Developing Paranormal Classifications

With all the fabulous work going on with AAR’s Special Titles Listings, it has brought up some interesting questions about genre classifications. When the Special Titles Listings were first created over 10 years ago, Alternate Reality was a catchall for any book that didn’t fit into Historical or Contemporary settings. Since then, however, the world of Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy, etc. has grown significantly and we thought that some of the questions that came up were a call for some definitive classifications of these areas both for our readers and our reviewers.

If we were to take anything that wasn’t Historical or Contemporary Romance, there are a bunch of terms out there that tend to be used interchangeably and not necessarily consistently. Readers and reviewers all around the web have classified everything from witches and vamps to psi and Time Travel series as Paranormal. And I am not saying that any of them are wrong. In a sense, they are all correct. But that classification is becoming too general for everything that is out there and we are hoping that by making more distinct classifications – with examples – we can make it more “user friendly” going forward. With the examples after each, I have included the series that fits this classification since an author may have multiple series/books with each fitting into different genres After all, most good authors do not write the same thing all the time!

Fantasy Romance: I think this is one of the easiest ones, so I will start here. I like to think of these as Lord of the Rings-style romance. Generally they are on a made up world with a that is often vaguely medieval in nature. People live in castles and fight with swords and bows – and of course a little magic thrown in. They are not historical, because though there may be a British bent to settings, they are definitely not of our world. And like Lord of the Rings, in addition to humans, you have often have otherworldly creatures – most have dragons, fairies, elves, mages, and other mythological beasts. These stories often have a fairy tale quality about them. But there is a catch. Though some may not, they are frequently written as trilogies (or more) and one couple’s story can carry over into multiple books. If you hate cliffhangers, research and make sure that the series is complete or you may be throwing a book at the wall at some late hour of the morning when you realize it is a year before you get to hear the rest of the story. Unlike Urban Fantasy, which has a darker bent to it, Classic Romantic Fantasy still keeps the romance as center stage even over multiple books.

Series that fit in this category: C.L. Wilson’s Tairen Soul, Lynn Kurland’s Nine Kingdoms, G.A. Aiken’s Dragon Kin, Alexis Morgan’s Warriors of the Mist, Kylie Griffin’s Light Blade

Sci-Fi Romance: Though this and Fantasy are often lumped together, to me they are very different. While they can share elements of dashing sword fights and made up worlds, to me Sci-Fi would happen in a futuristic setting as opposed to the more medieval setting of a Fantasy Romance. If Fantasy Romance is the Lords of the Rings of romance, Sci-Fi would be the Star Wars. Things in a Sci-Fi romance may include space ships, computers, and aliens. Often times in Sci-Fi romance there are either strong military themes or they can take place in a post-apocalyptic world. Magic may or may not be a part of the book. In many cases, it is the advanced technology that is the “magic”. Like Fantasy Romance, the HEA is not guaranteed in each book. Some series take more than one book to tell a couple’s story, while in others each couple stands alone in their book.

Series that fit in this category: Linnea Sinclair’s Dock Five, Susan Grant’s 2176, Sandra McDonald’s Outback Stars, Joss Ware’s Envy Chronicles, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s League

Steampunk
: Of them all, Steampunk is the easiest to classify, but the hardest to understand for some. Talking about steampunk for many is almost like Justice Stewart’s line on obscenity – “I know it when I see it.” It is undeniably a class of its own. It is a mix of Science Fiction, Paranormal, and usually has Historical undertones. The key is the idea of steam powered technology. When I think of Steampunk, I think of the movie League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Jules Verne. Often Steampunk is set in an alternate late 1800’s Britain, but it can also be set in the Old West or a post apocalyptic world where the only remaining technology is steam power. You won’t find the use of standard “magic” in these books except through the inventions that are usually at once dated (being steam powered) and ahead of their time. In addition, those gadgets and gizmos are usually crucial to the story and become a major factor. Beyond that, Steampunk Romance would follow the same standards that any other romance would. A particular couple is the main story line and a HEA is guaranteed at the end.

Series that fit in this category: Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas, Kate Cross’s Clockwork Agents, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate

Time Travel: This category can be a little tough to place. What do you do with a story that has a character from the present going back to the past but the majority of the story takes place in the past and reads like a historical romance? Publishers tend to put books with Time Travel into the Paranormal Romance category, but we at AAR have a separate listing for Time Travels. That is where stories with a primary character (hero or heroine dealing with the ramifications of traveling through time to an unexpected place) go. Beyond that, the reviewer may place an additional designation. For example, for a story where a Highland Laird gets sent to the future, that book may be classified Time Travel – Contemporary Scotland. This includes books that may otherwise, without the Time Travel, have paranormal elements such as a fae character or a ghost. Then it would be Time Travel – Paranormal. This way, readers can look at the Time Travel books and see that the book is a Time Travel first and then read the review to see whether the rest of the story and setting would appeal to them. But it gives the reader the knowledge that the book has the Time Travel element and that the “fish out of water” theme is a likely scenario of the book.

