panel, take two

This past weekend I was on the following panel at WFC:

Urban Fantasyβ€”Beyond the Usual Suspects
It seems as if most urban fantasy uses the familiar European myths. What other possibilities are there? Which authors have successfully exploited them?

A number of us had grievances with the direction the panel ended up going in, so I’m officially hosting Take Two right here. We hammered the “cultural appropriation” angle to death — again — so I’m not looking to hash that one out. Instead, here are some of the things I wanted to talk about and didn’t really get to. I’ll put my questions up front, then my personal views behind a cut (for length); feel free to respond to the questions and/or pose your own in the comments.

1) What are the benefits of going outside “the familiar European myths”? What do we gain, as writers or readers, by looking to other parts of the world?

2) What are the downsides? Aside from the issue of appropriation, what drawbacks or challenges result from going further afield?

3) I posited briefly in the panel that you can imagine a spectrum, ranging from American Gods-style globalized, multicultural cross-over, to setting-specific approaches that firmly ground the supernatural and mundane elements in a locality. Benefits and drawbacks? Preferences, and if so, why?

4) Who has done this well? What other cultures do they draw on, and why do you say they’re done well?

5) Who’s done it badly? Even if you don’t want to name names, what kinds of mistakes bug you?

6) If we’re moving away from European sources, where are we moving to? (We touched on this briefly at the end of the panel, but I’d like to discuss it in more detail.)

1) It’s hard to find a way to phrase this that doesn’t sound like I’m fetishizing the exotic, but I want something different, dammit. There are other modes of belief, other ways of viewing the world, other ways of creating symbolic meaning, than just those originating in Western Europe. I think it’s good for me to seek out that kind of mental flexibility, rather than resting comfortably in my defaults.

2) You may not get your readers to follow you. The names and terms will be unfamiliar; the concepts may be hard to grasp, or even repugnant. I’m working on some Mesoamerican-styled fantasy in short stories right now because it’s alien enough that I’m not sure I could get a reader to stick with me the length of a novel. (I don’t think Marella Sands’ books sold terribly well.) But if I push the envelope a bit on a shorter scale, hopefully I’ll make some headway toward it.

Also, the more unfamiliar something is, the harder it will probably be to research it. I can get my hands on a book about British faerie lore by sticking my hand blindly on a shelf at a bookstore; if I want to talk about sub-Saharan Africa, my task will be harder.

3) As much as I like the globalizing approach, I would dearly love to see more localized urban fantasies set in other parts of the world. Of course, the difficulty there is that you probably need to live in a city, or at least give it an intensive visit, to represent it fairly and plausibly. But I’d gladly shell out money for an Indian urban fantasy set in Mumbai, or a Japanese one in Kyoto, or a Kenyan one in Nairobi. Don’t just rip the interesting concept out and stick it in America; leave it there and show me what role it could play in modern life at home.

4) and 5) Honestly, I’ll leave these for other people to answer. I haven’t read a broad enough range of urban fantasy to have a list at hand. The most I can really say is that I was disappointed Lukyanenko’s Night Watch et al used such generic supernatural creatures, and that I really need to find the time to read fellow panelist Ekaterina Sedia’s A Secret History of Moscow, which I have suspected for months now is exactly the antidote I’m looking for.

6) China and Japan. I don’t think these trends operate independently of what’s going on more broadly in our lives; as those countries continue to grow in importance to American pop culture (as I think they will), I expect we’ll see more Asian-based urban fantasy, specifically those countries. After that? I don’t know, but my money and hope would be India. Especially since it’s got such a high percentage of English speakers. A good urban fantasy based on Indian materials could, I imagine, sell like hotcakes, and I’d buy one in a heartbeat.

I’d love to see more African/Caribbean material, but I fear the political tensions surrounding such books here in America mean I won’t really see it happen any time soon.

Pitch in. We don’t have a time limit here; we can go as long as we like.

0 Responses to “panel, take two”

  1. shveta_thakrar

    I’m working on an Indian-based novel set in Philadelphia. I know you said that for your part, you’d rather see such a story set in India, but I think it’s interesting to explore the culture from an ABCD’s point of view. Growing up here, how important is it? How does being in America affect the protagonist and the fey creatures involved?

    As for the others you mentioned, I’d love to see them, too!

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s interesting too, of course. I think I’m so interested in seeing them set in other countries, though, because if they’re all set in America then it creates this weird impression that nowhere else in the world has cities. (Or at least cities with magical things in them.)

      . . . ABCD? It just occurred to me that I have no idea what that one means.

      • shveta_thakrar

        That’s interesting too, of course. I think I’m so interested in seeing them set in other countries, though, because if they’re all set in America then it creates this weird impression that nowhere else in the world has cities. (Or at least cities with magical things in them.)

        *nod* I definitely agree. I personally don’t feel like I know India (or any other non-U.S. country) well enough to set a novel there, but I’d defintely try a short story set elsewhere. And here’s hoping someone else does have that level of comfort and knowledge (like Ian McDonald and Salman Rushdie)! I am ready to read all about the rest of the world and their cool creatures and people. It’s like traveling on a budget–and without the bugs. πŸ™‚

  2. annemariewrites

    I’m terribly sorry I missed this panel! The topic is right up my folklore lovin’ alley.

    As readers, we gain everything. Culture. Language. Myths and legends unknown to us. (Though, obviously, only in pieces. Not enough to make us fluent or experts.) As writers, we could be the trend setters that pave the way for more stories from non-European cultures.

    The flip side, as I see it, is more complicated. As readers, we risk reading something too foreign, and then never reading anything in that genre again. (This doesn’t describe me — I read ketchup labels — but there are picky readers.) As writers, we could lose everything. If it’s too far afield of the current trend, we run the risk of never finding publication. Unless, of course, we already have a publication track record. Then, we might risk our reputations. I’m not sure on that last bit as A) I’ve read everything certain authors have written even though quality has declined and B) I’m unpublished.

    I’d prefer to see more American folklore novels. Not European mixes that traveled over here with some of our ancestors. I wrote a novel that mixes Native American stories and cultures into an urban American setting. It was the book that *I* wanted to read, so I’d like to read more of those kinds of stories. However, being the folklore junkie that I am, I’d read anything from Icelandic sagas to Thai dramas. Right now, I’d read anything *but* European-style tales.

