I’ve been reading about the fae in urban fantasy ever since I first got my grubby little hands on Holly Black’s Tithe way back when and I think that the fae get a weird rap in urban fantasy series.
Like with the other predatory species, they exist in this weird in-between space where they’re generally oppressing someone but oppressed by others. Fae hold a complicated space in urban fantasy because you never really know when you’re going to get an innovative fae-filled fairytale retelling or something that poorly handles tough themes like imperialism, abusive relationships, and slavery.
But the fae are fascinating even when I don’t exactly love the way they’re being written in an urban fantasy book. Like some of the supernatural species I’ve written about before, they can often hide in plain sight as they navigate a world that actively harms them – literally considering that many fae physically can’t interact with man-made materials and the pollution of the human world can kill some of them – but that’s not the only fascinating thing about them.
Faerie – as a world – exists in many urban fantasy worlds and fae folk tend to actually predate humanity in the various work. Having them try to find a place in a world that’s since moved far past them is interesting.
In this Urban Fantasy 101 quick guide, we’re going to talk about what fae are, why I think you should be reading about the fae folk, and what the genre gets right, wrong, and uh… needs to stop doing when it comes to those freaking fae folks.
What even are these fae folk?
In the introduction to Dr. Bob Curran’s Dark Faeries, he writes that:
The word fairy is said to have originated in medieval times (possibly the 12th or 13th centuries) ; its root word fay or faewas sometimes taken to mean “spirit touched”. The exact origin of the word is probably older and dates back to early medieval or even Roman times.
From my understanding, the idea of the fae folk comes from a bunch of different European mythologies (Celtic, German, Scottish, English, and French in particular). Despite those clear enough origins, like with demons in the urban fantasy genre, fae and fairies occasionally wind up encompassing a wide variety of beings from around the world despite their singular origin.
While there are outliers in the genre – some writers can and do lump other beings under that wide umbrella and I’ve even seen some folks call angels and demons “fae” in some books – you’re more likely to see constants in the genre’s go-to fae – the sidhe, banshee, and selkies as some examples.
Fae can take any form, use their glamour to lure unsuspecting humans into their world, and are cruel beings that have medieval ideas of how the world should work – even in the urban fantasy genre which generally places them against a more modern backdrop.
The Good, the Bad, and the Awfully Upsetting
- So Shakespearean. Shakespeare may have only written about fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and maybe if you squint, with the spirit Ariel in The Tempest), but his fairies live on in the interpretations of creators in the genre to this day.
- I have such a thing for worryingly intense royals and so many fae stories focus on sharp-edged and frightening royals (like Queen Mab and Titania)
- Most writers set fae folk – sometimes all of them, but definitely their noble class – up as generally super freaking beautiful “on the outside” and when done right, the expectations we have for beauty and monstrosity can be explored in really neat ways.
- The worldbuilding split. The world of the fae folk is often layered right underneath “our” world and that makes for an interesting conflict… especially when half-human characters are involved.
- So much classism/messy class politics that largely don’t get challenged.
- Because the expectation is for fae folk to be beautiful based on what humans in our world find beautiful, they uphold some seriously strict beauty standards. Most of the humanoid fae folk appeal to beauty standards that equate able-bodied, white-appearing, thin, fae as the epitome of beauty and what humans should aspire to. As someone that’s not thin and not white… I’m not pleased.
- A lot of people base their fae on beings from ancient-enough European mythology because of the origins of the very mythology. As a result, they create a built in “historically accurate” reason why all of their fae are basically white people with pointy ears and bad attitudes. Boring.
- On that note: fae frequently serve as analogous to marginalized people of color and that includes things like subjecting them to racism or purring them in concentration camps and reservations. But they’re still white adjacent – even when they’ve got purple skin or bright blue hair – and have privilege because of it.
The Awfully Upsetting
- A lot of people replicate the same issues that I have with demons and vampires with their take on the fae. There’s something about immortality that somehow breeds immorality in these creatures.
- Lots of unaddressed and accepted “fae as slavers” plots including having main characters complicit in the enslavement of humans or “lesser” fae
- Why do y’all seem to think fae princes that abuse the women they claim to love is like… romantic? That shit is frustrating and I am not here for works that frame abusive romantic dynamics as a) a thing the fae just do and b) something that is just fine because it’s supposedly a precursor to romance.
- So much kidnapping, y’all… so much. Too much.
Four Reasons Why (I Think) You Should Be Fascinated by These Fae Folk
- An opportunity to play around with another type of immortal. While vampires are immortal undead, fae folk tend to be flat out immortal. In some series they can survive otherwise fatal wounds (like decapitation) and you have to wonder how that kind of durability shapes the race.
- You can write and/or read about characters that don’t have to look human. Most supernaturals we come across in urban fantasy were once human or are partially human. Fae are usually… not. So then you get to think about how we assign “humanity” to characters that aren’t human. (Also: on an aesthetic level, that means you can have fae that have purple skin or pink hair or wings.)
- On a related note, I want to see more innovative approaches to monstrosity and fae folk are an interesting site for that kind of narrative.
- Kelpies. Just…kelpies.
Laurell K Hamilton
Karen Marie Moning
Recommendations/Where to Start
“The Cafe Under the Hill” by Ziggy Schutz
TJ Nichols’ The Legend of Gentleman John
Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series
Mishell Baker’s The Arcadia Project series
Yasmine Galenorn’s Otherworld series
Dorian Graves’ Bones and Bourbon
Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series (especially, spoiler alert, the book that came out last year)
Films & Television Series
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Lost Girl (the first 2 seasons)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (on Amazon Prime)
The Xanadu series (DC Comics)
The Sandman #19
3 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy 101: A Fast Guide to the Freaking Fae Folk”
Thanks for the perspective. I’m doing background research for what may end up as a fae novel series … and yeah, I was going to make them white. Hadn’t even thought about it. So now I’ll have to step back and take a fresh look. Your other observations are worth contemplating too!
Emma Bull’s “war for the oaks” is amazing. Charles de Lint also writes gorgeous urban fantasy with fae and shifters featuring queer and POC characters.
Really glad to have found this article–it gives me a few necessary swerves of perspective.
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