Tag Archives: urban fantasy

Book Review: Aukland Allies by Mike Reeves-McMillan

AucklandAllies_MRMCover_rev104Genre: Urban Fantasy with Steampunk Highlights

Description: As bit players in the world of magic, Tara, Sparx, and their clairvoyant acquaintance Steampunk Sally are careful to stay clear of New Zealand’s supernatural politics. So after Sally uses her powers to win a little money at blackjack, it’s a nasty surprise when hired goons come after them.

Hitting the streets, they try to find out who these Blokes in Black work for, why such a dangerous and powerful figure has his sights set on three magical nobodies–and how to protect themselves.

Another fun read from Mike Reeves-McMillan, author of the Gryphon Clerks series. Disclaimer called for as usual; I beta read for Mike (and vice-versa) and I beta read this book. What I usually expect from Mike is a book with very deep and powerful characterization, but a bit of a disorganized plot that could be tighter.

Aukland Allies is an exception to that rule. It’s fast-paced, with a well-knit story line that blends a thrilling struggle against nefarious foes of awesome power with nerdy personal conflicts and a bit of off-beat romance.

The story is set in Aukland, New Zealand, where Mike lives. That’s an unusual setting for urban fantasy. Most UF stories are set either in the United States or in the UK. But it works well, and the descriptions of the city and its barely-tamed environs are a large part of the book’s considerable charm. One delicious scene has Sally overcoming an armed and magically potent attacker using local wildlife as a weapon, in a way that strangers from the northern hemisphere would never expect.

Aukland Allies is not only a great story in its own right, but it has the potential to start an urban fantasy series that’s unusual and way above average. It’s got a subculture of magical practitioners, with shadowy, authoritarian people in positions of power, fascist nasties like the Blokes in Black, and much youthful rebellion and challenge to fossilized tradition.

Applying my usual objective system, I’m going to give Aukland Allies five stars. This is the first time I’ve done that for one of Mike’s stories, but this one has superior characterization and writing (as his usually do), and also a superior plot.

If you like urban fantasy, geek culture, or occult stories, get this book.

It’s available at Amazon and other outlets for $2.99.

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A Sip of Fear (Chapter Three)

A Sip of FearHere’s the third chapter of my new novel, A Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated. A slight hitch happened on the way to publication, so the book will be available tomorrow rather than today. I’ll post links to the book at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords in a new post then, and add it to the sideboard. I’m going through the Smashwords distribution system for other outlets (Barnes & Noble, Apple, etc.) so it should be available there within a week or so.

Meanwhile, hope you enjoy this third installment.

 

I encountered Ela-Tu for the first time when I was fifteen.

Magic fired up in my brain a few years before that, surrounding me like music that never stopped playing. Feelings coming my way from other people, auras and borderline realities seen from the corner of my eye, strands of fate plucked like chords or whispering secrets in my ear.

A lot of people have a little sensitivity to the Power. It’s much more common than most people realize. The sense you get when you’re being watched. The knowledge of who’s calling on the phone before you answer it. The fear that grabs the heart when a loved one is in danger, felt before the word comes. The desperate prayer in troubled times that gives birth to a miracle of shifted odds. Many people know such things. Magic in small amounts is nothing out of the ordinary.

I have more than a little of it. That’s rarer. Those with the ability to become virtuosos of the Art gulp down occult lore like drunkards. We can’t help it, even though the payoff is scant. Most of what’s written on the subject is complete crap made up by sensation-mongers and scam artists. A small subset covers better ground, but amounts to poor, if honest, understanding of one of the biggest puzzles life has to offer. Only a few rare tracts offer real, sound knowledge, because only a few of us have ever discovered that knowledge.

Among the cream of the magical world, the Illuminated are in a class by ourselves.

As far as I know, anyway. Maybe there are others out there that would make us look like amateurs, keeping themselves hidden from us because they can. I can’t speak about hypotheticals like that.

