Monday, January 20, 2014

Contemporary versus Urban Fantasy: A difference in storytelling

Contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy, what's the difference? Both are set in the modern era and have elements of magic. Are they the same thing? Not exactly.

Today I've invited another contemporary fantasy author, Scott Eder, to share his take on the difference between the two, and how to tell them apart.

Picture this. It's New Year's Eve. 11:59PM. Ryan Seacrest is counting us down to midnight. The crystal ball is dropping… dropping… dropping… Four. Three. Two. As soon as the ball touches down, it bursts. Smoke billows from the ruined Waterford crystal, filling the TV shot. From out of the roiling gray crawls a black-scaled dragon, eyes glowing fiery orange. It screeches as it launches itself from the shards of the new year, and drops off the roof of One Times Square. Like a helicopter-sized hawk, it dives toward Ryan Seacrest, who, mouth agape, eyes wide and locked in terror, doesn't even raise his arms to ward off the mythical beast. It snaps him up and flies off to the accompaniment of terrified screams. Cut to commercial.

Poor Ryan. Not that I have anything against him, but I wanted a fresh, timely example with which to work. When a writer mixes our real world in with the elements we've come to expect from high fantasy like a magic system, mythical creatures, alternate races (elves, dwarves, halflings, orcs), we get a story classified as Contemporary Fantasy. At least, that's the way I define it. So, in Ryan's example, we see recognizable references to our modern world coupled with the emergence of a classic fantasy beast. From here, the story can go a million ways, depending on how the writer wants to attack the situation. Let's talk about two.

My debut novel, Knight of Flame, is a Contemporary Fantasy. I introduce knights with the ability to control the elements, evil sorcerers wielding Shadow-magic, dragon(s), and other fantasy creatures set in modern day Tampa, FL. The story is told from the point-of-view of four different characters, and focuses on saving humanity. Were I to continue Ryan's story along the same vein as the storytelling in Knight of Flame, I might introduce a team of heroes who track the dragon, chasing it across America. The story would be told in 3rd-person. Its tone is serious, but light, with the hope of finding Ryan alive at journey's end driving the heroes to fight harder and pull together, despite their differing backgrounds, against the challenges lying in wait. The trail leads to the dragon's roost atop Mt. Rainier, where the heroes defeat the dragon and rescue the damsel—er—Ryan.

Notice that I called out the tone of the story. It's one of the big differentiating factors in terms of fantasy sub-genre. Serious, but light. The voice, settings, characters, and overall treatment blend together to tell a story that, while possibly dealing with dire circumstances and world-saving implications, is still fueled by the theme of hope, of defeating a common enemy, of saving dying Ryan.

If I were to take the story a darker way, an Urban Fantasy way, poor Ryan wouldn't stand a chance. From the beginning, I'd have the dragon kill him, bite right through so that bits and pieces of our TV host litter the soundstage. A dark avenger, one who's been tracking the dragon through the underbelly of the city since it broke free of its magical prison, drops from nowhere and lands amid the Seacrest carnage. Driven by the need for vengeance, she picks through the parts with the tip of a barbed sword, looking for clues. Right from the start, the character has an attitude—intense, confident, indifferent to the cameras and millions of viewers tuning in, focused on the job at hand. The story unfolds through New York City, following seedy trails and back alleys, tracking the dragon's rampage. Along the way, harsh decisions are made, making the reader question which is worse—the dragon, or the avenger in pursuit. Finally, in the deepest recess of the labyrinthine sewers, we have the final confrontation. Told from a single point-of-view, that of the scowling, brash avenger, the story's pace is like lightning, and the tone is suspenseful, gritty. The overall settings and mood of the story are dark and brooding, circling around a theme of retribution.

Urban Fantasy is the noire of the Fantasy world. Detectives, bounty hunters, avenging angels, and those of their ilk chase after something, whether it be a criminal or monster, and drive the relentless pace. Typically told from a single-point of view, these stories often deal with themes of righteous vengeance, justice, or even protection.

In the examples, both stories are set in our modern world, and have classic fantasy elements, but the similarities end there. The tone and style in which they are told are so vastly different, almost opposite approaches from the same beginning, providing readers with a different experience.

