The Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy Debate

ward Where to draw the line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy is hardly a new question. A number of articles and blog pieces have been written on the subject, including this one and also this piece . Given the manner in which books are marketed, it seems that many titles blur the lines and I seem to find books many consider urban fantasy shelved in the romance section or vice versa. So, where does one draw the line? For me, a paranormal romance focuses primarily on the primary hero/heroine relationship, and there needs to be an HEA. In urban fantasy, however, there may be some romantic elements, but the primary focus is on the fantasy plot(often the main character’s quest) itself – and the ending of any romantic subplot might not necessarily be happy. For example, I would consider Vicki Pettersson’s Signs of the Zodiac series urban fantasy but J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romance.

Shortly before I went on vacation earlier this month, I followed an interesting discussion started by @bantamspectra on Twitter regarding the difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. You can find an article summarizing it here. I appreciated what a lot of commenters had to say though I was somewhat disheartened to see a number of them denigrating paranormal romance, including one commenter who described it as “housewife porn”.

Granted, as another commenter noted, some of the book covers don’t exactly help. Still, it’s worth noting that a story focusing primarily on a relationship is not the same thing as pornography. Though, given that cover artists seem to labor under the notion that most paranormal heroes don’t own shirts, it can sometimes be difficult to hold up my paranormals and expect someone to accept my “But it’s not just about the sex!” argument without a hell of a lot of persuasion.

So, does this mean that paranormal romance is just sex with vampires and werewolves thrown in? Perhaps in some of the less-than-stellar books, that is all we get. However, really good paranormal romance seems to feature not only strong emotion between a hero and heroine, but also some fantastic world-building. For example, in Pamela Palmer’s Feral Warriors series, the romances are hot, but her characters also have to follow the rules of a sometimes complicated world.

Other examples also abound. Not every book in C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp‘s Tales of the Sazi has worked for me, but their complex realm of shapeshifters contains a lot more than mere “creature porn”. And then there are the worlds created by Lori Devoti in her Unbound series for Silhouette Nocturne. Not only are the romances enjoyable, but her books feature a variety of different magical characters and a world that seems more and more real each time I visit.

During the Twitter discussion, author Diana Rowland (whose debut novel, Mark of the Demon, is one I really want to read), commented, “I think that when UF fans refuse to set foot in Romance section of bookstore, they limit themselves. Lots of PR is not all sexxory.” I wholeheartedly agree. There are some great fantasy writers out there, some of whom include enjoyable romantic elements in their stories just as there are some paranormal romance authors out there who not only tell a good relationship story, but build amazing worlds.

In paranormal romance, the romance enjoys a position of prominence in the story that it does not in urban fantasy. However, that is no reason to denigrate the subgenre. There are well-written and poorly written books to be found in each camp, and I’m glad when I see readers crossing over to try new things, whether it’s romance readers discovering urban fantasy or fantasy readers finding a good romance.

-Lynn Spencer

25 thoughts on “The Paranormal Romance/Urban Fantasy Debate

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  9. I don’t see the distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance as clear cut, but rather as a spectrum with romance novels with slight paranormal elements on the one end and urban fantasy with few to no romantic elements (think Jim Butcher, Mike Carey, Rob Thurman) on the other. The vast majority of books fall somewhere inbetween. But then, I was an SFF reader before I was a romance reader. Hence, for me any ending where all likable characters are still alive or there is at least the possibility of resurrection (it is fantasy after all) is a happy one.

    I agree with you about the disparaging remarks about paranormal romance on the Suvudu site, though. Unfortunately, the SFF community has a big prejudice against romance, including paranormal romance. Sometimes, this prejudice even spills over into urban fantasy. There are a lot of SFF readers who would never read any of the currently popular urban fantasy authors (as opposed to those who were already writing it in the 1980s), because they just know it’s all crap, popcorn literature and vampire porn. Urban fantasy also never gets nominated for, let alone wins SFF genre awards, unless it’s written by Neil Gaiman or Emma Bull.

  10. I agree with your assessment of urban fantasy v. paranormal romance. When I read something like Alyssa Day’s Warriors of Poseidon series, I know that the book is going to end on an uplifting note for the H/H, if not for the overarching plot as a whole. I might be kept in suspense about what will happen next, but that won’t be the feeling I have about the characters. Their future is together, despite the obstacles they have faced or will face.

    On the other hand, Majorie M. Liu’s Warrior Kiss series is going to feel more epic in terms of Maxine’s journey; her relationship with Grant is secondary to that. There is no guarantee that there will be any sort of happy conclusion, just that there will be some sort of conclusion to that part of Maxine’s journey. She is changed at the end of the story, but her future is still not clear.

    I have to prep myself differently to read paranormal romance v. urban fantasy too. Paranormal romance will often include emotionally charged scenes having to do with the relationship of the characters to each other. Characters end up closer, or at least having a better understanding of each other. In urban fantasy, I feel like I have to be prepared for the emotional and physical testing of the limits of the main character, and his/her eventual overcoming of these tests. The character is changed, though not always for the better. Mentally, it’s more draining to read a story like the latter than it is to read the former.

    Interesting question!

  11. I agree that there should be a distinction between the two, but sometimes it is a fine line. I completely agree that the Ward series is paranormal romance. I know that there’s a desire, I think by her and her publisher, to call it urban fantasy in order to gain more (male) readers. But as long as she still has one couple meeting and finding their HEA by the end of each book…it’s still a paranormal romance. Same with Brockmann’s series…it’s still Romantic Suspence, not a “generic” action thriller. Other paranormal romance series that definitely fit the straight paranormal series (and that I like) are Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter series, Ione’s new (and awesome) Demonica series, Meljean Brook’s Demon series and Lara Adrian’s Midnight Breed series. I also loved the first book in Kim Lenox’s Shadow Guard series and though it was very unique and clever.

    For me, urban fantasy is perfectly depicted in Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan/Hollows series…just started reading the 3rd one and forgot how much I like it (and how I’m glad I stopped reading the Anita Blake (urban fantasy, as well) and found this one). She has multiple love interests in the series and there are tons of other character. Plus it’s in first person which tends to be a sign (at least for me) that this is not a typical romance.

    I have difficulty calling any romance that it’s extended over the course of more than one book before a HEA a romance in the typical definition. For me Alyssa and Sam’s romance was their central book Gone Too Far (not sure I’m remembering the right title?). They just happen to show up in other peoples’ romances as secondary characters. Not sure what’s up with Brockmann’s most recent though?

    I think there are subgenres for each of these categories…paranormal romance can be defined in terms of the “kind” of creatures involved…vampire romance, shapeshifter romance, etc.

    Urban fantasy can be defined more by the style or genre. I usually even shelve them apart from my romances. The Sookie Stackhouse series is urban (kinda) fantasy with a traditional mystery slant. The Betsy the Queen series by Davidson is urban fantasy with a dash of chick-lit (despite what the spine says). Harrison’s Hollows series is urban fantasy almost at it’s purest. I have a couple of urban fantasy series (or at least that’s what I expect them to be) to try in my TBR: the Jeanette Frost series and the Mercy Hollings series.

    Wow, I guess I’ve been thinking about this lately…must have something to do with my True Blood obsession too. Two more weeks until the finale;(

    Kim T.

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