What I do know is that Illuminated always come from the ranks of those who have a special gift of magic and have studied the art, and nearly all Illuminated have at one time or another dabbled in the summoning of spirits. Now, spirits are of several kinds. Most spirits spring from the mind of the magic user in a form of controlled imagination that endows the creature with a measure of the summoner’s free will. That sort of spirit is useful for enhancing spells or managing them in an intelligent way while the mind of the magician is engaged elsewhere. But is the spirit real or imaginary? In the shifting world of the mental moonscapes, pregnant with sorcery, where meaning takes the place of mass and association replaces distance, everything is both and the question can’t be asked or answered.

But some spirits are different. Some touch on older and stronger magic, dangerous and seductive. Among those are the ones we call the Luminous. The Luminous defy all of the arts of ceremonial magic. You can’t command a Luminous by invoking names of God, sigils, or words of power. You can’t negotiate a pact with one of them; the terms of bonding are fixed, take it or leave it. The Luminous may come to your call, or you may call it without realizing what you’re doing, or it may summon you — or it may ignore you altogether and leave your efforts empty of result. But however it happens, meeting a Luminous changes your perspective on yourself, your life, and the cosmos, and after the bonding you are never the same.

For me, it happened when I played with spirit summoning, a teenager who knew almost nothing, certainly not what I was doing, and sent a call out to a spirit who could help me be a healer. No name. No idea what I would call. I just wanted to heal the sick and hurt. It seemed right.

For six weeks when I was fifteen, every night I drew a magic circle in the air with a consecrated wand and focused my will and desire. Every night I sent the call. Every night I went to sleep wondering why I bothered, why I persisted when nothing ever followed.

Until it did. Until she came.

When Ela-Tu answered my call, resistance was impossible. I fell in love. Since then, I have had more lovers than I can count — a side effect of bonding to a spirit of Life — but no matter who shares my bed, I have always been hers. I will be hers until I die.

ξ

Being Illuminated comes at a price and carries an obligation. I thought about that as I walked along Golden Gardens Drive in the misty rain the next day. Sometimes the obligation isn’t a problem. I didn’t mind looking for signs of illness in the trees and wildlife and healing it, or doing the same for people. But Erica walked beside me as a reminder of other obligations that weren’t so simple.

The Ice Woman wore a hooded jacket. Her glossy brown hair framed her face in tight curls under the hood and collected drops of rainwater to sparkle in the cool air. I turned to her and tried to smile. Then I noticed that some of those water drops had frozen, beading her hair like woven-in gems. My breath smoked. Hers didn’t. Not a good sign. She was angry.

She was always angry with me. By her lights, I deserved it. Most people would agree with her. The problem is, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. And it’s not as if she didn’t know that going into our relationship. She picked up on the thought without my having to say anything.

“I know,” she said. She looked at me. I felt the temperature drop. “I knew what you were. I asked you if you could be faithful to me.”

“And I told you probably not,” I said.

“Yes. I should have listened. I couldn’t. I —” She stopped and frowned. “You meant a lot more to me than you should have.”

I stopped to inspect the wide blackened hole in an oak tree, burned some years past by lightning. The tree had sprouted around the dead area and now it looked like a dark door into mystery. I smiled. The tree didn’t need my attention. I turned back to my ex-girlfriend, who did.

“You meant a lot to me, too, Erica. Really, you did. And you still do. I didn’t cheat on you because I didn’t care. I did it because —”

“I know, Gordon. You did it because Ela-Tu wanted you to. She never wants you to say no to anyone. She probably won’t be happy until you have a couple of dozen offspring.”

“She hasn’t pressured me about that, actually. Kind of surprising.” I touched her arm, and despite everything, felt a surge of desire. Ela-Tu still wasn’t talking to me, but her influence remained strong, and my powers hadn’t weakened. I stopped myself from pulling Erica into an embrace. She wouldn’t have appreciated it, and it would only have hurt her more. “I’m sorry, Erica.”