    For a long time, all I was reading was YA urban fantasy. Most of them are euro-centric, so it’s hard to remember what other books have done this well, or even at all. There are quite a few short stories in both The Faery Reel and The Coyote Road that explore other cultural beliefs and settings. So, that’s a start. The cultures, I recall, were Chinese and Japanese. I think they worked well because they didn’t use too many foreign terms or get bogged down by different belief systems, but, I suppose, more importantly the writers were good at what they did/do. The characters, setting, etc. were believable and real.

    I’m not sure I have enough reading in the specified genre to answer this one way or another.

    I’d have to agree that both China and Japan seem to be trendy right now. Again, though, I’d like to read something American-centric. North, Middle, or South American would suffice. I live here and want to know more about what came before the Europeans. However, like you, I’d enjoy a good Indian story. They’ve got some really great folk tales and all of the religions are rife with beautiful and poignant stories. South Pacific tales would be great too. Russian lore is largely untapped and amazing in its own way. Okay, let me be honest, I’d read anything that mentioned folklore, mythology, or culture. It’s my kink. πŸ˜‰

    That’s all from me. I can’t wait to read other responses!

    • Marie Brennan

      It isn’t just reputation a writer risks; if I put out a Polynesian urban fantasy and nobody bought it, then I’d have a damn hard time selling my next book.

      Native American material, like African/Caribbean, carries a freight of political tension. Some American Indian groups don’t mind it if you do your research and get things right; it came up in the panel that the Diné (Navajo) generally approve of Tony Hillerman’s work. Others don’t want outsiders touching their cultures with a hundred-mile pole. I agree with you that I’d like to see more, because it would help counteract the general erasure of American Indians from America, but it’s problematic.

      (Note: I’m using the term “American Indian” because, according at least to a comment by Joseph Bruchac on another panel, mostly that’s the term they prefer. I’m not about to assume that’s true of every American Indian/Native American/First American/pick your term, but if I can offend fewer people by changing my word choice, I will.)

      • annemariewrites

        if I put out a Polynesian urban fantasy and nobody bought it, then I’d have a damn hard time selling my next book.

        Exactly! Unless you’d already sold millions of other books like Stephen King, Anne Rice, or JK Rowling (to name a few).

        Your comment about NA, Afr/Cari material carrying political tension makes me wonder why Japanese lore doesn’t carry the same tension. Are we so blinded by the anime and manga that we’ve forgotten our history? Has the public memory forgotten that the USA put hundreds (nay, thousands) of Japanese-Americans into camps during WWII? One of those camps was in Denver. Both of my friend’s grandparents and great-grandparents were forced from their homes in California to these camps. Have we forgotten so easily that War and it’s tragic losses because of this new “enemy” in the Middle East? Hey, there’s a story waiting to be told! The Iraqi folk tale that takes place in modern day Iraq. (Again, I’d eat it up. I might be abnormal in the realm of readers.)

        And I’m more thinking aloud than anything else. I believe in the power of forgiveness. A friend from Hiroshima taught me as much. See, they don’t talk about the bomb there. It’s a source of great shame for them — even today, more than 50 years after the fact. I also believe that some of these cultures are dying out. If we don’t remember them now and celebrate them, who will?

        And this thread has some really amazing comments and ideas in it! So thanks for thinking outside of the box. πŸ™‚

        • Marie Brennan

          I think people do forget about the internment camps, but I also don’t think the internment camps quite carry the same degree of pervasive, long-term political disenfranchisement and genocide that slavery and colonialism do. Which isn’t to say they were okay — but they aren’t quite the same thing, either.

          Glad you’re enjoying the discussion! I am, too.

  3. blindmouse

    Just a courtesy note that I’ve friended you. Am an entirely random passer-by, but I read the pitch for Doppelganger somewhere a couple weeks ago, and found it rattling around in my head; I love to see a premise where the conflict is set up between the protagonists, rather than introducing a less likable antagonist to fight. Doesn’t seem to be distributed in Australia, though, so am not a reader.

    Making an attempt to be slightly on topic: the best example of Who has done this well? I can think of is Ruth Manley’s The Plumb Rain Scroll, which is children’s fantasy set in legendary ancient Japan, and using Japanese folklore. I haven’t read it in years, but she did an awesome job of making the material accessible and fascinating to an Anglo kid with no background knowledge.

    Coming from the other direction, I would say that the Fullmetal Alchemist manga is a rather good example of a Japanese writer incorporating Western culture and mythology into Japanese to make a world that feels new and different in either context.

    • Marie Brennan

      My publisher is planning on reissuing those two books next August, which may very well include a proper UK distribution, so perhaps some copies will make their way to your part of the world. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Australia is usually in the UK distribution sphere.)

      I’ve heard interesting things about Fullmetal Alchemist, but never had the time to check it out myself.

      • blindmouse

        Shall look out for it, then πŸ™‚

        And yes, we tend to get the UK editions out here.

      • kurayami_hime

        Watch Fullmetal Alchemist for the military. I had zero interest in the series until told me that, and she was totally right. I could take or leave the main characters, but so much love on military/political stuff. So much love.

        And now back to your regularly scheduled discussion.

  4. dsgood

    I have a suspicion that there are people in India who could write good urban fantasy set in their own cities — but they’re setting their fiction in exotic places like Detroit.

    • david_de_beer

      yup, most probably. I followed part of the online Filipino SF debate, and afew of them remarked on this (they seemed rather amused overall), that while western readers and writers had an increasing hunger for non-western settings and tropes, they in turn had in increasing hunger for western tropes.

      apart from that (the “exotic” not being all that exotic to the people living there”), there’s also practical issues for most writers – set your story in the US, if you’re writing in English, because most English readers live in the US.

      • Marie Brennan

        I just wish US readers had a greater hunger to know about other parts of the world. It’s like the (painfully true) joke: what do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

    • fivemack

      If you want the ambience, read Vikram Chandra’s _Sacred Games_ or Vikram Seth’s _A Suitable Boy_; there’s a lot there, and I’m not sure what more you’d get from having a wonderful invocation of India and an avatar of Ganesh.

    • Marie Brennan

      I wish I could remember what Vandana Singh said about Indian fantasy (=fantasy written in India, rather than fantasy written about India), but at this point I’m afraid it’s been too long and I’ve forgotten most of it. I don’t remember getting the impression that Indian writers were setting their stories in Detroit, though.

