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Someone asked me to define “Urban Fantasy” last weekend, and I neglected to mention how it fits within Contemporary Fantasy. There’s a problematic habit of identifying stories as Urban Fantasy when they are actually Contemporary Fantasy.
Let’s go over the differences here, shall we?
Contemporary Fantasy is Fantasy set in our present time and in a world that mostly looks like ours.
Stories in this sub-genre often emphasize the setting by referring to pop culture. It’s also known as Modern Fantasy.
Note: Some Dark Fantasy rolls into this sub-genre of Fantasy.
An alternative definition is that Contemporary 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, but I’m mentioning it as one argument.
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, but introspective woman.
You can tell the difference between these covers and Science Fiction Romance 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, not Fantasy.
Genre and sub-genre definitions are subjective. The line between Fantasy and Sci-fi, Horror, or another genre is hazy, and so are the lines within Fantasy. Here are examples that fit into the definitions above.
- Harry Potter – fiction series by J.K. Rowling; movies
- The Spiderwick Chronicles – children’s book series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi; movie
- Hellboy – comics, animated series, and movies
- Much of Neil Gaiman‘s work, including Neverwhere (TV series and novel)
- The Dresden Files – fiction series by Jim Butcher; TV series; comics
- The Kitty Norville series by Carrie Vaughn
- The Mercedes Thompson series by Patricia Briggs
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer – TV series, novels, and comics
- The Twilight Saga – novels by Stephenie Meyer; movies