Urban fantasy is one of my favourite fictional genres, juxtaposing the fantastic with the mundane (Urban Fantasy with a real character; Urban fantasy on my mind). The world the stories create is one we can imagine ourselves living within, with mystery and magic just around the corner if only the veil hiding it could be ripped away (apocalyptically?).
This kind of writing takes details in our world that we might normally ignore and enchants them, whether that might be a building or place (e.g. the Shard in The Glass God or Knightsbridge in Neverwhere), a local river or creek (e.g. The Rivers of London), a statue or monument (e.g. the City of London’s dragons in The Midnight Mayor), or using everyday items in magical contexts (e.g. Matthew Swift’s use of Oyster cards as part of an incantation).
Mostly the urban fiction I read is UK-based. I enjoy US-based series like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series (both books and TV), Tom Sniegoski’s Remy Chandler books, and J. Michael Straczynski’s Midnight Nation comic series. One thing I find with those, and this is a broad generalisation, is that the British stories seem to pay more attention to the people on the margins of society and make them more visible and valuable in the world. (Some characters and stories like the Mancurian antihero, John Constantine, in DC/Vertigo comics Hellblazer and other titles, also span the US/UK divide, though remain truer to the British elements of the character).
- Old Bailey in Neverwhere. He’s a keeper of pigeons on the rooftops of London and wears clothing made of feathers; (A similar character, The Bowery King, exists in the John Wick films, but I don’t know if there’s a connection);
- The Beggar King and the beggar community, King Rat, the Old Bag Lady, The Tribe (outcasts who gain their magic from tattoos, piercings and biohacking), The Whites (street artists and magicians whose power is in grafitti) in Kate Griffin’s Midnight Mayor and Magicals Anonymous series;
- Razor Eddie, the Punk God of the Straight Razor, in Simon R. Green’s Nightside series who is the sometimes friend, sometime enemy of the protagonist, John Taylor. He kills with his famous pearl-handled razor that can even cut through dimensions, he smells really badly, wears a long grey trench coat that is in sore need of washing, and lives on the leavings of society;
- Chas, taxi driver and best friend of John Constantine;
In these stories, these characters on the margins of society are treated, on the whole, with dignity and respect. I’ve recently been rereading Kate Griffin’s Midnight Mayor series and two things immediately sprang to mind when I was thinking about this. The first is in The Midnight Mayor, when the protagonist, Matthew Swift, chooses to help Loren find her lost son, starting him on a path that will, in turn, connect him to another significant character, Penny, and help save London from the Death of Cities. The act of compassion has lasting and unforseen consequences:
Loren pointed at a pair of red and black trainers, all sponge and wheeze. I tried them on for size. Too big. I put on some more socks, tried them again, shifted round until my weight was right.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Go for a wander.”
“Can you find him?”
“Dunno. I’ll do my best.”
“If you find him … don’t say anything, will you? It’ll only make it worse if you say something.”
She gave me a photo. It’s in my bag. The kid is ugly. He has a big head made bigger by having shaven off his hair. His jaw alone could demolish an old wall; his mouth is too small for the length of chin that surrounds it.
I left my shoes with Loren, a promise that I’d come back, and walked out of the door with the kid’s shoes on my feet.
It is surprisingly hard to scry by footware. It requires a submergence of will, an utter belief that your feet know where they’re going. Sometimes magicians learn how to do this by literally blinding themselves, tying rags over their eyes so that they have to trust entirely in the direction their body takes them, and never question, never doubt, that this is where they have to be. The problem about that is that a pair of shoes, while it may remember where it wants to go, is less likely than a brain to stop at a red light.
You need just enough awareness to stay alive, to stay smart, but not so much that you ever take control. Never question, never doubt. Just take a deep breath, and start walking.
The second comes in the fourth book, The Minority Council, when Swift seeks help from The Beggar King, who confers on Swift the vestments of the king’s office:
Then the Beggar King rose, and unfolded my new clothes.
“Kneel,” he said, and I knelt.
He held aloft a pair of shredding jeans, stained down one leg, with the pockets hanging out.