      Honestly, I hope not. Because America isn’t the only place worth writing about.

  5. mrissa

    Aww, crap, B., did you have to do this to me?

    Because I started thinking: so. Cities have different ethnic mixes. Here in Mpls, we have a lot of Scandos (including Finns and Saami — and enough Scandos around that Saami have partially separate ethnic identity!), Germans, Somalis, and Hmong. And more Mexicans and other Latin American ethnicities and more Russians and Ukrainians than we did ten years ago. Different cities are going to have a different mix — every once in a great while I’d see typically Hmong features on someone on BART and think, “Oh, honey, you should go back home where you belong,” meaning my home, Minneapolis, not the hills of Southeast Asia.

    So what I want out of this is non-generic Anycity, USA, multicultural settings, as though everybody has the same number of Caribbean immigrants. I want the people who are setting their contemporary fantasies in Detroit to set them in Detroit with the cultural mix it has now. War for the Oaks was fine when Emma wrote it, but it’s pretty clearly historical urban fantasy now: not enough of the new myths. Not enough story cloths. Not enough women in really bright headscarves over their parkas. Not enough next door neighbors who will mutter that the main character is a bruja to the blonde who nods in agreement and makes the hex sign I was taught, surreptitiously.

    And this doesn’t dodge the cultural appropriation debate — except it does a little bit, because Minneapolis is my culture, and that includes the bits of things that aren’t my ancestry. Any New Yorker should be able to tell you that much.

    And now I’m thinking, well, damn, if you want a thing done….

    • Marie Brennan

      ehe hee hee hee hee I mean oh I’m so terribly sorry. <tries and fails to look penitent>

      You’re right, of course. You can get a nice powerful sense of place with the globalized approach, too, if you pay attention to the actual mix present in a given city, rather than tossing in a few token Hispanics and blacks and Asians and leaving it at that. More people should do so.

      • cathschaffstump

        Oddly enough, I’m also thinking along these lines. One of my next projects will be a faerie story set in the Cedar Rapids, Ia area. Of course, western faeries abound, but we have a very large Sudanese population, and our populations from Congo and Burundi are increasing.

        What will it be like when you get all the mythical creatures from those traditions together, based on what you know about them.

        I’m all for immigrant faerie books. πŸ™‚


        • Marie Brennan

          Out of curiosity, how will you be doing your research on the Sudan/Congo/Burundi material? Books, or speaking to locals from those groups?

          • cathschaffstump


            I am very blessed to be the head of an English Language Acquisition Program at the community college where I teach, and I get to work with interesting people from all sorts of cultures every day. Many good friends are Sudanese.

            I’ve also been doing some reading, mostly volumes of The Arabian Nights to cover the Arabic part of the culture of Northern Sudan. I have yet to research/locate/read good sources on the African fantastic, save the animal tales.

            I also think it’s essential to hang with the locals, to get the feel of how those folks are going to sound, act, and think. If they’d be willing, I’m going to ask for some readers as well, although English becomes an issue.

            So, lots more to learn!


          • Marie Brennan


            The difficulty of researching is the major hurdle between me and a variety of cultures. I have a few things about sub-Saharan African lore, but not many, and they’re all from different areas.

        • shveta_thakrar

          That’s right; you and I were going to chat about this, and then we didn’t. Are you still up for that?

        • diatryma

          When I think of Iowa fantasy stories, I get stuck in the stereotypical corn, corn, corn. Even though I know there’s a lot more (and if there are fairies on the streets of Iowa City, they’re probably pissed at me for never giving them change). There’s not a great deal of *rural* fantasy either.
          Which is only tangential to the point that urban is not universally white artist-class.

          • Marie Brennan

            I like your choice of “artist” rather than “middle” for the class. Hello, Charles de Lint. <g>

          • diatryma

            I spent a bit of time obsessing over that word. Urban fantasy is not typically about people with responsibilities tying them to the non-fantastic world– you can’t go haring off on a quest if you have to pick up the kids at four and tomorrow you have a meeting to discuss your future in the company. You have to be able to take vacations on little notice– you have to be able to leave the mundane world without necessarily entering a fantasy one. That means self-employed people, summer teachers, and anyone with a great deal of vacation time saved up. People who are already out of the mundane world.
            I haven’t read very much urban fantasy or real world/fantasy world crossover where the main character has a family. Some Holly Lisle, some YA, though YA tends to kill the parents to get them out of the way.

          • Marie Brennan

            One of the things I love muchly about the first season of the new Doctor Who is that Rose’s family and friends continue to matter. It’s great in a horrible way — she’s just awful to them, if you think about it, popping in and out unexpectedly, disrupting their lives every time, so they can’t have her and can’t let go of her — but it leavens the “let’s go have an adventure!” attitude with some interesting context and consequences.

            But I think your wording betrays some of the assumptions our genre could use to question more: you can’t go haring off on a quest. So the answer is to write more non-questy fantasy. Write legends, not fairy tales — in Luthi’s analysis, fairy tales take place far away, while legends take place nearby.

          • diatryma

            Could you elaborate more on that second paragraph? It may be just that it’s late and I’m tired, but I’m not entirely following– and what I can follow sounds really interesting and I would like to know more.

          • Marie Brennan

            Eh, it’s late and I’m lazy and I shouldn’t have thrown Luthi in there without explaining him. I blame the fact that I’m teaching a fairy-tales class.

            One of the distinctions he makes between folktales and legends is that in folktales, you go far away for your supernatural experience, and when you encounter it, you don’t think it’s weird. (“Oh, hey, a talking dog just gave me one of its paws. Neat.”) In legends, your supernatural experience happens in your own backyard, and you do think it’s weird. (“Jesus Christ that tree tried to eat me!”)

            So my brain coughed that comparison up when I thought about having more fantasy take place close to home and involve the people around you, rather than drawing you away from home and your context and responsibilities there.

          • diatryma

            I tend to define ‘fae realm’ as ‘far away’ so even if the action happens in the lobby of the apartment building, if it’s not specifically anchored to the mundane world, it counts as distant. I think this is why I like things like “Mom and Dad on the Home Front” or, oh, there was one in Strange Horizons that was years after a Narnia event, and the people dealing with it– it deals with the fantastic, but is in the mundane world.

