I’ve been working my way through a stack of urban fantasy novels lately, as part of a research project. One question I’ve been asking myself is how each story justifies being both urban and fantasy, as opposed to either a straightforward crime novel or a secondary world fantasy.
I recently re-read Storm Front, the first book in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, and I have to say that it’s a pretty tidy little summary of how the urban and the fantasy can be kept in good balance.
Protagonist Harry Dresden is a wizard who lives in modern-day Chicago and works with the police; he has an advert in the yellow pages, reading “HARRY DRESDEN – WIZARD”. On one level, this is Pratchettesque silliness; on the other, it is perfectly plausible. After all, innumerable people around the world claim to have supernatural powers of one sort or another, and some have even taken part in criminal investigations (if not always to great results). Why not a consulting wizard?
A while back I wrote about Tanya Huff’s Blood Price from 1991, a foundational text in urban fantasy. Blood Price and Storm Front are similar in terms of world-building, but a big difference is that Huff’s main character, Vicki Nelson, has no prior experience with the supernatural at the story’s start; she is a detective of the mundane world, and is drawn into the underworld of vampires and demons. Butcher’s story is different: it starts off by plunging the reader directly into Harry Dresden’s world of magic. With this approach, Butcher is tapping into a genre older than Huffian urban fantasy.
Harry Dresden fits into the tradition of the occult detective, something that goes back as far as the Prichards’ Flaxman Low stories from the nineteenth century. Flaxman Low, in turn, was essentially a weird fiction version of Sherlock Holmes; fast forward a century, and his descendants such as Dresden will have a wider range of fictional detectives and crimebusters to turn to for inspiration…
Each of the supernatural creatures encountered by Dresden in Storm Front corresponds to a familiar character role in crime fiction. The fairy he summons for answers early on is rather like a low-level criminal taken in for questioning. The vampiress is a classic femme fatale. Bob, the air elemental who inhabits a human skull in Dresden’s home and outlines the workings of the spirit realm when necessary, serves as a kind of informant. The toad-like demon that hassles Dresden is a supernatural hitman. The wizards of the White Council, who wrongly believe Dresden guilty of the story’s murders, are similar to the unsympathetic superiors who have troubled many a Dirty Harry.
Then we have the main villain, Victor Shadowman. A wizard like Dresden, but lacking his moral compass, Shadowman produces a drug called ThreeEye which lends supernatural abilities to its users. This leads to a gang war, as producers of conventional drugs fight to win back the share of the underground that they’ve lost to Shadowman.
This is the point where the urban and the fantasy mesh together most neatly. Butcher has taken a true-life aspect of urban crime, added a fantasy element, and ended up with a premise that (within the context of the genre) is plausible and engaging.
Shadowman embodies this split. He represents both everyday evil (he acts abusively towards his non-magical wife and children) and something more elemental (the title of the novel refers to the deadly storm that begins to engulf Chicago as Shadowman’s powers grow).
The second book, Fool Moon, uses a similar dynamic by placing werewolves into a story about gang warfare. It initially appears that the werewolves are all part of gangland, but it later transpires that FBI agents have knowingly made use of lycanthropic magic so as to gain the upper hand: the story is exploring the theme of power and corruption, mixing elements from crime fiction and gothic horror where effective. Meanwhile, the third instalment, Grave Peril, shifts the balance from urban to fantasy by having Harry Dresden enter a portal to the spirit world.
The strength of Storm Front and its sequels is that they avoid using their fantasy elements as mere decoration, or as crude metaphors. Instead, they play with the conventions of both fantasy and non-fantasy fiction, freely mixing and matching to come up with combinations that, at the end of the day, just feel right.