The word “liminal” comes from Latin word for “threshold.” Often it’s used to refer to in-between spaces, the murky shadows of society and institutions and expected norms. Doorways, graveyards, crossroads–these are all symbols for transformative thresholds and they show up in fiction over and over again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept lately in regard to my own books. My stories are full of examples of the liminal. I have a soft spot for marginalized characters—mixed-bloods, down-and-out faery drag queens, Recreant mages, dozens of characters struggling to reconcile their desires with duty. These are characters on the fringe of polite society and I go back to them over and over.
I also utilize the concept of liminality in my settings and plots. In SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL (out this week), Sabina Kane goes into a liminal realm—aptly called “The Liminal”– that exists between our mundane reality and the magical underworld to fight her demons, both literal and figurative. It is only through interacting with liminal characters, exploring strange, new settings and being forced to explore the margins of her own psyche that she can truly transform.
Please understand that when I refer to the liminal in my own works, I am not suggesting that my use of the concept is anything revolutionary. Separation from society and its norms is a critical element of most fiction. Joseph Campbell’s lectures on the hero’s journey are chock full of references to characters who are forced to leave the status quo and explore the murky wastelands of the unknown as a requirement for growth.
However, as I thought about 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, unapologetically taking the beloved conventions of other genres and mixing them in new and unexpected ways. I have yet to attend one conference or convention where a panel I’m on doesn’t devolve into a debate over what qualifies as urban fantasy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that what I write is not “real” urban fantasy, as if it is a genre that anyone has adequately defined and codified.
I believe these arguments about what is or is not UF occur because, as my friend and colleague Nicole Peeler said recently, we are not comfortable with ambiguity as a society. We like everything placed in neat categories (except for ourselves, which is a topic of another post on another blog at some other time). I believe this gets at the heart of why urban fantasy as a genre has been such a polarizing genre. It revels in its liminality, thank you very much.
And therein is the danger of the liminal in general. It’s a place where rules don’t apply and that scares us. Which is also, by the way, why I think urban fantasy has been so popular. Even as the liminal frightens us, it’s incredibly fun to explore through someone else’s eyes. So even though we may avoid going through the looking glass of our own psyches, 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 pick up an urban fantasy you’re encouraged to explore the in-between spaces in your own life. But if not, that’s okay—our characters are happy to have you along for the ride. What are some of your favorite uses of the liminal in urban fantasy?