            But that is a wonderful distinction, and I shall poke at it throughout the day.

          • Marie Brennan

            That’s actually kind of what Luthi’s saying: fairy tales substitute spatial distance for spiritual distance (hence the journey, but lack of surprise), whereas legends have spiritual distance instead of spatial (it’s in your backyard and freaks you out). Either way it’s “far away,” but differently so.

            The legend approach just gives you more opportunity to keep the protagonist’s daily life relevant to the plot.

          • cathschaffstump

            One of the things I love muchly about the first season of the new Doctor Who is that Rose’s family and friends continue to matter. It’s great in a horrible way — she’s just awful to them, if you think about it, popping in and out unexpectedly, disrupting their lives every time, so they can’t have her and can’t let go of her — but it leavens the “let’s go have an adventure!” attitude with some interesting context and consequences.

            Word! The companions matter and are real. That’s one of the *best* things about new Who!

          • mirrorred_star

            One of the things I love muchly about the first season of the new Doctor Who is that Rose’s family and friends continue to matter. It’s great in a horrible way — she’s just awful to them, if you think about it, popping in and out unexpectedly, disrupting their lives every time, so they can’t have her and can’t let go of her — but it leavens the “let’s go have an adventure!” attitude with some interesting context and consequences.

            It grounds Rose’s experiences in the everyday more. Its more ‘real’ than the old series ever was, and it consequently means more to the audience because it has that realness.

          • cathschaffstump

            I want to write some rural fantasy, and I hope to use this Iowa book to do that too. A core cast of characters are trolls of Scandinavian descent who have settled in farming communities around Cedar Falls that watch the thin part between faerie and our world.

            And you know, I like being from rural roots, because I can write authentically about dust storms on gravel roads, summer swimming lessons, and rhubarb pie. Which are things that trolls growing up in small town Iowa need to know. πŸ™‚

            I’m convinced that Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Cedar Falls are full of fae, both from around and not from around here. πŸ˜€


  6. kblincoln

    I just had an agent write on their rejection “There just isn’t a market for Japanese fantasy right now.” I’d submitted a YA Contemporary fantasy set in Tokyo with a Japanese girl protagonist.

    Do you think the agent is clueless? Or is it possible that the hunger for multi-cultural fantasy mostly comes from other writers? I wonder sometimes if the hunger for (particularly) Japan related stuff isn’t limited to a form people know already-manga and anime.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t think the wave has quite hit yet, but I suspect we’re seeing the front edges of it. And this isn’t to say I expect Japanese urban fantasy to outsell the usual European stuff; just that I think there is/could be/will be a market for it, as Japanese pop culture achieves greater diffusion in America. And a smart editor who picked up a good Japanese urban fantasy and figured out how to market it to the manga crowd could make bank.

      So I don’t think the agent is clueless so much as not forward-thinking enough.

  7. eclectician

    I’m not sure what parameters a narrative might need to meet to qualify for inclusion here, but thought I’d point out that:

    a. there’s quite a bit of urban fantasy anime / manga out there – Vampire Princess Miyu and Death Note are the two I’ve most recently run across.

    b. Are you talking about urban fantasy as a genre that specifically draws on folkloric elements? Because there’s a great deal of stuff that gets shelved under “literature” – all the magical realist stuff – that has fantastical elements and a localized setting, though I’m not sure how localized the magical elements are. Frex, Murakami is pretty non-specific and non-folkloric, but certainly fantastic.

    c. I mentioned your issue with Lukyanenko’s stuff to D, and she started trying to think about Russian folkloric / fantasy elements that could have been incorporated. The short answer she came up with is that Baba Yaga sort of kind of appears in Twilight Watch (but how specific is the witch in the woods, anyway?) and more to the point – it would be hard to write an urban fantasy in Russia because so much of the folklore is based on rural spaces and nature spirits.

    • Marie Brennan

      We honestly didn’t start out by defining “urban fantasy” — which I was fine with, because that might have meant we spent the entire panel chasing our definitional tails, instead of beating the cold dead corpse of cultural appropriation. But given the context, I think our primary focus is on the established sub-genre in novels. Which is not to say there isn’t interesting stuff going on in manga and magical realism and so on.

      it would be hard to write an urban fantasy in Russia because so much of the folklore is based on rural spaces and nature spirits.

      Like European folklore isn’t? Emma Bull stuck a glaistig in a fountain, a sidhe in a rock band, and a phouka on a couch. That isn’t exactly their natural habitat. We’re used to it now, but there was a certain mental shift that happened along the line as we worked to imagine how rural European critters might get incorporated into the modern world.

      And that, I think, is part of why I want to see more non-European stuff: to escape the implication that the beliefs and legends of Other People (especially Brown People) are somehow backward and not relevant to the current day.

  8. diatryma

    My brain is not sorted into questions just now. Rambly!

    I think a major of non-standard urban fantasy is that it is nonstandard. I know faerie stories. I know selkies and under the hill. I know dragons. And part of urban fantasy is *changing* those, so the selkies are no longer just seal women without their skins (one could argue that this hasn’t happened with selkies, but it’s the first one to pop into my head). Dragons aren’t unilaterally evil lizards with flamethrowers. The reader gets to see traditional folklore in a new light, and this is informed by everything already known about the traditional folklore. We know The Little Mermaid in some form, we know the sirens, we know general mermaidlike things, so urban fantasy generally puts mermaids in the sewers, forces them into Arizona for perfectly valid mermaid reasons, and gives them strange, nonmermaid relationships with the two-footed ones.
    And unfamiliar folktales don’t have the same impact. If you write a story about a Mesoamerican creature, I’m not going to come at it with the same Disneyfied baggage. At least some stories have to be written in the traditional way to give me grounding for when urban fantasy subverts the tropes.
    Sometimes it seems like authors get around this by using equivalents– they want a water spirit, but they don’t want the traditional European, so they have to use something close enough to what we know that the fact that it’s *not* standard Celtic mythology gives it an edge. Which is not exactly what I want to say. There are Russian water spirits (Catherynne Valente has her “Urchins, While Swimming” and that *works*), Irish water spirits, water spirits all over the place, so you can write a story without necessarily having to delineate what makes *this* water spirit different from all *those*– they’re all similar enough. Which makes me wonder what would happen if you have just the same water spirits everywhere, instead of defining them so strictly. If you write a mermaid that’s indistinguishable from the standard mermaid, but it’s actually Polynesian, how does that change the story, the feel of sources, the diversity?

