Saturday, November 22, 2008

Teen Urban Fantasies

Samuel Butler said, “The oldest books are still only just out to those who have not read them.” Most people focus on reviewing new books; but my preference is to read (and write) reviews of books that have been around for a little while. Why? Well, first of all, there’s not a lot of competition for them at the library! (BPL owns 32 copies of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and it’s still hard to find one to check out!) Secondly, if I find a book that I enjoy, I immediately want more from that author—but if his or her first book just came out, I’m going to have to wait a whole year (or more!) for the next one. So here are a few teen urban fantasies I recently discovered, where there are one or several more already-published books by the author.

First, though, a definition of urban fantasy: A regular fantasy is set in an imaginary mythological world created for the story (think Middle-Earth). Urban fantasy places fantastic elements within contemporary, real-world, urban settings. So the idea is, you’re walking along San Fernando Road and you see a couple of window-shopping goth girls dressed all in black. You glance away, and when you look back, you see two crows flying away. Did the girls turn into crows? Or is it a coincidence? Urban fantasy trades heavily on the fact that city folks tend to be oblivious to odd or unexplainable things happening in their midst, so cities leave space for mysteries to hide in plain sight.

City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare, is a fantasy that trades on the classics: Themes include the union of representatives from different “races” (mundanes, faerie, downworlders, shadowhunters) against a common evil, reminiscent of Lord of the Rings; a villain whose physical description brings to mind the supercilious Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies; and a secret sibling relationship straight out of Star Wars; not to mention that some of the Shadowhunters bear a striking resemblance to a certain Vampire Slayer. But I didn’t mind the derivative elements; the protagonists, 15-year-old Clary Fray, her best friend, Simon, and her new crush, Jace Wayland, Shadowhunter, are fresh and interesting, and the urban setting (New York City) provides camouflage for the other worlds hidden amongst its cathedrals, cemeteries and industrial districts.
The second book, City of Ashes, continues and expands upon the relationships and the challenges; the third, City of Glass, is due out in March of 2009.

The Blue Girl, by Charles de Lint, is a specifically teen-oriented urban fantasy book—two others by this author are Little (Grrl) Lost and Dingo. De Lint has been writing urban fantasy for a few decades, but mostly for the adult market. Although these three books are not part of a series, they do share a common setting—the city of Newford (which is, in fact, mythical, but was patterned on Canadian and American cityscapes)—and interweave the normal world with extraordinary events and characters drawn from faerie, the supernatural, and various cultural mythologies including Native American and aboriginal Australian.

Imagine you are a troubled teen who has just moved to a new school. You’re trying to live down your bad reputation, and you make a good start by finding a friend who’s shy and studious—your polar opposite. Things are going well until you realize that the pale boy you’ve seen wandering around the school is actually the ghost of a deceased student, who accidentally sics a group of practical-joke-playing fairies on you. Things quickly go from complicated to dire as they first turn you blue from head to toe and then bring you to the attention of frightening beings from the Otherworld.

Little (Grrl) Lost unites a shy, awkward 14-year-old teen with her “Little” counterpart—a 16-year-old punk girl who happens to be six inches tall. Dingo is the story of high school senior Miguel and his new friend, Australian transfer student Lainey, who is on the run from an ancient bargain made by her ancestors. If you enjoy these, also try some of De Lint’s adult titles, like Trader, a what-would-happen-if? tale about body-switching.


Erin said...

My favorite urban fantasy (probably good for YA too) would have to be Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It's also a BBC miniseries on DVD that is awesome/horrible like all BBC adaptations are...

I very nearly named a pet "Door" based on one of the characters, but I changed my mind after hearing the same question over and over: "Cute! Like Dora the Explorer?"

Anonymous said...

I too love Neil Gaiman,Neverwhere is quite a good read. Try "Good Omens" by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Imagine the apocolypse filtered through Douglas Adams/Monty Python.