What is Contemporary Fantasy?

September 4, 2009

Last weekend, someone asked me to define “Urban Fantasy”. I already don’t remember the answer I gave, but I know I missed an opportunity to mention Contemporary Fantasy.

This bothers me, because Urban Fantasy is often a subset of Contemporary Fantasy, and I do have a habit of identifying stories as Urban Fantasy when they are actually Contemporary Fantasy.

Here’s the difference.

Contemporary Fantasy is Fantasy set in the present time (that is, in our time) and in our world. Perhaps to emphasize the setting, stories in this sub-genre often refer to pop culture. 

Some Dark Fantasy, as well as Urban Fantasy, rolls into this sub-genre.

An alternative definition is that Contemporary Fantasy (also known as Modern Fantasy) is all Fantasy written, not necessarily set in, modern times. Personally, I don’t know why anyone would use this classification except for research. 

The type of book cover common in Urban Fantasy

In my mind, Urban Fantasy is a sub-set of Contemporary Fantasy set in a current city or densely populated area that would be recognizable to the area’s real-life residents except for the fiction’s addition of magic or fantastical creatures (e.g., vampires, werewolves, and ghosts).

A more common, albeit more confusing, definition of Urban Fantasy is action chick lit involving sexy, magical creatures. In bookstores, the covers are identifiable by a well-proportioned, scantily-dressed woman focused on her own thoughts or feelings. A man is rarely present. You can tell the difference between these covers and similar Sci-fi covers by the details. A tattoo or something sharp (e.g. knife or a known, fanged animal)? That’s Urban Fantasy. Spaceships or a really big gun should clue you in that the book is Sci-fi.

Obviously, genre and sub-genre definitions are subjective. The line between Fantasy and Science Fiction, Horror, or another genre is hazy, and so are the lines within Fantasy. Within the definitions above, however, here are examples.

Examples of Contemporary Fantasy:

Examples of Urban Fantasy:

Is your favorite Contemporary Fantasy not included above? If you share, you’ll provide someone (including me!) a work to consider. If you don’t read or watch stories in these sub-genres, then please tell us why not.


  1. Nice writeup but I’ve often wondered how Magical Realism falls into the contempory fantasy genre.

    • Thanks for visiting!

      I think Magical Realism is used more for paintings and Latin American, or Depression-era, fiction. I rarely hear or see it used in discussions of modern literature.

      The examples I’ve seen of Magical Realism are more about surrealism than fantasy. The point of either is to cause wonder, but surrealism can occur within the reality most of us agree exists–either through dreams, ignorance, or a desire to be weird– while fantasy is about another reality.

      That said, the phrase “Magical Realism” is sometimes used in place of “Contemporary Fantasy”. In this use, it is Contemporary Fantasy showcasing more style than story. That is, it is “Literary” Contemporary Fantasy.

      Recommendations for further reading:

  2. hmmm. one of my all time favorite fantasy writers is Guy Gavriel Kay. I suppose he writes a mixture of sub genres not always contemporary. Here, I just thought of one that i read not too long ago, the Mortal Instrument Series. Not a favorite, but a good series I thought. Are these your favorites that are listed, Ann?

    • Ooh, I’m not familiar with Mr. Kay’s work. That needs to change.

      The list includes my favorites. The other items were chosen for (what I perceive as) their popularity.

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