    On a personal level, if source-mixing isn’t done well, it pisses me right the hell off. CE Murphy’s Urban Shaman, while fun, bugged me; the main character has a mix of Irish and Native American magics, and it didn’t feel natural to me. The mix was contrived. A lot of times, it seems like there’s the Irish, there’s the Native American, and there’s *nothing else*, nothing in the middle, no immigration, nothing. Old World vs New World, often working together. De Lint does this a lot, and it doesn’t always work.
    And the trickster is *always* Coyote.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s true that you’re playing a different game with the reader if you aren’t both coming to the table with a shared understanding of the trope. That’s why, I think, my only really successful flash fiction has all been riffing on familiar fairy tales or other sources. But you can still make something out of re-imagining them in an urban context — your mermaids in the Arizona sewers — it just means you might have to work a little harder on communicating your starting point to your reader. (Generic “you,” not specific “you.”)

      • diatryma

        The ‘working harder’ bit may be why we see more European urban fantasy. For short stories especially, there may not be a lot of room to explain the original source, and in a novel, it can feel contrived if you explain that yes, this is a mermaid, here are her powers, here is her tradition, and now we are going to subvert it.
        Maybe the first step in writing popular nontraditional urban fantasy is establishing or finding a community that understands nontraditional tropes. If you want to play with the chupacabra, you have to find readers who will play with you.

        Drat it, now I have plotbunnies. There is no *reason* for a chupacabra to be in the Arizona sewers. There are no goats there. It will be a sad and smelly goatsucker.

        • Marie Brennan

          Maybe it’s sucking on the mermaids instead? And suffering a mystical vitamin deficiency because of it!

          I will stop feeding your plotbunnies. Really I will.

          Anyway, my short-and-sweet (really short-and-blunt) answer to your actual point here is, that ain’t no excuse for not trying. There are ways to get your readers to come play with you. And once a few people do the work of establishing the New Thing, then you can start to bring the New Thing in without having to explain it. (Frex, I think you can get away with using a kitsune now sans extensive explanation.)

          • diatryma

            Ah, I see what you mean. Yeah, that should happen more often.

            I don’t think poor Chupacabra will prey on sewer mermaids. Sad, smelly, damp, and scurvilicious? No, that is not the proud Chupacabra. In my head, it looks rather like a goat (I know this is not the accepted chupacabra description, but I imprinted strangely), so it could move unnoticed through the herd. Like a caprine vampire.

            You know the worst thing about sewer stories now? I’m in a bunch of wastewater engineering classes. In the past, class-inspired stories have been fun, but no more. Le sigh.

          • Marie Brennan

            <lol> Sorry to hear it.

          • diatryma

            After a bit of Wikipediing, I have found that the chupacabra’s an infant in terms of folklore. 1995! Baby Sister is older than that!
            Which generates its own plot bunnies.

            If you were going to suggest to me, not a rigorous researcher, a folkloric tradition for the playing with and subversion, what would it be? I have no Cassie-specific cultural tradition to draw on.

          • Marie Brennan

            Well, it’s hard to say. If by “not a rigorous researcher” you mean you’ll do the research so long as it doesn’t require black-belt Google fu, access to a high-quality folklore research library, or the nerve to cold-mail strangers with questions, then you have options; just go for something that’s reasonably prominent. Which is part of why European things are so often written about; it’s easy to research them. Non-European, I’d probably point you at Japan or Russia, as I think both of those can be researched without high degrees of difficulty. (Japan because of growing popularity; Russia because we’ve translated a decent number of their folklorists.)

          • diatryma

            You meant this entire discussion to inspire your writerbuddies, didn’t you. Not as its entire goal, but nng, I am going to be picking up shiny bits of non-Euro folklore and probably not talking myself out of it nearly as fast as usual. Wicked of you.

          • Marie Brennan

            <polishes halo, puts it back on>

  9. squirrel_monkey

    Hey! Some disjointed thoughts:

    It’s not even the westernness of the tropes, it’s their sameness. Seriously, does the world need another vampire/werewolf book? Meanwhile both western European and American traditions have much untapped potential — alchemy, the occult, all sorts of folksy magic (basically, what Paul Jessup describes as post-industrial fantasy).

    American Gods — I mentioned this book because it attempts to deal meaningfully with immigration. This is of interest to me, because I’m writing an immigrant book right now — takes place in NJ; this particular trope allows one to write about culture without pretending to speak for this culture.

    OK, enough for now. I’ll ay more as I verbalize it.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m convinced the world doesn’t have more alchemical fantasy because alchemists deliberately tried not to communicate their ideas and theories to other people, at least not in print and/or comprehensible form, which makes familiarizing oneself with it damned hard.

      Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything. <g>

      Anyway, yes, it isn’t so much the western-ness as the familiarity. But I would say the familiarity goes beyond the surface; sure, there’s the western occult, but I think many of the basic ideas there have permeated fantasy (urban and otherwise) pretty thoroughly, so that even if you used that as your focus instead of vampires, it wouldn’t feel all that terribly new. (For certain types of the occult, of course. If you gave me hard-core John Dee Christian kabbalism, that would be new.)

      re: immigration — see Mrissa’s comment above. Go tell her to write that book. ^_^

  10. kate_nepveu

    As a reader, something non-familiar gets my attention in good and bad ways: good because *different* and therefore interesting, bad because I’m on the alert for something offensive–especially because there’s often a disconnect between how things are packaged and how they really are, and the packaging could make it look worse than it is.

    I also have a slight preference for localized stuff, whether real or fictional, because I like worldbuilding and I’m not afraid to say so.

    Finally, I have a big long thing recommending _Fullmetal Alchemist_ => :

    • Marie Brennan

      I like worldbuilding, too, which is why Celtic/Norse/medieval stuff rarely draws my eye anymore. I’m already familiar with those worlds, often moreso than the writer is. And you can usually convey a better sense of world if you focus on a limited area, rather than giving me a big (and usually vague) canvas.

      • kate_nepveu

        It does seem like _scope_ is a really hard thing to do well, doesn’t it? Both depth and breadth, after all.

