When I was writing my first book, Read on Fantasy Fiction (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), I underestimated the impact that urban fantasy would have on the market. Although fantasy fiction in a contemporary setting had always been around, and a few trailblazers like Charles de Lint had already found success with it, the formula for urban fantasy was just taking shape. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer phenomena had primed the pump. Romance readers had already discovered writers like Laurell K. Hamilton in 2005. Urban fantasy authors like Charlaine Harris, Rachel Caine, and Kim Harrison had their first few books on the market. The seed for their success had been planted, but the growth spurt was yet to come.
Those who follow the fantasy genre know what happened, just how fast that growth spurt was. Tolkien-derived epic fantasy had ruled the roost for years, but these urban fantasies filled a niche. They were quick to read where the norm for traditional epic fantasy had stretched well beyond 500 pages, a length some readers found too ponderous. Urban fantasies featured lead characters with a style, a slang, an attitude that suited contemporary audiences. They had sexiness and humor and swagger that first brought female readers into the fold, then caught on with men too when authors like Jim Butcher joined the fray. In just a few years, urban fantasy went from a tiny portion of the fantasy market to fifty percent or more of it.
I recount all of this history because for all of urban fantasy’s draw for some readers, for another group of readers the books suffer from too much similarity. If you find it hard to suspend disbelief when you read about vampires, werewolves, and other mythical creatures secretly rubbing elbows with us in the modern world, then you might find the first book or two a diverting departure, but in the long run, the subgenre may wear thin quickly. The same qualities that made them a hit–brevity, plot focus, a connection to the mystery and thriller genres, and sexy, snarky heroes–are qualities that don’t lead to deep conversations in book groups, and so I’ve seldom written about urban fantasy in this space.
But it pleases me when I see an author bucking the trends. For something refreshingly different in contemporary fantasy, consider Alex Bledsoe’s series about the Tufa, people of Cloud County in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. In the first book, The Hum and the Shiver, Bronwyn Hyatt has returned home to a hero’s welcome after sustaining war injuries in the Middle East. She joined the Army to escape her wild past, her violent ex-boyfriend, and the pressures of family, so she’s more than a little agitated about her homecoming. The Tufa are a mysterious people: quick-tempered but circumspect, highly sexed but family focused, and musical to the extreme, tapping into mountain music as a kind of magical force. They avoid outsiders, and even the roads into Cloud County seem to disappear at times. When Bronwyn feels a romantic attraction to a young pastor who is not Tufa, refuses to take on family responsibilities, and can’t seem to find her music, it creates a crisis that drives the story to its climax.
The Hum and the Shiver has unusual, complex characters, plenty of rough-edged mountain charm and atmosphere, and incorporates the traditional seelie and unseelie court of the faerie world into an American setting in a very new and effective way. There’s a depth of emotion and conflict here that a book group will appreciate, blended with cultural references that should also help stir the conversation.