“I know that, too. But it doesn’t really help.” She sighed. “And I’m sorry, too, Gordon. You can’t help being what you are.” She paused. “How’s Rose?”

“The same.”

“You’ve cheated on her, too, haven’t you?”

“It’s not against our rules, Erica, so no, it’s not cheating. But if you mean I’ve had other women, yes. And one man. Rose understands. I’m not saying she never gets jealous, but she handles it.”

“She shouldn’t have to.”

I shrugged.

Erica sighed. “Right. She has you because she can handle it, and I don’t because I can’t. So it goes.” She shook her head. “Tell me about Shadow.”

“You’ve decided I’m not crazy?”

“No. But Marcus doesn’t think you are. He believes you, so I’m prepared to listen. Why do you think the bogey-man is real?”

I explained the evidence that Rose had found. “So the pattern shows that Shadow is real.”

“Wait a minute. What did she consider a Shadow sighting anyway?”

“Reports from people who saw him. Or said they did. What else?”

“Yeah, but nobody knows what he looks like.”

“There are stories. Someone who blends into the shadows, moves really fast, and kills Illuminated. He wears a black cloak and hood. He’s incredibly strong. He’s got an aura of death around him that any magician can see, Illuminated or not. Several of those elements together in a report equals Shadow. Except a few of them were false alarms.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, Gordon. Have you considered the possibility that you’re both fooling yourselves? This seems like a pretty shaky basis —”

“Shh. Someone’s coming. Keep your voice down.”

A man approached us from ahead on the road. Erica nodded and continued in a whisper.

“Rose could have unconsciously created this pattern she saw out of background noise.”

“I doubt that, Erica. She’s a mentat. She doesn’t make mistakes that way. If it was me doing it, yeah, you might have a point.”

The man drew closer to us. He wore a black wool jacket with a hood. Something about him felt — off, wrong. His aura seemed dark and cold. I smelled a faint odor of decay.

Could this be Shadow? I doubted it. He moved like a normal man, and I couldn’t sense the signs of Illumination. But still, there was something about him.

As all this was running through my brain, the man stopped, hands in his pockets, about ten feet away.

“Gordon Greenbough?” he said.

“That’s me,” I said. “Who are you?”

He pulled his right hand from his coat pocket. A pistol came with it.

“Shadow says hello,” he said, and shot me twice in the gut. I fell. As the pain hit me in a delayed reaction, the road and the trees spun wildly and everything went dark.

ξ

When I woke up, I was still in the park. My head rested on something soft. A bit of exploration confirmed that it was Erica’s lap. With some embarrassment, I removed my hand from her thigh and sat up. That’s when I remembered getting shot.

A moment of panic ensued as I felt about my midsection, but the wounds had already healed. My clothes were a lost cause, bullet holes in my jacket and shirt and stained with lots of my blood. As I brushed myself off, two small objects fell to the ground. These proved to be mangled bullets, expelled from my body by muscle contractions as the healing power worked on me. I slipped them into my pocket for souvenirs.

“What happened?” I said.

“You got shot,” said Erica.

“Yeah, I remember that part.”

“I got the guy who shot you,” she said, nodding at something to my left. I looked that direction and saw a man maybe in his thirties, dressed in a black wool jacket with a hood. His body lay crusted with ice in a thin but solid layer, slowly melting into the undergrowth. His open eyes stared at the sky and his open mouth shrieked in silent shock. “I dragged him away from the road and then did the same to you. I know it’s not a good idea to move someone hurt as badly as you were, but I know how quickly you heal. He should have aimed for something that would kill you instantly, like a head shot.”

“If he was trying to kill me. I’m not sure he was.”

“Maybe he was just a bad shot.” She stood up and brushed leaves and twigs off her jacket. “You look a mess, Gordon.”

“Thanks for saving me. I’ve never been shot before. It feels weird.”

“Weird?”

