Exploring Genre: Urban Fantasy

September’s theme is genre, so this month we’ll each be focusing on a different genre and highlighting what makes it great. Today I’m taking a look at my favourite genre to read (and write): urban fantasy.

“Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy in which the narrative has an urban setting. Works of urban fantasy are set primarily in the real world and contain aspects of fantasy, such as the arrival of alien races, the discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence or conflict between humans and paranormal beings, and other changes to city life. A contemporary setting is not strictly necessary for a work of urban fantasy: works of the genre may also take place in futuristic and historical settings, real or imagined.”Wikipedia

As a reader, urban fantasy can be a tricky genre to love. That might sound like a strange thing to say, but it’s true — quite often I go into a book thinking that it’s urban fantasy only to discover that it’s urban fantasy’s kissing cousin, paranormal romance. They share a lot of the same trappings, in that they tend to feature paranormal beings in the real world. And the covers are sometimes quite similar, though urban fantasy book covers lean towards a solo character rather than an embracing pair, and generally feature less pretty dresses and more, well, leather and weapons.

But the fundamental difference is whether the plot emphasises romance as a central element. In paranormal romance, the romance is, unsurprisingly, the main plot (think Twilight), whereas in urban fantasy there is often a romance, but it takes a back seat to other goings on in the world (think Sookie Stackhouse or The Mortal Instruments).

In urban fantasy, you quite often see elements of other genres: mystery, thriller, adventure, superhero, sci-fi. My favourites are the ones with a mystery, a plot twist … and some steamy romance. (I do love a juicy romance, but I’m greedy: I like to have that and more. 😉 )

I was going to include maybe three of my favourite urban fantasies, but who am I kidding? I can’t stop at three!

(Looking at these covers, I think I should add tank tops to “leather” and “weapons”.)

Cassandra Page is an author, editor, geek, coffee addict, Ravenclaw and bookstagrammer. Her fifth urban fantasy novel, False Awakening, was released on 26 August

Review: ‘The Coldest Girl in Coldtown’ by Holly Black


Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.

One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

Just when you think that vampires have been done to death (no pun intended … oh, who am I kidding, it was totally intended!), along comes a book that shows you that, with a great voice and a fresh perspective, there’s no such thing as a dead (ha!) genre.

The premise of The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is that vampirism is an infection spread via a vampire bite. Anyone who is bitten is infected and is very likely to become a vampire. Once they are infected, they become Cold, a state that is a bit like a living zombie: they are overwhelmed with a craving for human blood. If they drink it, they die and rise as a vampire. If they can be physically restrained for around three months while their body recovers from the virus, they remain human—but that is very rarely successful.

Until recently, the old vampires strictly controlled their population by feeding to kill (or by not using their teeth), and killing any accidentally turned vampires. But something went wrong; a newly turned vampire escaped, and the infection got out of control.

The story is set decades later (I admit I forget exactly how long). In the US, those who are infected, and vampires themselves, are confined in Coldtowns, where they are basically left to their own devices—imagine a Big Brother party house where the house is an entire city and there are no laws against murder or anything else. The vamps don’t run short of blood, because there’s always a fresh supply of humans who want to live forever, in love with vampires and death, who are willing to be a source of blood in the hopes of being gifted immortality.

Tana is a wonderfully complex character. She manages to be reckless and courageous, capable and caring, all at the same time. If I had to sum her up in one word, it’d be “conflicted”. She’s scarred, literally and psychologically, by events in her past, and so is largely immune to the seductive glamour of vampires. She doesn’t think they’re hot, she thinks they’re monsters. She makes a wonderful foil for characters like Midnight and Winter, a pair of goth twins who embody everything about vampire wannabes: their catchphrase is “no more birthdays”.

Aidan is Tana’s ex-boyfriend. I wanted to hate him at first, but he was so charming. I also loved the way that Black (via Tana) was so casually accepting of his bisexuality—it was great to see.

The other character I loved was the “mysterious boy” from the blurb, a vampire named Gavriel. That’s not much of a spoiler, by the way; I think you find out he’s a vampire in the first chapter! He is just as broken as Tana in his own way, often babbling and insane, but very, very sweet. When he’s not trying to eat people. Usually I don’t like the bad boys, but in this case I liked both Aidan and Gavriel, and they are both bad in one way or another. (Note: there is no love triangle in this book, if you were wondering.)

