Smugglers Ponderings

Smugglers Ponderings: Urban Fantasy – More Than Just Angry Chicks in Leather

Perusing our morning emails and blogs, we noticed this particular article posted over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. The article is an opinion piece by Urban Fantasy author Lilith Saintcrow, of Dante Valentine fame, on the definition of Urban Fantasy, its detractors, and how it is more than just chicks in leather with skillz. The article has caused something of a tempest over at Pat’s blog, with comments ranging from supportive of Ms. Saintcrow’s position, to openly and wildly misogynistic. And, as reviewers that read a lot of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance, we want to weigh in on the situation. Thea will be posting her thoughts on Urban Fantasy and Ms. Saintcrow’s argument here, while Katie (aka Blossum) will post her thoughts as they apply to Paranormal Romance at her spot.


I am an avid reader of Urban Fantasy, and Lilith Saintcrow’s article left me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was eagerly nodding along with her points about tough gal female characters as empowering, and that Urban Fantasy (henceforth “UF”)can be so much more than just chicks in leather with big guns (or magic powers, or katanas, or…you get the picture). On the other hand, there are quite a few things I disagree with so far as her article is concerned (much like this excellent post on the article over at OF Blog of the Fallen).

Ms. Saintcrow centers her argument on the idea the UF is defined as follows:

What truly defines UF, and why the genre has exploded recently, is the moral and ethical ambiguity of its protagonists.
In urban fantasy, the protagonist is dealing as best they can with a world where “good” is relative. Moral and ethical quandaries lurk under the surface, there are very few clear examples of pure unstained good. The lead character’s talents and abilities either set her apart in or initiate her into a world where there is very little in the way of certainty. Friends and foes change places, and antihero isn’t so much the order of the day as that old noir trope, the “decent person in an indecent world”.

I like the application that UF is defined not only by a solo protagonist in a city, using magic in some way–but that a large distinction lies in the morally ambiguous issues raised in the work. I can get on board with this! In many ways, the new UF (and I’m talking the mainstream Harry Dresdens and Rachel Morgans in the POST Anita Blake literary landscape) is very similar to the hardboiled detective novel, or a spaghetti western (heck, even said Rachel Morgan books play on Sergio Leone titles!). Much like The Man With No Name, these new UF protagonists are hardly ever spotlessly pure and moral; they walk in the tenuous gray areas, wrestling with tough scenarios where solutions aren’t as cleanly distinguished between Good and Bad. This is me, nodding my head along with Ms. Saintcrow’s assertions.

But then, there’s the Gender Card, and the sweeping generalizations:

But romance or urban fantasy? You might as well start embroidering your own scarlet letter, honey.

Paranormal romance is considered lowbrow and trashy because it’s female. Despite the fact that it’s a multibillion-dollar business (and every dollar a woman shells out for it costs more because let’s face it, we earn a lot less), it’s still that pink-jacketed crap for bored housewives. Tom Clancy is supposed to be Real and Hard-Hitting, even if his “novels” are thinly-veiled technical manuals. Nora Roberts is supposedly less Real because she writes about feeeeeeelings. While we could debate the relative merits of Clancy vs. La Nora all day–and not agree, mind you, because Roberts is just plain the better writer–the fact remains that Clancy has a better shot at being considered “serious” because his is MAN’S FICTION.

Smell that testosterone, baby.

Urban fantasy is mostly women’s fiction too. (Yes, I know there are significant exceptions, like Jim Butcher, Simon Green, and Charles de Lint. We’ll get to that.) There’s a lot of crossover between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I like to say that UF is PR without the HEA (that’s Happily Ever After, for those just joining us.)

