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Urban Fantasy is a Two Way Street: 04/14/10

Last month I was reading Un Lun Dun by China Mièville. As I got to the halfway point where the novel takes a completely new direction, I had an "aha!" moment. What sets Un Lun Dun and the other urban fantasy novels I've read apart from traditional fantasy isn't so much the setting as it is the ease of travel between the real and fantasy worlds.

In Un Lun Dun, answer to the abcity's problems lies in the city of London. When Zanna and Deeba first arrive they are told that travel between the two is difficult and dangerous. Nonetheless, they find a way home. In fact, Deeba later finds a different way back to the abcity when she realizes she can help. She even comments on how much easier it is to travel to Un Lun Dun than any of the residents think is and goes on to mention all the ways she knows how to go between the cities.

Traditional fantasy novels though have one trip from the real world to the fantasy world. The focus of the book is on a journey through the fantasy world with the goal of getting home to the real world. If there are multiple trips to this fantasy world, they are contained to separate books.

For example:

  • Alice goes to Wonderland twice, once via a rabbit hole and once via a mirror.
  • Although Oz has many points of entry, there is only one trip in per book.
  • Wendy, John and Michael Darling fly to Neverland and have to find a way to fly home after their adventures.
  • Milo goes through a Tollbooth to get to the "Lands Beyond" and spends the rest of the book exploring and trying to get home.
  • Gulliver travels to four island nations on his search for a way home. He visits each one once.

Using this criteria to divide up fantasy books into traditional and urban, the first example I can think of is Winnie the Pooh (1926). Christopher Robin has the ability to travel to and from the Hundred Acre Wood at will and goes to it and home numerous times in the book and in the sequel, The House at Pooh Corner.

Other examples of Urban Fantasy:

  • Grace goes back to her city from the alternate version three times in The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint
  • In Stardust by Neil Gaiman, the hole in the wall makes getting into Stormhold (a kingdom with in the land of Faerie) so easy that there's a guard to keep people from crossing over.
  • In Neverwhere also by Neil Gaiman, Peter Mayhew learns that there's an entirely different London existing in the same place for anyone whose willing to see it. Of course, it helps to have an opener to get around but it's not entirely necessary.
  • Coraline (another Gaiman creation) visits the Other Mother multiple times via the bricked up door.
  • In Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, Gods and Demigods live in and within close access to the mortal world. There are numbers of ways into the worlds of the gods if you know how to find them and how to see through the Mist.

Can you think of examples or counter examples? Let's talk urban fantasy!

Comments (14)

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Comment #1: Tuesday, April, 20, 2010 at 17:15:14


(Followed you here from 50bookchallege @ livejournal).

I've been wanting to read Un Lun Dun for awhile. I've not read any Mieville as of yet, and am debating whether to start with this one or The City & The City.

Another example, somewhat - Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie (and Howl, obviously) can and do enter the castle through many entrances in various cities. This includes one part of the world where the existence of magic is unknown.

Comment #2: Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 14:04:17


I don't think you can go wrong with Mieville. If you want a young adult book, go with Un Lun Dun. If you want an adult book, go with The City & The City.

Howl can move between his new world and our world. He's originally from Wales but the book isn't told from his point of view. There's certainly an element of urban fantasy but the focus of the plot isn't on the traveling between the worlds. Most of Howl's traveling is between cities in the same world. So on a gradient with urban fantasy at one end and traditional fantasy at the other, I'd put Howl's Moving Castle in the middle but closer to traditional fantasy than urban.

Comment #3: Thursday, April, 22, 2010 at 16:54:30


By that criteria the Lion the Witch and the wardrobe and the Magicians Nephew by C.S. Lewis are urban fantasy while Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the rest of the chronicles of Narnia are just fantasy.

In a bunch of urban fantasy the protagonist never leave the modern world the fantastic elements enter the "real" world, e.g. Mercedes Lackey SERRAted Edge series how does that type of urban fantasy fit in the dichotomy?

Comment #4: Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 14:19:56


The Magician's Nephew is the closet of all the Narnia books to being urban fantasy but the series as a whole has the emphasis on the adventures within Narnia rather than being an on-going dialogue between the worlds.

The Lackey series though is a good fit. Instead of travel between worlds, there's interaction, but it's definitely a mixture of real and fantasy.

Comment #5: Sunday, April, 25, 2010 at 17:37:56

Valerie Demetros

Is Terry Pratchett's Wee Free Men of this genre? There was a gate in the fields/ruins. I read it a long time ago.

Comment #6: Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 15:53:37


Good question. I haven't read Wee Free Men. But let me extrapolate with the Discworld novels I have read. First and foremost, the disc exists in a "multiverse" instead of our "universe." That implies an awareness of multiple universes or dimensions. DEATH has complained about needing a revolving door to the Netherworld because people seem to come and go as they please. There are also different pockets of reality depending on which local god is in charge (if any). The series isn't perhaps as clear cut as Un Lun Dun but in the gradient between the two extremes (if there are only two), I'd put it somewhere in the middle but approaching the urban fantasy side.

Comment #7: Sunday, April, 25, 2010 at 19:16:42

V Demetros

Wee Free Men took place here, then the kids when through a "door" and ended up in another universe, then came back at the end. There were creatures here who had come through already. I wish I was an expert on this-I'm going to read Un Lun Dun and see what it's about. Thanks

Comment #8: Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 16:36:43


If the kids go through the door once and have their adventures and then come home at the end of the book, it's traditional fantasy. If they go back and forth between the door more than once, it's urban fantasy.

Comment #9: Sunday, April, 25, 2010 at 20:07:53

V Demetros

Thank you. I don't think I ever knew that distinction. I'll have to read it again to see if they go back and forth, but I'm thinking they don't. I've been educated!

Comment #10: Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 16:39:00


I'm not sure it's an official distinction between the genres. I'm just working through my own observations and used the post to open a discussion on my hypothesis.

Comment #11: Sunday, April, 25, 2010 at 20:48:10

Pam van Hylckama Vlieg

What about Harry Potter, there are lots of entrances in and out of the wizarding world but you have to be a wizard to find them?

In The Faerie Path Tania accidentally falls in a mirror at a Tudor Castle and ends up in the parallel Faerie.

Comment #12: Monday, April 26, 2010 at 10:42:04


I'm looking more at story structure than characters' abilities to go between the worlds. In the ones I've read (and I only got to the end of book four before giving up), the structure is Harry's in the muggle world and then goes to school, has adventures at the school for that year and then goes back to the muggle world.

For The Faerie Path if Tania finds a way out of the mirror before the book ends and then goes back to the parallel world to finish whatever she had started, I'd call it urban fantasy. If she's just in the parallel world until the end of the book, where the conclusion comes near the time she finally finds her way home (or decides to stay), it's a traditionally fantasy.

Comment #13: Tuesday, April, 27, 2010 at 02:09:02


Tania is able to go back and forth through the same portal to modern day London and Faerie.

Comment #14: Monday, April 26, 2010 at 10:42:04


If she takes advantage of that ability and goes back and forth over the course of the book, then I'd call it urban fantasy. If she has the ability but doesn't use it, then I'd call it a tradtional fantasy.

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