Urban Fantasy vs. Paranormal Romance

August 15, 2008

Is it just me, or is the line between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance getting increasingly blurry? Some writers and publishers seem to be trying to appeal to fans of both styles, though of course with that approach they risk alienating readers who strongly prefer one subgenre or the other.

First I should explain how I think of each genre, so you understand where I’m coming from.

Both are set in worlds that are more or less similar to our own, but include fantasy elements such as magic, vampires, or shapeshifters. In some settings, most normal humans don’t know about the existence of the supernatural. Others are more open, with average people that know at least a little about non-humans.

The main difference is plot. Urban Fantasy stories involve mystery and action. The characters are mostly concerned with achieving a goal (such as finishing a job, helping a friend, or in some cases simply surviving). There are often romantic subplots, but they aren’t the main focus of the book.

In Paranormal Romance, those priorities are reversed. Romance and sex are the main feature. The action or mystery elements provide conflict for the lovers, introduce a constant stream of potential new partners, and provide excitingly inappropriate situations for making out.

If you like both styles, then you’ll care more about the quality of the writing or characters than the genre. That’s fortunate for you, because those of us that prefer one to the other tend to end up with the wrong one at times.

It used to be relatively easy. Urban Fantasy lived in the Sci-fi/Fantasy section of the bookstore, and Paranormal Romances were shelved with the romance novels. Romance cover art tended to be more sexualized, while Fantasies featured either the main character looking tough or a more whimsical approach. The back-cover blurb of a Fantasy was mostly about the character’s situation, blurbs for Romances introduced the main plot but focused on relationship issues. These things still hold true to some extent, but they aren’t as reliable.

In the past year, I’ve had a run of bad luck when picking new authors. I used to go to the bookstore once or twice a week. Each time I’d buy at least one paperback based on the cover art, the description, and a quick scan of the first few pages. If I got lucky, I’d see a positive quote on the cover from an author I liked. Sometimes I really enjoyed those books, sometimes they were okay, and once in awhile I ended up pretty disappointed. But it wasn’t until last fall that I started constantly picking up books that were drastically different than my expectations.

It happened a lot. My casual-inspection technique would make me think I had a book about a plucky young woman fighting the forces of evil. Then I’d learn that fighting the forces of evil apparently involved a surprising amount of getting it on. Over half of the books I bought one month ended up in “sexytime with vampires” territory.

I gave up on the genre entirely for awhile. I read some epic fantasies and followed those up with a Lovecraft binge. Then I got some lighter fantasy books, and was happy to find that they were all more or less what they seemed. I guess “sexytime with elves” isn’t really a thing yet?

Finally I got caught up on the new urban fantasies written by authors that I was already into. I’ve started trying new authors again, but I’m a bit brutal about it. I get an interesting-looking book from the library if it’s at all possible. If I like it enough then I’ll buy it the next time I feel like reading it, assuming I remember to. If my library doesn’t have something that caught my eye, then I try to find reviews. I look on at least two different sites, and check out the profiles of reviewers who enjoyed it to see if their taste is similar to mine. It’s overkill, and I’m probably missing out on some good stuff. But at least I’m not wasting money on things that aren’t my style anymore.


14 Responses to “Urban Fantasy vs. Paranormal Romance”

  1. I completely agree with you, the line IS very blurred. I even have seen authors billing themselves as urban fantasy romantic suspense authors. I guess that would be sexy time with vampires, action, and a plot?

    LOL The name of the game for authors and publishers is to sell more books. But when you bill yourself as something you are not, in the end it will backfire.

    I have been really disappointed in a few books. Then there are some that are really outstanding. More and more, I feel I am becoming a fan of real urban fantasy and less paranormal “romance”.

    Don’t get me wrong, they all have their place and audience. I just like more action and mystery and less sexy time. Though being a book reviewer, I may get a bit more sexy time than the average reader. LOL (that is a complete understatement. he he)

    Great post, and I LOVE your blog! Can’t wait to read some more.


  2. […] Urban Fantasy vs. Paranormal Romance […]

  3. Janicu Says:

    YUP, my sentiments exactly. I veer toward urban fantasy, but I don’t really MIND romance – I just have to believe the relationship (you saw my rant). I know that many urban fantasy fans get annoyed by a book they thought was UF but turned out to be paranormal romance, and vice versa. Especially vice versa because I think there are a lot of romance fans out there, and they get annoyed when they get to the end of the book only discover that happy ending they expected? It ain’t there! Which I can completely understand – it’s about expectations. Publishers need to be clearer sometimes, but there truely are books that sort of sit right on the boundary too. And then bookstores misshelve in my opinion. Generally books shelved in the sf section tend to be more UF than not, but I have seen paranormal romance there.