Here’s where I have to frankly disagree. Yes, UF and Paranormal Romance are knocked around as lowbrow crap. Yes, UF has a large female readership and many women authors. Would I go so far as to say UF is “women’s fiction”? No. What about those authors Ms. Saintcrow mentions, how about Butcher and Green and de Lint (or Gaiman, or the up and coming Anton Strout, etc.)? As Larry points out in his post–she never really goes back to address these male voices in the genre. Furthermore, how about male authors who write female protagonists like T.A. Pratt or Mark Henry? Or for that matter, women who write male protagonists like Rob Thurman? Ms. Saintcrow takes a very narrow approach to UF, which in turn limits her argument.

But she does have a point that UF and Paranormal Romance are sneered upon by ‘mainstream’ readers (or readers in general, as is clearly seen in the comments section of the original post).**Note: For my purposes, I am separating UF and Paranormal Romance here, as I firmly disagree with Ms. Saintcrow’s lumping the two very different genres together.**

It is the cause of said sneering where I disagree with Ms. Saintcrow. I would argue that the lowbrow perception of UF stems not from the notion that it is “women’s literature” (although I do agree that there is a negative association especially with empowered female characters of the UF or Paranormal Romance variety–more on that later), but rather from the fact that UF is GENRE FICTION. And Genre Fiction, whether it be Military Science Fiction or High Fantasy or Historical Romance, comes with a set of stereotypes and conventions. For example, some fantasy suffers from the perception that there are Orcs and Evil Sorcerers running rampant, and One Leader of pure heart (and possibly some unbeknown royal blood) with some magical weapon or skill will staunch the Darkness thereby restoring Peace to the Land. Or Historical Romance involves a pretty heroine of lower birth (and strong spirit) faced with desperate financial/marital/familial straits, and a hero of higher social/economic status (or is in some way to help the heroine out of her troubles). The two of them hook up, have some form of misunderstanding, but eventually get married and live Happily Ever After.

Similarly, the typical (After Anita Blake) female protagonist centered UF convention involves a badass leather-clad chick, wielding magic and/or some type of lethal weapon, going about in an alternate version of some known urban locale, working a job to avert some kind of paranormal catastrophe (under some form of death threat).

As with any genre fiction, there are huge differences within the genre itself, in terms of writing level, characters, and challenging those restrictive and misleading conventions–separating the Patrick Rothfusses, Loretta Chases, or Kim Harrisons from the mediocre voices in the genre. Such as…well, to be perfectly frank, Lilith Saintcrow.

Yes, I would argue that Ms. Saintcrow’s writing falls victim to her own essay. I have read Working for the Devil, Ms. Saintcrow’s first Dante Valentine novel, and a book I *really* did not enjoy (review HERE). Why not? Firstly, because Dante Valentine fits every stereotype of the new wave UF genre: she’s a trash talking, leather wearing, sword swinging, emotionally retarded badass with magic powers (she’s even a necromancer). Dante is an Anita Blake knockoff, ready-built and packaged for the Anita Blake readership–and unfortunately, she’s nowhere near as fun as the real thing (at least Anita Blake up to book 7). That’s fine, I can deal with a paler heroine. The dealbreaker for me with Working for the Devil lay in the non-existent character development, shoddy descriptions, weak dialogue, vague worldbuilding, and mediocre (at best) writing.

In short, Ms. Saintcrow’s Danny Valentine perpetuates those same annoying stereotypes and genre conventions that give UF its bad rap–a fact that is only exacerbated by the weaksauce writing.

But enough on Ms. Saintcrow’s Dante Valentine. Let us return to the original post, and the other part of Ms. Saintcrow’s argument that really bugged me:

Urban fantasy is pretty much the only genre today exploring not only the ethics of power and consent, but also serious questions of violence and gender relations from a primarily female point of view. There are significant exceptions, to be sure–I mentioned them above; UF series with male protagonists. But the really huge bump in titles has been series and books with female protagonists, examining these questions from a female perspective.

There’s something about this that rubs me the wrong way–not that I disagree with the statement that female protagonist UF marks an examination of the ethics of power and consent from a female standpoint. No, I disagree with Ms. Saintcrow’s assessment that UF is pretty much the only genre exploring power and consent from a gendered application, and the insinuation that UF is the trailblazing pioneer of such examination in literature. I cannot agree with this at all.

