The Magic of “What If?”

Here’s a secret that’s probably not-so-secret: I love urban fantasy. It’s my favorite genre, hands-down. The first urban fantasy book I can remember reading is Charles de Lint’s The Blue Girl. The plot involves the protagonist’s childhood imaginary friend coming back to her seeking help, a teenage ghost roaming the high school, and a hostile gang of faeries the protagonist has a showdown with in the school’s basement. I remember being scandalized when one lascivious faerie admits to peeping in the girls’ bathroom. Now, here’s another secret: I was such an imaginative kid to the point that I would convince myself that some things were actually real. (I spent quite a long time thinking I was actually Harry Potter’s cousin, but that’s a story for another time.) If average people couldn’t see faeries, then how did I know there weren’t faeries hanging out in my own school?

As I got older, I stopped being so literal with my imaginings, but one book series in particular really changed how I find inspiration. Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tale series is my ride or die. I reread the books several times a year and I never get tired of them. Tithe and Ironside revolve around Kaye Fierch, a changeling who gets involved with two warring Faerie courts. The other book, Valiant, follows Valerie, a teenage runaway who discovers the hidden world of exiled faeries in New York. Aside from feeling like these books were written for me personally because they are so perfectly tailored to my interests, there’s another huge draw. They’re set in the area where I live. I pass the cemetery where the Unseelie Court is on my way to the beach. The apple orchard where Kaye first meets the Seelie Queen is less than ten miles from my house, and I’m no stranger to New York. Because of these books, I stopped with the kind of what-ifs that I thought were actually real—what if there are literally faeries living in my backyard, what if I’m literally Harry Potter’s cousin—and started thinking in what-ifs that shaped what I wanted to be real. What if metal-eating goblins lived in the scrapyard that the train to the city passes? What if there was a support group for various sea creatures that for some reason can’t return to the ocean?

Before discovering urban fantasy, the stories I wrote were really boring to write. They were pretty much about events that happened to my friends and I, with changed names. Or they were high fantasy, set in fictional kingdoms even though I had no idea what politics were. But after, I realized I could write about all the things I liked—faeries, witches, and magic—in a way that made sense to me. It’s like, I’m going to be daydreaming about water nymph lifeguards while I’m at the beach anyway, so why not turn it into a story? I still enjoy reading books that take place in worlds other than our own, but I will always prefer stories that make the mundane world just a little more magical.


More urban fantasy must-reads:

The Curse Workers series by Holly Black (really anything by Holly Black, she’s amazing)
The Borderland series
The Faery Reel, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Undercities from Dirty Birds Press
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Daughters of the Moon series by Lynne Ewing
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

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