Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part II: When Things Go Wrong

January 6, 2009

Because urban fantasy tends to follow a common formula, we see the same things over and over. A book gets judged by how well it uses common tropes. Or how badly.

When the formula takes center stage rather than serving as a framework, the story ends up being a jumble of pieces, parts of the formula lined up in a row as if marked off on a checklist with no depth or meaning, no coherent story to support them. Character motivation falls apart. What were once acceptable parts of the formula become annoyances.

Which brings me to my pet peeve list. Things I see over and over, whether or not they have anything to do with the story. Not all current urban fantasy novels have these traits. Some of them don’t have any. But when I do encounter them, it’s a big red flag, because I’ve seen them so many times before.

I expect this list to get me in trouble. Someone will call me a traitor to the genre. Someone will try to name what specific books I’m talking about and will run back to those authors to tell on me. I expect a bunch of comments from people telling me how the Kitty books violate my own pet peeves. But I’m posting this anyway. C’est la internet.

1.  The label urban fantasy. 15 years ago, urban fantasy was what we called stuff like Charles DeLint and the Borderlands series and all those rock ‘n’ roll elf stories. There was a whole other group of just plain vampire novels. Stuff like Tanya Huff’s “Blood” series, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and P.N. Elrod. About 3-4 years ago, the label started getting used by marketing folks for “books with a kick ass heroine, vampires and/or werewolves in something resembling the real world, usually with lots of hot sex, and a cover showing the backside of a leather-clad woman with a tramp stamp.” Count the tramp stamps. On the other hand, I don’t know what to call this stuff. Bit lit (you know, like chick lit but with vampires? Harhar.) was proposed and thankfully seems to have died. Paranormal fiction. Paranormal romance. Supernatural fiction. Supernatural is actually the one I’ve been leaning toward, since romance writers use paranormal to describe anything that’s science fiction or fantasy.

2.  The tramp stamps on the covers. This is that tattoo on the small of the back that low-rise jeans seem specifically designed to show off. This pisses me off because tattoos as a symbol of alternative lifestyles and/or rebellion have been co-opted by the mainstream to such an extent they don’t really mean anything anymore, except to tell readers, “Hey! Sexy kick-ass lady here!” Also, covers that show naked female body parts. (I’m happy with the Kitty covers because you get to see an entire woman, instead of just naked bits. Also, Kitty doesn’t have a tattoo. I’d have told you if she did.) Kudos go out to the authors who are starting to make tattoos a part of their stories.

3.  The kick-ass heroine straps stiletto blades to her forearms — strike one! She does it in the first chapter — strike two! She never actually uses the stiletto blades — three strikes, you’re out! I think this pisses me off so much because stilettos strapped to forearms are not a very practical choice of weapon. Rather, it’s a badge that says, “Look at me, look at how kick ass I am!” Honey, if you have to TELL everyone you’re a kick-ass heroine, well…

4.  When a novel includes transgressive sex that isn’t really necessary for the plot, and is only there to make the book seem edgy. What gets me about this is it’s not really edgy because when it’s not necessary for the plot, the reader isn’t invited to engage with the transgressive sex, to imagine themselves as active participants and thereby make the whole thing uncomfortable and eye-opening and interesting. The reader is just there to watch and go “ooh.” This is called voyeurism, which is the only real sexual kink some of these books are engaged in.

5.  The novel mistakes the ability to inflict violence for strength. There comes a point where the ability to inflict violence — and the downright glee in doing so — doesn’t make you strong, it makes you a bully. Some of these kick-ass heroines are actually bullies, and not very much fun to spend time with.

Corollary #1: The heroine isn’t really a powerful, confident kick-ass heroine. She’s a woman who uses aggression and violence to mask a variety of dysfunctions, insecurities, and stereotypical low self-esteem issues, like believing she doesn’t deserve a nice boyfriend because he’s too good for her. In fact, one of the warning signs of domestic violence is the victim’s belief that her abusive significant other is too good for her and she deserves the abuse. I’m just waiting for the nervous breakdowns to start. Maybe we can have a whole anthology of kick-ass heroines going through nervous breakdowns.

Corollary #2: There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of character. Flawed heroes, including the flawed heroine who uses violence to mask her dysfunctions, are fascinating. What I don’t like is when these characters are presented as idealized heroines, better than everyone else around them, and the only capable character in the book. Their aggression excuses their dysfunctions rather than explains them. Um, not.

6.  The book has a strong woman character. But only one. You’d think a genre that supposedly celebrates kick-ass women ought to be able to have more than one per series. You’d think a genre that’s supposed to be all about empowering women would be able to pass the Bechdel Test more often. The test: The story in question has 1) at least two women, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than men.

