Urban Fantasy was coined to cover the broad range of books where there’s a secret world behind the real one. It’s broad and fuzzy. You’re got China Mieville’s Kraken, as a horror/detective. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as whimsy/self-discovery, De Lint as pure whimsy, Treadwell’s Advent series as horror/suspense.
But I there’s a tight sub-genre, where you’re obviously in it or you’re not: the Urban Fantasy Detective Romance. Here are the rules they follow:
o Start with a secret world type book, Harry Potter or UnderWorld. Steal a chunk of folklore, a mash-up if you can, and change some of the rules. This is important – people are partly reading it for your unique take on how the secret world works. As the series progresses, you have to add and explain more of the rules.
o The heroine is either a non-human species that can pass as human, or a 1/2-human of some sort (if you have nothing else, a 1/2-vampire will do, but you can be much more creative than that.)
o Be some sort of detective or policewoman or guardian involved with the supernatural. But she’s inexperienced. We’re learning about things along with her.
o Be recklessly impulsive. Charge into the master vampires lair screaming that he killed your sister, but he admires your pluck and gives a hint who really did it. Go clothes shopping while the demon is trying to kill you, since you can’t stand being cooped-up. Sometimes she does stuff just because some jerk man told her not to.
o Terrible taste in men and/or just bad luck. Fated to have decent guys scared off. Her complicated romantic life should take up at least half of the story, including important plot points. Somewhat like the TV show “Charmed.”
o She should feel old, or unattractive and generally insecure. The one dress that makes her look half-decent gets troll blood all over it. This is partly from the Romance novel roots. She’s identifiable.
o Her female friends and relationships are important to her (and the story) possibly also her mother. Consoling a friend about a break-up is equally important as finding the killer.
o Many of the problems are best solved with empathy. If you get to know all the monsters and really listen to them, rather than listening with your fists, you get the satisfaction of making everyone happy. It’s about solving the problem, not killing the problem. A difference from a pure Romance novel is the man can solve the problem with the support of a good woman’s love. In an Urban Fantasy Detective Romance, the heroine solves her own problems.
That sounds made-up and extremely specific, but it’s a thing.
Someone once explained to me that a definition of Emo music was anything inspired by The Cure, which meant The Cure was not Emo. Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter is somewhat similar. That world is off-the-shelf Master Vampires and Werewolf packs – from Anne Rice and roleplaying games. And the main character is a human with no special powers (except a License to Kill, the undead.) It’s not an UFDR, partly since it inspired them.
What that series did was show you could sell a somewhat cheesy secret world book by adding strong Romance elements. Many, many pages are spent dressing herself to cover her scars and otherwise display to best advantage a body she’s not thrilled with. Lots of nuzzling with supernatural men, attracted by her inner beauty, which also advances the plot.
I saw Seanan McGuire at a convention. She was in full “act like a fabulous author GoH” mode, and could not stop giggling about exploding hawiian rats and the tapeworm she ate on purpose. So, she doesn’t take herself all that seriously, which is the right attitude for these books.
The world starts as the standard “every mythical creature you’ve even heard of is real.” A secret society is battling them to keep humans safe. Her twist is that was hundreds of years ago. Humans have long been safe, but the society is hell-bent on exterminating every “cryptid,” including the ones vital for the natural ecology. The main characters are a break-away family, ruthlessly hunted as traitors, devoted to the study and preservation of supernatural ecology.
The rest of the twist is adding insane creatures – talking mice (that’s all they do) and dragon princesses which look human, breed asexually, live in groups and single-mindedly collect gold by working regular jobs, then buying the gold.
The heroine is a self-confident babe, but at least has money problems and trouble meeting guys in her line of work (which is protecting the harmless monsters of New York.) She’s 100% human, but has plenty of non-human relatives and her renegade family name is famous among monsters, which is like a superpower. Plus she’s trained in ninja skills since birth. To make up for her being so normal, she spider-mans (parkour) everywhere, works in a non-human topless club, and is a contestant on “So you think you can dance.”
