Every anthology has some sort of purpose, be it a survey of the year's best fiction, a collection of stories the editor particularly liked, or, as in this case, an exploration of a specific theme. Here the assumption is, presumably, that by the end of the anthology, the reader will have some idea about what urban fantasy actually is.
When I think of urban fantasy, I recall the novels published by Megan Lindholm, Emma Bull, and Charles de Lint in the 1980s, which employed fantasy tropes in gritty urban settings, the emphasis on the contemporary. These novels were set in Seattle, Minneapolis, the mythical but somehow instantly recognisable Newford. The suggestion was that such things could also be happening just around the corner from where the reader lived. For those of us more accustomed to fantasy set in faraway lands or else riven with nostalgia for a lost bucolic ideal, this irruption of the fantastic into the real world seemed like a refreshing blast of cold night air. Which is not to say that the fantastic didn't already butt up against reality in other novels; Alan Garner's Elidor (1965) is still, for my money, one of the most frightening examples of another world running closely parallel to our own, the boundaries between the two dissolving, the fantastic spilling over into modern Manchester, but urban fantasy as an identifiable literary phenomenon was something new.
Jess Nevins' foreword to Paper Cities suggests that while the novels I remember from the 1980s are "a distinctive publishing subgenre" (iii), urban fantasy as a "mode of storytelling" (i) is more than two hundred years old. In promulgating this idea, Nevins is drawing on John Clute's entry on urban fantasy in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which refers to a wide range of city-based fiction, much of it realist, including Eugène Sue's Paris and Dickens's London. Clute lays emphasis on urban fantasies as "texts where fantasy and the mundane intersect and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city" (Encyclopedia, p. 975), though he promptly collapses his own argument by recognising that there are many exceptions involving fictional cities. However, he also suggests, and I think this is key to any apprehension of "urban fantasy" as either mode or subgenre, that such a city must be created as an environment, and not just as a backdrop. I'd go further and say that the city needs to participate as a character in the fiction in some way. Dickens's London, for example, is undeniably more than simply an environment in many of his novels; in some strange way it seems to guide the destinies of his characters.
Nevins doesn't so much open up Clute's definition to wider interpretation as flay it before your very eyes. As urban fantasy is a mode of storytelling, it "accommodates a variety of themes and approaches" (i), and because it is not restricted by genre limitations, it "can be about almost anything" (i). Later, Nevins talks about a "second generation of Urban Fantasy authors [...] pushing against the boundaries laid down by the first generation's writers and taking the genre into new and welcome territories" (iii). While Nevins praises Paper Cities as an excellent example of such catholicity, one begins to sense an undertone of special pleading emerging from his foreword, a need to reassure the reader that it's OK, these stories really are all urban fantasies, honest. Somewhere along the way, our understanding of what urban fantasy is, or isn't, has begun to falter.
It is incidentally worth noting here that Nevins is not the collection's editor, although he seems to have taken on the role of introducing the anthology and its contents, as an editor might. The named editor, Ekaterina Sedia, remains puzzlingly distant from the book, offering only a very brief Editor's Note, in which she observes that all the stories "take place within cities—and they all talk about what urban life means." Other than that, her criteria for including stories remain opaque, which is a shame because I find this anthology, as an introduction to urban fantasy written in the twenty-first century, to be utterly baffling.
Before addressing the anthology's stated theme, I should say that there is not a story in the collection that I thought was actually too poor to be published. I do query the inclusion of Paul Melfoy's "Alex and the Toyceivers," in part because it's the first chapter of a novel rather than being complete in itself, and mainly because a number of editorial slips within the story suggested the version presented might actually still be in the throes of revision. There was also a curious slipperiness of tone about it that puzzled me, as though I were not its intended audience. With luck, the appearance of the full novel will shed further light.
Greg van Eekhout's "Ghost Market" disappointed me only because it was so short, more of a bonne bouche than a satisfying meal, but well constructed nonetheless. Other stories irritated me because it seemed to be quite clear from the outset where they were likely to go, and I was rarely wrong in my assumptions. Jenn Reese's "Taser" fell into this category, as did Kaaron Warren's "Down to the Silver Spirits," Michael Jasper's "Painting Haiti," and to a certain extent, David Schwartz's "Somnambulist." Again, I stress that none of these are poorly executed, but certain scenarios seem to lead inevitably to certain conclusions, and it can be difficult to slip past those narrative pitfalls. Here, the authors were not always entirely successful in doing so. To take one example, "Down To The Silver Spirits" features couples desperate to have children who stumble on a novel way to achieve their goal, through providing a physical home for spirits desperate to be reborn. The "urban" element of this is that the spirits involved are those of the dead children of a lost city, who died violently. To read a sentence that runs "[W]e do know that these spirits are benevolent, regardless of who they were in life" (p. 193) is to be quite clear that whatever happens after, those spirits will be anything but friendly. The rest of the story is the inevitable working-out of a resolution all too clearly signalled less than halfway through the story.