And that different experience is the point, really. Contemporary Fantasy. Urban Fantasy. Historical Fantasy. Epic/High Fantasy. The list goes on. Thank goodness for all our Fantasy flavors.

While Into the Tides has a single first-person point of view, like Scott's novel Knight of Flame it doesn't have the noire tone of most urban fantasies, and isn't confined within a city.

About Scott:

Since he was a kid, Scott wanted to be an author. Through the years, fantastic tales of nobility and strife, honor and chaos dominated his thoughts. After twenty years mired in the corporate machine, he broke free to bring those stories to life.

Scott lives with his wife and two children on the west coast of Florida.

Check out his novel, Knight of Flame:

Tainted by the very element he's supposed to control, an elemental Knight must overcome a centuries-old tragedy and find the balance to his fire-stoked rage to prevent his clandestine Order's ancient enemy from destroying all life in modern-day Tampa.

Available at:
Barnes and Noble

An excerpt:

Chapter One

Knights don't dance. Develor Quinteele wrung the leather-wrapped steering wheel and swallowed hard. The muted roar of the rented Jag's high-performance engine and smooth-as-silk ride did nothing to dispel his apprehension. Wren could have picked anything, but she chose dancing. He jammed a finger under the rigid collar of his first modern suit and yanked it away from his skin.

Great. Just great. 

Dev stretched to adjust the rear-view mirror and ripped the seam of his jacket. Armani stretch wool, my ass. A growl rumbled in his chest and he glared at Wren, but she seemed oblivious to his distress.

"How much farther?" Wren's excitement tumbled out with each word. The sun's last rays reflected off the silver sequins of her micro-dress and sparkled across the car's dark chocolate interior. She shifted position, adjusted her dress, and crossed her legs. Despite her fidgeting, her head remained still, focused on the distant horizon, straining to get her first look at Club Mastodon.

Dev smiled through his growing unease. Though somewhere in her early twenties, Wren reminded him of a small child driving up to the gates of Disney World for the first time. Her usually tense and critical Japanese features were soft, eager and innocent. Seeing her excitement helped steady his nerves…a little.

"Just a few more minutes. You know I'm missing a Three Stooges marathon for this, don't you?"

"Whatevs." Wren brushed him off.

Dev checked his mirrors, vision in constant motion, and raked the hair out of his eyes. The thin, wavy strands felt foreign to his calloused fingers. He couldn't remember the last time he had more than a dark prickly shadow on top of his head, let alone mussed brown locks. 

With a careless wave of his hand, he grazed the new bruise over his left eye. Damn, forgot about that. He prodded the tender skin, trying to gauge the size of the purpling evidence. So far, he'd managed to keep his fights at work from Wren. If she found out, he'd never hear the end of it. The last time, she went on and on about him being reckless, and jeopardizing the mission. Thankfully, she hadn't reported the incident to Stillman, his commander. It had been close, though. Cost Dev a night on the town. But it wasn't that big of a sacrifice. He loved her like a little sister, and enjoyed seeing her smile.

Brushing his hair forward, Dev tried to cover the injured area, and hoped for the best.     

"This place won't be crowded, will it?" he asked. "You know crowds and I don't mix."  

"Mmhm." Wren's arm shot out, pointed ahead and to the right. "There it is." The rest of her words blurred together, "I can't believe you got us on the list. I mean, like, I've never been to a place like this." She turned her sparkling green eyes on Dev. "Do you think a lot of movie stars will be here?"

"Breathe, Wren." Dev took the exit off I-275 south, just in sight of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and stopped at the traffic light across from the club. When Club Mastodon first opened he'd read about the local business leaders raising an uproar over how quickly the permits, zoning and associated building minutia were pushed through. But, when the club was bank-rolled by Alexander Gray, one of the head honchos at Daegon Gray, the normal red tape-covered bullshit disappeared.  

Dev tilted his head as he caught his first glimpse of their destination through a ring of palm trees lining the property.

"Really? That's it?"