The plot is the usual sprawl of personal problems, attempts to help her non-human sister, a hot guy from the family that’s hunting her’s, and a world-changing magic spell powered by monster blood and humans mutated into lizardmen. What we thought was the big monster turns out to be a good guy.
A funny thing is, later books in the series have a male protagonist, her brother. He’s a non-violent researcher, clumsy around women, with strong female role models — but he’s still a guy. So the stereotypical woman stuff goes away, and we get to watch a cartoon man — a big, dumb ape blundering his way through. It’s fine, but you can tell it’s no longer a real urban fantasy detective romance.
This one is a little too Romancy – two men are fighting over her the entire book – but otherwise it’s such a bizzarre mash-up, hitting all the elements extra hard.
The heroine is a impulsive female detective. She’s insecure about being a commoner (in a faux-Victorian society.) Her powers are immunity to magic, fast healing and she’s probably really a human off-shoot fairy creature. She’s also friends with an all-powerful ghost wizard and another all-powerful SteamPunk engineer.
Romance-wise, a powerful wizard is in love with her, along with her childhood friend, now a police chief (i.e.: a rich noble and a brawny working man.) She sleeps with the policeman to try to cure him of robotic werewolfism.
The bad guy is (I’m going to list the mash-up parts) an (1)Ancient Evil banished by (2)Celtic shamen, who is trying to (3)impregnate women with demon babies using (4)robot (5)werewolfs recruited from a (6)secret nobility sex club.
It borrows a lot from the SteamPunk-before-women-had-rights genre. Those go two ways – a heroine better than any man; or a woman testing and chafing against the small amount of freedom she’s allowed. This takes the latter approach (of course, or it wouldn’t be here.)
This is another steampunk mashup, sort of League of Extraordinary Gentleman.
The heroine is a free-lance police investigator. Her powers are expert forensic alchemy and instant healing when she changes into her alternate shape. Her Jekyl and Hyde alternate self is extremely impulsive, constantly second-guessing her.
Mash-up-wise, her father is the real Jekyl and Hyde, Jack the Ripper is in love with her, Ada Lovelace is a robot running the secrete police with an immortal Sir Isaac Newton. Her boyfriend is a werewolf secret policeman. Two bad guys are a Picture of Dorian Grey, and the other is (essentially) Mycroft Holmes.
The plot follows the rules pretty well: dealing with personal problems, which may also be clues; stupidly impulsive behavior which sometimes advances the plot; romance which also advances the plot; worries about money.
The secrete world of the Agent of Hel series is that Nifthel is now in Wisconsin and goddess Hel has picked a sweet 20-something not-quite human girl as her personal representative. Oh, and all the usual non-Norse mythological creatures are around.
She’s just out of college and sweetly pretty, which breaks a rule, which is fine. She’s bad with boyfriends and extremely insecure that she’s just faking her new adulthood, and is secretly a half-demon (Norse mythology doesn’t have demons, but also fine.) The town is pretty much Stars Hollow and many of the locals know more magic than her (and also how to brew tea and just gab with the girls.)
One plot involves a misunderstood “Monsters Inc” type creature. Another a lot of careful listening to witnesses and help from her friends (and trusting this guy with whom she’s worried the relationship may be going too fast!) The main plot has exploding rockets and mercenaries, but it’s really the result of an argument between the bad guy and her husband, which our heroine helps smooth out (yes, yes, after sneaking into the camp with all sorts of clever magic. It’s a perfectly good ending, and at least one giant monster gets blown up.)
Something that snuck up on me: Hel has given her a unique magical relic dagger. In other words, a magic sword. She just tucks it away. Much later, she realizes it’s meant to be flashed like a badge. Now, if you gave some man a magical sword … but these books aren’t about what men would do, which is probably start wars while drunk.
Hel isn’t quite original, but it’s a great idea for an offbeat secret world. The real Norse Helheim is a frozen realm — the original Elemental Plane of Ice — and Helas is just this hermit 1/2-goddess living there. But it’s somehow the inspiration for hot Hell with an ex-angel in charge. In theory it’s a magical place of power — Thor comics says it is — so sure, it’s a great way to have a Wisconsin vortex of power who’s owner is happy to delegate.