Series that fit in this category: Melissa Mayhue’s Daughters of the Glen, Lynn Kurland’s dePiaget/MacLeod, Sandra Hill’s Vikings, Karen Marie Moning’s Highlanders, Janet Chapman’s Highlanders
*Note: Though Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander would be a Time Travel, not every book in the series would meet that classification. Since the examples list series, and in that case the first book and the series are usually referred to with the same name, I thought that would be confusing so I left it off.

Paranormal: These are the stories where the hero and/or the heroine is something not quite human, and where the focus is on the romance. The characters can include the gamut. They can be Werewolves, Vampires, Berserkers, Demons, Witches, Greek Gods, Shape Shifters, or just about any other type of creature you can imagine (Thunderbird anyone?) Though Paranormals often have a contemporary setting, they can take place in historical settings, as well. What separates Historical Paranormal Romances from Fantasy Romances is that the historical setting is, well, historical. Whether it is present day earth or Britain in the Regency era, in a Paranormal, the setting is a real place and the details are(more or less) historically accurate. A contemporary Paranormal has the creatures, usually immortal, acting in the real world – such as New Orleans, Budapest, Chicago – and existing within it either in secret or not. The elements of the paranormal must be integrated into the story and world building is important, but the main plot of the story is a romance. To be a true paranormal, the paranormal elements have got to be organic to the story. Each book usually features a couple – though couples can have their build up or backstory in a previous book. A couple is guaranteed a HEA in the end.

Examples: JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark, Gena Showalter’s Lords of the Underworld, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters, Larissa Ione’s Demonica/Lords of Deliverance, Lydia Dare’s Westfield Wolves, Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London
*Note: I know that the first example is controversial. I did a lot of research on this one and I know not everyone may agree. However, based on the criteria listed above and below, the Black Dagger Brotherhood would still fall into Paranormal.

Urban Fantasy: The line between paranormal and urban fantasy can be a tricky one to draw. It’s a debate we’ve discussed here previously. The key word when classifying the difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is WORLD BUILDING. In Paranormal Romance, the Romance is the main plot (though not necessarily the only plot.) In Urban Fantasy, the World is an important “character”. There can be a romance and two characters may be the “star” of the story, but there is usually a lot more going on in the story than just the main couple and that is where the true focus lies. The romance and the main couple are incidental to the major storyline. In addition, though Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance can share a setting and a slew of characters as the norm, Urban Fantasy usually has an Urban setting (hence the name) and it can be a little darker than a regular paranormal. As the Romance isn’t the main theme, a HEA isn’t a guarantee in an Urban Fantasy. The book is usually told from a single POV throughout a whole series and that is often a first person POV. Like Classic Fantasy romance, a couple’s story may be told over multiple books. However, the greater story arc will be furthered in some way in each book and again – romance is not the primary focus.

Series that fit in this category: Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson, Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson, Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunters, Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress, Vicki Pettersson’s Signs of the Zodiac, JR Ward’s Fallen Angels

Hopefully, with these new classifications and divisions, it will be easier to find just the right book to scratch the itch! What do you think about these classifications? Is there anything else that the list needs? Do these seem logical? Would they work? Let us know!

– Louise VanderVliet

19 thoughts on “Developing Paranormal Classifications

  1. Thanks for the classifications. I didn’t even realize I was reading Urban Fantasy when I was reading the Guild Hunters and the Fallen Angels.

  2. Thanks Louise. This is very informative. Now if I can just remember it when I am scratching my head trying to figure a book’s classification for a review.

  3. It’s amazing how many sub-genres there are in paranormal romance, isn’t it? My favorite is fantasy but we get so little of that now. Right now it seems everyone wants the dystopian futuristics. Great books but all diets need a bit of variety.

    • I agree Maggie! I wish there were more of the Romantic Fantasy out there that didn’t go with the dystoian model! With such a small amount out there, very few make it onto audio books.

      • Louise: I agree Maggie!I wish there were more of the Romantic Fantasy out there that didn’t go with the dystoian model!With such a small amount out there, very few make it onto audio books.

        Mercedes Lackey Five Hundred Kingdoms series would be Fantasy wouldn’t it? But I haven’t seen a book out in this series for a while

  4. I have said more than once that the “Urban” in UF not always the case — some is rural — but the label has become established. My label for the category is “Nearly Our World” (NOW), and I assume it applies within a few centuries of our time in a world based on ours.
    I also prefer to include “alternate” or “alternate history” in the historical / contemporary / futuristic label if major differences from our history are generally known in the culture rather than hidden from the culture at large.