7.  When the heroine is insecure about her appearance and ability to attract men, and talks about this by comparing herself to her best friend who is a blond bombshell. You would be amazed how often this happens in these books. I take this one personally, for obvious reasons (I am, in fact, blond). “Blond” seems to be a code word in some of these books for “not the heroine.” Or even, in at least one book, not that I’m going to name names or anything, “bimbo.”

Corollary: The heroine is insecure about her appearance and ability to attract men. And yet every guy she meets in the whole damn book falls over himself trying to get her into bed. I mean, does this sort of thing ever really happen? There’s definitely an element of fantasy to wanting every guy you meet to get you into bed, I totally understand the appeal of that. But when coupled with the “I’m so homely and just got dumped and didn’t go to prom etc.” rhetoric, it smacks of protesting too much.

8.  The movie Underworld. The whole damn thing. My favorite review of Underworld includes the line, “The Vampires sit around having parties that look exactly like those live action role playing events you see at every sci/fi, fantasy or movie convention, but without all the rock, paper, scissors.

9. Stories that take place in the “real world” that don’t actually have anything to do with the real world. As in, the world they’re in sure doesn’t look much like the world I’m in. No politics, no pop culture, no current events, no day jobs, no families, no relevance, nothing.

10. Metrosexual alpha males. I don’t know how else to describe this. You know, the male romantic leads who are hot, manly, romantic, snappy dressers. They shower regularly. They’re totally built. Rich. Good cooks. Did I mention hot? Ready to come to the heroine’s rescue and dominate her in totally hot sex. (Because kick-ass heroines love being dominated in bed, the one place they can let go of the rigid control that pervades the rest of their lives. Right? Right?) And yet sensitive enough to express their true feelings. They’re usually vampires. All I can say is Lord Byron has a lot to answer for. Now, if these guys could do all that and still come across as actual real people, I wouldn’t have a problem with them. As it stands, they’re usually played by Fabio.

Whew. I’ve been wanting to get all that off my chest for a long time.

This is all meant to be observational rather than judgmental (okay, maybe a little judgmental), which is why I avoided specific textual examples (like a good English major would have given).  This can all be turned around to my own work easily enough.  What’s revealing to me:  I think many of my pet peeves are symptoms of a deeper issue.  Which brings us to Part III tomorrow:  Deconstructing Urban Fantasy.


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57 Responses to “Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part II: When Things Go Wrong”

  1. Kat Says:

    I read both parts one and two together. I’m looking forward to part three. It was very interesting!

  2. Jenn Says:

    Got to agree with your pet peeves quite a bit. The overall formulas and the dysfunctions of the women in these books are part of the reason I look to gothic stuff for explanations.

    And I, at least, am not going to pick at you for lack of examples. You’re right that it would turn your blog into a battleground for fans of different authors, which misses the point. Besides, it’s a blog, not a term paper. 🙂

    I continue to be curious about what you think it all means, because really, that’s my favorite part.

  3. Marissa Says:

    You’ve nailed every peeve I’ve ever had right on the head. And you’ve phrased so much better than I ever could (or will).

  4. Amber Says:

    It appears that Kitty does have a tramp stamp as well as an upper back tattoo, unless that’s not Kitty on the cover of “Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand.” What’s up with that?

  5. Denise Says:

    I know what you mean, i also hate when the sex takes over for plot with nothing else to show for. might as well get porn.
    and i love you books but i still had to laugh when you mentioned the tramp stamp on the cover and right next to that i see the cover of ‘Kitty and the dead man’s hand’ sorry it just struck me funny. made you wonder about your reaction when you saw the cover.

  6. Westly Says:

    Heh,

    I write urban fantasy from a male perspective… (I mostly online roleplay, but I’m beginning to condense some of it down into some books, which, people are actually enjoying reading…o.O)

    And…you’ve really, really nailed a lot of the things that’ll make me roll my eyes and feed a book to my friend.

    Another thing I really, really despise in a series is when a character ceases to be ‘human’ (even if they’re some sort of ‘other’) and just becomes, what we call in the fancy world of Internet Role Play, is a GodModer. This person can simply do anything. They’re the Queen of all the Vampires, Alpha of all the werewolves, High Priestess of All the Witches, the most powerful this, the most interesting that, and even though they’re a ‘plane jane’ every supernaturally hot man is tearing at the other supernaturally hot men, in some oiled up sweaty fangy brawl, to get into her pants, for no other reason than..

    uh…she’s the main character?