“I give to you,” he proclaimed, “the foul-smelling trousers of my clan. All who see you shall look away, and you shall bring shame, disgust and pity wherever you walk.”
He handed me the trousers ceremonially, which I hugged to my chest.
Then, “I give you the oversized second-hand shirt of the great fat man who went on a diet and no longer fitted his old clothes. He walks now in pride in tailored suits, does not give the beggars change but will perhaps one day donate a pair of torn-up shoes. Wear it with gratitude and bow your head when strangers walk away.”
I took the shirt. It smelt of chemical disinfectant, and something else, faint and sickly.
A large coat was flourished ceremonially.
“I give you a coat of infinite pockets and vile smell. The last man who owned this coat died in a church porch from exposure on a bitter night. But the vicar buried him in the yard beneath a stone cross, and the vicar’s wife laid flowers, and, though she did not know why, one of the paramedics came who had found the body and pronounced it long dead at the scene, joints stiff before the sun came up. Though you walk by yourself through the city streets, may you never know the truth of what it is to be alone.”
One of the pockets still held a battered plastic cup and the red felt-tip pen that had been used to write, hungry, please help.
A pair of trainers was held aloft. The uppers had come away from the soles, so that the last wearer’s toes could stick out, and the laces had each been knotted together from many fragments.
“These are the shoes of the beggar who cannot afford the bus, who does not have the money for the train. They have walked north and south, east and west, laying their footprints upon the earth with the lightness of a feather. We do not walk as others do, we are not the busy clatter of well-shod heels, we do not march with the stride of the rush hour, we are not joggers in a park or running for the bus. Ours is an ancient walk, the oldest walk known to man, down a path that has not changed since the first stone of the first city wall was laid. We walk together, the city and the beggars, until only the city remains. Take them, and be nothing but the city.”
I took the shoes, huddling them into my meagre bundle of possessions, and looked up.
The Beggar King’s open palm caught me across the side of the face hard enough to knock me down, landing awkwardly on my elbow. He stood over us and for a moment there was an ancient darkness in his eyes, as deep and wild as the whirlwind. “You’re one of us now,” he said, and his soft voice filled the room. “Don’t screw up.”
In these stories the teenagers who are distrusted and devalued by the world are recognised as real people of consequence. So too, those on the margins such as The Beggar King and his people, who form their own community and are recognised as fully human in the stories. As the story ends, Swift, having walked in London on the margins himself, passes on the vestments to another.
Round at the side of the church, I found who I was looking for, sitting alone on an old cardboard box that had been pulled apart to make a small mat. She had two sleeping bags, one inside the other – the first was bright blue, a camper’s sack with drawer strings; the other was a duvet, sewn together, and rotted at the corners. She wore a grey woollen hat and her face was pale, tinged with blue. Her legs were shaking inside the bedding and there was a greyness to her lips, a wideness in the pupils of her eyes. As I approached she eyed me suspiciously, her expression veering between fight or flight. She wasn’t out of her twenties, and though the sleeves of her jumper hid the worst of the track marks, enough capillaries had burst under her skin to tell much of her story.
I’m continually struck by the way in which these stories change how I see those around me. The ones I would normally ignore, mistrust and judge. These stories have a power to them beyond the fantastical elements in them; a power to make you look again at the world around you.
If you’re interested in reading some of these stories, then here are some of my favourites.
The Midnight Mayor series:
- A Madness of Angels;
- The Midnight Mayor;
- The Neon Court;
- The Minority Council;
Magicals Anonymous series:
- Stray Souls;
- The Glass God;
This series follows PC Peter Grant as he is sucked into a world where policing meets the supernatural in London.
In this series, Alex Verus, a magician on the margins in London, is caught between the political powers of the magical world while trying to care for and save his friends and run his magic shop.
Simon R. Green; Neil Gaiman; Paul Cornell
- Simon R. Green’s Nightside series is a tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre (replicated in his other writings with related series);
- Paul Cornell’s series that kicked off in London Falling, is a grim and gritty police series where flawed characters try to handle magical and policing crises. Not many laughs in this, but some significant impact along the way;
- Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere introduced me to the genre. I enjoyed the TV series and it made me constantly look twice while walking around London years after reading it.