Guest Blog: Kristi Charish on the Science of Urban Fantasy

December 8, 2014 Guests 1

A big welcome to Kristi Charish who is here to telling us about the Science of Urban Fantasy and celebrating the release of Owl and the Japanese Circus, The Adventures of Owl #1 (published on January 13, 2015 by Pocket Books).


The Science of Urban Fantasy


Kristi Charish

I’ll be the first to admit science isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think about urban fantasy. For that matter, it’s probably the furthest thing from most people’s mind when they think urban fantasy. Romance? Sure. An eerily familiar urban setting? Check. Mythology, fantastical monsters, well-known superstitions, or a mix of all the aforementioned? I’m not sure it would be urban fantasy without.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure science isn’t factoring in at the top on anyone’s list, but maybe it should. And before you come back with fantasy and science should be classified as polar opposites, hear me out. Because some of the best urban fantasy out there shares an uncanny feature; their worlds and characters that populate them are well grounded in scientific method.

Whenever the word science comes up, I think people associate it with hours spent in useless memorization during chemistry, physics, and biology classes. Detail upon painstaking detail relegated to your short-term memory to pass a test and quickly shunted back out in preparation for the next detail. Which is a shame, because memorizing details is probably the least important part. Science is about the scientific method, and it isn’t a memorization technique. It’s a process.

The scientific method is best described as a logic problem-solving template in three parts, the question, the hypothesis, and the experiment. The question is where you ask what might happen under a given circumstance. The hypothesis, is what you think might happen given your current knowledge of the situation- very much an educated guess. The experiment is the fun part- a situation of controlled conditions (the more variables you can control the better), where the outcome will prove or disprove your hypothesis. Not completely unlike creative writing come to think of it, where the experiment to test your hypothesis is replaced by writing scenes, and whether you fool your audience tells you if you were right. It’s the scientific method used like a bet in high stakes poker since, unlike running an experiment, if your hypothesis is wrong you can’t take back an already published scene.

The point is when well-written urban fantasy is dissected, it looks like the author applied something akin to the scientific method to their work. Not only do the characters behave in a way that’s believable, even when plot points are a surprise, the logic unwinds in a way that makes you as the reader believe it couldn’t have worked out any other. Now that’s not to say every author thinks about their world building process- many probably don’t- but the ones that inadvertently do stand out as having worlds that feel uncannily real, as compared to their more fantastical counterparts.

And then there is the urban fantasy setting itself, the cornerstone of the genre. This is an area where urban fantasy authors don’t get nearly get enough credit. Their world building. Unlike traditional fantasy, where the world is often built up from scratch, urban fantasy is defined by its use of familiar settings with the supernatural superimposed. Because of this, the consensus has been that urban fantasy is the easy way out. I disagree, and I’d go so far as to argue that it’s because of that familiar world that urban fantasy worlds are much trickier because the author has a whole lot of work to do convincing us it’s real. That doesn’t mean restricting the world building mind you. That’s not the point of speculative fiction. More akin to traditional sci-fi it’s held accountable for anything placed in the real world. By it’s very nature the urban fantasy landscape is one crafted by science. Even if you take a magic-laden urban fantasy, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden files about a wizard detective in Chicago, the magic still has to interact with a real world. TV’s, cars (Harry never does particularly well with cars), microwaves, computers, and modern medicine. For that matter what about jobs, housing, travel, family? These might not seem like obvious examples of science in urban fantasy as stated above but they also follow a scientific method logic pattern and address the ‘what if’ questions. ‘What if there were vampires who came out of the closet? What if there was a hidden world of magic under Chicago? What do the supernatural creatures do for work (like Patricia Briggs’ shapeshifting coyote mechanic). And that’s not taking into consideration the bigger scientific debates that are on going in our real world media. Kim Harrison’s pandemic delivered by genetically modified tomatoes is a fantastic example of taking a real world concern (genetically modifying crops), and injecting it in a believable way. Any which way you cut it, Harrison not only did her homework, but she devised a set of rules that kept it believable and consistent throughout a 13 book series.

By weaving the answers to these kinds of questions into their work (consciously or not) Butcher, Harrison, Briggs (and a host of others) manage to convince their readers the characters could really exist by melding them seamlessly into our familiar world.

The point is in urban fantasy there is a subtle layer of reality that has to be respected by the author in order for it to be believable.

And that’s where science comes in.

Kristi Charish

 Kristi is the author of a forthcoming urban fantasy series OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS (Jan 13th, 2015, Simon and Schuster Canada/Pocket Books), about a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world. She writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. The second installment, OWL AND THE CITY OF ANGELS, is scheduled for release Jan 2016.
Kristi is also a scientist with a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. Her specialties are genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology, all of which she draws upon in her writing. She is represented by Carolyn Forde at Westwood Creative Artists.

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 Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish


Available on January 13, 2015 by Pocket Books


Fans of Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher, and Linda Hamilton will flock to the kick-ass world of Owl, a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world.

Ex-archaeology grad student turned international antiquities thief, Alix—better known now as Owl—has one rule. No supernatural jobs. Ever. Until she crosses paths with Mr. Kurosawa, a red dragon who owns and runs the Japanese Circus Casino in Las Vegas. He insists Owl retrieve an artifact stolen three thousand years ago, and makes her an offer she can’t refuse: he’ll get rid of a pack of vampires that want her dead. A dragon is about the only entity on the planet that can deliver on Owl’s vampire problem – and let’s face it, dragons are known to eat the odd thief.

Owl retraces the steps of Mr. Kurosawa’s ancient thief from Japan to Bali with the help of her best friend, Nadya, and an attractive mercenary. As it turns out though, finding the scroll is the least of her worries. When she figures out one of Mr. Kurosawa’s trusted advisors is orchestrating a plan to use a weapon powerful enough to wipe out a city, things go to hell in a hand basket fast…and Owl has to pick sides.

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One Response to “Guest Blog: Kristi Charish on the Science of Urban Fantasy”

  1. Jody W.

    Very cool approach! I agree that worldbuilding makes more sense when it has some kind of scientific grounding.