The Dresden books backstory is in line with the rest: three crazed sub-types of vampires, werewolves, wizards, shakespearian malicious fairies, demons and Judas—was-the-first-vampire. It’s less Monster of the Week, and sticks a little close to established stuff. That allows him to do more with the politics.
But the main character is a man, making it completely different. Instead of cute possible boyfriends, we get sexy demonic temptresses whom the hero must try to resist. His friends are the guys he sometimes fights with, but they don’t spend a lot of time bonding outside of work. He’s a member of the Wizard’s council — not many female monster hunters are able to break that glass ceiling.
These stories only work when the hero is mostly a cartoon, so this is a guy cartoon. His major power is anger — when he runs low on magic power, he gets really mad and powers up. His magic: both kinds of blasts – fire and force. He solves cases by ever so briefly resisting his urge to charge in and save the girl. This astounds the villains, since the hero is such a well-known muscle-head.
The stories tend to be darker, with more danger and violence, and more black and white (except for traitors and double-agents.) Also more straight-forward. He’s never found a clue while searching for a spaghetti recipe in an ill-fated attempt to cook for a new love interest.
It’s not better or worse, but in these things changing the gender of the hero changes the whole plot and set-up. It’s just a secret world book, and there are lots of those.
So here’s the plot of the one book in this series I read: the main character has a pregnancy scare, but it could be due to her magical powers, so she puts off taking a test. Afer the funeral of a murdered relative, she has to make all these excuses for why she can’t drink anymore, then more to her mom at home for why she isn’t guzzling coffee.
After beating up a guy trying to kidnap her, her boyfriend finally helps her take a test. It’s positive and he freaks out and runs. Then she stays with her mom after bad guys kill another relative and burn down her apartment, and there are all these cats from a third murdered relative.
Later she gets blood all over herself from killing a bad-guy, so the other man who might be the father of her baby takes her home and lets her wear his clothes. She tells him about the baby, and he’s excited about being a dad, and they bang.
But then she finds out her boyfriend only freaked because of a dark secret about his own mom. He asks to marry her, even after they find out she’s not really pregnant, and they almost have a courtroom marriage with their new bodyguards as witnesses (the first bodyguard was lost in another bad guy attack.)
Then they both get kidnapped by a different guy who’s kids are being held by the Mob, so they use their magical powers to rescue the kids and catch those badguys. Back at home, Mom has even more cats from murdered aunts. Then her boyfriend proves she can count on him, by helping capture the main bad guy. Finally, she and the other guy who wanted to marry her agree to stay friends. The End.
As you may have figured out, this is just a straight Romance novel. What should have given it away for me was the traditional romance cover: woman in front, two male models flanking, both a little too close to her. The publisher is TOR, which doesn’t have a specific romance division.
What’s interesting is how a Romance author decided to borrow from Urban Fantasy Detective. The secret world part is that some people can shape change, but only into people they’ve met. But, the ability to copy a particular person is an Aura, and you can show an Aura you know to another shape-changer. Even that tiny amount of detail is still more than Romances need. I think it’s touching.
I read book 7, “All Your Wishes” in a series billed as “paranormal romance.” That’s usually code for “straight-up romance with a werewolf instead of a pirate.” This one is short on romance – some cute guys, but she’s much too focued on the mission. But as with many 7th books, it’s bloated with a Disneyland of the supernatural. Along with the missing romance, a lot of the interpersonal stuff is missing. The main character could just as well have been a man. It looks like this book is just one of the original two authors. I suppose the other one handled the romance.
The overall backstory is that magic and myth and civilization has coexisted for a long tile. Stores sell charms, we have magi-tech items, police forces employ mages, anti-vampire fences are common, magic is taught at college.
The main character is a 1/2-vampire, 1/2-siren (and 1/2-human?) detective, running her agency out of a former church. Her best friends and emplyees are a werewolf, a wizard and a ghost. Her Mom(?) is a siren queen, making her also a princess. Going against tradition, she’s generally happy with her appearance – vampires are a sexy pale and siren’s are naturally beautiful. But at least she has personal problems: sirens magically bring out the catiness in other women. 1/2-vampires need to frequently eat baby food and smoothies, use lots of sunscreen, and they lisp horribly when their fangs pop out. And she’s also cursed.
