7.1.12

Essay: Urban Fantasy vs. High Fantasy: The City Takes Over

I faintly remember a time when Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were coming out in theaters, Eragon lined the Border's shelves, and Harry Potter was still a tween. A time when Tamora Pierce revived the Tortall books and Diana Wynne Jones turned high fantasy on its head with Dalemark and Howl's Moving Castle. A time when high fantasy was a young adult and teen staple. Perhaps "staple" is a strong word. Pierce and Jones had their niche followings but were never the sensations of Rowling or even, briefly, Paolini. Harry Potter was high fantasy only at its core; instead of an otherworld, its stage was Earth. And Lord of the Rings . . . not exactly young adult, though the movie were key in attracting many young adults to read the older books.

Which raises a question: why has high fantasy struggled against its flashy urban fantasy cousin when it comes to the young adult and teen audience? I can't speak for the time before my birth, of course. But where the 90s, 00s, and early 10s are concerned (doesn't that feel weird to type), pure high fantasy has stayed pretty well away from the Young Adult shelves while high fantasy elements find new life in a modern world. Once the vampire craze died down, that is. Magic, gods, and goddesses find a home in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Angels take hold in Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. Trolls, of all things, make their debut in Trylle by former indie author Amanda Hocking. Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr has fairies (or faeries, if we must). Witches and wizards . . . need I invoke Rowling again? All staples of pure otherworld high fantasy. All set in the modern world. That's not to say that pure high fantasy for teens isn't out there. It's just not getting the kind of press that its urban counterparts are.

What is it about urban fantasy that satisfies the YA and teen audience where high fantasy doesn't? Or rather, why aren't the high fantasy books out there making the same waves that angels, demons, dystopians, and urban fantasies are? I have a few theories. First, realism. Strangely enough, urban fantasy may seem more real to teens. You could be that loser kid from New York who finds out his father is a god. You could get a letter revealing your wizard heritage (a letter I was quite disappointed not to receive at age eleven). You're not the son of a vassal to the Duke Somelandia in the magical realm of Worldplace. Maybe you could be the son of a banker who gets magically sucked into Worldplace, but even that is scarce on the shelves.

Why? High fantasy has been done. Read the lists of clichés and you hear the same things. We're sick of elves. We're sick of dwarves. We're sick of grand battles between good and evil. Experimentation with all these clichés has been big in the adult fantasy realm, but it hasn't taken root in the teen world. Another guess? Characters. Dystopian, vampires, fairies, angels. The one thing common to all these trends is character-driven books with steamy romances. Take a close look at most of the worlds and they start to fall apart, but it doesn't matter; the characters drive the story and win the hearts of young adults and teens who are lost, hormonal, and looking for some wish fulfillment. High fantasy? Well it's always had a problem with characters taking space cuts in favor of worldbuilding and exposition. You just can't make a whole new world without explaining it a little, making it real enough for your readers to live in. That takes page time. That takes reading time for teens who want something quick they can dive into immediately. Tortall is familiar in some of its fantasy tropes, but it still takes time before you understand the rules. Teens know Earth. They know large-scale tragedy. When the only new bits are the fantasy characters, you can get a little crazier without teens getting overwhelmed. That's where Trylle gets bogged down in complicated troll politics while Percy Jackson has a little leeway using characters that pop up all the time in stories and pop culture.

And when it comes down it . . . maybe people aren't writing it as much. It takes a great deal more time to invent a grand new fantasy world than to stick a few fantasy/horror stereotypes in Brooklyn. (Restate: A good, thorough grand new fantasy world.) People don't want to take the risk. Publishers don't want to see the same old Ye Olde Hero plotlines. Young adults and teens want something darker, grittier, more relatable. If high fantasy is going to make it as big as Twilight and Cassandra Clare, it's going to need a facelift.


4 comments:

  1. Some good points :) I'm not so sure about YAs wanting darker and grittier, though. I feel like that's mainly a phase. By and large most people want wish fulfillment, not things that depress them, which is why books like Twilight and Harry Potter got so successfull (IMO). I do hope that some new and awesome high fantasy comes out, though. People have been saying for ages that fantasy needs to move away from the same old tropes, and I think that's true.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! Perhaps I focus a little too much on the rash of dystopian novels when I comment on that trend. However, I feel like death is much more grisly and present in YA than it used to be, just from personal experience. Couldn't agree more on the wish fulfillment. Even the Hunger Games has a flavor of it. Hopefully high fantasy will start coming back around, now that the vamps are getting worn out.

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  2. This is a very helpful and informative article. I was recently that urban fantasy is dead from an obnoxious agent to which I responded, "Well, great, I'm not writing urban fantasy I'm writing high fantasy with a twist." This was an encouragement.

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    1. I'm glad it helped! I think urban fantasy is still very much alive, and I'm excited to see that with stuff like Throne of Glass and The Assassin's Curse, so is high fantasy!

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