|Title: The Urban Fantasy Anthology
Author: Peter S. Beagle, Joe R. Lansdale, Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Jeffrey Ford, Kelley Armstrong, Norman Partridge, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Bruce McAllister, Suzy McKee Charnas, Francesca Lia Block, Thomas M. Disch, Susan Palwick, Holly Black, Steven R. Boyett, Tim Powers, and Al Sarrantonio
Cover Art: N/A
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Reviewed by: Julia
No explicit sex scenes, but references to sex, rape, and incest are made.
Good – A fun read with minor flaws. Maybe read an excerpt before buying.
Star-studded and comprehensive, this imaginative anthology brings a myriad of modern fantasy voices under one roof. Previously difficult for readers to discover in its new modes, urban fantasy is represented here in all three of its distinct styles—playful new mythologies, sexy paranormal romances, and gritty urban noir. Whether they feature tattooed demon-hunters, angst-ridden vampires, supernatural gumshoes, or pixelated pixies, these authors—including Patricia Briggs, Neil Gaiman, and Charles de Lint—mash-up traditional fare with pop culture, creating iconic characters, conflicted moralities, and complex settings. The result is starkly original fiction that has broad-based appeal and is immensely entertaining.
This is my first experience with this type of broad, category driven anthology, and I find myself as enamored with the physical organization of the book as I was with it’s contents. Opening with Charles de Lint’s exploration of Urban Fantasy and it’s more precise sub-categories, the book itself is divided into “Mythic Fiction”, “Paranormal Romance”, and “Noir Fantasy”. Each section begins with an essay that explores the origins and characterizations of this genre so much of us enjoy, and while the stories in each section don’t actually match the content from de Lint, Guran, or Lansdale’s essays, they do have an interesting relationship to one another that makes this anthology as thought provoking as it was enjoyable.
De Lint’s essay opens the Mythic Fiction section and sets the stage for stories with a mood of wonder and uncertainty. The magical threads in this section dip and weave underneath reality and bring to life the myths of older worlds, gods and unicorns and Fae. My favorite stories of the mythic fantasy section were Neil Gaiman’s The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories and Peter S. Beagle’s Julie’s Unicorn. Gaiman mixes the gilt of Hollywood with the everyday magic of reverence in a way that creates a quiet pool of the extraordinary that I know I will return to. Julie’s Unicorn explores the real world consequences of magic, but without letting camp overcome a sense of infinite possibilities. My least favorite story in this section, Jeffrey Ford’s On the Road to New Egypt, reminded me of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS with magic in place of either as the drug of choice. Chaotic and arbitrary, if this story was reaching for greater significant or religious meaning, it missed the target with me.
While the stories in Mythic Fiction completely fit my concept of that sub-genre, the Paranormal Romance selections seem out of sync with their heading. Rather than the highly sexual, magic driven Happily-Ever-Afters that I associate with this sub-genre (and that Guran references in her essay), the Paranormal Romance section of this anthology serves only as a bridge between the wonder of Mythic Fiction to the less upfront portrayals of common paranormal creatures in the Noir Fantasy section. For the purpose of this anthology, “Paranormal Romance” means stories where both readers and characters recognize the magic they’re dealing with: vampires and zombies, ghosts and werewolves. There is little more than references to sex and other than Patricia Brigg’s Seeing Eye and Bruce McAllister’s Hit, none of these stories have anything close to a romantic happily ever after. However, once I adjusted my expectations, I found some things to enjoy. This was my second experience with Seeing Eye, previously published in STRANGE BREW, and it was my stand out favorite for the section. Briggs is adept at setting her characters into place quickly, without ever resorting to caricature, and I can never finish one of her short stories without hungering for more. I also enjoyed Suzy McKee Charnas’s Boobs for her new take on an empowered adolescent heroine and the werewolf mythology, and Norman Partridge’s She’s My Witch, which brought a crazy Bonnie and Clyde vibe to the paranormal table, with a tone that manages to engage, concern, and creep out, all at once. Francesca Lia Block’s Farewell, My Zombie seemed out of place for this section, more in line with the borderline realities and questions of the noir fantasy section, but despite this mismatch, the heroine was so bleak and compelling that the story left me shattered.
As I mentioned above, the third and final section in this anthology, Noir Fantasy, takes the vampires and werewolves we urban fantasy fans are so familiar with and turns the mythologies on their head. Either through the addition of mundane details, as in Susan Palwick’s heartbreaking Gestella, or through a questionable narrator, as in Thomas M. Disch’s The White Man, the stories in this last section marry the tone of Mythic Fantasy with the headliner paranormal phenomenon established in Paranormal Romance. I adored Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which managed to create both a stellar heroine and an interesting world in the short space allotted (and is one of the few stories in this anthology that was deep enough to introduce characters I would want to read more about), and found Tim Powers’s world building and characterization in The Bible Repairman haunting and gritty. Joe R. Lansdale’s own On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks didn’t contain a single woman who wasn’t a prostitute, a zombie prostitute or a cultist, and reaffirmed why few post-apocalyptic stories ever get any reaction out of me other than rage and/or a personal intention to bury myself in a bunker should society ever collapse. My reaction is meant more as a affirmation of my preference for pleasant, escapist reading material than any indictment of Lansdale’s well entertaining, if utterly bleak, story.
Upon finishing all three Urban Fantasy sub-genres, I realized that despite essays that discuss the commercially prevalent brand of Urban Fantasy that is fueled by “kickassitude” and happy endings, THE URBAN FANTASY ANTHOLOGY is composed of an older and darker strain of selections than I would have expected from the title. The stories I’ve mentioned above are only a few of the offerings, but overall, this book’s tone brings home the sense that magic doesn’t guarantee happiness (and sometimes can’t even save your life), but it is always, and inevitably, fascinating to poor humans and preternatural creatures alike. Unerringly provoking (both in a good and bad sense), while I sometimes found myself wishing for something different, I never could have asked for anything more out of these stories. This is one book I will be sure to keep on my shelf so I can revisit these varied moods and conundrums in the future, but while the essayists themselves point out that these stories aren’t meant to capture all aspects of the Urban Fantasy genre, it feels Beagle and Lansdale only focused on the bleaker side.