    Please, give me character development, a strong plotline that isn’t “I’m so sexy I’m so powerful, I’m so wonderful, I’m the SPIRIT OF ALL WOMEN RAWR! Oh, I seem to have stepped in some plot on my way to make hot heavy love to one of the guys in my appointment book…”

    No thanks. I’ll take heavy characterization as opposed to .. well, the above listed.

    -Westly, who DOES role play as a vampire, but an adorable one, with many flaws, who’s best defense isn’t his fangs and claws, but his ability to run away really fast.

  7. Kristen Says:

    Wow, I feel so much better about the UF I’m writing now! I think I’ve avoided all these. Great posts, btw.

  8. Ling Says:

    I have the same problems with a lot of these urban fantasy series too. I’ve started and never finished a bunch of books because the supposed kick-ass heroine isn’t so much kick-ass.

    And I’ve got a tramp stamp. When am I going to be on a book cover?!

  9. MC Halliday Says:

    “…romance writers use paranormal to describe anything that’s science fiction or fantasy.”

    Not me! I pen Fantasy Romance. Historically based, genre flip-flopping, plot twisting tales of magic and mayhem.

    The subgenre ‘Paranormal Romance’ would seem indicative of contemporary work.

  10. Catherine Says:

    Thank you for mentioning the friend issue. That and the fact that every heroine in urban fantasy is in her mid-twenties are two of my pet peeves. Oh, and layered super powers, too. It isn’t enough that she’s a werewolf/vampire/fairy, she has to be able to commune with the dead. Oh, and she can feel emotions. And there’s a new add-on every book.

  11. Chris Says:

    Oh man – the cover art just kills me, with the tattoos. I think the ones that bother me most are the Mercy Thompson covers – Mercy has a pawprint tattoo on her stomach. That’s it. Very clear in the books. Hmm – then who IS that heavily tattooed woman on the cover?!

  12. Gillian Says:

    Right on, Catherine! New book = new superpower (shudder). Yes, while I understand you need to progress your main chracter over a series of books, it doesn’t necessarily need to be done through add-on superpowers. That gets old really fast.

    Strong female characters would probably only ever tolerate other strong characters and there are more of them out there than some books would lead you to believe. No man is an island, as it were.

    One concept I can’t understand is lack of confidence in a kick-ass heroine. Aren’t they a contradiction in terms? Take a look at your average female cop or soldier. Sure, sometimes they may feel like they could tone up or lose a few pounds, but that has more to do with their job performance than any kind self-depreciation or self-doubt. You cannot do those jobs if you start second guessing yourself and your belief in your abilities or what you are. And considering the heroines in urban fantasy are, essentially, soldiers whether they are part of a government organisation, private company or lone wolves (so-to-speak), they need to just get the jobs done as effectively and efficiently as possible. Emotionally weak heroines in these books give me the irrates.

    I agree with you, Carrie on tramp stamps or tattoos on covers in general: big deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if one in four people will have at least one tattoo, and not always somewhere visible. Tattoos are no longer indicative of an alternative lifestyle. They’re just like piercing your ears or whatever.

    Hope you had an excellent Christmas and new year and I’m looking forward to reading part three.

  13. Trai Says:

    I actually think the tramp stamp on the Midnight Hour cover was what made me notice it? I can’t exactly recall, haha, but there was something about the butt cover that made me want to check out the book. (Thank God.)

    I found it amusing that they included Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking in their list of butt covers. I vividly recall my mother ogling the cover (with its denim-clad butt with handcuffs through the belt loop), and asking me what, exactly, I was planning to buy. 😀

    I actually really liked Underworld when I first saw it four or five years ago, but I have a feeling that if I go back to it now, I’d find it dreadful. As much as I love Bill Nighy, I’m not touching the new sequel with a thirty-foot pole.

    I definitely agree with the aggressive female suddenly allowing herself to be dominated in sex. Huh? It’s a complete turnaround. The insecure female is another big one, too– it’s part of what bothers me so much about Twilight. She keeps telling herself she’s nothing special, and yet every guy in… hell, all of Washington, practically, is hitting on her.

  14. carriev Says:

    Wow, so many comments, so little time!

    The covers all look the same because publishers’ marketing departments have noticed that they sell. Tramp stamps sell. I can’t explain it.

    I have been fortunate in my life that I’ve known many strong, accomplished women: cops, scientists, you name it. They don’t act like a lot of the women in these books.

    Jenn, I hadn’t thought of drawing a line between some of these issues and gothic tropes. It kind of makes me sad that we’re still dealing with the same issues.