        • Marie Brennan

          I read good epic fantasy for scope. To do it well, you pretty much have to have multiple books, so as to build up all that depth and breadth gradually.

  11. sora_blue

    Question re #6

    Are we writing Japanese people in Kyoto or Westerners? Because those are two distinctly different stories.

    • Marie Brennan

      Do I have to choose? <g> I’m interested in seeing the supernatural be Japanese. Certainly there are westerners in Kyoto, and might be included in such a story (particularly if it helps the reader enter into the unfamiliar), but I sincerely hope there are, y’know, actual Japanese people in it too, or I’ll be much taken aback.

      • sora_blue

        Well… there may be something in ON SPEC you’ll like, but I think it might be too westernized. πŸ˜‰

        • Marie Brennan

          πŸ™‚ Hey, anything that touches on Japan tends to interest me.

          • sora_blue

            Me too.

            But I would like to see UF go global–not in the globalization (which I’m doing in a first book,) but go on vacation to these other places. There’s such a wealth of inspiration available from other mythologies.

            But it’s almost like you have to leave the UF subgenre to find that or go small press. The DETECTIVE CHEN series is set in future China, heavily based in Chinese mythology. AS FATE DECREES is a new Canadian book set in Athens, Greece. Still, future and past.

            Maybe in this PC world where LJ is ready to point out race issues we’re all a little leery about “getting it wrong.”

          • Marie Brennan

            Okay, but we’re also in the age where information is literally at our fingertips, an unimaginable wealth of it. I cannot conceive of how I would have researched Midnight Never Come without the Internet; sure, I used print books, too, but those often gave me concepts rather than specific details. I would not have wanted to do this without the OED, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Stellarium, and Google.

            So there’s a silver lining, at least. ^_^

          • sora_blue

            Thank god for the internet. Research has become so much easier with it. πŸ™‚

  12. jenncatt

    Just out of interest, and slightly off at a tangent, I’m curious why no-one really seems to be doing UK-set urban fantasy recently… At least, I haven’t seen any so far.
    China Mieville’s King Rat springs to mind (although it’s a tad more edgy than the genre tends to be at the mo) and at a pinch I think Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere fits, but they were both several years ago.
    Kit Whitfield’s Bareback/Benighted was more recent, but very careful to be vague about even what country it was set in. Yep, it did feel quite British but was also more dystopian than urban fantasy.
    I noticed Simon R Green has a series going that looks like London-set UF, but it seems odd that no UK female authors are following the trend considering how well the US genre authors are doing over here (well, I seem to own several shelf-fulls, lol!).
    Or am I missing something?

    • Marie Brennan

      Or am I missing something?

      Me! <g> (I don’t know if you’re new to FFF, so I have no idea whether you’ve seen me talking about Midnight Never Come over there.) At this point I’m set up for an entire series of London-based urban fantasies, though they’re all historical. Of course, I’m a US writer, not a UK one. But anyway, yeah — the boom seems to be much more American than British.

      • jenncatt

        That’s an interesting thought – I hadn’t considered that there might be historical urban fantasies. I just started working at the Houses of Parliament, and it’s still a huge novelty being in these buildings that have seen so much history, not to mention the fantastic architecture – there’s a huge amount of the mythical past still present in the city and it seems strange to me that no-one over here has utilised that yet.

        I think your London trip entries just sold me on Midnight Never Comes actually – I spend a lot of time being frustrated with London and it made a nice change to see it through a fresh pair of eyes πŸ™‚

        • Marie Brennan

          It depends on how you use the term “urban fantasy.” I’d love to see us shift our definitions so “urban” literally points at city-centric fantasies (whether in modern times, the past, or other worlds), and “contemporary” points at modern settings of any kind (including suburban and rural). Then you could have a contemporary urban fantasy, a historical urban fantasy, a contemporary rural fantasy, etc.

          But it’s swimming against the tide, to try and introduce that usage.

          I’m glad you like my trip posts! A part of me is extremely nervous about writing so intensely about London, being a childhood Texan educated in Massachusetts and now living in Indiana. I’ve spent, cumulatively, a little more than three months in the UK, but most of that in places other than London. I really hope what I’ve written rings true to the locals.

          It’s truly a fascinating city, though. Any time you get a place like that, where people have been living without interruption for more than a thousand years, you build up a depth of history that’s just fascinating to someone like me. (Dallas, where I grew up, has a tendency to rip out things after twenty years and replace them, so it ends up feeling even newer than it should.)

          • jenncatt

            As they say, the past is a foreign country–so I wouldn’t worry about historical London ringing true to the locals of today. We tend to build over and around things, and the city’s been burned down and bombed more than a few times. Besides, I get the feeling you’re far more au fait with Elizabethan London than the average Brit :o)

            Most people working in London seem weirdly cut off from all the historical stuff around and about. Personally, I still get a kick out of seeing a chunk of the original London Wall tucked behind the hotel next to my train station, and the little dragons at the end of London Bridge, but I seem to be the only commuter gawking most of the time, lol!

            Funnily enough, three months is about the length of time I’ve spent travelling in the States over the past few years, and I’m always fascinated by how much closer to the surface the past is in some places over there: there’s the space for things like Mesa Verde to remain relatively undisturbed, perhaps?

          • Marie Brennan

            Which chunk of wall is that? (If it’s one I didn’t find last trip, I’m totally hunting it down next time.) Didn’t notice the dragons; I’ll have to look for them.

            I know most people won’t spot historical details, but there’s a very tangible connection between the past and present city in terms of how stuff fits together spatially. And, of course, with this Victorian book, and if I do one set during the Blitz, I’ll be coming a lot closer to things people will recognize (and nit-pick).

            I find it interesting that you view history in the U.S. that way. It strikes me as very much an outsider’s perspective; for starters, to many people here, Mesa Verde isn’t our past (because it’s Native American), so they wouldn’t even really think about it. Also, it seems to me that history survives here mostly when it’s in out-of-the-way places. I mean, I grew up in Dallas, where our idea of history is the Sixth Floor Museum, a whopping forty-four years ago. Good luck finding any buildings even so much as a century old. Whereas in central London, even when it all burnt down and got built over by the Victorians and then bombed in the Blitz, I can still find things like a building labeled “John Stow House.” Not the actual building, of course, but there’s an element of continuity that I feel is often lacking over here, where we knock stuff down on a regular basis and then forget it was ever there.

