Tough Urban Fantasy Women and Cloak-guys, You’ve Overstayed Your Welcome

Tough Urban Fantasy Women and Cloak-guys, You’ve Overstayed Your Welcome

The Ghost Bride-smallUrsula Vernon, the Hugo Award-winning creator of Digger, nicely articulates the tedious sameness of much of modern fantasy, and makes an eloquent call for fresh, rich settings to draw her back into the genre, at her blog Bark Like a Fish, Damnit!

I love fantasy. I love it dearly… and god help me, I am so very sick of nearly all of it… I scan the new book section of Barnes & Noble and go “Cloak-guy, Cloak-guy, Steampunk Guy, Cloak-guy, Tiger, Cloak-guy, John Jude Palencar That I Would Buy A Print Of But Not The Book, Tough Urban Fantasy Woman, Cloak-guy.”

None of it excites me. It’s the setting, I think. Has to be. I picked up The Ghost Bride and read it in two fascinated days. When I discovered Sarah Addison Allen’s magical realism books, I devoured every single one, one after another.

I think I am tired of Fantasyland.

You know where it is. It’s the vague European city and countryside that has no sense of place to it… Perhaps it’s just a call for books to take me someplace that I haven’t been already. Many, many times… I am desperately tired of farmboys in search of their lonely destiny, and if you are going to introduce yourself as a ranger, you goddamn well be putting out fires and fretting over declining woodpecker populations in the next paragraph…

But mostly I just scan over the new releases and feel no desire to read any of them.

I hear this complaint frequently, but I rarely hear it laid at the feet of setting as Ursula does here. And rightly so. (And I’ve never heard of Sarah Addison Allen before, but her novels — including Garden Spells and The Girl Who Chased the Moon — look very intriguing indeed.)

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James McGlothlin

I don’t get comments/complaints like this. There are a lot of other interesting sections of the book store besides the fantasy section. Take a break from fantasy–read a mystery, a romance, or even non-fiction for God’s sake.

Donald Crankshaw

I’ve noticed that writers, agents, and editors tend to complain about this a lot more than actual readers.


Well, I understaind the complaint – I’ve felt the same discontent myself. Great fantasies are modes for the solitary imagination, not fodder for filling out a publisher’s “spring list” or whatever they call it. Most of the folks Ms. Vernon complains about are just paying the rent – which is fine, it’s something everyone has to do, writers inculded. But in doing it, these writers aren’t actually creating anything. Borrowing, recycling, yes, and it somehow seems worse in fantasy than in, say, hardboiled mysteries, because of all genres, fantasy should truly – as Vernon says – take you someplace you’ve never been before. Honestly, it’s why I read little current work; I spend most of my time searching out and reading older works that have stood the test of time, fresher works that don’t come across like carbon copies of carbon copies. (And if you don’t know what a carbon copy is, come here and I’ll lash you with my buggy whip.)

James McGlothlin

One more comment: Vernon has a very interesting view of what a ranger should be. I’m glad Aragorn was not worrying about fires and woodpeckers. Equivocation? Joke?

James McGlothlin

I’m still missing the point?

This is what I find frustrating about this SF&F community. Points tend to be very fuzzy things in this community. It seems that only the initiated “get the point.” It seems that outsiders like myself are doomed to usually miss the point.

(Slink back to my corner.)

Aonghus Fallon

I dunno, James. I think her point is pretty straightforward. She enjoyed reading work in a particular genre, but now finds it stale and hackneyed. Checking out other genres might constitute a change of pace, but it doesn’t really solve her problem – assuming that problem lies with the genre as opposed to the reader. Certainly the hooded assassin/thief/mercenary/mage seems to be a staple of most fantasy book covers these days.


“But you know who’s keeping fantasy alive? It’s the readers who are still willing to take chances on that strange little book from an unknown writer, the weird paperback that’s not like the others.” You’re right about that, John, and I still occasionally pluck something off the shelf when it just strikes my fancy, and, as always, sometimes it turns out to be lemons and sometimes it turns out to be cherries. For new work though, more often I look for help to know if it’s worth my time. That’s why this site is so valuable to me, in finding the good new – and old – stuff.


I agree with the book covers making it seem like the same.

What really makes an author’s work different is his/her writing style. It doesn’t matter if they have a tough urban fantasy woman if their writing style brings a new flavor to it.