    Oh, I just had a terrible (i.e. someone else should do it) idea. Would anyone out there who really does have a tramp stamp like to start recreating some of these covers and taking pictures? There’s a website waiting to happen…

  15. Dan Says:

    Hey Carrie! I just got done reading Midnight Hour myself. Two days. Damned good stuff. I was about to comment on the tramp stamp I noticed on the cover when you brought that up just now. I honestly didn’t even notice the cover myself, I just… well, was excited about the content itself.

    Touching on the sex thing, I have to compliment you on your writing. A lot. Mostly with the pack dynamics in the book (keep in mind, if things change, I’ve only read the first one as of this comment). It was a strange relationship, and could have easily devolved into a cheap excuse for some S&M style scenes and stuff, but you kept it tasteful and in context. Way to go. 🙂

    Meg’s a bitch though.

    And I miss T.J.

    Anyways, thanks for writing these, and keep it up! I hope I don’t burn through these rest TOO quickly, but at least I have Devil’s Hand and Raises Hell coming down the pipe soon.

    Happy New Year!

  16. Dan Says:

    Dead Man’s Hand* Sorry.

  17. Adam. Says:

    There’s another, more descriptive, term for what you call a “tramp stamp” that I think I heard from an Australian…

    “Arse Antlers”

    Noone ever accused an Australian of being subtle.

  18. Rae Says:

    Beautiful post, Carrie! Refreshing to hear it recognized by others. I noticed a lot of these offenses in the genre which have turned me off it a bit and made me miss Contemp. Fantasy. I especially agree with your note that most of them take place in the ‘real world’ but not many real world things happen, unfortunately.

    I wondered if a lot of the sameness has to do with the marketing department and the way the industry likes to pigeonhole things. Thanks for mentioning that as well, it’s kind of a bummer though. 😦 I’ll have to dash back and take a look at your analysis in part 1. Look forward to reading part 3 and I can’t wait to dive into your series (it’s in my tbr pile waiting for me to devour it! :-D)

    Take care!

  19. Lianne Says:

    You named all the reasons why I avoid about 95% of the Paranormal genre (which I differentiate from the more classical Urban Fantasy, being a huge Charles de Lint fan, among other writers). I make exceptions for books that are either by writers I’ve already read, or where something grabs my attention.

    And to be honest, the covers don’t help. They are all so… similar. I’ve gotten to the point that I barely even see the books with the night scene, the woman’s backside, leather, and weapons. You can barely tell them apart, so why bother looking any closer?

    Frankly, if it weren’t for the interview with Adventures in SciFi Publishing, I probably would have passed by your books as just another in the crowd of Laurell K Hamilton imitators (I blame her, and even though the first few books were fun, I don’t even read her anymore). But your interview with Shaun Farrell sounded interesting enough to send me looking for Midnight Hour, which I really enjoyed. I’ve stuck around since then.

  20. Nonny Says:

    Brilliant, Carrie, absolutely brilliant!


  21. […] with Deconstructing Urban Fantasy.  As a recap, Carrie has already shared with us her views on When Things Go Wrong and […]

  22. Amanda Says:

    The ever-increasing superpowers thing seems to me to be similar to the “encrustation” I’ve noticed in mystery novel series: every book adds a character or more, and after several books, managing the infrastructure detracts from having a nifty plot.

    I am pleased that the Kitty novels have not done this.


  23. […] Best. Post. Ever. Published in: […]

  24. Stacia Kane Says:

    Oh, I love these! I am a big fan of violence in books and movies, but I draw the line when we begin to love and cheer on attitudes and behaviors from heroines which we would consider to be at best barbaric and at worst psychotic from a male character. When did it become not just acceptable but charming and cool for female characters in books to run around acting like possessive, abusive jerks? To behave as though their boyfriends or friends aren’t permitted to speak to other people, or spend time alone, or have a life outside their relationship or friendship? To behave abhorrently toward people, to close their minds? If it was a male character people would be bringing out the torches, but because it’s a female we’re all supposed to cheer and think she’s just great? It really bothers me. I like my heroines a little less tough physically and a little more tough and rational mentally.

    I admit you scared me at first mentioning tattoos, though, as my Del Rey heroine is covered with them; they’re part of her job. But she does not have a tramp stamp. 🙂

    Thanks for a great post!


  25. […] When things go wrong with urban fantasy. Great little article/rant. […]

  26. Paul Jessup Says:

    #5 is actually the reason why I dislike Marla Mason from T.A. Pratt’s books (Blood Engines, etc). I love the books for their imagination, but her character just feels like an abusive jerk. A bully.


  27. Found my way here through Swivetfeed–loved the articles! I found myself mentally checking through my current mss (not UF, although close). Whew…I think I’m okay. I’ll definitely look for your books!