“Well, it hurt. Now I feel kind of itchy. And a little woozy. Probably the blood loss. Also I need a shower and to change clothes.”

“What should we do with him?” she said, nodding at the corpse.

“I don’t know. He’s kind of — I mean, if they find him before he thaws out, that could be a problem.”

“Yeah.”

“Let me try something.”

I knelt beside the corpse and put my hands on his jacket, reaching inside him with my magical senses and the special health-sense that Ela-Tu gave me. He was dead, of course, no way I could heal that, but plenty of things were still alive inside him, cells of his body that hadn’t died yet and bacteria. I encouraged them to greater activity. I also pulled power up from the ground, which I often did when healing living things. In a little under a minute, the ice covering his body started to crack. The melting accelerated. Pretty soon most of the ice was gone, the ground under the corpse just a little damper than the surrounding turf.

“There,” I said, standing up. “He’ll still be a medical mystery, but it won’t be as blatant. Let’s get out of here.”

“Do you have anything to change into?”

“No.”

“Here.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a spare windbreaker. “It’s a little small for you, but it should cover the bloodstains.”

“Okay. Thanks.” I slipped into the windbreaker, which was a little small for me as she said, but not too bad. Erica is nearly as tall as I am. I could wear her clothes in a pinch. I’d done it before.

“I guess I believe in Shadow now,” Erica said as we walked back to our cars.

“That couldn’t have been him, though.” I frowned.

“No, I don’t think I could have killed Shadow that easily. He was probably a mind-control victim. Spooky.”

“No kidding. This whole thing is spooky.”

“Shadow must know who you are, Gordon. He knows your name. That guy asked if you were you. Right?”

“Yeah. That’s pretty scary.”

She bit her lip. “I don’t want you to die.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean it. There have been times I was so mad at you I thought I wanted you dead, but I don’t. Do you think Shadow is aiming for you? Has he picked you as his victim?”

“I don’t know. Pretty cocky to announce it like that if he is.”

“Yeah.” She folded her arms. Her brow furrowed. “He feeds on fear as well as blood. That’s what the stories say. Maybe he’s trying to scare you.”

“Doing a good job of it, then.”

“What are we going to do, Gordon?”

“Find him. Stop him. Kill him if we can.”

“How?”

We came out of the park to where my green rebuilt Karmann Ghia was parked. Erica’s SUV was right behind it.

“I don’t know how,” I said. “Everyone has weaknesses, though. We’ll find Shadow’s.”

“Okay.” She smiled. “I’ll call you later. Just to make sure you’re all right.”

“Thanks.”

I got in and started my car. My hands trembled so badly I had to take several deep breaths before I could make the key do its job.

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End Stretch for A Sip of Fear

A Sip of FearI’ve been berating myself for not managing to post another article here for two weeks, in spite of greatly expanding my pool of possible topics. The truth is, I’m in the final stretch of getting my new novel, the first in a new series, ready for publication. A Sip of Fear is out to beta readers and I’ve heard back from one of them. I’ll make further revisions to the story based on their suggestions, give it a last proofing and copy-editing pass, finalize the cover design, and publish. It will probably be out by the end of next month.

This makes it difficult for me to concentrate on anything else. Not just this blog, but my other work in progress, The Rapier (volume 3 of the Refuge series) is being shamefully neglected. So, what the hell. I’ll say some things about how A Sip of Fear has developed and what readers can expect.

The premise and world building of The Illuminated are covered elsewhere, so I won’t go into those again. Suffice to say that the Illuminated are magic users, each of whom has a familiar spirit called a Luminous who provides one specific power or a related group of powers. The main protagonist and viewpoint character is Gordon Greenbough the bio-mage, who has healing and other life-related powers. The main antagonist initially is Shadow, a mysterious undead assassin bonded to Apep, the spirit of Death. Shadow’s character develops in the course of the story and she becomes much less mysterious, and also less unambiguously an antagonist.