I agree that this is a huge part of many female centered UF books–women empowered, able to fight for themselves, tote guns and go toe to toe with the big boys in terms of violence and intelligence. That is one of the reasons I love many books in the genre–I like reading about Rachel Morgan using her magic to save her friends and trick Demons, or Mercy Thompson outsmarting a foe that has underestimated her intelligence. This is probably the main reason I read this type of UF!

But to argue that UF is the only genre that attempts this? The first genre to attempt this?

I would have to answer with a resounding NO. For example, let’s take a look at superhero comics, which have been around for a long time (certainly before Anita Blake). Superhero comics are another example of genre fiction, often seen as lowbrow or immature. And, incidentally, these comics include a number of leather clad, weapon and/or magic toting, badass chicks. There’s the morally ambiguous Selina Kyle, the tortured Rogue or immensely powerful Jean Gray. Oh, and lets not forget the ultimate personification of empowered, sexy, kick-ass heroine: Princess Diana, Wonder Woman herself. What’s even more interesting, is that by Ms. Saintcrow’s definition, comics would be perceived as “male fiction”. Curiouser and curiouser.

These superhero comics are only one literary example of other applications of gender to issues of violence, power and consent separate from the UF genre. There are examples of this in Science Fiction (in particular, Military Science Fiction), in Fantasy (of varied subgenres), or even Literary Fiction. UF does it extremely well, but it’s certainly not the first or only example.

And yet–for all that I may disagree with Ms. Saintcrow’s limited definition of UF as women’s fiction and some of her gendered interpretations of the genre (my eyes glaze over when I read phrases like the “Dark Feminine”), she does have a valid point in that there is a stigma associated with empowered, shamelessly violent, self-sufficient heroines. This comes through loud and clear in the comments section of the post–as the first commenter states:

I don’t see that changing the gender of the protagonist adds another layer of tension, as she seems to think. There is nothing inherently more interesting about being a female protagonist. The downside however is that the paranormal romance heroines are about ten times more unrealistic in what they do, partly because at the end of the day, they are still women and not men, and do not have the physical prowess and imagining them do the things the female authors of this subgenre have them do, takes even more suspension of disbelief. It’s self-indulgent tripe. Wish fulfillment. Which is fine if you want to write that sort of stuff and you can actually find a market full of female buyers for it. After all, Harlequin sells loads of erotic romance books as well. But don’t try to pass it off as anything more than that.

As a woman, as a reader of many different genres, I am incredibly offended by this statement, and by subsequent comments on the blog. Clearly, the misogynistic attitude towards empowered women, and so called “women’s fiction” does exist–especially in the realms where female protagnoist UF and Paranormal Romance are concerned. There are a number of other remarkably bigoted comments, some assertions that it just isn’t realistic for a 5’2″ woman to possible take down a larger man no matter how intensely trained they are in whatever martial art. Any more unbelieveable than Rocky Balboa taking down the ‘roided up Ivan Drago despite being half his size? Mr. Miyagi overcoming his brittle old man bones and single-handedly whooping the collective Cobra Kai’s ass? Or in real life, how about the scrappy Manny Pacquiao annihilating the much larger and stronger Oscar De La Hoya?

Or shit, while we’re on it, how about David and freaking Goliath?

Something that also might be addressed is how many of these commenters are other genre fiction readers, with the mindset that “my genre fiction is better than yours!” UF readers are eager to dismiss Paranormal Romance (or Romance in general) as trash. High Fantasy fans calling UF crap. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, and to read or avoid what we wish. But within any genre in the universe, there will always be some trash, but there also will always be the gems. Calling an entire collection of literature, an entire genre trash?

That’s more than just a tad disingenuous.


