Genre Talk, Urban Fantasy

Wizards And The City: An Introduction To Urban Fantasy

A turquoise rectangle sits in the center of a magical book, with the post title "Wizards And The City: A Short Intro To Urban Fantasy" in the center of the rectangle.

Longer ago than I care to admit, I was visiting a friend in Chicago who had started reading a new book series she thought I would like. Set in the Windy City, the books featured a wizard detective who fought against evil vampires, werewolves, and even rode a reanimated Sue the T-Rex down Michigan Avenue. I was rapidly falling in love with Chicago, and the idea of Urban Fantasy really appealed to me.

If you’re already a fan of Urban Fantasy, you probably know I’m talking about The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. It’s arguably the best-known urban fantasy series: highly successful in print, it even had a short-lived TV series based on it. It was my first foray into Urban Fantasy, and the inspiration for my upcoming book Boomtown.

If you’ve never heard of The Dresden Files and are wondering what the hell Urban Fantasy is, fear not: we’re going to get into it right now!

What is Urban Fantasy?

Photo by Chait Goli on

Simply put, Urban Fantasy is a genre where fantastical elements appear in an urban setting. The city itself plays a secondary character in the story, grounding the fantasy in a familiar setting. Even if you’ve never been to a city, you can still conjure images of skyscrapers and bustling streets filled with pedestrians and cars. A good urban fantasy story will help you build on that image in your head, allowing you to feel like you’re actually in Chicago or Atlanta or even a completly made-up city like Sarah J. Maas’ Crescent City.

Once our urban setting is established, we can add in the fantasy: wizards, fairies, werewolves, etc. Anything that you would typically find in a fantasy setting is welcome, so long as you stay grounded in the city. Originally, this meant putting the fantastical in a world that is otherwise recognizable to the reader, but as the genre has progressed we’ve seen urban fantasy go to cities in different worlds than ours but still familiar as a city we would know.

Enter Our Hero(ine)

woman with painted face wearing black dress with a hood posing on a bridge
Photo by Jordan Bergendahl on

Typically, Urban Fantasy revolves around a singular protagonist, fighting against dark forces that want the city for themselves. In recent years, that protagonist has typically been a woman who has magical powers, whether she knows it or not. The world of magic is often hidden from human society, so this protagonist is our entry point to the strange new world hidden just below the surface.

For example, The Dresden Files’s first book Storm Front quickly tells us that the world is not what it seems. After an encounter with an unbelieving mailman, Dresden says:

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pages, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there.

Harry Dresden, Storm Front BY jIM bUTCHER

We immediately know Dresden is defintely a wizard and this Chicago is very different than the usual one.

Seanan Maguire’s October Daye series is a little more subtle in introducing the magical world. During a typical conversation with her fiancé over the phone Toby does this:

Abandoning my efforts to make the mirror behave, I pulled a spray bottle full of greenish water out of the glove compartment and liberally misted the glass. Call it experience or call it intuition, but I know a good don’t-look-here spell when I fail to see it. A very good don’t-look-here spell, if I had to break it with a marsh water charm. That’s the sort of trick the purebloods disdain as being practically beneath the humans.

october daye, rosemary and rue by Seanan mCguire

Again, an everyday scene turns into the fantastical. We know quickly that we’re in for a different ride, and Toby is our touchpoint in that magical world.

The Walls Are Very Thin

book opened on white surface selective focus photography
Photo by Caio on

Much like the wall between the normal world and the fantastic runs thin in Urban Fantasy, so too do the walls between it and other genres. The genre tends to borrow a lot from hardboiled detective novels as well as the Alternate History and Cosmic Horror genres. The division between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is especially thin, with both sides borrowing from each other.

My upcoming novel, Boomtown, is an Urban Fantasy Romance rather than a Paranormal Romance because while there is a central love story, the novel also shows the impact of the magical world on society and vice-versa. Paranormal Romance tends to accept that magic is a part of the world but continues to primarily focus on the central love story. Or, as TV Tropes sarcastically points out: “a work is Urban Fantasy if it has a half-naked woman on the cover, and Paranormal Romance if it has a half-naked man on the cover.”

While that may be a ridiculous take on the genres, it does bring to light the differences in how such books are marketed (though, in an era of increasingly symbolic/illutrated covers, this is less and less the case). Paranormal Romance will stick to the Romance genre’s tropes, including the necessary Happily Ever After ending. Urban Fantasy, on the other hand, doesn’t usually end great for our protagonists; the day may be saved, but at what cost?

Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

There is so much more I could say about the Urban Fantasy genre, but I hope this has given you a taste of what the genre is about. I’ll be writing more about the genre as we get closer to Boomtown’s release date announcement, including book recommendations and issues within the genre. If you have any questions about Urban Fantasy you’d like to see answered, feel free to leave a comment or ask me on Instagram or Bluesky and I’ll answer them in my next post.

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