The essential problem is that Shadow is coming to kill Gordon. He has no way to stop her. She is invincible: immortal, indestructible, superhumanly strong and fast, able to kill with a touch, and completely immune to Gordon’s powers as a bio-mage, which affect only living things. But there’s more to this. Turns out that Shadow normally kills only akusala, which are Illuminated who turn utterly evil. She’s coming after Gordon, who is not akusala, because of an arrangement between her Luminous and his. It’s a test. Gordon’s Luminous, Ela-Tu, wants him to evolve in some unknown way. If he manages to do that, his evolution will reveal a path to surviving Shadow’s attack. If not, he’ll die.

In the course of seeking this way out, Gordon learns about akusala, meets an akusala bio-mage, encounters Ela-Tu’s dark side twin, Ela-Lin, gets to know Shadow herself and deals with questions of life and death and good and evil — as in, what are these things? As I wrote this story, I found the character of Shadow evolving in ways that I really liked. She turns out to be nothing like what one would expect from a stereotypical undead killing machine. She’s full of passion and idealism, and all too ready to love. I am nowhere near finished thinking about where to take future stories in the series, but one tempting possibility is to write books from the viewpoint of other Illuminated, and in that case I will certainly want to create at least one centered around Shadow.

But I’m not sure I’ll do that. The other option, more conventional, would be to write the whole series from Gordon’s perspective.

Anyway, this is my explanation and apology for dropping the ball here. I’ll have an announcement when the book is actually published. In the meantime, hopefully I’ll be able to pull it together soon.

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The Illuminated: A New Fantasy Series in The Making

14342905_sThis post is to discuss ahead of time a new fantasy series of mine, the first book of which is about one-third complete. The book is called A Sip of Fear, and I’ll talk a bit about it later in this post. The series is called The IlluminatedIt’s closer to a classic urban fantasy than anything I’ve written before. It’s a bit darker than I usually write (although still far from “dark fiction” — there are heroes, there’s genuine optimism, and although the moral questions can be complex there’s moral clarity). The first book has a theme of death and its part in life. Back to that in a moment.

The Illuminated is contemporary fantasy. A Sip of Fear is set in Seattle, where I lived for 18 years, and it’s likely that most of the future volumes will be, too. (Although I’m not completely sure of that at this point. Sip is told in the first person from the perspective of Gordon, who lives there. I haven’t decided if he’ll be the central character of the whole series, or if I’ll tell the stories of other Illuminated in future volumes instead.)

The world of The Illuminated is our world, with one fantasy addition, the Illuminated mages. The Illuminated are real-world occult magic users who have bonded to familiar spirits called Luminous. Each Luminous gives his or her Illuminated (a Luminous can have more than one) a certain set of fantasy magical powers. What that means is that each Illuminated is a real-world magic user with normal real-world magical powers (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, fateshaping, etc.) and one power, or a related group of powers, that is more fantastic.

Each Luminous also expects some service from his or her Illuminated in exchange for the powers. This is the Illuminated’s Purpose: what he or she feels compelled to do in service to the Luminous. The bond with the Luminous creates subtle changes in the personality of the Illuminated. This can make for interesting and difficult personal interactions. Finally, each Illuminated can talk to his or her Luminous and has that relationship going on as well.

So far, the story has introduced the following Illuminated:

Gordon Greenbough. Gordon is the viewpoint character. He’s a bio-mage. His Luminous, Ela-Tu, gives him powers over life and living things. He can heal injuries or illnesses, coax flowers to bloom and fruit to ripen, improve the taste of food, make incredible sex happen, and generally do good things for life. He can also reverse these abilities and cause harm by magic, and cause plants to move, bind animals in roots or vines, and so on. His Luminous expects him to heal those around him, humans, animals, and plants. More problematically, she also expects Gordon to make a healing connection to others through sex — with anyone he’s even mildly interested in. This makes it difficult for Gordon to maintain a lasting relationship, and his tense interaction with his ex-girlfriend Erica is part of his character revelation.