I find that an author’s writing style is something that’s not appreciated enough today (or at least seldom talked about.)

I love James Enge’s work but the art A guile of dragons and Wrath Bering Tree do not fit the writing style or the story in the slightest.

kim philby

would you believe that i also almost instantly thought of james enge and inappropriate (meaning too ordinary) covers to his books.

on the other hand how someone could look at tom kidd’s covers and not want to read the book is beyond me.

also, i think that genre writers are not required to read only genre fiction.

James McGlothlin

Reading my former comments I don’t think my “joking” came through. Thus I must be part of the community after all since I cannot clearly communicate my point either.

Ty Johnston

I might be misguided, but I’m going to have to disagree with most of Vernon’s conclusions. Are there plenty of cloak guys and farm boys and dark lords out there? Yes, of course there are. But guess what? There’s also plenty of fantasy available that’s not the traditional pseudo-European setting, that’s not the typical Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, that’s not all white male, brawny characters running the show. Well-known authors such as Neil Gaiman, Jackqueline Carey and Umberto Eco are putting for quite the non-traditional fantasy works. And those are the famous names. There are plenty of small presses and self-published authors who are putting out “different” material. Again, yes, plenty are also putting out the standard epic fantasy tropes, and such material does tend to garnish the shelves at most B&N stores, but I’d argue there’s more “different” fantasy today than at any point in time.

One simply has to go looking for it beyond B&N’s shelves and the top rankings at Amazon.

Besides, Vernon’s complaints are not new. I was hearing similar at least three decades ago when such complaints were much more believable. In actuality, I’ve heard similar complaints fairly consistently for much of the last 30 years, maybe longer.


The same thing applies to orcs, elves, and dwarves. People have been writing about them fairly heavily since Tolkien but I think there are plenty of authors that use these common tropes in ways that makes them interesting.

Toist an example Gail Z Martin’s chronicles of the necromancer has vampires and werewolves. But the way she uses them in her story and writes about them keeps them interesting.

Fletcher Vredenburgh

Great conversation. I liked Vernon’s post (because I pretty much agree with). It’s the result of the huge growth in the fantasy audience and the desire of writers/publishers to replicate the last big thing.

There’s clearly an audience for all those Fantasyland® books. It’s up to us as readers, critics, etc. to hunt for and promote the better stories, new and old. Just because a fan gravitates to something with a moody guy or a plucky swineherd, it doesn’t mean that reader can’t be turned on to some of the great classics or “new treasures.”

@ K Philby – Yeah, Enge’s post-Crooked Way covers are way too pedestrian. I’m sort of glad I mostly buy e-books these days and don’t have to keep seeing the terrible photo-realistic covers of cloaked characters looking not brooding but dyspeptic.
Also, I think I think any good genre writer/fan should be reading outside the genre all the time.

Bill Ward

The current trend in fantasy covers is awful — if there’s anything good in the new releases, publishers are trying real hard to make it look like everything else (as I think John and a few others already mentioned). As they are now, my eyes just glaze over looking at this stuff.

Smart publishers would use the flexibility of ebooks to release multiple covers, targeting different audiences.


Along with cloak guy, there is chick with great abs and a weapon.

Fantasy isn’t spent because its too European. European history is endlessly fascinating. Fantasy is spent because it no longer invents. It’s the same monsters/myths/stories (European, Asian, or otherwise) endlessly recycled with minor differences. We don’t need any more books on undead or dragons or elves or katanas.


I agree with Bill Ward. Modern fantasy covers are terrible. Half the new stuff I see on Black Gate gets ignored when I see the terrible covers. I know that’s wrong, but I can’t help it.

Sarah Avery

Even when a writer submits a fresh and original fantasy, it’s frequently packaged to look just like everything else on the shelves.

I wrote the weird book Vernon wants to find, the one with the non-cloak-guy characters and the atypical setting, and I only got any traction with agents and editors when I found a way to describe it using the formula Vernon’s so sick of:

If you are from the Kingdom of Blah, ruled by blah, and must awaken the blah within yourself, with the aid of a rag-tag band of misfit blahs, in a desperate race against time before the terrible Blah occurs, we are done here.

Then several agents and acquiring editors were willing to read it, after which they all said variations on, We love this book, and it kills us that we can’t publish it, but we don’t see a way to make money on it. Fair enough.