            Or, to put it more succinctly, Mesa Verde probably survives because it’s in the side of a cliff, and not worth knocking down. <sigh>

          • jenncatt

            That particular chunk of London wall is tucked behind the Grange City Hotel on Coopers Row, just between Tower Hill tube station and the side entrance to Fenchurch Street train station… Have a feeling you might have found it last time, it’s quite near Crosswall and has a fairly big metal plaque on the wall outside?
            Another example I like is the Zeppelin Building on Farringdon Road, as the original on that site was destroyed by a zeppelin air raid bomb during the First World War… they have the name drilled in to look like it’s made out of bullet holes. It’s not like many people remember that air raids happened that early, or that they did so much damage.
            Talking about the past/present connection, I just saw in the paper that this map has been put online of Early Modern London. It’s tagged and zoom-able and, I think, the earliest example of a printed map of the area. But Google-ized..!
            It’s getting more fashionable to hark back in London now though: in the past few years, I’ve seen them re-instate the medieval Frost Fairs they used to hold when the Thames froze over, and even hold a commemorative sheep drive over the Millenium Bridge (the sheep were not impressed).

            Well, yep, I’m looking at US history from an outsider’s viewpoint, but I find it hard not to view history anywhere as being more geographical than cultural… Mesa Verde may not be considered your history, but it is American history. Also, I wanted to see it because I’d read Willa Cather’s ‘The Professor’s House’ for my degree, and Mesa Verde/rediscovering Mesa Verde later all felt tied up in my head as one long history after I read that. It’s an odd example, I’ll admit, just one that stayed with me.
            I was in New England on my latest trip though, and most everything there seems preserved as long as possible, so I’m probably not best placed to comment on continuity of history right now! I like the extreme contrasts of history you can see in the States though: that you can see what the glaciers did to the landscape at Yosemite on one hand, and then find a retro diner on Route 66 on another. History usually survives if there’s a tourist trade for it :o)

    • jcberk

      Mieville’s Un Lun Dun is more recent but YA. Seems like most of the news lately has been either about J.K. Rowling or about Susanna Clarke, though.

      • jenncatt

        I feel a bit remiss at not having read Un Lun Dun yet; I used to be a huge Mieville fan but he moved off in a different direction with Iron Council and lost me a bit.

        It does seem that contemporary urban fantasy set in London is relegated to YA like the Mieville and Stone Heart (and, indeed, Rowling) or else UF is just done historically, like Susanna Clarke, or Caroline Stevermer & Pat Wrede’s Sorcery & Cecelia (which is still pretty YA).

        It just seems strange to me that UK ‘chick lit’ has still stuck with fluffy romances while most of the horror section in bookshops (and half the romance section) are filled with American contemporary UF by female authors. It does look like it sells fairly well, as a genre; it’s what I’ve been reading most of since 2000, and LKH first got published over here. Obviously I shall have to keep raiding the YA section for any more home grown stuff, lol!

  13. lankywriter

    I’m all for mixing it up; European folklore, middle eastern, asian, western, etc. Considering we’re a multicultural, multi-racial society, it makes perfect sense. We communicate globally more than ever, so it seems obvious that our fantasy stories, particularly urban fantasy, should do the same. As a reader and a writer, it’s what I expect.

    Not all fantasy races, regardless of their origin, are created equal anyway. Authors have their own ways of portraying the fantastical folk in their stories. Hamilton’s fairies are nothing like Marr’s. Butcher’s vampires are totally diffferent from Rice’s. Harrison’s pixies are very distinguishable from de Franco’s. So no matter where the supernatural entity comes from initially, their inventors use full creative license to mold them into what their stories need.

    There’s so much that can be done with, say, Russian or Japanese or Celtic mythology that could connect them to what readers may find more recognizable. If you stand back and look at the creation myths, you can see how it all stems from the same place anyway.

    Originality is key, IMO, but you can take the familiar and turn it on its ear to get a new perspective, and maybe that’s where another country’s folklore comes in. I just think when you’re talking fantasy, you’re looking at universal appeal to readers who go for that beyond the veil experience no matter where that veil is.

    As far as setting, I’m guessing the more American-centric it is, the better its acceptance among American readers. The story most certainly doesn’t have to stay in the US or Canada. The author has the power to be tour guide for the reader who wants to travel with their American MC to far away lands. But they may need their hand held by an American character who knows her/his way around. Could be a comfort zone thing. I’m just theorizing here.

    • Marie Brennan

      An American character can serve the same narrative function as the person from this world suddenly ending up in another world: they don’t know any of that stuff, so the reader can learn about it along with them. But it’s an easy device to overuse, and since the main character is also generally the character who Gets Stuff Done, there’s a danger of the story making it look like the furriners need a white person to save them. (Unfortunately, given our genre at the moment, that American probably would be white.)

      • squirrel_monkey

        There was a panel at last year’s Wiscon called “What Those People Need Is a Honky” dealing with this exact phenomenon.

        Personally, I heard that ‘you need a protag people can relate to’ as an excuse to insert a white American into every fantastical milieu. And to me, it really sounds like not giving people enough credit (and conflating a reader with a white male, but that’s another story). Sure, there are readers who will not read books with women/minorities/foreigners as protags, and who are eager to announce it on various message boards. But…. so what? Surely there are people who would?

        • Marie Brennan

          A part of me is honestly regretting the fact that doing this Onyx Court series for the foreseeable future means I can’t really get many minority characters into my novels, much less as the central characters. Historical fiction kind of puts constraints on when and where and how far I can push those boundaries. (Though for this upcoming Victorian one, dammit, I will get some Indian fae into it. Just as soon as I figure out what the Indian equivalents of fae are.)

          But for most of the periods I’m writing about, “minorities” would be Roman Catholics and “foreigners” would be Irish and French. The real exceptions were rare enough that I’d be putting my political agenda ahead of my research if I tried to use them much at all.

          Bah. At least I can (and do) feature women prominently in these books.

  14. mirrorred_star

    By looking at other places, we gain a broader view of the world and a better idea of the mindset of other cultures.

