The Spaces In-Between The Orbit Team January 5, 2012

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Silver Tongue DevilThe word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for “threshold”. It is often used to refer to in-between spaces, the murky shadows of society and institutions, and expected norms. Gates, graveyards, crossroads – these are all symbols of transformation thresholds and they appear again and again in fiction.

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot lately in regards to my own books. My stories are full of examples of the liminal. I have a soft spot for marginalized characters – half-bloods, down-and-out faery drag queens, recreating mages, dozens of characters who struggle to balance their desires with duty. They are characters on the fringes of polite society and I come back to them again and again.

I also use the concept of liminality in my settings and plots. In SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL (out this week), Sabina Kane enters a liminal realm – aptly called “The Liminal” – that exists between our mundane reality and the magical underworld to battle her demons, both literal and figurative. . Only by interacting with liminal characters, exploring strange new settings, and being forced to explore the fringes of her own psyche can she truly transform.

Please understand that when I refer to the liminal in my own work, I am not suggesting that my use of the concept is anything revolutionary. Separation from society and its norms is an essential element of most fiction. Joseph Campbell’s lectures on the hero’s journey are replete with references to characters who are forced to leave the status quo behind and explore the dark wastelands of the unknown as a condition of growth.

However, as I reflected on my own use of the in-between, I realized that urban fantasy is itself a liminal genre. It exists on the threshold of several other genres, unabashedly taking the beloved conventions of other genres and blending them in new and unexpected ways. I’ve yet to attend a conference or convention where a panel I’m on doesn’t turn into a debate about what qualifies as urban fantasy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that what I write isn’t “true” urban fantasy, as if it were a genre that anyone would have properly defined and codified.

I believe these arguments about what is or is not UF are happening because, as my friend and colleague Nicole Peeler recently said, we are not comfortable with ambiguity as a society. We love anything placed in neat categories (except for ourselves, which is the subject of another post on another blog at another time). I believe this is at the heart of why urban fantasy as a genre has been such a polarizing genre. He revels in his liminality, thank you very much.

And this is the danger of the liminal in general. It’s a place where the rules don’t apply and that scares us. That’s also, by the way, why I think urban fantasy has been so popular. Even if the liminal scares us, it’s incredibly fun to explore through someone else’s eyes. So even if we avoid walking through the mirror of our own psyche, it’s safe and fun to follow Alexia Tarabotti or Dante Valentine or Jane True or Sabina Kane in there.

I hope the next time you choose an urban fantasy, you’ll be encouraged to explore the in-between spaces of your own life. But if not, that’s okay, our characters are happy to have you with us. What are some of your favorite uses of the liminal in urban fantasy?

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