Wren didn't respond. Instead, she leaned forward, hands pressed tight against the dash, mouth open wide. 

"It's just a big ass tent," Dev said. "I paid 10-K in advance to go to a circus?" His stomach rolled. "Wonderful."

The light changed and he pulled onto the gravel drive. Tires crunched on loose stones as they passed through the trees and drove the half-mile to the front of the club.

 "I hate clowns," he murmured, "And elephants. I hate when they make those big bastards do stupid tricks."

Dev queued for the valet behind a sleek Mercedes SLR and waited his turn. The wait gave him a chance to assess the place without being obvious.

People. Damn. So many people, so many potential ways to piss me off.

A large number of the area celebrities milled about in front of the club's huge entrance.  Beyond a set of giant wooden doors rose the three tall peaks of the monstrous Club Mastodon tent. Spotlights spaced evenly around the perimeter beamed on the white walls, causing them to glow. A smaller tent hung off the rear of the main, connected via covered walkway. 

He couldn't see any exits other than the big main door, not even a window. They really weren't kidding about the whole privacy thing. The club was touted as the place to relax, a soothing oasis where the local aristocracy and visiting celebs could let their guard down and be themselves. In essence, society's elite could make fools of themselves without it showing up on the internet the next day. Absolutely no cameras were allowed, not even cell phones.

"It's not too late." Dev shook his head. "We could always go somewhere else." Please…anywhere else.  

"Nope, we're good." Wren sounded distracted. Her gaze darted from one car window to the next. "Hey, isn't that Marcus Albright from the Bucs?"


"You know, the cornerback for the Buccaneers. Ooh, and that's the guy from that new show on AB—." 

"Dennis Carlisle." The name rolled off Dev's tongue before she finished the station's call letters.   

Wren oohed and ahed over a few other names he'd never heard of. Probably famous athletes or politicians or something, but he played along for her sake.

Movement. Out the window to his left. Dev tracked it out of the corner of his eye. A pair of security guards in black blazers and slacks marched down a row of exotic cars parked in tight lanes. Their heads swiveled every few feet so as not to miss anything.

More movement. Further out this time and a couple rows over. Another pair on patrol. Rent-a-cops didn't move like that. They had to be ex-military. 

I bet the bulges in their jackets are compact automatic weapons. 

"Geez, they take their security seriously around here." Dev spied more guards near the back tent. "Can you say overkill?"  

"What are you babbling about?" Wren asked, flipping him an annoyed glance.

"Nothing…nothing." Dev moved up in line. Rhythmic burps of deep bass rattled the windows and thrummed through the steering wheel. Within seconds, the vein at his temple throbbed in time.

A valet approached the driver's side while another opened the door for Wren. Dev got out and shrugged at the tear in his jacket then met her on the curb.

"I feel naked in this." He whispered, running his hand over his chest and the expensive suit. "Out of my element." 

"I feel like a princess." Wren, five-foot three, a smidgen under five-eight in her knee-high boots, twirled. Even with the added height, she only came up to Dev's chin. "Like the boots?" She modeled the right one—slick black leather that laced to the top—turning it enough to flash a red sole. "Louboutin. Got them yesterday."

Dev shrugged. "Nice, I guess. Not very practical."

She slapped his arm. "Dork. Not everything in this world is meant to be practical. I think they're gorgeous. Now, hold still." She straightened his tie and fussed with his hair, exposing his little secret.  

Her eyes narrowed. "You've been fighting again." She spun on her spiked-heels, her expression blocked by the swish of her shoulder-length, ebony bob, and wound her way through the throng of socialites and celebrities.

Dev tried to keep pace, but she melted through the crowd toward the entrance. Impressed, he admired her agile dips and whirls as she put years of his hard-core physical training to unconscious use.

On her trail, he moved left and jostled the guy on his right, "Sorry," then bumped the woman on his left. "Excuse me." Anger flared, but he forced a tight smile. The shoulder-to-shoulder press of humanity reminded him of the battlefield.  He slid between a pair of athletic-looking young men, but clipped one's shoulder. "Sorry, sorry."