What struck me, time and again, was how few of the stories in the anthology actually qualified as urban fantasies, at least according to the Clutean definition. Instead, too many simply appeared to be set in a city or near a city, or happened to mention a city ("Alex and the Toyceivers" is a case in point here). Too often, the city was backdrop rather than environment; the specific narrative connections to city life were much more tenuous than I feel genuine urban fantasy demands. I was frankly hard-pushed to find many stories where the city itself participated fully within the story, or was vitally necessary to a story's existence. Instead, in accordance with Nevins's expansive interpretation of urban fantasy, the city gates have been thrown open, and anything can be an urban fantasy if it says it is.
This is true of all the stories already mentioned, and others besides. Cat Sparks's "Sammarynda Deep" features an exquisitely realised "oriental" town, and yet, for all that rich detail, the story is shaped by an issue that is far less specific to the city than it at first sight appears. Similarly, Steve Berman's "Tearjerker," while it is about more than drug addicts of one kind or another, didn't leave me with the feeling that it could only happen within a city. Too often, the city supplies colour and bustle to stories rather than any intrinsic and necessary connection. Stephanie Campisi's "The Title of This Story," Richard Parks's "Courting the Lady Scythe," Barth Anderson's "The Last Escape," even Vylar Kaftan's "Godivy" all seemed to fit into this category. They need a city in which to happen, but there is no sense of a deep and intimate relationship with an entity called the City. I say "even" Vylar Kaftan's story because while it is set within a quintessentially urban setting—the office in the central business district, downtown, Canary Wharf, wherever big business hangs out in your town or city—the fantastical elements move so far beyond the quasi-realistic setting the reader seems to be witnessing, from the inside out, the madness of someone who has been in the most extreme form of urban environment for far too long.
Some stories come closer, sometimes much closer, in the way they examine the interconnectedness of the city and its people. Cat Rambo's "The Bumblety's Marble" presents this as a series of complex commercial transactions, although again this is not the meat of the story, while "Andretto Walks The King's Way," by Forrest Aguirre, tracks the transmission of disease from one person to another as they move around the city—no one, high or low, can remain aloof. Catherynne M. Valente's "Palimpsest," one of very few stories that seem to celebrate the city in any way, maps the city and its people, and allows them to map one another, literally. In contrast, Ben Peek's "The Funeral, Ruined," a rare science fictional story in the collection, queries the relationship between people and city rather than merely accepting it, as does Jay Lake's "Promises; A Tale of the City Imperishable." Peek's Issuer is a city of transients, close to the huge cremation Ovens, and created by a speculator who services the temporary needs of those bringing their dead to be disposed of. It is, as Peek says, a city of purpose. Linette, living among the dead, dying, and transients, can no longer fulfil her role as a soldier, but neither can she yet join the dead. She does not belong, but given she sees herself as being as good as dead, why would she leave? Lake's City Imperishable is held together by a mysterious sisterhood who police it with a rough but serviceable justice, on the grounds that at least if they do it, the bad is balanced by the good they also do. It is shaped, as one character notes, by a "sad wisdom" (p. 69), and by an endless string of compromises that have to be made for life to continue.
And at the end, we are left with two stories. One is Anna Tambour's "The Age of Fish, Post-Flowers" which is set in a future New York, under siege from extremely large fish, or sea serpents, or possibly something else altogether, and an attendant but perhaps unrelated loss of viable seeds; plants and soil have become a valuable commodity. Why does this feel like urban fantasy to me? Because the characters are at the heart of the city, and the city is at the heart of the story. It's impossible to separate one from the other. It's not really a story about monster fish; it's a story about a small group of people working together, constantly adjusting to the new conditions around them, improvising, adapting, being part of the city.
The other story is Hal Duncan's magisterial "The Tower of Morning's Bones." In some ways, it is a typical piece of Hal Duncan fiction: a cascade of words, patched together at crazy angles, a tidal wave of meanings that teeter constantly on the brink of comprehension and then slip away just as you think you've figured them out. It's practically impossible to summarise this story, other than to say that it performs the rise and fall, ebb and flow of a city, its people and their lives. As the lord architect recognises, "the city defies all reason, all attempts to grasp at any sort of certainty within its structure" (p. 28).
This, finally, is the point where definitions fail. I see many enjoyable stories in this anthology but very little that I recognise as urban fantasy, yet Nevins, and probably Clute as well, may see things very differently. In the end, the individual experience of the city escapes from the boundaries of definition, for, as Duncan also notes, "there has been, once far ago, for every wanderer on the road, a city made for them alone" (p. 20). At the same time, a story set in a city doesn't become perforce an urban fantasy. As I have been writing this review, I have discovered that there are three or four working definitions of urban fantasy currently in circulation, from the "classic urban" I tend to favour, through various kinds of manifestation of the magical within the mundane, to something as crude as Buffy in books. Yet none of these definitions seem to be fully addressed within this anthology. While Paper Cities brings together many excellent stories about cities and their inhabitants, in the end, I am not convinced that it brings us any closer to understanding what urban fantasy is all about. Perhaps the point is that it can't, so it might as well present cities for individuals and leave the readers to sort it out.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a freelance copyeditor, a part-time student, and a full-time reader; in her spare time she eats, sleeps, and grows plants.