When thinking about “urban fantasy,” we’re aware that the word “urban” sets the fantasy in a particular type of setting — but does that setting (and those stories) require a specific place? For the purposes of the genre, and our conversation, is one “urban” as good as another?
Not for author Margaret Ronald, and in this Big Idea, she explains why the city of Boston is in itself essential as the setting of her acclaimed fantasy series, of which Wild Hunt is the latest installment. Take your places, please.
I am not a city girl by nature. I was born in a small Indiana town, lived there for close to two decades, and went to college in an even smaller Massachusetts town. When I’m on vacation, I retreat to lakes and cabins well away from civilization; when I think about what got me started writing, I remember biking down flat roads with fields on either side, watching storms approach for miles.
So when I describe Wild Hunt and Spiral Hunt as “urban fantasy,” there’s always part of me that wonders how on earth I ended up writing anything remotely urban.
Some of it is probably part of how my muse operates, since a strong sense of place is something that really sparks my imagination. After all, the first story I ever sold — “Christmas Apples,” in Realms of Fantasy, also an Evie story — was inspired by a place. I’d visited a friend’s house several times, always in winter, at the turning point of the year. The house was hard to find, difficult to reach even when you knew where it was, and at the times I’d seen it, always a place of revelry and rejoicing, a golden haven against the cold.
A better description of an Otherworld feasting-hall I could not conjure. And when I started playing with the idea of a story set at that time of year, that house and the feel of it were central to the result.
But with Boston — and with any city, I think — the scale is entirely different. I think a lot of it has to do with being entranced by the city. There’s so much here that I want to show to other people. Doing so in writing is like having a friend over and taking them to all the cool places you’ve discovered over the last couple of years. You have to see this, hear about this, try this! Sharing the joy I found in that first discovery is one of the best things about writing a story set in Boston.
And in doing so, I keep discovering more about the city, more than I could ever write about. There is so much here — and so much of it is hidden to the casual glance.
As an example, take the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It’s not one of the big tourist draws, nor is it one of the first things that come to mind when most people think about Boston. But if you’ve been there, you have some idea what I mean about hidden magic within a city.
If you haven’t been there, go, preferably sometime in winter or very early spring, when the world has been repainted in shades of blue and gray, warmth is a memory, and green is a cruel joke. Inside what appears to be a dull brick building is as great a wonderland as any hollow hill: a lush garden under an atrium, tiles and columns and sculpture from dozens of cultures jammed together in an arrangement that at first seems chaotic and only slowly reveals itself as part of Mrs. Gardner’s plan. There is mystery here as well: why choose these artifacts, why place them like this, why set the sublime beside the mundane? Why put an ushabti next to an ostrich egg in silver fittings and both below a Titian? (And then there are the empty frames that still hang in the Dutch Room . . .)
Entering this place can be like stepping from one world to the next. Yet it’s still very much part of Boston — in fact, I’d argue that the culture of Boston of the time was one of the major reasons Mrs. Gardner chose to build the museum and fill it to her specifications.
By writing about these places, setting my characters to run around them or discover their secrets or fight their way through the magic that surrounds them, I hope to introduce them to readers — not by showing a realistic portrait of the place, but by pointing out some of their wondrous elements. It’s like a quick set of introductions at a party: here are some interesting things, now go see what’s true, what’s exaggerated, and what hasn’t even been mentioned. Or the ways that I introduce characters to the reader. Here is the Gardner, a place of beauty no matter the season. Here is Genevieve Scelan, in over her head and trying to wrangle what’s left of Boston’s undercurrent together. Here is the tower of Mount Auburn Cemetery, from which you can see the whole city and beyond. Here is Abigail Huston, named for her great-grandmother, a woman with one too many secrets.
Here is the real Boston, deep with history and a thousand hidden sources of beauty or strangeness, a thousand doors to other worlds that are all the more wondrous for being part of our world. Here is Evie’s Boston, reflecting the original and itself reflected in its own fragmented, chaotic undercurrent, in which every deal has the possibility of betrayal . . . and in which more than one Hound is hunting.