  28. james Says:

    good post, I like the three parts. But just so you know your heroine tottally has a trampstamp on the cover of Dead Mans Hands.

    LOL.

  29. carriev Says:

    You know, lots of people have mentioned the tramp stamp on my covers. And yes, I noticed. But you do know that authors don’t decide what goes on the covers, right?

  30. james Says:

    Yep, It was only humorous because of this thing you said:
    “(I’m happy with the Kitty covers because you get to see an entire woman, instead of just naked bits. Also, Kitty doesn’t have a tattoo. I’d have told you if she did.) ”

    That’s all.

    Just good natured ribbing.

  31. carriev Says:

    That’s cool. It’s something I get asked a lot: “Does Kitty have a tattoo?” And according to the actual books, she doesn’t. In fact, one of these days I’m going to work it into a story how werewolf superimmunity actually causes skin to reject tattoos…


  32. Very entertaining and insightful post, Carrie. Your analysis points to how great stories are more than just the sum of their parts.

    I also would like to add that it’s more the marketing departments that use paranormal to describe blends of romance and fantasy or romance and science fiction.

    Readers and authors use terms like fantasy romance or science fiction romance.

  33. easol Says:

    Ohhhhh, the tramp stamp. I hate the tramp stamp and the colored body parts, especially since male characters/authors don’t get the same treatment (do I see Charles de Lint having to put seminude people on his covers?!).

    Unfortunately I think it’s become par for the course, and it’ll take something major to prove that a good urban fantasy doesn’t need it to sell.

    I like the Kitty covers, because she’s the second most clothed urban fantasy woman I’ve seen.

    #3: I hate this with a passion.

    #4: I hate this even more.

    #5,6,7: You’ve suffered through Anita Blake books, huh?

    #8: Oh thank God. I thought I was the only one in the universe whose skin crawled (and not in a shapeshifty way) at that movie. Bleargh.

    #9: Again, I hate.

    #10: I wish someone would write an urban fantasy spoof where Count Dracula barges on through and kicks all these sensitive metrosexual guys’ leather-clad bottoms.

    Once again, awesome analysis.

  34. denelian Says:

    i think you may have missed something that *I* think sums all of this up.

    why is it that most of the female leads in these books end up saying something like “Now, i my be able to kick ass, but i’m not a feminist”, or even “i’m not a feminist, and think that i am equal to men but most women aren’t”
    those are NOT specific quotes, but rather a summation of attituds in many UF books. i LIKE the books, in general (there are some i love, and some i hate, what i mean is i like the genre) but i REALLYREALLYREALLY hate this trend. these books are able to shape culture to some extent (and this is why i HATE the Twilight series – it is aimed at teens, read by hordes of teens, and teaches them anti-feminism is somehow cool. grrrrrrr.)
    i think this trend really covers most of your points – which are REALLY good points, btw, and i enjoyed both posts 🙂 i’m about to read the third. thank you for this.
    p.s. the extra irony is that my friend just recommend your books to me yesterday, and i had just this morning order the first – i haven’t received it yet, obviously but am looking forward to it. that i was caused me to find these posts.


  35. […] Two: When Things Go Wrong (Pay careful attention to Item […]

  36. Judith Says:

    @Chris — The Mercy covers started out as an error/miscommunication and then continued on as an in-joke, if I remember correctly. (The tats are different from book to book, and signify important bits of the plot. ^___^)

    Excellent list, and all too true. Which means I’m going to need to check out some Carrie Vaughn novels, now. (I can deal with a certain amount of trainwreck in my films, for laughs, but a book takes up more than two hours of one’s life, y’know?)

  37. Will May Be Wise Says:

    I was just going to comment on number 9 (so you may just want to skip to that) but then I started typing, and thinking…
    1) My peeve? Where’s the kick-arse manly men? Don’t get me wrong, my favourite TV genre character is probably Dana Scully… or Aeryn Sun. Either way, I like strong female characters. However, in the best sellers lists, the only strong male characters seem to be the ones playing second fiddle in what the publishers call “Urban Fantasy”, or being manly military SF men…
    2) This “branding” of Urban Fantasy (and books in general) actually puts me off buying books. I know there are good and bad authors in every genre, but when you pick up what sounds like a supernatural detective story, and find too many times that the plot takes a back seat to clumsy world building, furry sex or (insert pet peeve here), the branding back-fires. I don’t buy a book with this branding unless I’ve been given positive feedback. (incidentally, I purchased the first book because someone Carrie went to university with at York recommended it)
    Related to this (though not dealing directly with this genre) is my pet peeve the cover of books trying to sell the contents by depicting something that doesn’t happen in the book! I know the old aphorism “never judge a book by it cover” but I still get annoyed when the scene on the front cover is nowhere to be found inside. At least with chicklit (which is my partner’s guilty pleasure, and I have been known to read) the covers are sufficiently abstract and pastel not to inspire a whimsical sigh when I close the book upon finishing and gaze on a scene of which I’d really like to have known the context…
    3) Okay, these are a bit of a cliché, but is it the forearm sheaths that are the problem (including the grip, it means nothing longer than about nine inches could be hidden there) or the stilettos? Because a sharp pointy high-silver content metal spike (not a blade!) would be very handy in certain situations. If a silver bullet through the brain kills a werewolf, stabbing a silver spike through one of the gaps in the skull (the paranormal skull being to thick to get through, yersee) left for the eyes and eyes would be as effective… The main difference being a calm 100 yards distance, or a screaming panicking (and possibly dying) few inches!

