One of today’s hot publishing genres is “urban fantasy,” but I’m not sure what that means. I looked into the question and discovered that…a lot of other people aren’t sure, either. Or at least they disagree among themselves.
In 1985, Russell Blackford and David King, two Australian authors, published an anthology of thirteen stories titled Urban Fantasies. Here’s a sketchy summary of that book’s content from Not Free SF. Although people identify urban fantasies written before then, that seems to be the earliest use of the term as a label for a set of stories.
We might gauge how authors understood the term then from Patricia A. McKillip’s essay in Locus in 1992:
In fantasy, the problems are always basically the same, and in science fiction they rarely are. In fantasy, the hero leaves home, goes on a quest, and comes back again. And the landscapes are generally the same. I know there are great exceptions, like urban fantasy. Maybe what I'm trying to do is find different ways of writing fantasy too, so I won't get tired of my own work.Thus, “urban fantasy” was initially defined, like a lot of other genres, in opposition to other works. In this case, McKillip apparently saw urban fantasy as the exception to fantasy’s usual countryside settings.
In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, first published by John Clute and John Grant in 1997. Clute offered a more positive definition:
…the UF recounts an experience. A city may be seen from afar, and is generally seen clear; the UF is told from within, and, from the perspective of characters acting our their roles, it may be difficult to determine the extent and nature of the surrounding reality. UFs are normally texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact intersect and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.Fantasy set in cities and exploring how cities work and what they mean include Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles or China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun.
However, the “urban” part of “urban fantasy” appears to have fallen away in recent years. People are now apparently using the phrase as a label for stories of paranormal romance that aren’t “paranormal romance” in the genre form. Once again, the term is defined in large part by what it’s not.
Juno editor Paula Garon traced the development of the “urban fantasy” label this way:
In current standard romance publishing terminology, “paranormal romance” is a subgenre of romance. In this context, romance, to be romance, must have a plot about the love relationship between two people (usually one male and one female) and have a positive, satisfying ending in which the reader is assured the couple will remain together — if not “happily ever after” than at least happily for an extended period of time. (Romance fans shorthand this necessary “happily ever after” ending as “HEA”.)TOMORROW: Publishing pros try to define “urban fantasy” today.
By this definition, Gone With the Wind is not romance and neither is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View are romance. . . .
Readers of this marketing category called romance have these expectations for the books they buy. They resented books not fitting their definition being termed “romance”. . . . Around 2005, the term “urban fantasy” started to be used to differentiate novels that were not “romance-according-to-romance-genre” (plot about a love relationship with a positive, satisfying–usually “happily ever after”–ending).