Often I find flashbacks really annoying, but Black’s style was so compelling that I loved reading the little scenes from Tana’s (and sometimes Gavriel’s) past. They gave some great insights into why they were who they were, and why they made the decisions they did. The way it was all woven together was simply masterful.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is the first book I’ve read by Holly Black, but I’ll definitely be going back for more!

AOaR_5star (3)

Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy writer whose second book, Isla’s Oath, came out in January. She has loved vampires since Louis swept her off her feet when she was a teenager.

Cassandra Page

Review: ‘Splintered’ by A. G. Howard

Splintered_AG_HowardAlyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.

When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.

This book. I’m really torn about giving it four stars instead of 4.5 or five, because there are parts of it that I really love. But then there are a couple of things that annoyed me, and I deducted half a star for each. (That’s how I rate books, I’ve come to realise; I allocate them full marks and then start taking points off for things that bug me. It’s very methodical.)

Let’s start with the positive first.

Like anything inspired by Alice in Wonderland — well, anything good — Splintered has atmosphere by the bucketload. Alyssa believes that, like her mother Alison, she is crazy. She hears plants and bugs talk, and is worried that one day she’ll end up in a strait jacket pumped full of sedatives too. Even when she discovers she’s not crazy, she might as well be, because Wonderland’s laws of physics are a few ants short of a picnic, if you know what I mean. Wonderland isn’t cute. It’s bloody, strange and violent. It’s not a sweet, sunlight dream; it’s a nightmare — more Tim Burton than Disney.

Fiery and independent, Alyssa is a little bit punk, a little bit skater and a little bit goth. She keeps her hair long and blond for her father, but then does her damndest to reduce any other resemblance to her mother — whom she loves but doesn’t want to emulate.

And then there’s Morpheus, the childhood “imaginary” friend who taught her everything she needs to know about Wonderland. He’s self-confident, arrogant and presumptuous, but he also trusts Alyssa to be able to handle herself and respects her desire for independence. In fact, he actively encourages it… something you can’t say about Jeb.

Jeb is the first of the negatives. He’s another childhood friend of Alyssa’s, and she’s had a crush on him forever. It’s pretty obvious he’s got a crush on her too, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear he instead ends up dating the popular blond girl who picks on Alyssa. I suspect his own self-loathing plays a part, as does his completely infuriating desire to treat Alyssa like a small child. Maybe he doesn’t want to date her because he still thinks she’s twelve?

Regardless, I wanted to punch him in the nose a few times throughout this book. It wasn’t just that he was protective but that he was physical about it that pissed me off. When Alyssa tries to do something he thinks is dangerous, he doesn’t grab her hand and try to reason with her; he physically restrains her, lifting her off the ground like she’s a toddler. When he sees that she has a knife in her backpack, he appropriates it without even asking. When she’s offered something during the course of the quest, he takes it before she can and puts it in his pocket. WHAT THE HELL, JEB?!

He does redeem himself somewhat throughout the book, which is why it only loses half a point for his bad behaviour. Otherwise it’d be worse.

The other thing I found difficult to contend with at times was Howard’s prose. I didn’t really need a couple of paragraphs to describe each funky new outfit Alyssa wore, or what Morpheus’s hat looked like.  I found every time I hit one of these paragraphs I wanted to skip it. Likewise, some of the descriptions of Wonderland itself were a trifle overblown. Not always, mind you — but it was enough that I noticed it and it would pull me out of the story. I realise that something like taste in prose is highly subjective, and others will love it, though.

Despite these negatives, I still enjoyed Splintered enough that I read the sequel, Unhinged, afterwards. That book I loved unequivocally — it’s a five-star read from me — but I thought I’d review the first in the series here, for those who are wondering whether to try it. (You can see Heather’s review of Unhinged here.) I’m definitely looking forward to the next book, Ensnared.

(As an aside, if you haven’t already, feast your eyes on that gorgeous cover for a minute. No, two minutes! Isn’t it lovely? All the books in the trilogy have these beautiful covers. Howard really won the cover jackpot!)

AOaR_4star (3)