Urban fantasy versus Paranormal romance

Are you confused about the difference, because I know I am!

Essentially, urban fantasy is fiction, set in a modern setting, that has a supernatural ‘fantasy’ element to it. Good examples are Charles De Lint’s Newford stories, Tanya Huff’s Blood series, Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld stories, or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. All fairly straightforward urban settings (some easily recognizable, like Toronto, Miami or Chicago), that just happen to be inhabited by vampires, fairies (or faeries as the case may be), werewolves or all manner of fantastical beasties.

Paranormal romances are fairly similar but the big divide occurs on the romance side: urban fantasy may have a bit but the focus isn’t it, while paranormal romance sits clearly on the side of more romance is good. So yes, the tale may be about a vampire living in a modern city, but in a PR book, said vampire is more interested in getting into your pants than any thing else.

(Okay, I’ll admit it: I am a reading snob. I don’t like the idea of being caught reading a ‘romance novel’. Single chick reading a romance novel: how cliche! I’d rather be ‘that older chick who clearly never grew up because she is still reading fantasy books’. So just because a book has a vampire in it doesn’t make it a fantasy novel. A romance novel with werewolves in is still a romance novel.)

The problem, as I see it, is that while those definitions may work in general they don’t necessarily work with how the publishers or writers define the books. Yes, I do understand that it is often the writer who decides which genre they fall in. Many, I am told, do this for one simple reason: money. Based on the genre categorization they can get more (or less) for their work. Which may explain why many authors bounced back and forth over the divide. Kelley Armstrong, for example, has her series listed as urban fantasy but some of the short stories – still based in that world – show up in paranormal romance anthologies. Simple economics for the writer. Confusing as heck for the reader.

Here are some examples of books I have read that I would have defined differently:

  • Keri Arthur’s Riley Jensen series. This has been listed as urban fantasy on Amazon, and in bookstores, yet I would argue this one falls firmly in the paranormal romance category. Riley is constantly juggling the many men (term used loosely) in her life as well as her work with the Directorate of Other Races. Perhaps it is deemed fantasy because of the several men she bounces between (rather than romance which tends to focus on one coupling), but when the majority of the novel focuses on love/sex rather than the base plot, I know which category I’d put it in. (That being said, Arthur is a fantastic writer and I always grab her books as soon as they come out).
  • For the longest time Yasmine Galernon’s Sisters of the Moon series was listed as paranormal romance, though I see that is slowly changing (at least on Amazon). Still, chances are if you are looking for these books in your local bookstore you are more likely to find them in the romance section. To my mind these are clearly urban fantasy. Sure there is a smooch fest (or two) but the core of the book is about the half-human, half-Fae sisters and their work for the Otherworld Intelligence Agency.
  • Then you have folks like Laurell Hamilton, whose Anita Blake series was clearly on the side of urban fantasy to start but gradually morphed over and would, I think, be best termed as paranormal erotica now. Her Meredith Gentry series started in paranormal erotica and is still firmly there today.

I am not sure where that leaves things. There is clearly a difference between the two genres, but it can be tricky to find sometimes. If you, like me, prefer urban fantasy (though don’t mind a sweaty snuggle or two as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story), you may have to start trolling the romance section of bookstores from time to time. Even that can be hit and miss (and I have a stack of too-PR-for-me books to prove it). Or you can search sites like Amazon or Chapters.Indigo. Or talk to others who are interested in this. Or hit your local library.

Good luck.

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