Rose Tillith. Rose is Gordon’s current girlfriend. She’s a mentat, blessed with powers of intellect by her Luminous, Kakoth. Gordon describes her as “a cuter Sherlock Holmes minus the cocaine.” Rose’s powers are more subtle than those of some other Illuminated, but she’s almost impossible to fool. She’s the one who figures out that Shadow is real, and pinpoints Shadow’s identity. Her icy rationality lets her accept Gordon’s philandering as part of who he is as a bio-mage and has allowed their relationship to last.

Erica Jenner. Erica is Gordon’s ex. She’s a frost mage, commonly known as the Ice Woman, who has a simple power: the ability to suck heat from an object (or person). Her Luminous is mostly concerned with the danger of fire, and Erica puts out fires whenever she can, usually beating the fire department to the scene. Despite her Illuminated nature, Erica has a fiery temper and is no one to cross — something Gordon found out the hard way.

Marcus Jones. Marcus, the owner and manager of the Green Woman bar (a local Illuminated hangout), is a tinker mage. His Luminous inspires him to invent magically-powered devices that shouldn’t work, but do. His basement is a big laboratory with chemistry, mechanics, and electronics sections as well as a table devoted to putting the final magical touches on his devices. Marcus is well liked and gregarious. He invents a device that can detect Shadow’s presence, among others.

Jenny Carrow. Jenny is a mind mage, capable of controlling the minds of others to inspire loyalty, or any other emotion she wants. Her powers, fortunately, don’t work as well on Illuminated.

Frank Nguyen. Frank is an animal handler. His powers are like Jenny’s, but applied to animals.

Doug Walker. Doug is a shape-shifter. A werewolf, simply enough.

Sarah Cole. Sarah is new in town. She calls herself a “glamor mage,” with mind-control powers from her Luminous that mostly involve illusion. She’s very smart and very beautiful and looking for a tryst with Gordon, which, of course, she’s likely to get, creating complications for everyone. Rose thinks there’s something odd about Sarah, some connection between her and Shadow, but isn’t sure what yet.

Shadow was a scary legend among the Illuminated until Rose proved he’s real. Shadow is undead, an Illuminated bonded to Apophet, the spirit of Death, who had to die to achieve the bond. He’s the basis for all the vampire stories and legends. He is rumored to be at least a thousand years old. His powers are a devastating mix of superhuman strength and speed, illusion, mind control, and a fatal touch. He drinks blood or drains life-essence — the stories conflict. Shadow’s purpose is a matter of speculation, but what the Illuminated in Seattle know is that he comes to a town, stays a while, and kills one — just one — Illuminated, and then moves on to the next location where he does the same thing.

This time, in Seattle, he’s coming for Gordon.

A Sip of Fear should be finished and published in 2015, hopefully some time around June or July. I’ll keep you updated in future posts. The art above is what I’m considering for cover art.

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Genre, And Departure Therefrom

22348052_sThis post began as a spin-off in my thinking from two things. One was the review I wrote last week for Hope and the Clever Man by Mike Reeves-McMillan. I had to think about how to place that book in terms of genre. It could be classified as either alternate-world fantasy or divergent steampunk. It’s a fantasy because it has two fantasy elements, magic and quasi-humans. The magic even behaves like magic usually does part of the time: a mage can cast a curse on someone, for example, or perform a healing spell. But it can also be used to create “gates” that serve as permanent energy sources, pulling heat in from another universe. This energy source can then drive machinery that obeys the normal laws of physics. This machinery can be used by anyone, not just mages, and its existence gives the story a steampunk feel. Yet steampunk normally doesn’t rely on magic as a power source for its fictional technology, so Mike’s tale departs from the genre template for both alternate-world fantasy and steampunk. Which is it? Both — and, strictly speaking, neither.

