Urban Fantasy 101: Bitchin’ Witches (And Wizards)

I grew up reading Harry Potter in the Virgin Islands. 

I think Rowling’s work was the first “witchcraft and wizardry” book I read as a child. Despite all of Rowling’s many (many) faults, that book series that’s now viewed as part of the Western canon helped nudge me on towards a deep love of urban fantasy that’s still obviously present to this day. 

One of the coolest things about witches and wizards in urban fantasy is that there’s often an element of “anyone could be one” across the narrative. Even in blood-focused societies, there’s always a Hermione who doesn’t need to be genetically gifted because she has skills

I remember being a preteen watching Buffy without any expectations and being excited to realize that Willow Rosenberg taught herself how to be a witch. (Willow’s queerness was also integral to my own journey to figuring out my own – to a point – but I didn’t quite understand that when I was a tween.)

Witches and wizards just work because… they can be anyone. 

Or rather –

It’s not gender/race/etc locked the way a lot of supernatural species are in the genre so almost anyone can be part of this world. I think that’s part of why I enjoy reading witch/wizard-focused books in urban fantas: because of that element of easy belonging that’s present across much of the genre.

What’s the deal with witches and wizards…

Witches and wizards are pretty much everywhere in the urban fantasy genre. I don’t see any sign that creators will get weary of them any time soon.

I can’t think of any relatively popular urban fantasy that doesn’t explicitly or implicitly nod to witches/wizards in their world. Where some series are like “[vampires/werewolves/unicorns] don’t exist”, I can’t think of a any universe that flat out is like full of supernatural beings except for witches/wizards. 

Like shapeshifters, there are two kinds of ways to become a practitioner: being born into it and being initiated into it. In many series, both kinds of practitioner can coexist alongside each other with different cultures of magic coming from that alone – to say nothing about the potential diversity of magical communities from different parts of the world that too few authors dare to engage with beyond “blink and you’ll miss it” moments or references in their work. 

You can have a series like Harry Potter where you have magic as a genetic thing – hence the pureblood’s focus on keeping that purity to the point of inbreeding and uh… oppressing others – as well as something that just happens as in the case of Hermione and other Muggleborns. Then you can have series where magic “just happens” for everyone and it’s not something that’s genetic but is instead environmental or based on stars aligning. (Something generally unexplainable for everyone essentially.) 

One thing about magical practitioners is that they’re ever-present in the genre and a staple that I don’t think anyone is willing to pop out any time soon. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Awfully Annoying

The Good

  • Familiars are really cool. More witch-books in urban fantasy should have familiars. Show me some real experimental stuff. Can demons be familiars? Do familiars have personhood? 
  • When marginalized authors of color bring their cultures’ magical traditions to the table in their books and play around with what magic might/does look like in their community. (Like I’ve done it with obeah before and alluded to a tradition that some people in my extended family have practiced.)
  • Found families that come together over magic and form deep bonds that are pretty unbreakable. 

The Bad

  • So much blood purity politics across several generations of written witches. Ugh. Rowling wasn’t the first writer to write about witches who were super concerned about genetics (like hello, Anne Rice’s Mayfair witches were so inbred that their family tree is a dried out Christmas wreath) and she’s far from the last. Aside from all the Ricean problems that a focus on purity and powers brings up, there’s also the whole thing where witch worldbuilding that privileges some witches over others based on genetics… tends to mean that witches of color and queer witches don’t show up too much in their worlds.
  • Binaries abound in this urban fantasy staple as well. For some reason, lots of witchy worlds center on black/white binaries – I mean literally in terms of magic, not race. Aside from the linguistically iffy issue where white = good and black = bad is present in these narratives, it’s also… kind of boring to have the dynamics so clear cut and so rigid.

The Awfully Annoying

  • Personally, the fact that a lot of young adult and adult fantasy writers pull from JK Rowling or Jim Butcher’s worldbuilding style and think they’re doing something new and amazing is just… a bit sad. Like I understand trying to emulate your idols or spite-write to success after spiraling in a different direction from a writer you loathe but like – let’s lean towards more original ideas. Please.
  • I touched on the whiteness of witches a previous bullet point, but I need y’all to know how absolutely annoying I find it. There are less than ten witches who are explicitly ~of color~ with a semi-significant presence across all of the Harry Potter books. The Anita Blake series’ witches are mainly white or, like Anita, supremely white-passing. Pretty much every single big witch-oriented book or TV series focuses primarily on white witches. When witches of color show up, they’re either like Magical Negro figures who don’t matter outside of what they can do for a white character, eroticized and exotic Others who serve up some saucy sorcery on the side, or villains. Like too many urban fantasy series that are incredibly popular do not even begin to portray witches of color in a positive or nuanced way and I am tired.
  • On a related note: the genre is full to the brim of magical negros and that shit is tiring. Can Black people please be fleshed out magical characters who don’t exist to impart a wise lesson onto non-Black characters? Who do I have to start praying to?

Three Reasons Why (I Think) You Should Wallow In Witches With Me

1. “Witch/Wizard” is such a widely unspooled category. Like “demon”, those words can refer to a bunch of different things under the sun from casual practitioners to the iconic faces of magical companies. There’s basically one for every kind of interested reader.

2. Like with Lovecraftian horror being essentially reclaimed by marginalized writers, more queer people of color are writing witches and they are good (especially when morally suspect)

3. You’ll never run out of content to read and watch, that’s for sure. 

Notable Authors

JK Rowling

Kelley Armstrong

Lilith Saintcrow

Kim Harrison

Yasmine Galenorn

Recommendations/Where to Start

Note: some of these things are dark and contain content that might difficult to read. Let me know if you need warnings that the author may not have provided, and I’ll do my best to help. (I’ll be adding links slowly because I am slow.)

  • Cecilia Tan’s Magic University series
  • Jenn Benett’s Arcadia Bell series
  • Lilith Saintcrow’s Jill Kismet and Dante Valentine series
  • Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series
  • Brooklyn Ray’s Port Lewis Witches series
  • Park Sang-sun’s The Tarot Café 
  • Melissa F. Olson’s Boundary Witch series
  • Lia Cooper’s Blood & Bone series
  • Charmed (The CW’s 2019 reboot)
  • Amir Lane’s Gift of Shadows
  • Witch Hunter Robin
  • Melissa de la Cruz’s Witches of East End (and the Lifetime TV series from a few years back)
  • Hailey Turner’s Soulbound series
  • Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy
  • Pat Shand, Manuel Preitano, and Jim Campbell’s Destiny, New York
  • Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper’s series
  • Witch’s Love (2018 Korean drama)
  • Zoraida Córdova’s Brooklyn Bruja series
  • Scott Tracey’s Witch Eyes series
  • Ria Fritz’s Maywitch
  • Eiko Kadono’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (and the 1989 Miyazaki film)
  • Stephanie Ahn’s Harrietta Lee series 

What are your witchy thoughts? How does the state of witches in urban fantasy series leave you feeling? Rec me your witchy faves, babes!

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About Zeenah

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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1 Response to Urban Fantasy 101: Bitchin’ Witches (And Wizards)

  1. Orin Bellizio says:

    One new witch book I really liked is Witchmark, by C.L. Polk. It starts out super-twee, but as you read you realize the world is kinda… horrifying.

    Like

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