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Urban Fantasy for Paranormal Romance Readers

by Molly Wetta

*This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of RA News.*

Defining genres can be tricky, particularly when a reader delves into subgenres with similar qualities. This is certainly true of paranormal romance and urban fantasy. While many readers move back and forth between the two with ease and enjoyment, some readers feel duped when they pick up one expecting the other. And if a librarian doesn’t read one or both, it can be difficult to help a reader navigate the nuanced landscape of the urban fantasy-paranormal romance divide. Hopefully, discussing the similarities as well as the differences and identifying the appeal factors of popular titles in both subgenres will help readers’ advisors feel confident when working with this subset of readers.

Urban fantasy is just that, a blend of the magic and the mundane, where the reader encounters the supernatural in a real-world urban setting. While often set in contemporary times, they can take place in any time period, past or future. The setting is a place that has, does, or might one day really exist. In contrast, most urban fantasy is written in first person. The protagonist is often a spunky heroine or sarcastic hero, and may be reluctantly drawn into supernatural shenanigans or be otherwise an outsider. Typically there is a mystery as the center of the plot, and romance may be interesting subplot but definitely takes a backseat.

In contrast, paranormal romance features a central relationship where one or both of the protagonists are not entirely human, whether they are a vampire, werewolf, fairy, magician, or other supernatural creature.  Many paranormal romances feature the traditional trademarks of category romance. They are usually written in third person, alternating between the perspectives of both main characters. The love story is more prominent than an external struggle. The novel ends happily with major conflicts resolved.

Readers of paranormal romance and urban fantasy are some of the most difficult to advise. Often, they are avid readers so a librarian can’t simply offer a few stand out, high profile titles. And if a reader is new to the subgenre, their tastes can vary so widely across the spectrum, it can be difficult to offer a confident suggestion.

While publishers do their best to keep marketing messages clear, sometimes the covers and even the spine labels declaring a certain genre work against librarians (as well as readers!)  Gritty urban fantasy novels with incredible world-building may have covers that scream romance, and just because a book isn’t shelved in romance doesn’t mean the love story won’t satisfy romance readers. Publishers and imprints provide guidance, but aren’t foolproof indicators of the book’s potential audience..

It’s helpful to think of these two subgenres existing on a continuum rather than as discrete categories. While readers may gravitate towards books with a strong fantasy element or those where romance reigns, there’s much to be found in the middle ground where urban fantasy and paranormal romance meet.

In fact, many authors write series in both genres. Knowing the subtle differences in appeal can help when suggesting which book a reader might want to check out from a new author.

Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series is a dark urban fantasy in which Mac, an American college student is drawn into the complicated world of the Fae when her sister goes missing in Dublin, Ireland. This fun-loving and spunky heroine learns she has more power than she ever thought, but also that she’s in way over her head in the supernatural world. Over a five book series, there is some serious romantic tension between her and Barrons, a darkly enigmatic character whose origin and backstory are not revealed until the end. It’s full of action, and the slowly developing relationship between Mac and Barrons isn’t the central focus. Paranormal romance readers who are willing to wait for their relationship grow over the entire series will enjoy it, but readers who prefer a resolution to a romance in the first book might be disappointed. These readers will prefer  Moning’s Highlander series, which also feature Fae characters, but is a traditional paranormal romance.

The Night Huntress World books by Jeaniene Frost is an urban fantasy series that will appeal to paranormal romance fans. The original series, which begins with Halfway to the Grave, follows Cat, a half vampire who despises her vampire heritage and fights to eradicate them -- until she meets Bones, a Master Vampire assassin who is leaps and bounds above her in strength and skill, and drives her crazy -- in every way. The series is as much as about the world as their relationship. If you took out their love story, the plot would stand on its own.

Additional series set in this same world -- First Drop of Crimson and Once Burned -- follow couples who first appear in the Night Huntress series, but are much more consistent with traditional romance in structure and plot. While all of Frost’ books are equally steamy, the importance of the relationships as part of the overall plot differs.

Jean Bennett also got her start writing urban fantasy. Her Arcadia Bell series, which begins with Kindling the Moon, is about a bar owner (who happens to be a magician) teaming up with a rare book dealer (who happens to be a demon) to solve a mystery (and they’re dating). It’s a character-driven supernatural story with a romantic subplot. Bennett’s most recent series, which begins with Bitter Spirits, follows a medium who teams up with a bootlegger to get to the unravel a hex. The subsequent volumes in the Roaring Twenties series also feature magic, but follow different couples who after some misunderstandings, ultimately end up happily together.

Many urban fantasy series have a romantic subplot strong enough to appeal to romance readers. The relationships between the protagonist and love interest might be slow to develop, but if readers enjoy the characters and world-building, the payoff is worth the wait.

The Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris is about a small-town waitress who happens to be telepathic. When she meets her first vampire, she learns she can’t read their minds, which makes them attractive romantic partners. Of course, dating a vampire has its downsides, and Sookie love life can only be described as rocky. Fans of the series became quite invested in which of her various suitors, be they vampire or other supernatural creature, she would end up with in the end. The romantic tension has equal appeal to the mystery Sookie is drawn into in each installment.                                                              

It’s not just vampires who get the love stories in urban fantasy. The Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews follows a magical mercenary in a “post-Shift” Atlanta, where waves of magic periodically knock out technology and a new governmental department exists to handle all the havoc they wreak. Kate is investigating the death of her beloved mentor when she crosses paths with Curran, the Lord of all shapeshifters, it definitely isn’t love at first sight. But over the course of series, their verbal sparring turns into something much more serious. If readers prefer the romantic arc to be completed in single book, steer them towards On the Edge, the first in a series about people who live on the boundary between the real world, full of Wal-Marts and McDonald’s, and the Weird, a strange and magical land. While full of enough action and magic to appeal to urban fantasy fans, each installment features an new protagonist and love interest.

Some urban fantasy plays with these genre tropes, as in Insatiable by Meg Cabot.  At first glance, it features many of the trademarks: Meena is a TV writer whose daily life revolves around vampires because she writes for a soap opera featuring the dark, mysterious variety. Her gift of precognition means she can tell when someone will die, which prevents her from getting close to men -- until she meets one who already is dead and falls for him. This tongue-in-cheek approach to the subgenre features Cabot’s trademark humor. While the plot resolution may not be as tidy as in traditional romances, any reader who appreciates romance and a good laugh should enjoy the novel.

For readers looking for equal parts romance and adventure, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness fits the bill. Harkness uses her background as a professor of history in this series, which follows historian Diana as she discovers she’s also a witch when her search for a rare book leads all sorts of supernatural creatures, from vampires to daemons, to take an interest in her and her research. She reluctantly teams up with vampire geneticist Matthew, and their growing intimacy creates even more challenges, as relationships between vampires and witches are the ultimate taboo. This series is more intricately plotted than most paranormal romance, but equally steamy.

Genres label can be helpful for readers looking for their next favorite book, but they can also be restrictive. Understanding the overlapping appeals and genre-blurring characteristics of certain books can make for better readers’ advisory and happier patrons. It’s helpful to think of these distinctions as a continuum rather than discrete categories. To this end, Genrify has compiled a chart of 75 popular urban fantasy titles that organizes them based on fantasy versus romance appeal


Want to learn more about the differences between genres? Look for Genre Overviews and Keeping Up... pages in the genre section of the RA Toolbox in NoveList. 

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Molly Wetta is the YA and Media Selector at Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, KS, where she wrangles a teen book club and manages the library's Tumblr. She also contributes to YALSA's young adult literature blog, The Hub