Her boyfriend is a sexy mage with strong hands from a family of powerful mages, and also mobsters. They start off with a big unspecified argument that sounds like it could be trouble – maybe about children. But he’s gone the entire book visiting his dying mother, then is out of the picture. We never find out what the argument was about. The extent of their romance is her calling him to ask if his mom is dead yet. In the 1-year-later epilogue she gets together with a cute, minor character with whom she previously had no sparks.
The plot starts with a client being told to contact her by his oracle, and her being told to take the case by her oracle. As everyone knows, you can’t ask oracles too many questions. That goes for readers, too – she just has to help the guy, OK? In case you’re wondering, she solves the case by doing something else her oracle told her to do.
The plot involves some super-evil wizards from a previous book, including an evil wizard ghost sworn to kill her (also from a previous book) led by a super-powerful demon. We never find out their plot, but they free a super-powerful genie for it, who, shocker, gets out of hand and possesses the main character’s body. It either wants to go home, or to free a bunch of other evil genies (in the book, it’s the first – it’s a genie serial-killer of other genies and wants to kill the judge who sentenced it; but the book jacket says the latter.)
At the very end, she wins by realizing she has friends. Literally just realizing. She suddenly remembers she has siren telepathy, which she has been using through-out the book, and reaches out to all of her friends at once. That gives her the strength to shake off the genie control. The plan came together earlier when she met the only female genie-keeper and her young son (who hasn’t yet grown into swaggering jerk of a man, like every other genie-keeper.) The have a proper meeting of female minds.
Various secondary events are crammed in:
- Her main evil ghost enemy dies after her heart stops in an unrelated matter (her death was it’s unfinished business.) After being reminded of how lethal wizard ghosts are, this is the first time we see him in the book. He just shows up, says “I was actually just hanging around waiting for someone else to kill you, and they did,” and poofs away. Just in case readers notice that she’s had her heart stopped several times before, her friends ask her “haven’t you had your heart stopped several times before?” and she explains this was extra-stoppy, so fooled the ghost.
- We very briefly meet a guy from a previous book, just so we can see him dead later.
- After she wins, it’s mentioned in passing that the main group of genie-keepers were all murdered elsewhere.
- Also after winning, we go back in time (she’s literallly taken back in time) to see her boyfriend get killed by the mob, which has nothing to do with anything else.
- Immediately after winning, a good genie, who was just watching them fight the evil one, pops up and brings her werewolf friend back to life (he died one page ago, just long enough to inspire her to fight harder.)
The rules say we have to learn more about the world, and we do. There are professional magic-using hitmen. We learn demons can appear without being summoned if they time it exactly when a ghost dies (which makes a tunnel from here to the otherworld?) Genies are entirely new for this book, and we learn genie-keeper powers come from being part genie. The TSA can spy on telepathy in airports.
A common plot is having some super-powerful being treat the main character like a toy – since she’s just a girl – by either underestimating her or starting to like her. The genie-possession plot started that way: teasing and “I’ve been in your mind and know all of your secrets.” It removes her curse-mark, probably in exchange for something we don’t want to know. But then the angle gets dropped.
Deadworld is another one that looks like an Urban Fantasy Detective Romance, but is clearly just a Romance, borrowing from the UFDR genre. I like it since it so clearly shows that however much you borrow, you have to decide whether you’re a Romance or not, and there’s a big difference.
The cover is a woman with leather pants and a halter top posing with a gun in an alley. No men, but I’m sure the next printing will add one. So that wasn’t a clue, but maybe the acknowledgement to the local RWA (Romance Writers of America) should have clued me in.
The borrowed elements are checked off pretty quickly: the main character works for the FBI with a semi-psychic partner on X-Files type cases. She has serious personal problems making her incapable of having a stable relationship wih a man. The secret supernatural stuff is, well:
The villian is a vampire, sort of. These vampires don’t have fangs – they get the blood out with mundane means. But they can teleport at will, and the mind-control is jacked-up to be instant and irresistable (but don’t worry – they forget to use it during the big fight scene.) They also have no weakness to sunlight, holy ground, stakes to the heart and so on. And they actually get more energy feeding on ghosts. But sure, they’re vampires and not the necromancers which they clearly are.
