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.