Notes on Genre: Urban Faerie

One of the most lively and interesting genres in YA fiction is urban faerie – fairy tales set in cities, where the city is a vital part of the story. Drawing on elements of the adolescent problem novel, urban fiction, magical realism and the New Wave Fabulists, the genre generally eschews the more Baroque elements of typical fantasy for a grittier, more goth (as opposed to Gothic) aesthetic. Author Cassandra Clare gives a marvelous capsule description of the genre (which she calls “urban fantasy”) on her website:

“I wanted to write something that would combine elements of traditional high fantasy — an epic battle between good and evil, terrible monsters, brave heroes, enchanted swords — and recast it through a modern, urban lens. … In fairy tales, it was the dark and mysterious forest outside the town that held the magic and danger. I wanted to create a world where the city has become the forest — where these urban spaces hold their own enchantments, danger, mysteries and strange beauty.”

The genre arguably starts in the late 80s with Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat, which in 2005 was named to English Journal‘s list of the “best young adult novels of all time.” A synthesis of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the bleak 80s nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis, Block’s novels make L.A. their characters’ mystical playground. The fairy-tale elements are not explicit but rather pervade the atmosphere of the story in a way that owes more to Isabelle Allende than typical fantasy: characters with no obvious supernatural presence are described as genies and witches, and magic fizzs and bubbles around the characters as they search for love and family in L.A., giving recognizable post-punk landmarks (Oki Dog, the Whiskey, and the flat, bright expanse of Sunset Blvd.) a mystical sheen. Urban grit intrudes in the form of homophobic violence, public sex, infidelities, AIDS, and the tribulations of illegal immigration to challenge the utopian family that inhabits the core of the novels. The standout in the series, for me, is the breath-taking, heart-breaking Baby Be-Bop. Sexually frank, shockingly violent, the novel is a powerful and deeply moving coming out story that follows golden surfer boy Duck before the action of the first novel, Weetzie Bat. The novels do date themselves a bit – the too-clever made up hipster slang can be particularly grating – but Baby Be-Bop remains a compelling read and stands as an important contribution both the urban faerie genre and to YA queer fiction in general.

Currently enjoying something of a boom, urban faerie is now ubiquitous and quite popular. My favorite of the current contributors is Holly Black, who is probably best known for the wildly popular kids’ series The Spiderwick Chronicles. Her Modern Faerie Tales Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside are dark, violent, and marvelously entertaining. Black’s current projects include the graphic novel series The Good Neighbors, which pairs Black with artist Ted Naifeh, and the novel The White Cat, forthcoming in May 2010.

Two other rising stars of the genre are Melissa Marr and Cassandra Clare. Marr’s Wicked Lovely series brings faeries to a bleak Pennsylvania steel town. And Cassandra Clare’s urban fantasy Mortal Instruments series brings angels, demons, worlocks, werewolves and vampires together in the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan in an imagined universe inspired by The Inferno and Paradise Lost. While her cosmology is not as complex as Phillip Pullman’s Miltonic His Dark Materials series, neither is it as opaque and abstruse, and one needn’t have read all of Milton, Donne, and Dante to enjoy Clare’s fast-paced adventures.

A quick search in JSTOR reveals just a few articles that mention Block, and most of them from library or education journals; nothing on Black, Marr, or Clare, or the genre categories “urban faerie” or “urban fantasy,” so from a critical perspective this is a low-hanging fruit. The genre in general, and these authors in particular would be great for a sophisticated post-decontstructionist reading that avoids the ham-fisted psychoanalytic criticism that YA fiction has historically inspired. The genre, with its natural pastiche of traditional fantasy elements with contemporary settings and characters, is intrinsically postmodern, so bring on the Jameson, Lyotard, Barthes and Derrida!

Francesca Lia Block, Holly Black, Melissa Marr, and Cassandra Clare all maintain websites or blogs and Black, Marr, and Clare on Twitter.

Here’s a bibliography of the four authors I’ve mentioned here. There are tons of others out there and, like any genre fiction, it can be rather a mixed bag. Holly Black’s site has a great “Suggested Reading” page that I’ll be making a shopping list from (she’s a fan of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, which makes me like her even more!).

Urban Faerie Series:

Holly Black, Modern Tales of Faerie. Tithe, (New York, Simon Pulse, 2004), Valiant (New York: Simon Pulse, 2005), Ironside (New York: Simon Pulse, 2007).
Holly Black, The Good Neighbors: Vol. I: Kin (New York: Scholastic, 2008), Vol. II: Kith (New York: Scholastic, forthcoming 2009).
Francesca Lia Block, The Weetzie Bat Books: Weetzie Bat (1989), Witch Baby, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, Missing Angel Juan, Baby Be-Bop. All five novels are collected as Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books (New York: Harper Collins, 1998, 2007).
Cassandra Clare, The Mortal Instruments Series: City of Bones (New York: Simon Pulse, 2007), City of Ashes (New York: Simon Pulse, 2008), City of Glass (New York: Simon Pulse, 2009).
Melissa Marr: Wicked Lovely (New York: HarperTeen, 2007), Ink Exchange (New York: HarperTeen, 2008), Fragile Eternity (New York: HarperTeen, 2009).

Reference:

Don Gallo, Ted Hipple, and Jennifer L. Claiborne. “Bold Books for Teenagers: The Best Young Adult Novels of All Time, or ‘The Chocolate War’ One More Time.” The English Journal, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Jan., 2005), pp. 99-102.

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