You’ve probably heard the term “urban fantasy.” (If not, get yourself to your local library or closest bookstore. You are missing out.) Maybe you came across the term “contemporary fantasy” and wondered about the difference between the two genres. You’re not alone. Google “urban fantasy vs” and “urban fantasy vs contemporary fantasy” is one of the first options to pop up.
Are these two genres the same thing? If not, how can you tell them apart?
What is contemporary fantasy?
SFBook Reviews defines contemporary fantasy as “a genre where the story is set in contemporary times but where magic or fantastic creatures exist.”
So if you’ve got a werewolf running around in a medieval kingdom, it’s not contemporary fantasy. If that werewolf is running around in modern-day Wyoming, it is.
Sounds simple enough, right? But wait.
What is urban fantasy?
Reedsy describes urban fantasy as “a subgenre of fantasy in which the real world collides with the decidedly supernatural or magical world.”
Hold on. That sounds a lot like contemporary fantasy, right? Some people argue that the only difference between contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy is the setting. If a book is set in a big city, it’s urban fantasy. If it’s set in a small town, it’s contemporary. But I don’t quite agree.
Reedsy goes on to state that urban fantasy books “generally have strong tropes, such as gritty action, a noir feel, and a procedural plot.” And MasterClass lists “a noir aesthetic” as one of their 7 elements of urban fantasy.
What separates urban fantasy from contemporary fantasy is the tropes and tone. Urban fantasy protagonists are often detectives, bounty hunters, or monster slayers. Their stories are full of fight scenes, and they’re often darker with more dangerous villains than contemporary fantasy.
A character is much more likely to get shot or mauled by a werewolf in an urban fantasy than a contemporary fantasy.
Iron & Velvet by Alexis Hall
I like my women like I like my whiskey: more than is good for me.
Name’s Kane, Kate Kane. I’m a paranormal private investigator, which is like a normal private investigator except—and stop me if you’re having trouble following this—more paranormal. This business comes with a few basic rules: don’t start drinking before noon, don’t get your partner killed, don’t sleep with the woman who killed him.
Last year I broke all of them.
The only rule I didn’t break was the one that said don’t work for vampires. But then a dead werewolf showed up outside the Soho shag palace of Julian Saint-Germain—a bloodsucking flibbertigibbet who’s spent the last eight centuries presiding over an ever-growing empire of booze, sex and hemoglobin.
I shouldn’t have taken the job. The last thing I needed was to get caught in a supernatural smackdown between a werewolf pack and a vampire prince. Even if the vampire prince was dangerously my type. But what can I say? I was broke, I’m a sucker for a pretty face and I gave up on making good decisions a long time ago.
Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper
Emmy Harlow is a witch but not a very powerful one—in part because she hasn’t been home to the magical town of Thistle Grove in years. Her self-imposed exile has a lot to do with a complicated family history and a desire to forge her own way in the world, and only the very tiniest bit to do with Gareth Blackmoore, heir to the most powerful magical family in town and casual breaker of hearts and destroyer of dreams.
But when a spellcasting tournament that her family serves as arbiters for approaches, it turns out the pull of tradition (or the truly impressive parental guilt trip that comes with it) is strong enough to bring Emmy back. She’s determined to do her familial duty; spend some quality time with her best friend, Linden Thorn; and get back to her real life in Chicago.
On her first night home, Emmy runs into Talia Avramov—an all-around badass adept in the darker magical arts—who is fresh off a bad breakup . . . with Gareth Blackmoore. Talia had let herself be charmed, only to discover that Gareth was also seeing Linden—unbeknownst to either of them. And now she and Linden want revenge. Only one question stands: Is Emmy in?
But most concerning of all: Why can’t she stop thinking about the terrifyingly competent, devastatingly gorgeous, wickedly charming Talia Avramov?
Both of these novels have a modern-day setting, a magic-wielding protagonist, and a strong romantic element. Iron & Velvet is set in London while Payback’s a Witch is set in a fictional small town, so again, you could argue that’s what makes one urban fantasy and the other contemporary fantasy.
But Iron & Velvet is full of urban fantasy tropes. It’s got a private detective lead and a supernatural mystery that takes the protagonist into a bunch of dark, dangerous situations. There are dead bodies, monster fights, and an undead supernatural evil villain. It’s got a great noir aesthetic and is definitely urban fantasy.
Payback’s a Witch has some action scenes as part of the spellcasting tournament, but nobody’s trying to kill the protagonist. The antagonists aren’t evil so much as self-centered, and the book has cozy autumn vibes rather than noir ones. It’s also more focused on character development than a procedural mystery or supernatural action. It’s not urban fantasy, and I’d classify it as contemporary fantasy even though it’s marketed as a rom-com.
Wikipedia states that contemporary fantasy is “perhaps most popular for its subgenre, urban fantasy.” That’s how I would define the two genres, with contemporary fantasy as an umbrella term that includes urban fantasy and other subgenres.
You’ll see the two terms used interchangeably around the internet. Phrases like “contemporary fantasy, also known as urban fantasy” are written a lot, and if you look on the contemporary fantasy bestseller list on Amazon, you’ll find it full of urban fantasy.
So while the terms are technically different, don’t worry about it too much.
Do you agree with these definitions of urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy? Have a book recommendation for one of the genres? Share your thoughts in the comments!