    Plus a fancy knitting needle to large hat pin would be just as effective (though not as kick arse) – not my idea, Terry Pratchett’s witches use them…

    What my pet peeve about this bit is the amount of hidden metal weapons they accrue and strap on. Granted, here’s where supernatural strength comes in handy, but inertia is a terrible thing. Ultimately you canna break the laws of physics, only bend them a bit. Otherwise the reader’s suspension of disbelief is broken, and they stop enjoying the book. In Terry Prachett’s “Pyramids”, the protagonist Teppic tries to prepare for every eventuality… I can’t hope to compete with Mr Pratchett’s prose, so I refer you to that piece of comedy (page nine on my copy) for a good laugh on what would really happen…

    4)What about when the furry deviant sex replaces the plot? (I think we know which series we’re all trying not to look at…)

    5, 6 and 7) some other reasons why the “branding” from peeve 2 puts me off this sub-genre. Sometimes all three can be found in the same book. Take a hugely popular “Urban Fantasy” series. I picked up the first one in the series, thinking that many people can’t be wrong. What nobody else seems to have picked up on is the fascist overtones in the book. The leader of the paranormals is shorter than average, with dark hair and a perchant for painting. Her Führer’s chief lackey (and the protagonists love interest) is an Aryan poster boy. There are no minorities in their little “political party”. Any paranormal who doesn’t conform to their ideals is killed on sight, and those that do, but somehow don’t meet the ill-defined “membership requirements” are forced to elk out a criminal, nomadic existence, prevented from interacting with anybody long enough to create relationships. The protagonist is the only female character in the book, and the overall tone is very misogynistic. And she reacts like this is the only way it can be! Yet this is the first book in an incredibly popular series!

    8) And what exactly what is wrong Underworld? It has the UV bullets, silver nitrate bullets, an ambitious, epic back story. And of course the shiny Kate backside… oh, must just be me and Pate Bradshaw [reviewer for the UK Guardian, who gave it 5 stars] then…

    9) This is what I really enjoy about the Kitty books – the real world context. This is one of the aspects of the early Anita Blake books I enjoyed as well. I apologise twice for this. First, for mentioning a specific series, and then for comparing the Anita Blake books to the Kitty books. Unfortunately their the only two series I’ve read where there’s been ongoing nation-wide public and federal sub-plots which have impacted on the central story. In the early Anita Blake books, I really enjoyed the early world building in these books, as it explored how vampire society in particular, and the other paranormal societies in general, were adapting to dealing in a cordial manner with government rules and regulations (instead of the not-so-cordial mob waving pitchforks). More interesting still was the way the government (both local, state and federal) was in turn trying to deal with the paranormals. Among other laws, you can’t just stake a vampire. Vampire executions requiring court orders, and a state licensed executioner to carry them out.

    In particular I liked the sub-plot (ongoing over several books) concerning Brewster’s Law. If passed (which it eventually does), licensed state executioners would automatically become part of the Federal Marshals’ Service. They would be put on a payroll (instead of a per execution rate), but with increased responsibility to deal with all of the supernatural shenanigans in their area.

    This should have had a big impact in the storyline. An example of how well meaning legislation could have radical repercussions for the individual. This sub-plot happens completely off-stage. Anita isn’t even subpoenaed to testify in Washington. But I liked it because it gave the plots context, a real world feel that, although the protagonists actions affect the world, other’s actions affect the world just as much, and in affecting the world, affect her in turn. Her plot-lines don’t happen in a closed system.