Additional Thoughts: If anyone is looking for some excellent (post-Anita Blake), female protagonist centered Urban Fantasy, here’s my list of recommended reading:

  • The Hollows (Rachel Morgan) series by Kim Harrison
  • Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs
  • Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine
  • Succubus series by Richelle Mead
  • Anita Blake series (through book 7) by Laurell K Hamilton
  • Magic series by Ilona Andrews
  • Women of Otherworld series by Kelley Armstrong
  • Wicked Lovely series by Melissa Marr (Young Adult)
  • Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead (Young Adult)

Make sure to stop by Katie’s blog for her insights on the article as it pertains to Paranormal Romance!


  • Jessica
    December 17, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    this is a terrific and very enlightening essay. Thank you!

    Websurfing the other day I came across a post at, entitled “the Spacesuit Ripping Escapades of Science Fiction Romance Novels” from a month ago.

    The post itself is a nice one introducing readers to some good SFF romance, like Sinclair. But the comments, gosh, were they dismissive and mean. I was really surprised at the tone.

  • Kristen
    December 17, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Great response! Thanks for the list of female focused urban fantasy books. I haven’t read a lot of urban fantasy so I’ll have to check some of them out.

  • orannia
    December 17, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Thank you very much Thea! That was a very thought provoking post!

  • Katiebabs a.k.a KB
    December 17, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    Thea, will you marry me?

  • Kris
    December 17, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    The arrogance of sterotyping – no matter who is practising it – never ceases to amaze and frustrate me.

    An awesome post, Thea.

  • Ana
    December 17, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    Katie: no. She is marrying ME.

    In all honesty, I know way too little about UF so when I first read Lilith’s post I was much more disturbed with the comments than with the post itself. I could not believe the dismissive tone some people used when referring to romance – no, i am still not used to that – and I was even more frustrated that these readers are all in the ghetto with us, romance readers.

  • azteclady
    December 18, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Well, I haven’t read a lot of urban fantasy (yet) myself, but wow! Talk about needing to put others down in order to pull oneself up, huh?

  • KMont
    December 18, 2008 at 8:44 am

    I admit to being pretty confuzzled over this whole argument yesterday, but I think you’ve put your thoughts down the most clearly, Thea. Thanks for doing so, because damn – some of the comments stemming from Saintcrow’s post (not to mention her post itself) were just all over the place.

    I now understand all of it a lot better.

    Yesterday, I agreed with some of what Saintcrow said, like you, disagreed a bit too. But I kept wondering, as it’s not very clear – could those comments about PNR been ones that she has encountered? And not necessarily her OWN thoughts?

    As for her not really addressing the male UF authors, she did point out that her particular thoughts were about female authors/characters at that time…so I’m wondering why all the huffing in those comments about that. Why the hell can’t she talk JUST about the female side of it for a sec? Is she really threatening the male psyche that dang much in one blog post? I didn’t take it to mean that she ONLY thought of UF as a female ass-kicking, leather-studded genre.

    Your ending to this post sums it up, but I have to add that I personally could care less what anyone likes to read – I’m actually genuinely happy when people enjoy books, regardless of whether I liked the book in Q or not. At that point, the point is so not about whether I like it, unless they’re interested in a debate. At which point I’d hope the discussion could be respectful, quite the opposite of some comments following Saintcrow’s post.

    I also try hard not to call anything trash, although yeah, I’ve been tempted and probably secretly thought it a time or two. I admit this word in regards to books gets on my nerves sometimes. One person’s trash is another’s gem after all. May not always understand why, but it’s the way it is.

    On the whole, what an interesting explosion of thoughts, lol! I really did like your post though. Great job, as usual.

  • M.
    December 18, 2008 at 10:16 am

    interesting analysis. i’m not deeply enough read in any of the sub-genres mentioned to be able to offer a specific opinion on the original essay or rebuttal points, but i’d guess that the ‘my genre fiction is better than your genre fiction’ mindset formed the heart of the matter.