The male lead is a good vampire who only drinks artificial blood. Real blood is pretty easy to get, but whatever. He was also a sheriff in the old West. And a quirky private investigator with a sexy psychic assistant and bombshell vampire best friend. He’s also rich, owning the company that makes the fake blood. You’d think he sells it to all the other good vampires, but that would be overthinking things.
He also owns a 5-star Italian restaurant, and is an execellent cook himself. In case you were wondering, the book explicitly describes how hot this makes her. I just want to see him on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares. Chef Ramsay can ask him “do you feel employees are afraid to come to you with problems, you being a vampire?” and “answer honestly, how many customers have you mind-controlled into not bothering you about undercooked linguine?”
In case you haven’t put it together, the book does it for you. He’s referred to only as one of: cowboy vampire, sheriff, vampire PI or vampire cowboy sheriff. I was going to be impressed, except a quick search on “Vampire Cowboy” shows a book written a month later, May 2011, named “The Zillionare vampire cowboy’s secret werewolf babies.”
One way you can tell its a Romance is the sheer amount of pointless small talk. When she questions the leading man as her murder suspect, we learn what kind of coffee they all drink, who brings it, how good they thought it was and what types of pastry they all like. The millionare cowboy vampire likes “very strong” coffee. That sounds cooler than saying he likes French Press, which is how you’d actually order it. The FBI women like their coffee the same way they did in the previous two scenes. Later on, she accepts tea (from the FBI psychologist who warns she can’t outrun her personal demons, but allows her to stay on the case.)
After the questioning, we get more small talk with her partner about how hot the guy was, how hot his assistant was (the main character’s now lesbian assistant psychic partner gets to have sex once before being killed. No! You murdered my partner, just when she came out to me!!) But it’s fine, since dead psychics always come back as helpful ghosts. This sounds like the origin story of “FBI agent with ghost partner,” but I assume the author’s dog ate those pages.
It’s a pretty typical romance: lonely, incomplete heroine meets mysterious man; is suspicious at first, but slowly sees how studly he is and comes to rely on him. She’s tricked into spilling her deepest secrets (as he shows her how powerful vampire hynotism is,) but he accepts and appreciates her flaws. He has to put her to bed and fantasizes about taking advantage, but doesn’t. Then her love helps him overcome his greatest weakness (he doesn’t think he can beat the bad guy. Yes, her role in killing the bad guy is only to inspire her man. Evil vampire even dies off-camera, his purpose accomplished.)
My favorite part is when they meet the ghost of his dead wife. She gives him permission to move on to a new woman, and adds that she and the other ghosts approve of his new girlfriend, then disolves into spirit power.
Ah, let me explain. The final showdown is where the bad guy has trapped the ghosts of his victims, drinking them as needed for power (but he’s a vampire, not a necromancer, dammit.) I guess they could break a window to let the ghosts out, but whatever. The bad guy very, very slowly calls one ghost at a time to suck from (I guess mind-control works on dead people.) The good guys watch, since it’s just rude to attack people before they’re fully powered-up. Then the ghost best friend and the cowboy PI’s ghost best friend (who isn’t dead, but we’re long past asking questions like that) help him to accept the help of all the ghosts who believe in him, saving the day.
As far as an UFDR, this fails in a lot of ways. No one cares about the secret history of these vampires (in fact, the teaser for the next book involves an opiate-addicted cop possessed by some new type of vengeful ghost.) The book teases at “how would an ancient vampire survive in a modern world,” but then just drops it – evil vampire is apparently also rich, and has an evil chauffer, but that’s all we get. Ghosts can’t affect the physical world unless the plot requires it.
The heroine doesn’t drive the plot, doesn’t grow except to realize she can love the leading man, and there are no subplots involving consoling her best friend who got dumped that also affect the main plot. There’s no approaching problems the way a woman would, with empathy and sudden rage at being treated like a helpless chikita.