    What turned me away from the books (along with the “RPG expansion pack power/weapon” and the furry sex) was that this ultimately had virtually no impact on the character. She’s given a Marshal’s badge (not a deputy Marshal, so I’m not sure where she fits into the one marshal per federal court circuit), she’s got no boss to answer to (as far as the narrative has told us; if she’s truly a marshal, it’s the US president!), she hasn’t been required to attend the 17 weeks training program, there has been no exploration of how her relationship has changed with the local police department (formally a consultant and close friend with a lot of the local cops, those friendships were already becoming strained due to her actions, and now she now has the authority to throw them off a case), never mind how it’s affected other former licensed Vampire Executioners. Anita Blake has extensive experience of other paranormal entities, and it’s specifically mentioned in the books that other executioners do not have this expertise. Yet as part of the federal Marshal’s service, they would be expected to deal with that.

    Possibly this is being saved for a plot where Anita has to clear up an almighty Frack-up by one of her fellow Marshals. I hope so, as this might prompt me to buy it (as I haven’t the last couple of instalments)…

    10) I blame Bram Stoker. Count Dracula is the original metrosexual! Just re-read the bits where he’s romancing Mina Harker… I bet these bits affected several writers at an impressionable age. Fortunately, Bram being a “reasonable writer”, he does this to round out Dracula’s character, lifting him above the cardboard evil villain of the penny dreadful, making him “real”, instead of starting with the Metrosexual alpha male (barf) as his template.
    The whole “domination” comes partly from this source as well, I suspect. Despite being relatively strong female characters for the writing period, both Lucy and Mina are “dominated” (although not as explicitly as current prose) by Dracula. Perhaps another source is the perception that dominatrix’ client list are full of powerful males (CEO’s, Politicians, etc.), the nauseating thought that occurs to me is that if a woman has to act like a man to get to the top, then the author thinks she’d share that same desire to dominated away from work…
    Or, even more disturbing, the author could be doing a Mary-Sue…

    Okay, those are my thoughts…

  38. Will May Be Wise Says:

    My Parnter just wanted me to point out that about half the SF and fantasy books in our home belong to her (including most of the Kitty books), she’s really into the Vorkosigan books (I finally convinced her to read one, the cover branding [ Military SF] once again limiting readship, and she yelled at me “Why didn’t you tell me they were this good!” “But I did!”), and that ChickLit only forms a very small part of her library (and it is a *very* guilty pleasure)


  39. […] defining the genre and talking about some problems she sees with particular examples, CV goes on enrich her c.v. (as it were) with a brief analysis of the […]

  40. Alice Says:

    Ms.Vaughn, you are my hero. I need to check out your books. ^_^

  41. KennyC Says:

    I’m currently writing a series about a heroine who fits rule 5, corollary 2 to a T. Part of the series is actually delving into the reasons for the instability and the eventually breakdown.

    As an aside, those characters aren’t played by Fabio. They’re played by Richard Gere.

    Love your books, by the way.

  42. Isilel Says:

    Yes, 1, 5, 6 (yea, a queen bee. What a liberating progress!) and 10 do strongly irritate me.

    And as to 10 in addition to what you mentioned, said alpha male often doesn’t just dominate the heroine in bed, but is superior to her in every way, tolerates her antics with amused patience and regularly saves her when she gets in over her head.
    Part of her power can be directly derived from him, too.
    And he turns into controlling jerk, who doesn’t respect heroine’s opinions and prefers manipulation to honest compromise when he feels strongly about something, for a change. Ugh, barf.

    But my main beef with this type of urban fantasy is this:

    Romance far too often gets in the way of the plot/setting.

    When there is some world-shattering stuff on the line, I am not very interested in “will they- won’t they” spiel and whatever artificial misunderstandings the author tends to come up with to prolong this state of romantic uncertainty.
    And when world-changing decisions are made solely on the basis of current state of relations with romantic partner and disagreements are seen in the light of fidelity/infidelity, it just drives me up the wall.

    To add insult to injury, the romance itself is usually some kind of life-bond /love-at-first sight, i.e. boring.

  43. Tommi Says:

    Yep, as a guy who likes to read urban fantasy, the 10. in particular annoys me. Any book that has a lot of those fabios loses it’s appeal completely to me.

    It’s irrational. If the guy is so hot and good looking and a complete catch, then what the hell is he doing with the protagonist? Only explanation to this I could imagine is that the guy has low self esteem, which theory gets completely destroyed by this guys supposed rock solid confidence and show of dominance. Yes. It’s really annoying, and makes the character a non-character and an irritant. Introduce fabio: commit character suicide on the spot.

    I like to read about real men. Real people are so much more awesome than cheap summarizations of author’s fantasies/wish-list-for-a-perfect-man. It’s like lovin’ a life-size cardboard cutout of a man, which is just silly.

    P.S. I absolutely love your Kitty books.

