Apr 6 2011 12:00pm

If You Build It, They Will Come: Worldbuilding in Urban Fantasy

Globe image courtesy of somegeekintn via FlickrI came to reading romance after already being a longtime reader of science fiction/fantasy and mystery, which meant that my tastes in matters fantastical and suspenseful were already pretty well formed. So when Urban Fantasy came along, my particular favorites reflected—and still reflect—my love for serious worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding that works doesn’t have to dump facts about the world on every page; details are a big part of what I like, but what I care most about it is how the writer uses those details, along with plot and characters, to give me a richer reading experience, to make it feel as though the reader is in the world.

The worldbuilding of a novel has to have room for surprises. That's why I prefer most Urban Fantasy over most Paranormal Romance, simply because UF tends to offer longer, more complicated plots spread over several books. (I realized the PR I tend to like is often the same, with an overarching plot, even if there’s only one romantic couple per book). The benefit of these meta plots is that they both create and reward my reader’s curiosity. These books bring up questions about the world, then give me opportunities to answer those questions by poking my nose into all the interesting nooks and crannies. The best worldbuilding always goes deeper. Reading, you get the feeling there’s always more to be discovered.

Tempting Danger by Eileen WilksSome of the best world-building Urban Fantasy authors include:

Eileen Wilks: Wilks is usually the first author I recommend when someone wants to try out UF. Her Lupi series hasn’t remained static; her fantasy world’s situation at the beginning of Book 1 (Tempting Danger, 2004) changes magically and politically as the series advances. Though Wilks writes about one major romantic couple, Rule and Lily, throughout the series, their relationship evolves, faces new challenges, and finds new approaches to old challenges. New characters arrive, come to prominence, and fade back. Best of all, there’s an overarching story that begins with hints and, at the current point in the series (Blood Challenge, 2011), looks to be approaching climax, or perhaps even a major turning point. I’m hoping turning point, because I don’t want the series to end just yet!

Carrie Vaughn: the Kitty series, which starts with Kitty and The Midnight Hour (2005), is one of my favorites because, from the first, Vaughn made all of her supernatural beings people first and creatures second. They’re intriguing as characters, period. That allows Vaughn to explore all their various problems and issues through the supernatural lens; she isn’t limited to having her characters fight the baddie of the week because their own interpersonal conflicts generate more than enough plot for a whole series (though there are plenty of baddies). She also gradually introduces new characters, to add to the richness of the world. Vaughn is particularly noteworthy because she pushes her concepts to the limit. Rather than simply establish that there are werewolves and then moving into an action plot, she explores issues such as how being attacked by a werewolf can mess up your self-image or how being a werewolf hampers how you can deal with your family. Romance fans, note this series doesn’t include a serious romance for Kitty until partway through.

Tiger Eye by Marjorie M. LiuMarjorie Liu: The Dirk and Steele novels, which begin with Tiger Eye (2005), are really more Paranormal Romance than UF, but I mention them here because Liu’s “everything including the kitchen sink” approach to worldbuilding gives opportunities for the reader to be surprised as well as her characters. Once you’ve read a book with, say, a gargoyle as a hero, there’s the sense that anything can happen.

And now for a couple of newer authors whom I’m enjoying.

Margaret Ronald: The Evie Scelan series, beginning with Spiral Hunt (2009), is Celtic fantasy set in Boston. It’s notable because of how skillfully Ronald adapts Celtic mythology to a modern, urban world, but also because of how vividly she evokes contemporary Boston. Evie is a bicycle courier whose main skill is tracking, using her sense of (magical) smell, giving these books the feel of fantastical mysteries with a private detective hero.

Finally, there’s Stacia Kane. I’ve so far only read the first book of her Downside Ghosts trilogy that begins with Unholy Ghosts (2010), but would like to mention her here because the worldbuilding of the series is so unusual, as is its heroine. It’s set in an alternate world that was once flooded with deadly ghosts, and saved only by religious intervention, so The Church of Real Truth now rules everything in a way that is pervasive and terrifying. The heroine, Chess, hunts ghosts for The Church, moving among different social classes to do so, but her life is also constantly complicated by her addictions. Thus we, the readers, get to see the privileged, the middle class, and the underclass of this complex world.

Globe image courtesy of somegeekintn via Flickr


Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I must confess I haven't read much Urban Fantasy, but I love good worldbuilding (G.R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones universe so impresses me) and was intrigued by your recommendations. What would you recommend reading first for someone new to the genre?
2. EvangelineHolland
I am a major fan of Urban Fantasy, and like you, prefer PNR which is more than just giving the hero fangs or fur. I will also say that voice is very important for Urban Fantasy, because I've been burned by more than one UF series where the world-building is intriguing but sloppily written, the narration consists mostly of charmless snark, and the characters are sketchily written.

One series I come to love more and more with each book (though there was a brief moment where I contemplated breaking up with it) is Kim Harrison's Hollows series. The world-building is absolutely fantastic, and the characters--particularly Rachel--are wonderful in that I may not always like or agree with their actions, but they always feel realistic to their personalities. I've also fallen in love with Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series though at times Kate's hard-headedness can aggravate me.

On the flipside, I've dropped a few series (Sookie, Mercy, Allie,etc) when the characters just stopped growing. That growth, character arc, or whatever you want to call it, of the protagonist is mostly keeps me coming back for more installments, and it's a reason why I cringe at the popularity of UF--it forces authors to extend their series beyond their initial projections and it doesn't really give much breathing room, since readers (and publishers) expect at least one book a year. I'd rather wait a few years between installments if the author feels themselves running out of steam rather than see an annual release of diminshing quality.
3. bungluna
I've been more into sci-fi and UF latelly because it does allow for grand overarcing plots that take sevelar books to resolve. I've been burned, however, by authors who seem to extend their series beyond the original intention and who leave me hanging.

I'm goint to try "Spiral Hunt" on your recommendation. It sounds like my kind of UF.
4. Amanda Bonilla
I agree, UF tends to cross over to readers that aren't just interested in the romance element. It's my favorite genre for exactly that reason. The steamy parts are just an added bonus! :)
5. SharonS
I would have to include Ilona Andrews Kate Daniel's world is amazing.
Estara Swanberg
6. Estara
I totally agree with the Eileen Wilksrecommendation (although I like Cullen and Cynna as lead couple, too), I'm missing Meljean Brooks Guardian series and dittoing Ilona Andrews as well as Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson/Alpha? world.
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