High on alpha-male bravado, the kid tried to shove back, but Dev caught his hand before it made contact. With a deft twist, he bent the young man's wrist back and lifted him onto his toes. Dev leaned in close and bared his teeth. Anger boiled into rage, heating his body and fueling his need to fight. 

"I said, pardon me." He spoke so only the impromptu ballerina could hear. Muscles tense, he wanted to yank this punk's arm off and beat him and the rest of the crowd with it, lay waste to everything around him until nothing stood between him and the entrance except Wren.

He straightened, took a loud breath through his nose, and found her off to the side near the entrance. Safe. Arms crossed. Hip cocked. Frown in place.

Crap. He'd lost control in front of her again.

"Today's your lucky day, skippy." After a last, painful wrench on his captive's arm, Dev released him and slogged his way through the crowd to Wren's side. People reacted to his rough passage, cast annoyed glances at his broad back then quickly went back to their own lives.

Every nerve, cell and fiber of Dev's being surged inside him. It didn't take much to get him going anymore. And sitting idle in Tampa for the last two years, due to a nebulous prediction of the Gray Lord's return, was not how an elemental warrior should live.  

Daily skirmishes in the shipyard got him by, but he craved more. Primed for combat, he wanted a release. He wanted, no, needed, to fight. But this wasn't the time or the place. He needed to be strong, for Wren. This was her night.      

"You promised the fighting would stop." Wren said between clenched teeth. "You stationed yourself at the shipyard to watch for signs of the Gray Lord, not play around. You don't see me getting in fights at the airport, do you?"

"It was just a minor disagreement," he said. "There were eight of them, jumped me behind the scrap metal piles."


A nearby couple turned to stare at Wren. Dev took her arm and pulled her further away from the crowd. 

"Look, I screwed up. They usually attack in threes. I didn't see Little Mike hiding in the garbage can. He whacked me with a crowbar." Dev looked away from her accusing stare. "It's no big deal. Won't happen again." That you'll know of.
"But you —"

"Let it go. Please."

Wren opened her mouth as if to say more when her eyes opened wide. "You're hot," she whispered, "Smoking."

Dev wiggled his eyebrows. "Why, thank you, thank you very much. You're looking pretty good yourself." 

"That's not what I mean." 

Dev caught a whiff of burned hair. His hand shot to the top of his head and found it still covered. As his body cooled, he found the singed stalks of the little hairs on the back of his hands. The shirt cuffs were scorched as well. That was close.

"Maybe this was a mistake." Wren's tentative, quiet voice touched him. "We should go."

"No." Dev stared at his shoes. Black. Leather. Uncomfortable. "No. I'm okay. You deserve this."  

Wren's face scrunched as she assessed his attitude. She nodded. "Yeah, I do. Don't screw it up."

Dev blinked….

She laughed, wrapped her arm around his, "Come on, come on," and pulled him to the entrance.  

Up close, the imposing entry reminded Dev of a smaller version of the village gates on Skull Island built to keep out King Kong. A dense collection of palm fronds and exotic, big-leaf plants, surrounded a pair of giant double doors unevenly framed by thick, rough-hewn timbers. The presence of security cameras positioned within the plants did little to deter from the primordial setting.

Dev smiled and waved at the camera tracking his movements. 

Another pair of guards, much bigger than those patrolling the parking lot, flanked the entrance. Clad in nothing but loincloths, with long, black hair draped over heavily muscled shoulders and square pecks, they looked like stand-ins from Conan the Barbarian. Both stared straight ahead, boulder-crushing arms rigid at their sides. If it weren't for the slight motion of their immense chests, they could be statues. A low mist crawled around their feet and billowed in front of and under the big doors. Capping off the primitive atmosphere, flames swirled and popped above their heads in a long trench dug out of the lintel.

Blessed fire. Dev focused on the flames. He felt their lure, their potential, and the fire's raw power. A taste. That's all he needed. A quick fix to steady his nerves and help him through the night. With a thought he called to his element, drew it into him. His body tingled. Invisible tendrils of heat trickled into his chest and coalesced into a fireball behind his ribcage. It churned and roiled and intensified.

"Dev." Wren's harsh whisper seemed to come from far away.

