Sunday, July 21, 2013

Urban fantasy and magic realism: a matter of agency.

I'm participating today (a couple of hours early, my time) in the Magic Realism Blog Hop organized by fellow indie author Zoe Brooks. 

We had a discussion about magic realism here on the blog a couple of months ago; if you missed it, click here and scroll down to the comments.  I won't reiterate that discussion, other than to say that I still think "alternative realism" is a better descriptive name for the genre, mainly because it takes the "taint" of magic out of play.

What I'm hoping to do today is to talk about whether urban fantasy and magic realism could ever find common ground.

First, a couple of quick definitions. Urban fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy.  Unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings and other epic fantasies, urban fantasy is not set in a pre-mechanistic historical period.  Its setting is the present day, give or take a few decades, and so the characters can use cellphones and drive cars. But just as in, say, LotR, magical creatures appear, sometimes as guides to the clueless humans and sometimes as their nemeses.  In many cases, magical creatures are among the main characters. And magical tools (swords, clubs, bespelled books and scrolls) may be wielded by both the heroes and their enemies.  (Feel free to argue amongst yourselves over whether I've forgotten anything and/or painted with too broad a brush.)

Magic realism can be set in pretty much any time period -- so a present-day setting is conceivable.  And magic of a sort occurs.  The difference, I think, is in who wields the magic and how, and the reactions of the other characters when magic happens.  The magic in magic realism is woven into the fabric of society.  In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita weeps into the batter for the wedding cake she's making for her sister and Pedro, the man whom Tita loves. The cake is thereby transformed: all of the wedding guests who eat it become literally lovesick. Tita's mother beats her for poisoning the cake.  But no magical creature intervened, and Tita used no magic whisk or spoon or recipe; Tita simply cried, and her tears worked the magic of their own accord.

This, I think, is the crucial difference between urban fantasy and magic realism: urban fantasy requires an agent to deliberately effect the magical change.

Another difference is the characters' reactions to the occurrence of magic. Going back to LotR, Frodo and his pals can feel the pull of the One Ring, and they know it's not normal.  But in magic realism, the magic is taken as a matter of course.  Nobody in Like Water for Chocolate doubts for a moment that Tita's tears could have affected them so profoundly.

I should mention one other point. Magic realism is often described as giving a voice to those who have traditionally had no voice: the repressed and the dispossessed.  Tita's controlling mother thwarts her at every turn, so her emotions find an outlet in her cooking. In Toni Morrison's Beloved, the ghost of a runaway slave's dead child literally becomes bigger than anything else in her family.

So could the elements of magic realism be incorporated into urban fantasy? Maybe, but it would be tough going.  Fantasy has certainly given voice to the dispossessed in the past -- think of any coming-of-age story in which a kid grows into his or her birthright.  Magic without agency could conceivably be pulled off; anybody could cry magic tears into cake batter.  But one of the conceits of urban fantasy is that the fantastic is happening right under our noses -- it's just that most of us either aren't equipped to spot it, or are more than willing to explain it away.  The culture of the story would have to be modified so that normal people would accept odd goings-on without batting an eye -- and that strays over the line into parallel-universe territory.

So in the end, I'm doubtful that an urban magic realism fantasy could be pulled off.  If you think otherwise, please leave a comment and let's talk.

Want to read more about magic realism? Scroll down! (Note that the event lasts through Wednesday, so some of these links won't be live 'til then.)

And as a further enticement to blog-hopping, Zoe's arranged a little giveaway.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

These moments of bloggy alternative realism are brought to you, as a public service, by .

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