Urban fantasy is not magical realism
It can be difficult to find extensive literary thought on this topic, in part because both sub-genres of the fantasy category (and fantasy itself) are considered “lesser” in the world of literary thought and aren’t thoroughly discussed, nor examined. However, this article from 2019 is the easiest to read and most accessible discussion of the genre of magical realism that I was able to find for the purposes of this blog post. It’s still a confusing topic, admittedly, and you need a bit of understanding of the genres to totally understand the article. Which I think says a lot about how these genres are misunderstood.
The author of the article in turn quotes another writer who defined magical realism as a non-western (particularly Latin American) genre that focuses on the chaotic and “uncivilized” blending of nature and magic and reality characteristic of non-Western worlds. As the author of the article points out, this is an equally harmful way of viewing the genre as it creates an Otherness for non-western writing that gives it a continued colonial legacy of chaos and monstrosity.
Magical realism is a genre based in the blurring of lines between reality and magic, and its origins appear to be from Latin American authors writing about magic and fantasy in a nontraditional manner that better represents their cultural standards. This does not, then, make magical realism a chaotic and uncivilized genre but instead a representation of cultural beliefs translated into literature.
Urban fantasy is most often defined as a subgenre of fantasy that takes place in an urban setting. Urban fantasy is usually contemporary, modern set, and takes place in urban locations–especially large cities that function with a certain amount of modern technology from bus systems to cell phone towers. While senses of the uncanny and the blurring lines of reality and fantasy can also be included in an urban fantasy story, the genre is more defined by use of the paranormal such as creatures (vampires, werewolves, witches, etc.).
Beginnings of the genre
Occult stories set in present times and featuring the paranormal first began growing in popularity in the 1940’s. These stories often focused on a human being dealing with or fighting paranormal creatures, usually in a city setting and published in serials–such as newspaper or magazine entries. Use of the term “urban fantasy” began to appear in the 1980’s to define stories set in modern day, with modern technology, but also featuring paranormal creatures. The genre has developed some neatly defined parameters in adult and young adult fiction, specifically that adult fiction generally features female protagonists who are for some reason involved in the enforcement of rules and laws for paranormal creatures, and young adult novels feature protagonists with little to no life and professional experience.
A pretty good example of urban fantasy that will connect with a lot of people is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Set in the modern day world of Sunnyvale, Buffy is also about the existence of magic and paranormal creatures. If you’re familiar with The Magicians in either book or television form, that’s another example of magic and supernatural elements existing in the modern world. Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries on which True Blood is based is another excellent example. Even Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books and other series are urban fantasy, with settings in modern day cities such as New York as well as incorporating modern slang and references in conjunction with supernatural elements.
I really wish there was more out there discussing the lines between genres such as urban fantasy and paranormal romance and magical realism. When I was in undergraduate studying English and creative writing, there was absolutely a sense that fantasy was a lesser genre of fiction. As a result, my theory courses overlooked fantasy works of any kind in favor of “literary” works to analyze, and my writing courses actively discouraged writing in fantasy genres. In the book blogging community there is a lot of love for fantasy and its subgenres, which is awesome! It’s still confusing trying to figure out where certain genre lines exist, which is part of why I’ve made discussion posts on genres before. I hope this post helps, and I strongly recommend reading the article I linked above as it really does address the issue of assigning colonialist stereotypes to the magical realism genre and forcing authors to stay in a lane based on being Western or non-Western.