That's nice. With another thought, he capped the flow and dispersed the warmth throughout his body. It calmed his spirit, dispelled his rage.     

"Dev." An elbow to the ribs punctuated her call.   

Awareness rushed in as his wind rushed out. Damn, that girl knows right where to hit a guy. He wheezed, tried to refill his lungs, and ignored the curious stares of the other patrons.


Alexander Gray stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling penthouse windows and scowled at the world far below. Streetlights bathed the Tampa Bay Times Forum and Channelside shops in a sickly yellow glow. People, ants from this height, scurried through the darkness from one light post to another while a few late drivers braved the downtown Tampa streets.

His dark power surged, burrowing beneath his skin like angry wasps. With a thought he could make the shadows rise up and lay waste to those insignificant specs of life beneath him, but he reluctantly held back.

Not yet.  

Out of the flat screen mounted in the corner, a local news anchor droned on about the rash of unexplained disappearances that baffled police.

Alexander smiled. 

A small brown bird thumped into the window and fell dazed to the ledge. Stupid birds. Alexander crouched and tapped on the window. He knew neither the sound nor the vibration would penetrate the hurricane-proof glass, but he did it anyway.

"Hey there," he cooed, "Are you okay, little one?"

The bird got to its feet, shook his feathery head and leaned against the glass out of the wind.

"I have something for you." Alexander pressed his index finger against the thick pane and exerted a sliver of his will. A dark ribbon of inky-black energy oozed through the window and wriggled on the outside.

Startled, the bird hopped down the ledge.

"Take it." Alexander's face twitched. "Take it."

It hopped closer, its curious little head bobbing from side to side. 

A little peck to taste the darkness.   

The bird struck, tore off a hunk of black flesh, and bounced backward.

Alexander stopped the flow, folded his hands between his knees and studied his prey. 

Its beak opened once, an unheard chirp of distress lost in the wind, and its chest expanded until hollow bone and skin could no longer contain the pressure. It exploded in a puff of gray-feathered clumps that floated away on the breeze.

Alexander stood, smoothing the imagined wrinkles from his pants, and stared at the human infestation below. If only the rest of you were so easy. A picture came to mind, one in which thousands of people writhed on the ground while their life force drained into the soil, and their skin turned the color of ash. A pleasant notion indeed. 

A lightly spoken, "Sir?" accompanied a soft knock at the door. Alexander Gray, Master of Shadow, son of the last Gray Lord Bestok Molan, transformed into Alexander Gray, Regional President of Daegon Gray, philanthropist. Tight features relaxed and he coerced a false smile from his lips.


The intern from the mayor's office minced through the room reeking of Chanel and french fries.

"Yes, Miss White?" Smooth, confident, and charismatic, that's what all the local papers wrote about him. His warm, deep voice put people at ease. "How can I help you, my dear?"

"M-m-m…Mr. Gray, the reporters are st-still waiting, sir." Straight blond hair framed an attractive face. She regarded him with bright-eyed innocence tinged with a delicious helping of fear. "Are you r-r-ready to start the press conference?"

Alexander savored the uncomfortable silence when he did not answer immediately. Fresh. Young. Barely out of college. Dressed in a grown-up's business suit and conservative heels. Even in the dim lighting, he noted the slight tremble in her limbs and her delightful habit of nibbling her lower lip. Mmmm. Her life would taste sweet. 

A slight buzz tickled the back of his neck, but he ignored it. Not now. 

"Yes, yes. We can start." Alexander walked over, placed his hand on her lower back and escorted her to the door.

The buzz increased to a sustained tingle, urgent, insistent. I do not have time for this. 

At the doorway Alexander grabbed the back of his neck as it started to burn. "I am sorry, sweetheart, but I need to make a call first. I will only be a few minutes." He pushed her out and shut the door.  

Snarling, he strode to his antique mahogany desk, threw himself into the high-backed leather chair and spun to the portraits on the wall. The largest, an older gentleman in a high-collared black waistcoat and black cravat, hung in the center. Dark brown eyes, small and deep-set, stared out from narrow, emaciated features under a thin fringe of white stringy hair. Brown spots littered his pallid face like dead leaves over old snow.