The plot just moves ahead, having them react to evil guy. Vampire PI has been locked in a recurring struggle with him for 100+ years, but just dribbles out things during a chase which he happened to remember. This is all fine for a Romance – the plot is supposed to be bland and generic enough so you can focus on their burgeoning desire. But it’s the opposite of a world-building, character-driven “finding her way” woman-led story.
The spine says “Kensington Urban Fantasy.” Wikipedia says Kensington also has a Romance line, but doesn’t mention the Urban Fantasy one, and Kensington’s web site doesn’t mention lines at all. Even so, someone is probably getting fired over this mix-up. I feel bad, but if an editor couldn’t tell this was a Romance, maybe they should change jobs.
The oddest thing about the Black Wing series is the main character has no one. By the end of the first book she’s moving to the intrigue-filled royal court, all alone in the world, a misstep away from tragedy. That feels like a traditional womens’ genre, right? Not one you see a lot these days. But everything else is right on track.
Secret world premise #1 is from “Dead Like Me”. She gets when-and-where notes from a big bureaucracy about people dying who need to be ushered to the afterlife (quick check: Dead Like Me: 2003; Black Wings series: 2010.) The TV show had fun deaths with life-lessons from the departed. This has 2 boring deaths, but as a soul collector she gets free wings which also make her invisible. Premise #2 is standard feuding angels – some stayed on earth, had demon children and created complicated cut-throat court structures. This will be the main plot.
Her gay best friend, also a fellow soul-collector, gets slaughtered early to show how evil Crude Demon Bad Guy is. Sample dialogue: “his soul didn’t taste as good as your mother’s, when I killed her 15 years ago, but better than the other souls of people I routinely kill.” So I guess her mom is dead. We meet her sometimes-friendly witch contact. That one gets murdered by her long-lost father to show how bass-ass he is, or how much he loves his daughter, or both. Just in case, she’s a virgin – no ex-boyfriends. Her only friend is a talking ca-, errr, mini-gargoyle that stays home and shares junk food with her.
One named character from her past life gets to live: her super-hot boss who she can’t help but scream at for being so mean to her. He’s alive since he also has magical powers through a mysterious non-human parent, and on the last page is also in love with her.
We start her new life with a mysterious super-sexy stranger renting the downstairs unit. She’s mad he enspelled her gargoyle, but that’s just so she gets to forgive him. He’s a half-angel/half-demon sent to protect her, but so low-status that their love is forbidden. Luckily she gets assigned a future husband by father #1. Clever thinking on her part puts the marraige off for a year. So, to sum up, she has 3 beaus. She also has 2 possibly evil fathers who each rule a demon court.
No one cares about the plot. Crude evil demon attacks her a bunch. Her secret evil half-brother, as well. They kill scores of people – way too many for this genre. A vision of her first demon ancestor comes to her (that part was sort of cute – the sort of dream-sequence Neil Gaiman would write.) The evil angel who killed that ancestor is now the lover of Crude Demon Bad Guy (this is the only sex scene in the book.) For no reason our herione gets a blue flame blast, then a white sunforce blast and finally another blast ray with an unknown color. She can also regenerate from death. Except she can’t regenerate her heart if a demon eats it. For example, suppose you use a type-3 blast on a demon you know can come back from anything, check and see it’s not dead, then turn your back on it to gloat for a few minutes.
So she’s alive without a heart. But on to more important things: the 5 men all walk in! Low-status but sweet and sexy, loser bethrothed, her demon father, and she’s revealed as the only living great-great-great offspring of the demon king, who loves her but is very scary. And that plotting 1/2-brother of hers, too! She’s sure got her hands full with all those men!
The lesson here is to always read a book by the Author Guest of Honor at a convention. “Tina” Henry seems very nice (I distinctly heard she prefers Tina during the GoH panel.) She seemed to have recovered from the series being dropped before the last two were written, with the Alice books. If I’d read this book earlier I could have asked her if this was basically a period piece about a woman from the countryside whisked to the French court. Maybe not that, maybe why the main character breaks the genre by having no female friends. It couldn’t be any worse than explaining to Glen Cook why Furious Light is a bad girlfriend for Garrett.