But if I had been able to inch that trunk manuscript close enough to salability to reach the shelves of B&N, I have no doubt it would have been covered and blurbed to look exactly like all the others.

Haven’t read all the comments yet, but wanted to respond to “all those books look the same, and they don’t appeal” with, perhaps that means cover design is more responsible. If all the covers look and read the same or very close to the same, then the designers and those who sign off on their work shoulder some responsibility.

and now that I’ve read all the comments, it seems I’m late to the party 😉


There’s a party?


I both agree and disagree with Vernon’s initial point. I actually *like* some of those old fantasy tropes that continue on in modern fantasy, and after I read a bunch of more urban/modern stuff, it’s nice to go and pick up some high fantasy. But I also very much like the non-pseudo-Europe stuff that’s coming out more and more: Guy Gavriel Kay and Elizabeth Bear are among the white North American writers who are expanding into fantasy settings based on east Asia; Max Gladstone’s urban-ish fantasy novel Two Serpents Rise had some interesting Central/South American themes informing its setting; there’s some great YA stuff in non-psuedo-Euro settings coming out from Tu Books (including Joseph Bruchac’s post-apocalyptic Killer of Enemies and Shawna Mlawski’s Hammer of Witches, set in Columbus era Spain and the Americas); and there are brilliant books by Nnedi Okorafor and Karen Lord and Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due … all of which trash the usual old “this is what fantasy is” setting and go new places. So yeah, the shelves may look a lot the same when browsing, but you don’t have to look *hard* to find stuff that doesn’t look just like everything else. People in SFF seem to be talking about diversity all the time, and a lot of those writers who are on the pro-diversity side give great recommendations to other writers. It might just require looking beyond the bookstore shelves.



Your PC view of diversity is part of the problem. The same boring quest plot doesn’t get any more interesting if you change the melatonin levels of the protagonist. The real problem with lack of diversity lies in the insistence on sticking to the same themes, plots, and characters. Science fiction transcended this problem decades ago with a fantastic array of story types. It’s unclear to me why fantasy has not. Even sword and sorcery has a much broader range of stories than high fantasy or urban fantasy.

You know what though, just want to point out, I have no desire to read the pictured book, based upon cover and title “Ghost Bride.” Just saying.



You are kidding right? There is no shortage of fantasy fiction set in China and Japan. And I previously agreed that ranger, elves, etc. are overdone.

However, I don’t agree that changing the setting is necessary and is a sideshow from the real problem. Science fiction is more diverse because it explores a wider variety of themes, not because it has more settings. SF authors routinely take risks. Fantasy authors rarely do and, based on previous comments, are punished by publishers when they do.



TLDR version: I think there are also plenty of interesting themes in F, but I also tend to look for specific themes in all my reading, so your complaint probably requires a more informed answer than mine. 🙂

Long version:
I was trying to address Ursula’s particular complaint about setting, thus my recommendations. Your complaint is somewhat different and would deserve a different answer. I tend to be most interested in fantasy that deals with issues of faith, so Max Gladstone’s books are a particularly good fit for me, as they all have that element. But a few years back when I was reading all the Eberron books (because I also love shared world fantasy and have no trouble embracing the D&D themes), I was surprised how many sophisticated discussions of faith appeared in those books. They might have otherwise had the same types of plots people are tired of, but some of the themes were *really* interesting.

There was also one that I enjoyed that had an evil freelance writer as one of the protagonists, and that tickled my funny bone to no end.

There are plenty of fantasy works that have political themes as well — Vernon in her post mentions China Mieville (whose Embassytown, which might vaguely be more SF than F, I found fascinating), and Steven Brust has quite a lot of political themes that work their way into his work. I’m sure that others more interested in political fantasy could come up with more.

I don’t read as much SF as I read F, so I can’t speak to the difference between quantity of themes — and also, frankly, I look for many of the same themes in my SF as I look for in my F. Faith in SF is also fascinating, but frequently ignored; the books doing it most interestingly right now (in my opinion) are the Safehold novels by David Weber. I’d be interested in further recommendations if you have them. I’ve found looking at what makes someone “human” to be somewhat more compelling in SF also, if only because in F there seems to be more bathos in it. (Melancholy AI get more sympathy from me than sad vampires, I suppose.) But again, those are just the themes that interest me, so those are the ones I go seeking.

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