    I read book 2 of T.A.Pratt’s series and thought it was different, worth reading, and that it came through that the author was a man writing a female protagonist.

  • SciFiGuy
    December 18, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Hey Thea excellent assessment and response to the whole issue (although I happen to quite like Saintcrow's writing myself). I truly believe that UF as a genre will grow to rival science fiction or traditional fantasy in popularity. And I think guys need to take another look. I've read thousands of SF&F over the years and although UF is now my preferred reading I don't rank one genre above or below the other. It is what it is..

  • Thea
    December 19, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Jessica–Thanks! And yes, some of the comments on these posts are incredibly rude and harsh. If you want to read more about Science Fiction Romance, I *highly* recommend Heather’s blog, The Galaxy Express. (if you don’t already know about it, that is–Heather is awesome)

    Kristen–Thanks, and I hope you get a chance to read some of these female protag UF novels! I highly recommend the Hollows and Mercy Thompson books for the ‘traditional’ shapeshifter/witch/vampire/fey UF, and the Weather Warden books if you’re looking for UF sans the usual paranormal subjects (involves Wardens who control weather, earth or fire and djinn). I should warn you, each series is *highly* addictive!

    Orannia–thanks! And again, I hope you are feeling better 🙂

    Katie–*licks* Hell yes, baby.

    Kris–It’s baffling isn’t it? Ana and I were emailing back and forth about this strange elitist attitude some readers/commenters take.

    Ana–Drat! Looks like the wedding’s off, Katie :p

    Agreed on all counts Ana. The comments following the post were uncalled for. I understand why some people would disagree with some aspects of Ms. Saintcrow’s post–heck, I’m one of them–but surely we can establish a civilized dialogue, right?

    Azteclady–Precisely. What makes it more strange (to me) is how many of the commenters are other readers of specific genre fiction–which is constantly put down and frowned upon as crap or fluff from critics. Bizarre.

    Kmont–I do think that there was a ranty/defensive tone to Ms. Saintcrow’s post, which in itself suggests to me that she might be writing from her experiences with her own work. Which is perfectly fine, but she sets the tone that might have rubbed some folks the wrong way and provoked their comments (of course, their openly sexist/attacking comments are inexcusable).

    Why the hell can’t she talk JUST about the female side of it for a sec? Is she really threatening the male psyche that dang much in one blog post? I didn’t take it to mean that she ONLY thought of UF as a female ass-kicking, leather-studded genre.

    I think she probably lost some people when she makes her sweeping generalization that classifies UF as “women’s fiction” (which I don’t agree with)–but you’re absolutely right. Putting aside that classification, she’s perfectly entitled to talk about the female side of UF. I really did love her analysis of why female protag UF is empowering, and the applications of power and consent in this subgenre.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think she has some great ideas and certainly some valid points–but she delivers them terribly. In her follow up post at her site, her tone is even more pissed off and defensive…it doesn’t accomplish anything. I wish she would have expanded on her analysis of female protag UF, perhaps evaluating what the NEXT step would be for authors in the subgenre (i.e. Now we have badass chicks in leather with guns, how else can we challenge gender roles and politics?).

    I agree with you on trying not to call anything trash–although I certainly have done it before. (Usually just to describe staggeringly bad books though) I can understand calling a book trash if it is poorly written or whatever, but assigning this label to an entire genre?! Especially if you’ve never tried the genre before? Come on now.

    M.–Agreed! And T.A. Pratt’s first book was a DNF for me because I couldn’t really connect with the heroine…and I think part of that might be because of the gender gap.

    SciFiGuy–Thanks! And to each his or her own 🙂 (See this is what I love about books–one person’s “trash” is another person’s treasure) And I completely agree with you that UF is growing exponentially–I’m certain female protag centered UF sales are already competitive with traditional SF! And I like how you phrase that–UF is one of my preferred genres, but it’s no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others.

    Thanks for the comments everyone. It’s a pretty interesting topic.

  • Sheralle
    December 25, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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