Nothing New Under the Sun: Reading Urban Fantasy
Let's take as a first proposition that most of what is considered contemporary fantasy, as well as work that could be called fantasy but is fitted to some other related category, gains its power from the conversion of the impossible into the possible. This transformation from one state to a second releases a burst of energy that can drive narrative forward much as the machinations of a political thriller or the questioning at the heart of a mystery drive those narratives. It is not only that the magic spell works when uttered by the wizened creature in robes, but that the spell works despite us knowing that it shouldn't.
A second proposition is derived from the first. If it is the transformation that is most important, then the more familiar we become with the impossible -- the more we feel like it is possible -- the less powerful the transformation. The distance between the two states is shortened and the released energy lessened. A creature that is neither living nor dead and that survives by feeding off the blood of those still alive is, at first, a strange impossibility made possible in story. Later, it provides the thrill of recognition -- a vampire! Then, it becomes familiar. With each step, the transformation and the effect is less.
I was thinking about the fading power of fantasy tropes, and the instances in which they shiver back to life, as I reread "Wake up...", the first volume of Kip Manley's City of Roses. Manley's fantasy is a serial being released chapter by chapter online, then in chapbook format, and then collected into volumes. The first eleven chapters were collected in "Wake up…" and the second volume, containing chapters twelve through twenty-two, is due out soon, the date yet to be determined. By the time you read this, it may already have been released.
City of Roses is an urban fantasy according to the simplest of definitions: it is a work of fantasy that takes place in an urban setting. As with any discussion of genre and sub-genre further distinctions could be made ad nauseam, but for the purposes of our discussion this basic definition will do nicely. In City of Roses, the urban setting is Portland, Oregon, and the fantasy is that of a magical court that exists within the city, hidden from those of us who live in contemporary reality. As with many other fantasies that posit a mundane world and a magic world existing side by side, City of Roses begins with a protagonist from the mundane world. Jo Maguire lives alone in a rent-assisted apartment and works in a call center that companies hire to conduct telephone surveys. She has complicated feelings about her ex-boyfriend. She wears grubby t-shirts and battered shoes. She has what is commonly known as an attitude problem.
Then, one night, she helps a woman in a bar get away from what seems like a harassing boyfriend and tumbles into the underside of Portland, where the city is split between factions of a royal court. Though Jo is our focal character, the story quickly expands into the perspectives of other characters, including a pair of sorcerers-cum-noir-detectives staking out Jo and Ysabel, the woman from the bar. This is a world of knights in tracksuits, of a giant boar roaming a freeway, of ghosts on bicycles circling a church.
This type of urban fantasy, in which fantastical elements are placed in a mundane urban environment, takes the creatures and figures traditionally associated with dark forests, crossroads at night, and the undersides of hills, and juxtaposes them with a city's coffee shops, glass skyscrapers, discount stores, and boutiques. That energizing transformation of the impossible into the possible isn't relegated to a pseudo-medieval setting that evokes the distance of the past. No, this transformation happens in the here and now and, if taken seriously, even posits that the impossible could be possible beyond the edges of the story. If Jo Maguire can stumble into a fairy court, why can't you?
But as with other fantasy tropes, urban fantasy's transformations of the impossible have become familiar and lost their edge. Genre fiction is dense with musicians, CIA agents, detectives, and others living in a world like the one we all know and share, except their neighbors are vampires, fairies, werewolves, Phouka, and others. And even before urban fantasy rose to sub-genre, its writers were working with familiar ideas carried over from other fantasies, which had been developed and revisited so many times in the context of a fantasy land that placing them in an urban setting was a shock. Manley calls out these fading powers directly on the City of Roses website, where he describes himself and his project as "yet somebody else walking up to the groaning boards of fantasy's eternal wedding feast, still laden with the cold meats from Tolkien's funeral, and cheekily joining everyone who's trying to send the whole thing smashing to the ground just to hear the noise all that crockery will make." Did I say he called out these fading powers? Rather, he tosses them into the air like confetti and dances underneath.
