Books, read harder 2017

Read Harder: The politics of Urban Fantasy


I’m doing the 2017 Read Harder challenge from Book Riot. For each book I read in  the challenge, I aim to write a short blog post about it

Read: Vigil Angela Slatter

Task: Read a Fantasy Novel

Completed task 4/24

It’s a compelling idea, contemporary urban fantasy. Somewhere, out there in the very streets we walk on, is a hidden realm, a world where the magic, or the divine clash, and save the world, and it’s all out of our view. Urban fantasy sets up this hidden world, usually with some sort of “masquerade” and covenant to keep it from the eyes of us muggles.

It’s an interesting idea, and when done well it gives a new perspective on our familiar cities. Why, in our sleepy neighbourhoods, there could be magical people living among us! That weird neighbour of yours, maybe he’s actually a vampire in disguise? Or mabe (and this goes double for Adelaide given our inherent weird-shit quotient) all those weird and inexplicable crimes have another explanation, it’s totally elves! It’s fun to think about.
That’s an interesting idea, but in some ways isn’t that a kinda weird metaphor? That in our very suburbs there are threats to our very existence? It’s almost similar to some of the discourse around ethnic and cultural minorities in our own communities, and I think by placing it in a fantasy context we’re eliding some of the nastiness that comes with that, rather than tackling it.
Now, this post is spurred by Angela Slatter’s Vigil, which is set in Brisbane and deals with Sirens and other fantasy races (known here as “The Weyrd”). The weyrd live among us, hiding their non-human traits through shapeshifting or glamours, and they could very well be just down the road- that weird hipster cafe, or in a local church, or that house with the nice but secretive neighbours. Good stuff. As a concept, it’s pretty close to a number of other urban fantasy series- The Dresden Files, Sandman Slim, Vampire: the Masquerade (an RPG) and even something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or especially its spin-off, Angel. That’s not to say these are same-y, the execution is different. Nor is it to say that I don’t enjoy this stuff- I smashed through the Dresden Files a couple years ago and eagerly await the new one, I love Buffy, and I quite enjoyed Vigil. A lot of them follow the old pulp noir convention of a rogue investigator (Verity in Vigil is a general troubleshooter for the authorities of the Weyrd, Harry Dresden is essentially “Wizard, PI”) taking on a crime or a series of crimes.
In all of them, there’s usually something rotten within a particular sub-set of the magical community. In Vigil, it’s to do with Sirens (and I won’t spoil further), but in the Dresden Files it’s alternated between werewolves, rogue wizards, and the Fey. Other works have dealt with vampires near exclusively, and still others have hit all points inbetween. Often the general formula is that someone of *insert fantasy race/faction* has gone off the deep end and is doing something bad/killing something/trying to bring about a change in the order of things, and our intrepid hero must stop them. At one point they will go and speak/interrogate/beat up some member of *insert fantasy race/faction* to get information, and *member of fantasy race/faction* will either withhold information until later or have a crisis of conscience and give intrepid hero the information to help. The fantastical ne’er-do-well will be found, their plan thwarted, and the social order of the world/existence of the world will be maintained.
Isn’t this kinda the way sections of the media talk about minority communities? That these communities have customs and beliefs incompatible with the “normal,” and that these things are dangerous? And that the “members of fantasy race/faction” will withhold information that could save people? Isn’t this just the canard that “minorities will protect people from the authorities and therefore shouldn’t be trusted?” Because “fundamentally they are not like us normal, good people and they’re up to something?” We see that rhetoric all the damn time, whether it’s the latest panic about Islam, or immigrants, or any number of other minority groups.
It’s kinda troubling to see that sort of rhetoric applied to fantasy.
I may be over-reading here, and I’m absolutely sure that all of these authors aren’t explicitly trying to draw that parallel. It’s more likely they’re drawing from the word of noirish crime fiction, where this is all too common, or cop shows. How many cop shows have you seen where a particular ethnic minority protects a member of their own, and if only they’d come clean with the police sooner all this trouble would have been avoided? If they’d seen something, why didn’t they say something? This, of course, never applies to straight white people, because racism.
I just think it’s unwittingly a metaphor for right wing anxieties about minorities that have no basis in fact. Now of course, all these authors offset this- they point out that characters are making generalisations, or that they are jumping to conclusions, or that most of the magical community just wants to get on with life. All good stuff, and I trust that it is not the Author’s intent, and this is just one reading so disagree with me as you like.
As a society, we “other” people far too often, painting some folk as less than human. In Urban Fantasy, the other is literally the “Other,” and is already non-human, and that makes it palatable.
I think it’s something that needs examining.

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