  44. carriev Says:

    Thanks — I have a guy friend who read the books and said his favorite part was that the male characters all seemed like real guys. I was flattered.

  45. Aralorn Says:

    I’d like to at an 11’th peeve. There are series that start out interesting, but don’t seem to end. In every other book a new problem is added to the first one. I like a mystery solved or I just give up after a couple of books.

    Oh, and I absolutely hate the love at first sight thing.


  46. […] check out Part II: When Things Go Wrong and Part III: Deconstructing Urban Fantasy. Via The […]

  47. Destiny Says:

    Wow, you have perfectly summed up everything I hate about the urban fantasy genre. I do find it funny that UF is supposed to be about girl power, but the female lead is only competent, worthwhile woman who is the hottest, best at everything, and the be-all and end-all in the world.

  48. Cameron Says:

    Just discovered this on archetype writing, and I felt it necessary to comment.

    While I’m not going to say that there’s no validity to your reading, I do not think that it’s true for all Urban Fantasy; I looked over my bookshelf, and found roughly 13 works that could be construed as Urban Fantasy, the earliest being Charles Williams’ “The Greater Trumps” (1932)and the last being Haruki Murakami’s “After Dark (2007.)

    Now, most of these have male leads, but a few did include strong women who are not the ultra-violent heroines that you mentioned yet still manage to pass the Bechdel test (Example: “Last Call” by Tim Powers, 1992.)

    Moreover, there are Urban Fantasy books who ignore the violence = Strength equation presented; most notably the Work of Haruki Murakami (in particular, the aforementioned “After Dark” included hints of violence, but only one or two named characters engaged in violence, and it was a subplot.)

    Instead, perhaps the works you labeled could be thought of as pseudo-feminist Urban Fantasy? After all, it seems that the “strong” women that appear in the works you seem to be discussing are no less objectified than those in pornography; it’s simply that they’re violent sex objects instead of passive sex objects.

  49. Will May Be Wise Says:

    Cameron,
    The sub-genre of Urban Fantasy is, like most genres and sub-genres, being defined by the the publishers and booksellers. All the characteristics what you term pseudo-feminist Urban Fantasy is what booksellers use to relegate books to sections of their stores.
    Generally, books “relegated” to a sub-genre can be most successful when playing with or rejecting the cliches that led to their identification with a particular sub-genre. Sometimes this can lead to them “breaking out” of the sub-genre to a wider readership. Kit Whitfield’s Bareback is a good example of this.
    Interestingly, you mention that there are “roughly 13 books that could be construed as Urban Fantasy”. I’m always interested in other people’s book shelves, and the three books you mention are all very good. However, the three books you mention all seem to be what I’d call “cross-genre”, mixing at least two genres. Another common theme seems to be the first section of each book the supernatural elements are almost absent, and gradually grow larger as book progresses. In contrast, most of what is termed Urban Fantasy work the opposite theme, where the supernatural elements dominate the first section of the book, and are then shoved to the backgound as the human interest elements (depressingly, most common is the “does he *really* like me?” angst) take centre stage.
    This cross-genre narrative unfortuantely tends to confuse booksellers. In the case of “After Dark”, Haruki Murakami’s track record means it’s never been relegated to the fantasy section of the book shop. In author Neil Gaimen’s case, his output so confuses booksellers that some of them just give his books a stand all of their own.
    Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that what you are defining as Urban Fantasy may only loosely fit the “common” definition, and trying to define a sub-sub-genre (if Fantasy is the genre, and Urban Fantasy is the sub-genre, that makes pseudo-feminist Urban fantasy a subset of a sub-genre) for what constitutes the majority of the sub-genre may be a an exercise in futility.

  50. carriev Says:

    Cameron, you need to read parts one and three of the series!

  51. carriev Says:

    Also, point 1 on this post discusses various problems with the label urban fantasy…


  52. This was a fantastic post! Thanks for spelling out some of the irritants that have bothered me but I could not articulate.

    And I recognize several (I think) of the stories/characters you are alluding to. They really got on my nerves! Especially #7!

    But I do like Underworld…


  53. […] every hack device, every Mary Sue/Marty Stu kick-ass heroine out there, Carrie has adopted a more thoughtful approach to the genre she finds herself […]


  54. […] When things go wrong with urban fantasy. Great little article/rant. […]


  55. […] Vaughn: I have a whole list (and I’ve blogged about it). And I know we talked specifically about some of the physically strong heroines who end up being […]


  56. […] briefly explains what’s involved in an urban fantasy novel. Carrie’s part II covers her urban fantasy pet peeves, which as a writer I found extremely useful, and she finishes with her Deconstructing Urban […]

  57. Audrey Says:

    Thank you!


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