of the way the world building is done. The UF world is filled with magical creatures. Dystopians are set in apocalyptic futures where the protagonist lives in a burned-out landscape littered with the dregs of advanced technology. The protagonist is resourceful and often employs a mixture of pre-industrial survivalist skills in combination with the ability to jury-rig remnants of advanced technology from the destroyed civilization of the past. An example of this is the YA dystopian Vulture's Wake by Kirsty Murray and, of course, the most famous YA dystopian series of all, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins.

Though the dystopian world is different than that of UF, because dystopians, like UF, almost always have action/adventure plots, they have the same primary requirement for ultimate success as UF: a high-caliber protagonist as described above. I believe The Hunger Games series is a massive bestseller because the heroine is exactly that kind of protagonist.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Dearly, Beloved (Gone With the Respiration, #2) by Lia Habel

Dearly Beloved
Exciting book 2 in a steampunk, dystopian trilogy

Dearly, Beloved (Gone With the Respiration, #2) by Lia Habel

Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 496
Source: Amazon Vine
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

This book is the sequel to Dearly Departed (Gone with the Respiration #1) by Lia Habel. It is book 2 in a dystopian trilogy, pitched by the publisher as "steampunk romance meets zombie thriller." The publishers also bill this book as a story of "star-crossed lovers," which it certainly is. You don't get a much bigger romantic conflict than that the male lead is suffering from "the Laz," a disease that is slowly turning him into a zombie, one of the "walking dead." I myself view this series as "Beauty and the Beast" meets steampunk meets zombie apocalypse.

This story takes place in 2195. A hundred and fifty years prior, the Americas endured a civilization-crushing convergence of man-made and natural disasters, including plagues, volcanic eruptions, rising seas and a civil war in the U.S. in which both sides nuked each other. The small fraction of survivors in North and Central America surged as displaced refugees far into South America and warred with its inhabitants for control of their land and natural resources. Years later, the victors, many of whom were presumably native speakers of Spanish and Portuguese, decided along with their English-speaking compatriots that the most desirable society to form out of the rubble of a destroyed world would be an English-speaking one that reinstated the customs of Victorian England of the late nineteenth century, including hot, cumbersome clothing worn in a tropical climate and a highly stratified social order. They chose to emulate this time and place in history because they admired its "conservative" values--with the notable exceptions that lesbianism (and presumably male homosexuality) were not frowned upon, and little girls were allowed to play, unchaperoned, with little boys who were not members of their family.

In book 1, Nora Dearly, who is somehow immune to the Laz, the infection that creates zombies, was kidnapped by non-evil zombies, led by her father, whom she had thought was dead but is alive and leading the zombies. She also fell in love with a young zombie, Bram (Abraham) Griswold, a captain in a zombie company called, naturally enough, company Z. This book continues a couple of months after the previous book. New London has endured a zombie plague and been forced to realize that people can survive the disease and retain their intelligence and moral compass. A vaccine against the Laz seems to work, but unfortunately a new strain has emerged. In addition, Nora is threatened by a rejected suitor; her best friend is in danger, and she is dealing with the social reality of dating a zombie.

There is no sexual activity in this story (much as in Twilight) because it is dangerous to Nora to exchange bodily fluids (much like AIDS) with Bram. This forces the author to create a strong romance entirely based on unconsummated sexual tension--not a bad thing at all.

This story is told from multiple points of view, but there is no confusion because chapter headings make clear whose head we are in. I personally enjoy having various perspectives to broaden the story. There is mystery, action, and strong romance--something for readers of all ages.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 4

Hero (Bram): 4

Subcharacters: 4

Fantasy World-Building: 3

Writing: 5

Action-Adventure Plot: 4

Romantic Subplot: 3

Overall: 4