Alexander took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and tried to calm his murderous thoughts, but the intensity of the pain made it more difficult than usual. He had been told his impatience would get the better of him and he didn't want to let on just how frayed he was. Frustration, anger, anticipation—feelings of any kind were considered flaws, and it would not do to show weakness in front of Bestok Molan.

Emotions masked. Breathing and heartbeat normal. Body still and relaxed. He opened his eyes and met the stare in the portrait.

"Yes, Father?"

A gnarled head pushed out from the painting, stretching the canvas into three dimensions while the background colors drained away. Bestok Molan's likeness blinked its black eyes rapidly then jerked from side to side, searching. "You are alone?" A breathy voice, like a harsh and well-articulated hiss, issued from the gaunt visage. "I hear someone."

With the contact established, Alexander's pain dissipated and he stifled a relieved moan. "That is only the television, Father." Calm, flat and deferential. No hint of emotion.

"Television." The Gray Lord spat the word out as if it were a rat hair in his porridge. "The harvest is progressing, no?"

"Yes, Father."

"Good. Good." Thin, dry lips over-enunciated every word. "Tell me."

"The club has been operational for four months and produces two hundred shadow orbs per week."

Bestok Molan's dead eyes flickered, and his upper lip twitched. "That few?"

"If we drain any more of the people's energy, they will feel it. It would not take them long, even as simple-minded as they are, to trace it back to us. With the current harvest setting, they go home feeling weak and tired, which they attribute to a hard night of revelry." He gripped the arms of his chair. "As it is, the stupid sheep have no idea we are sucking out their very life essence."

The head behind the canvas tilted. "So be it."

"Father? I wish to test the orbs on something small."


"But are we sure the death magic works? That the orbs can kill?" It galled Alexander, this asking for permission to do what should be a natural act for any Shadow Lord.

Bestok Molan pushed his bulbous head further into the room, testing the strength of the canvas, and the temperature dropped thirty degrees in less than a heartbeat.

"Do not question me again, boy." An evil grin split the Gray Lord's face. "Or have you forgotten the last time?"

"No, Father." Alexander's words puffed out in a white mist as he flexed the fingers on both hands. The painful memories of that first and only time haunted the dark recesses of his mind. Changing the subject and, hopefully, the homicidal atmosphere, he steered back to the plan. "The orbs will be ready when you need them."

"They had better be." Bestok Molan melded into the painting.

"And when is that?" Alexander knew he was pushing his luck, but could not help himself. The lack of inactivity made him reckless.

"When I am ready." Bestok Molan's head flattened out and the background colors reappeared, but the distant hiss carried one more message before fading, "Wait."

I hate that word.

The portrait was solid again, ugly.

Alexander also hated that picture, and those of his three brothers to either side.

"I am tired of waiting." Alexander got to his feet, strolled back to the window, and clasped his hands behind his back.

Another light knock sounded. His hand rose out of reflex, enwrapped in rippling gray shadow, but he stopped before he blasted the door with a bolt of dark energy. It was a close call. He needed an outlet for his frustration, or he would explode and take out Tampa in a shadowy swirl of death and destruction.

That's what he should be doing, bending the world around him to his will and that of Bestok Molan's.

But the old Gray Lord says, 'Wait.' I have waited centuries for his grand plan to take shape, bounced from one menial post to another. I had hoped this time would be different, but it does not look promising. He preaches that the world must not know of our existence until we are ready to strike. That there is no need to alert the sheep that greater powers exist, for it would give them time to prepare. It is tough enough evading the Knights' constant vigil, let alone the billions of mortals on this world.

Billions. Their numbers are too vast. Time to cull the flock. 

The knock sounded again and he turned toward the door with a broad, friendly smile plastered across his face.

"Come in, Miss White."

As the door opened, he swooped to her side and took her hand. "After the press conference, how about we get a drink? I know a little pla—"

Alexander's cell phone rang.

"Excuse me, my dear. I have to take this."

(You can read the first five chapters on the publisher website, Twilight Times Books.)

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