As someone who writes urban fantasy with plenty of romance flung in, author Suzanne Johnson is distinctly qualified to talk about the careful blend of romance in urban fantasy. Elysian Fields, the third book in Suzanne's Sentinels of New Orleans series, is out this week, and includes wizards, mermen, and pirates, among other fantastical creatures—and of course there's romance. Thanks for joining us, Suzanne!
Imagine Sookie without Bon Temps and Fangtasia. Mercy without wolfpack politics, fae intrigue or vampire vicissitudes in the Pacific Northwest. Rachel Morgan without Cincinnati or the Ever-After or the Hollows. Hard, yes?
Now, imagine Mercy without Adam. Sookie without Bill, Eric, Alcide, Eric, Quinn, Eric, and Sam. Or Rachel without Nick (aka the slimeball), Kisten, Marshal, Pierce, Trent, and Al.
Good worldbuilding is vital to urban fantasy, whether it’s truly urban or is set in the wilds of Arkansas or Montana. Even if it’s set in the “real” world, it’s not our world. We want complex, well-constructed worlds filled with interesting people (“people” being a relative term) and dangerous situations that our hero or heroine must escape or dominate.
Most readers today in these genres also expect romance in their books, and authors work to find the right life-to-love ratio between relationships and the external plot. If the pendulum swings too far toward the romantic end of things, it becomes paranormal romance without a happy ending—not a good thing. Too far in the external plot direction and authors lose one of the most important elements with which to hook our readers: passion. Most urban fantasy seems to stay in a 60-40 life-to-love ratio; some even 70-30.
(If you hit an 80-20 or a 90-10 life-to-love ratio, chances are extremely good the book was written by a male author. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s another blog post.)
Only a couple of series come close to straddling the UF/PNR fence with a 50-50 split. Where would you place Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series? Technically, it’s urban fantasy. There’s no HEA at the end of each book. Mysteries or external plots are wrapped up, at least temporarily, by the last page. Yet the series wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the relationship of Cat and Bones, and it’s given plenty of page time in each book.
Is Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire series paranormal romance or urban fantasy? God knows it has plenty of sexcapades. But again, technically, it’s urban fantasy. Sookie didn’t get her HEA in any book until, arguably, the last one. And what did people argue over the most? It sure wasn’t about who would end up Queen of Louisiana. It was all about Team Eric.
So, it’s clear that urban fantasy needs to not only present the strong worldbuilding necessary to sustain a series; it also needs enough romance to bring out the passion in readers. And God forbid there’s an unexpected turn.
Consider the case of Rachel Morgan and Kisten Phelps in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series. (Warning: spoiler ahead.) Kisten, introduced as a shallow, arrogant vampire who oozed sexuality and scared Rachel out of her boots, turned out to be almost, well, human. He was vulnerable and heartbreaking. He was brave and beautiful. He was perfect for Rachel. Trouble was, it was only the third book of the series and it wasn’t time for Rachel to have an HEA. In interviews, Kim Harrison has said the relationship was threatening to take over the her vision for the series. There was only one thing to be done.
Kisten had to die.
There were many loyal Hollows readers who snatched up the next two or three books and inhaled them, convinced that Kist would somehow be revived. Some of us still cling to hope, even as the series draws to a close.
Because while urban fantasy fans love the worldbuilding and the action, it’s the relationships, up to a nice 35 or 40 percent of the story, that create the passion.
Suzanne Johnson writes urban fantasy and paranormal romance, including the Sentinels of New Orleans series, of which the third book, Elysian Fields, released August 13. She grew up halfway between the Bear Bryant Museum and Elvis's birthplace and lived in New Orleans for fifteen years, so she has a highly refined sense of the absurd and an ingrained love of college football and fried gator on a stick. She lives in Auburn, Alabama, with two eccentric rescue dogs named after professional wrestlers.