  4. deety Says:

    It’s never the romance plots that I mind, it’s just that some things that I really dislike are MUCH more common in romances. That’s what makes those borderline books so hit or miss for me, and I think for fans of both styles.

    I agree with you about the misshelving, that’s something that can be a big issue for fans of any type of genre fiction. I used to read a lot more horror, and regular bookstores make that nearly impossible to browse for. Of course it can be almost as hard to find a specific horror author! Having a horror section in a new bookshop is becoming increasingly rare, but even when there is one there are still too many horror books shelved with the fantasy novels or general fiction. And if someone sees it as more of a thriller, then you may have to check the mystery shelves as well. I may not like the wait associated with online book shopping, but damned if it isn’t easier in most other ways.

  5. I can see where the lines are blurred. There are times I’ve been told or have seen that an author is urban fantasy and after reading the novel it seemed more like paranormal romance. I personally don’t have a problem reading either, but it also depends on my mood. There are times where I would like a little more plot than lots and lots of sex. Especially if the plot is hurt by the amount of sex involved.

  6. Karen Duvall Says:

    I own a paranormal mystery writer yahoogroup and we always share what we’re reading. This helps us to know if a UF book has more romance than we’re comfortable. Can’t beat recommendations from readers who enjoy the same thing you like to read.

    I also subscribe to RT Book Club magazine and the urban fantasy review section is divided into 2 parts. The first part specifies the romances by giving them a “heat” rating (hot, scorcher, mild). The second half has no heat rating, so those are not romances. This is very helpful when choosing a new UF series to read and you don’t want to get stuck with a romance.

  7. […] 28, 2008 Earlier I posted about the differences between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and how tricky it can be for fans to know which books fall into which category without doing a […]

  8. […] appears that this WordPress Blogger came across a lot of the same […]

  9. CathWren Says:

    Hi, I’m visiting from Karen’s paranormal mystery yahoo group where I’d posted a bit of a rant on just this topic last week.

    I don’t object to romances so much as the erotica that appears in so many of them these days. I don’t mind if the characters have sex as long as they do it behind closed doors.

    Primarily, though, I like books heavier on story action than on heart action. And I don’t like, er, ummm, body action. I was reading a novel by an author whose stories and novellas, with the same characters, I’d always liked. Suddenly in the middle of the story there was an distastefully detailed sex scene. It jerked me right out of the story and, frankly, it spoiled the rest of the book for me. I have another of her books in my TBR but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it.

    So it isn’t just publishers, cover artists/blurb writers and bookstores that blur the line. So many authors of UF and now adding a couple of sex scenes to their stories. Not only is this annoying to the reader who wasn’t looking for it, it is actually bad writing. It stops the action dead.

    It is especially annoying if the author hadn’t written these scenes in earlier works.

    Well, this turned into another rant I guess. Sorry. Good topic, I guess. @8~)


  10. deety Says:

    I don’t mind a decently-written sex scene as long as it fits with the flow of the story and doesn’t seem like an attempt to meet some “getting it on” quota. But too many sex scenes seem shoehorned in where they’re just not appropriate.

    And too many of them get into squicky levels of detail or activities that don’t sound comfortable, let alone fun.

    I know exactly what you mean about erotica hurting your opinion of the rest of the book. I can think of more than one series that I’ve dropped, despite enjoying the characters and main story, because of too many unappealing sex scenes.

    I’ve ranted about this a few times too, most recently in this post.

  11. CathWren Says:


    I read your older post. We think a lot alike.

  12. Fyl Says:

    Oh how I wish that softcore porn, written with 15yo girls in mind, would be clearly labeled as such.

    Some publishers fail to grasp that not all readers are 15, or, for that matter, female.

    …Surprising as it may sound, straight and grown men do sometimes tire of misnamed faux-Russian weapons dealers and doubly misspelled ax-wielding dwarfs in their reading and look elsewhere.

  13. […] and paranormal romance I direct you to a blog that specializes in Urban Fantasy and their post “Urban Fantasy vs Paranormal Romance.” It’s an older post, but […]

  14. I agree with your assessment on Urban Fantasy versus Paranormal Romance. Very well defined. I think what I write is more Paranormal Fantasy. It’s not Urban enough for Urban Fantasy or Romantic enough for Paranormal Romance. I think it’s important to know what audience you are writing for though, so you can give them what they are looking for. You don’t want to sell your book as one thing when it’s really another. What good is it selling a book if your buyer isn’t going to like it because it wasn’t what they wanted and expected?

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