    Holly Lisle’s Talyn had really fleshed out non-European cultures, their mindset, and just everything (however, they’re not based on any existing culture, either) I’ve read the trilogy of the Otori chronicles as well (as in, everything but the last two released) I think I just love being dunked straight into an unfamiliar culture. As far as UF goes, no idea. I haven’t read a great deal of UF, so even succubi and were-cats are a new concept as far as I go.

    I’d love to see more Chinese and Japanese based fantasy, urban or trad. Urban would be awesome. Especially Urban like you suggested, set outside the English-speaking West (though I have yet to hear of urban set in New Zealand or anything πŸ™‚ ). The globalised approach could be interesting as well, but that has the potential to end up as ‘Odd creatures in Western context’. Admittedly, I haven’t read American Gods, so I don’t know how well or otherwise this approach works.

    • blindmouse

      though I have yet to hear of urban set in New Zealand or anything πŸ™‚

      Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover would qualify for New Zealand YA urban fantasy πŸ™‚ Probably some of her other work, too.

      • mirrorred_star

        Ooh! I know of her, just don’t think I’ve read any of her work.

        • blindmouse

          She’s definitely worth chasing up – especially The Changeover and The Tricksters. They have marvellous, conceptually layered plots and interesting, original characters with ethically complicated motives. But they have heart too. And, you know, interesting Antipodean settings πŸ™‚

          [End Mahy fangirling]

          For the purposes of this discussion, though: they’re not critter stories. There are no mermaids or werewolves or even Maori folklore figures. The magic is people-based.

          • Marie Brennan

            Nuthin’ wrong with that. I suspect that’s another trend we’ll see more of in UF with time.

          • blindmouse

            Not at all – my favourite kind of magic is people-based. But it’s probably easier to borrow from folklore if you’re borrowing creatures.

            Not that you couldn’t do fascinating things with non-European cultural myths about, say, masks or theatre or dreams …

          • Marie Brennan

            Indeed. Bring on the awesome!

          • mirrorred_star

            She’s definitely worth chasing up – especially The Changeover and The Tricksters. They have marvellous, conceptually layered plots and interesting, original characters with ethically complicated motives. But they have heart too.

            Triple oooh! Quadriple oooh! I am going to be doing so much reading when my thesis is finished πŸ™‚ (Damn thesis, eating up all my brain power. Hmmm, zombie thesis.)

            And, you know, interesting Antipodean settings πŸ™‚

            Anywhere that’s not the US is great for a change, Antipodean or not. (Is fellow Aussie- hi!) There’s just such a lot of stories set in the US that it’s a default setting. Maybe this just proves that I need to get to the library more, though.

          • blindmouse

            There’s just such a lot of stories set in the US that it’s a default setting.

            Most of the urban fantasy writers do seem to be American, which has to have a huge amount to do with it. As a genre, it just doesn’t have much profile outside the US – or it doesn’t in Australia, anyway; I’m not sure what, say, the UK or Germany or Canada are doing. But if you want to buy UF in Melbourne you have to go browse the horror section …

            Is fellow Aussie- hi!

            Hi πŸ˜€

          • blindmouse

            Is fellow Aussie

            … and just because I’m avoiding work by clicking links – hee, we actually have a friend in common :p

          • mirrorred_star

            We do! And she is awesome. And I have a feeling this may soon wander off topic…

          • mirrorred_star

            As in, where do you know her from?/ Ooh, you’ve heard what Joss Whedon is doing next, awesome! And it sounds pretty cool! (mentions Firefly, professes its undying awesomeness and bursts into tears)/ Damn, you sound pretty cool.

          • blindmouse

            I have a feeling this may soon wander off topic…

            May soon? I think we skipped off topic as soon as we started doing the Australians’ Bonding thing πŸ™‚

            I don’t actually know Ethereal especially well – have only met her in life once or twice. But I know her from the Obernewtyn message boards.

            The Dollhouse sounds brilliant, I got all jittery with excitement over it. Memory and identity and costumes! It’s like all of my narrative kinks rolled together into a neat Whedonesque package of awesome.

            Also, yes, the Firefly love. *Offers handkerchief and understanding.*

          • mirrorred_star

            I think we skipped off topic as soon as we started doing the Australians’ Bonding thing πŸ™‚

            Probably, yeah. πŸ™‚ Just as long as doesn’t chase us off with a wooden spoon for spamming her comments…

            Eth is one of the two people on my LJ I know in real life. She is cool. Hey, maybe we can go spam her comments! πŸ˜›

            The Dollhouse does sound absolutely awesome. The identity stuff sounds wicked cool.

            *blows nose on hanky* Thanks. I half-want to go pester him somehow to get it back up because now there’s the fan base, but I don’t think there’s any point now. But I swear, half my f-list has seen Firefly, and they all loved it.

          • Marie Brennan

            There’s strong rumours he’ll be making a second movie, at least.

            And no, no chasing off with a wooden spoon here. ^_^

          • blindmouse

            There’s strong rumours he’ll be making a second movie

            Fingers tightly crossed.

          • mirrorred_star

            I hadn’t heard that he might be making a second movie, but then I don’t hang out in the kinds of places I’d be likely to find out. Maybe I should do something to fix that…

            I hope it goes through as well. The more Firefly in the world, the better.

          • blindmouse

            Have friended you, on general principles. (The general principle in this case being: “Was drawn into multi-comment discussion with person, chances are they’re cool”.)

          • mirrorred_star

            Friended back πŸ™‚ I much likes your general priciples. And mangling grammar πŸ™‚

  15. strangerian

    One writer I recall using non-European elements is, oddly enough, Mercedes Lackey in the Diana Tregarde books, something like 20 years ago. I read these in my jejune adolescence and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear objective readers now say they’re crude in the use of Aztec and pre-Aztec myths in Burning Water, and a memorable Korean ghost-demon in Children of the Night. Still (like her books with gay characters), they matter-of-factly brought those elements into the genre-est of genre literature without making a fuss, just doing it, and made the world a bit more open.

    • Marie Brennan

      I haven’t gone back to re-read Burning Water, so I won’t attempt to pass judgment on its use of Tezcatlipoca et al. But I’d like to see more of that, yes. I mean, how many Mexican immigrants are there in the US now? Let’s pay attention to their stories!

  16. blackholly

    Answering none of your questions, I just wanted to say that it was great to meet you at WFC.

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