    These are a few more series with my categorizations:

    Contemporary PNR:
    3 linked Salem trilogies by Annette Blair.
    Demon books by Meljean Brook.
    Mageverse books by Angela Knight.
    Pack and Pride books by Shelly Laurenston.
    Vampire books by Kerrelyn Sparks.
    Wild About You books by Vicki Lewis Thompson.
    Others books by Christine Warren.

    Contemporary PNR or UF?:
    Undead books by MaryJanice Davidson
    Guardian/dragon books by Katie MacAlister.

    Alternate history contemporary PNR:
    Elder Races books by Thea Harrison.

    Historical + Contemporary + Futuristic PNR:
    Arcane Society books by JAK (Jayne Castle / Jayne Ann Krentz / Amanda Quick).

    Futuristic PNR:
    Celta books by Robin D. Owens.

    Alternate history Futuristic PNR:
    Psy-Changeling books by Nalini Singh

    Contemporary UF:
    Katie Chandler books by Shanna Swendson.

    Alternate history historical UF (Steampunk):
    Parasol Protectorate books by Gail Carriger.

    Alternate history contemporary UF:
    Magic books by Ilona Andrews.
    Otherworld books by Yasmine Galenorn.
    Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris.
    Lupi books by Eileen Wilks.

    • Fluent In Fantasy by librarian Diana Trixier Herald defined urban fantasy in 2009 this way:
      “Features tales combining the contemporary urban problems of ruanaways, drugs, crime and homelessness with the world of the fairie. . .” She put Holly Black, Emma Bull, Laurell K Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry (but not Anita Blake) in this category. (Interestingly, she classifies Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse, Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch series, along with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files as “Mysterious Fantasy” . . . )

      I agree with Mark that we’re sort of stuck with the label Urban Fantasy but you can see that it came from a body of work with a much more narrow set of circumstances.

  5. Hmm… If magic is not supposed to be in steampunk, are otherwordly creatures allowed? The Parasol Protectorate has werewolves and vampires all over, but they are clearly steampunk as well. Then there is “Kilts and Kracken” by Cindy Spencer Pape which has all the steam-powered technology setting, but magic as well. Where would they fit under this classification?

  6. A while ago I suggested a taxonomy for paranormal romances that could be applied in addition to the classifications suggested here. Look for it in the Genre labels topic on the AAR WWW message board.
    I tend not to come back to blog threads after a day or two, so I suggest starting a message board thread on this topic to invite more discussion.

  7. MD, I think that a few of these categories are ripe for crossovers. For example, the idea of a Steampunk – Paranormal, where the focus is the setting typical of a Steampunk, but there are paranormal creatures. In that case, the question is which is the defining factor in the story? I think with most of the Steampunks – by its very nature, the Steampunk setting takes the focus. Much like the Time Travel – Paranormal! Where the fish out of water plot theme is more the focus than the ghosts or vamps. Does that make sense?

    • By publishing and/or library classification tradition, a romance has a hero and a heroine, and an HEA.

      Within the romance category, we have lots of subcategories. A romance combined with a mystery or thriller plot is romantic suspense – usually a contemporary setting but not always (see Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series as an example of a historical that also contains a mystery.

      Paranormal romance is just another way of saying romance + fantasy. Urban Fantasy is a subcategory of fantasy having to do with setting: a contemporary setting as opposed to the more medieval/naturalistic or woodland settings of “classic fantasy” described above by Louise. Urban fantasy may or may not include a romantic subplot or characters. Steampunk also refers to a specific setting (sort like Regencies are a particular type of historical): an alternate history of the early Industrial Age (when steam power gained prominence) – it can be located anywhere geographically – time period and technology of the time is what is important. Once again, there might or might not be a romantic focus or subplot, and it may or may not contain elements of a fantasy (magic, supernatural creatures). So Gail Carriger’s novels are Steampunk, fantasy and romances.

      In the same way that an urban setting or Steampunk time period is a plot device, so is time travel. Time travel injects elements of fantasy in a story (just like magical characters do) but perhaps for AAR’s purposes, think of it as any other plot device just like “road trip” or “tortured hero”.

  8. I was one of those readers who had trouble figuring out what was or was not a paranormal when I was trying to recommend books for the update of the special listings section. This also dovetailed with my participation in the reading challenge when I was trying to figure out what category the book I was reading actually fell into so that I knew it fit the challenge.

    That being said, I’m still confused about stories which include normal people having prophetic dreams, paranormal experiences/psychic phenomena, premonitions, or who are psychic. I wouldn’t call these characters “not quite human.” For instance, the woman in Linda Howard’s Dream Man is perfectly human. She just has ” a gift,” ESP. What do we call this type of book?

    • I think of Dream Man as romantic suspense. It also happens to have a character with psychic abilities. But I don’t think of it as a “paranormal romance”. Interesting . . .

  9. Rather than focus on making sure a book is in the “right” category, it makes more sense to me to be able to categorize a book with multiple categories and have more flexibility in the search mechanism. If it is time travel and medieval – put it in both!

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