Let's add a third proposition, this one well-known: there is nothing new under the sun. If both this and our other two propositions are true, how can fantasy not fade away as its impossibilities become painted up in gaudy colors to hide the bags under their eyes? Kip Manley seems to have one of the answers. As I read "Wake up…", I found my cynicism undone over and over again. "Oh," my inner cynic said, "look, here's Celtic-tinged music. Here's the love triangle, with genders switched up and mixed. Here's the smart-ass protagonist getting in trouble because she's too willing to throw a verbal punch." But then Manley would whip those familiar elements into a moment rooted in idealism and hope, but with a healthy dose of life's tragedies, the entire, swirling, beautiful mess tumbling my inner cynic on her ass. It is my own battles between idealism and cynicism, I imagine, that have me rooting for the romance between Becker, the call center manager, and Pyrocles, a knight known as the Anvil, a romance complicated by Becker, each morning, forgetting everything about the fantastical world -- including Pyrocles.
Manley also eschews familiarity by keeping the exposition light. Scenes open with descriptive passages that function visually, placing the reader directly within the physical context of the moment, but without explanations of backstory or motive, a fact emphasized by Manley's deliberate use of run-on sentences and present participles to push the reader into ongoing action. We know, always, what characters are doing, but we often don't know why. These descriptions of action and place reveal Manley's appreciation for and creative use of Portland, ranging from the giant boar on the freeway to fights with swords and other weapons on street corners, in grocery stores, and on trains. One long passage late in this first volume follows a minor character to a food cart, where he borrows a pot and water to boil some stolen eggs. From the food cart, paper bag in hand, he takes a bus and then climbs a hill above the city and turns to look:
Past the dizzying fall of steps past the squared-off reservoir below past the trees and houses the street stretches away stoplights winking yellow to red, flanked on either side by more streets, more blocks fixing the gentle rumple of the land with streetlights and porch lights, storefronts and signs, the straight-lined grid in turn gentled by dark-shadowed clusters and thickets of trees, all of it lipped by a low ridge maybe thirty blocks away. Past that ridge shreds of fog lick up lighter than the clouds above, the unseen river bracketed north and south by the great arch of one bridge, the sweep of another, the cars so far away just crawling white lights and red lights…
The passage goes on into another paragraph, crescendoing with a sunrise, the whole revealing the city with the shock of the familiar made new.
And that is ultimately the answer. Fantasy tropes may fade, become familiar and tired, lose their power. Perhaps someday fantasy, itself, will do the same. But the classic cycle of myth and religion, which fantasy has taken on over and over again, isn't one of life and then death, but of life, death, and rebirth. Familiarity is a question of context: what is your world made of? As our world shifts, what is new becomes old and what is old becomes new. The elements may be the same, but the magic is in the combination.
Though stories are made by individuals and necessarily simplified as compared to the entire world, they nevertheless are knots of complexity. City of Roses is a fantasy, but like all fantasies, it gains power from more than the transformation of the impossible into the possible. It is also a story of court intrigue, in which love and affection form political ties as well as emotional ones, and characters' motivations are questioned and questionable. Alliances break or are strengthened. The hierarchy rumbles at all levels, from the queen down to the unionized workers who serve the court. Jo Maguire, the outsider, is more than an observer -- she changes the court as surely as the court changes her. Two worlds once kept separate mingle and are made new. It's an oft-told story, familiar and yet striking.
In her recent interview with The Paris Review, Ursula K. Le Guin compared working in a genre to working with a poetry form. She explained that a form "can lead you to ideas that you would not have thought up if you were working in an undefined field." It seems to me to be a question of mental resources: when you begin a work, there are an infinite number of choices to be made. Anyone faced with the multitude of information and options in the modern age would be familiar with the terror of choice. Of course, any individual writer will have interests that narrow those choices before they sit down to write. But they also have pre-defined genres and categories of writing in which those choices are made -- selections that make certain choices for them, freeing the mental space and energy to play with the others. Ultimately, this may be the answer to the fading power of what once was new: to treat it as a constraint of form, rather than formula. If the form says there must be a dinner, then have a dinner -- but feel free to listen with a grin as the crockery shatters.