The other thing involves my own writing, which is mostly fantasy, with an occasional foray into science fiction (or, as in The Order Master, blending the two), but none of it adheres to a genre template. I’ve got four contemporary fantasy novels, none of them with a single vampire or werewolf. I’ve got two alternate-world fantasies, but neither of them involves a Medieval society. (One of the “Two Worlds” in the Tale of Two Worlds is roughly 18th-century and the other is so magical it’s hard to categorize, but certainly it bears little resemblance to any society in our own history.)

Genre fiction walks a fine line between being difficult to recognize as part of the genre and being overly formulaic. A reader who has enjoyed a story of a certain type will often respond well to similar themes and story elements in another story, but also becomes bored with the same thing replayed over and over. With respect to fantasy, here are some formula descriptions of the common subgenres.

Alternate world fantasy (AWF). This story is set in an alternate world with a low level of technology and social, political, and religious structures reminiscent of the ancient world or the Middle Ages. War is conducted on foot or horseback, wielding edged weapons and bows. Government consists of monarchies, hereditary nobility, and official priesthoods. Magic is an art wielded by the talented either in secret or in orders or schools, which may or may not be affiliated with a temple.

Epic Fantasy. (This is a sub-genre of alternate world fantasy.) The world is threatened by dark forces of one kind or another and the protagonists must deal with this either directly or indirectly. Typically, the protagonist is the hero of an ages-old prophecy that promises the demise of the dark forces at the hand of an ordinary commoner of extraordinary talents, or else is a True King in exile who must defeat the dark forces in order to regain his throne. Adhering to the AWF template, epic fantasy features a vast, world-spanning conflict with immense stakes and a battle against ultimate evil.

Contemporary fantasy. The story is set in our own world, with fantasy elements added. Quasi-humans out of horror fiction (such as werewolves and vampires) exist in secret in our world, sometimes accompanied by secret practitioners of the magical arts (who may or may not be human) and non-horror quasi-humans such as elves, pixies, etc. In most cases, these fantasy elements operate in secrecy, unknown to most people. In a few cases, the world has been transformed by some event and the fantasy elements operate openly.

Urban fantasy. This sub-genre of contemporary fantasy has many of the same elements, but also has a gritty, noir feel to it. The fantasy elements in urban fantasy is usually very dark, and the protagonist is either a hard-boiled person who is accustomed to dealing with that darkness but now faces an unusually difficult challenge, or a less-experienced person plunged into a strange milieu and having to deal.

Paranormal romance. Another sub-genre of contemporary fantasy, this is, as the name implies, a romance story in a fantasy setting. Archetypically, it involves a romance between a fantasy/horror quasi-human (such as a vampire) and a normal human being.

Now, strictly speaking and by definition, the above descriptions include many non-mandatory features. A contemporary fantasy, for example, by strict definition, is simply a story set in our own modern world that includes fantasy elements — any fantasy elements. It doesn’t have to have vampires or werewolves to be called a “contemporary fantasy.” And yet, because contemporary fantasy stories with vampires and werewolves were among the first such tales to achieve popularity, the template has imprinted and when readers browsing through books see the designation “contemporary fantasy” (or urban fantasy or paranormal romance), vampires and werewolves are the first things that usually pop into their minds. This may, of course, mislead.

Similarly, an alternate world fantasy doesn’t have to happen in a low-technology setting. Strictly speaking, an alternate world fantasy is simply a story set on a world other than our own, in which fantasy elements exist. The alternate world could conceivably be another planet with a science-fiction technological base. Or it could be anything in between that and the low-tech world that is the AWF template. Again, however, the first expectation that pops into people’s heads on seeing a designation such as “epic fantasy” is something similar to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy has such enormous potential to depart from the templates and achieve real creativity in world-building (as well as character-creation and storytelling) that it seems a shame to me to try to pigeonhole it into strict subgenres with exact descriptions of the type of story elements that are expected. And yet that happens — more for commercial reasons than any other, I think — and boundaries are placed on the imagination in the process.

Image credit: ateliersommerland / 123RF Stock Photo

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