What is it about contemporary fantasy—urban and its more suburban and rural cousins—that makes it so appealing as a genre?
All stories make promises. Science fiction offers high-tech tools and strange new worlds. Romance assures you that despite the odds, the lovers are going to have their happily ever after. Crime fiction often guarantees that someone’s going to die within the first few chapters—sometimes in an unpleasantly creative fashion.
Contemporary fantasy pulls you close and whispers, The world is so much bigger, more beautiful, more dangerous, more…well, magical than you know, and if you come with me, all will be revealed. That’s right, step this way. Follow me down the overlooked alley. Knock twice on the unmarked door. Tell no one your name and accept no favors, but here, drink this—you’ll need it.
From our earliest fairy tales to our first romps through Narnia and Middle-earth, we grow up on fantasy. It’s part of our cultural DNA. But growing up comes with a price: We learn to see the world not how it could be, but how it is. There are no wardrobes to another land, no cursed rings of power, no monsters under the bed. And so we go about our respectable lives, paying bills, taking out the trash, and mowing the lawn, secure in the knowledge that everything is as it seems.
But I have a feeling that somewhere deep inside each of us is a Chosen One still waiting to be released. We like to imagine that if a mysterious stranger told us the fate of the world was in our hands, we’d rise to the challenge, beat the steep odds, and do deeds worthy of an epic soundtrack. Don’t believe me? Consider how many card-carrying, taxes-paying, 401(k)-holding, vegetable-eating adults can tell you, without a shred of doubt, their Hogwarts house.
And this is the promise of contemporary fantasy. What we perceive in our mundane lives is only a portion of a much larger, more complex picture. All the creatures that you’ve convinced yourself don’t exist—the trolls, the elves, the wizards and orcs and vampires and fairies and werewolves and the unnamed things that go bump in the night—they’re still around. They never left. They just might throw on a suit these days, maybe drive a sedan, and have their Starbucks order down pat.
Sure, we sensible people know that’s not the case…but contemporary fantasy insists, What if?
It pulls back the curtain you never noticed was there, promising a peek at a reality just behind the scenes of this one. It puts a wand in your hand, loads your gun with silver bullets, and insists that even though you’re an accountant or a lawyer or a fast-food cook, you, too, might someday be given a strangely pulsating amulet and asked to save the world. Chances are slim, of course, but still…what if?
And that’s the beauty of these stories. While we’re in them, we glimpse a different version of the world we know, a more wondrous version, a version in which anything is possible and anyone, no matter how seemingly unremarkable, can be extraordinary. And if we were actually faced with the magical or the miraculous—if we were made privy to a body of secret knowledge, invited into a hidden fraternity, and called upon to battle the forces of darkness after our nine-to-five jobs—then who would we become?
I can’t tell you that. I don’t know where to find a magic shop with a back room for special customers, or a bookstore trading in the sort of tomes best left unread, or a weapons expert with a knack for dealing with troublesome species. But contemporary fantasy offers you a map, points to an intersection you’ve passed a thousand times, and invites you to slow down. Take another look. See your world as it might be. There’s an old fellow waiting at the mouth of the alley. His face is hidden by his hood, and that bulge in his waistband…well, it sort of resembles a wand. He looks nervous, hunted. His hands are battle-scarred. And yes, you’re on your lunch break, and you’re in a hurry, but he’d like a word with you.
Who would you be if you followed him?