Urban Fantasy versus Paranormal Romance

pnrufchart2

(click to embiggen!)

Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance.  There seems to be lots of people who love one but not the other.  In most classification schemes and in my book (The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Blends), urban fantasy is technically a subgenre of fantasy, and paranormal romance is a subgenre of romance (just as the names imply!), but the reading reality has always seemed more fluid to me. I read a lot of series that fall under one or another of those subgenre headings, and I’ve never been particularly fussy about what label gets printed on the spine.  When I was in charge of ordering paperbacks for a library, I was forced to care about this issue, as I would be the one that would decide whether a book went on the “ROMANCE” spinner or the “SF/FANTASY” spinner. And believe it or not I found  it surprisingly difficult at times.  Sometimes I would violently disagree with the way the publisher had chosen to market a series. Maybe it was a book that had a cover and a subject heading that screamed romance and I thought it would appeal as much (or more) to fantasy fans.  Maybe the book was all moody urban fantasy on the outside but all steamy romance between the covers.  It was then that I started to think about these books all living on more of a spectrum: all books that shared a real-world, present day fantasy landscape and almost always included a crime/puzzle/mystery plot line. The difference was simply in the amount of romance.

So what’s the deal? Why does a little angsty longing or even steamy sexytimes kick a book out of one genre into another? As a reader of both romance and fantasy I’m a little confused, but as a reader’s advisor I guess I get it: it all comes down to where the author is focusing their narrative energies.  Is the point of the story getting the hero and heroine past a conflict to their happy ending?  Romance.  If the point of the story solving the crime (small book arc) or vanquishing the big bad evil (long series arc) and romance is just something that happens (or doesn’t happen) along the way? Urban fantasy. Paranormal romance is also much more likely to focus on a new couple every book, while urban fantasy follows a hero or heroine through their waxing and relationships.  Once an urban fantasy has given a hero and heroine their happy ending, an author can continue their story, but it will probably include conflicts that challenge their happiness.  Let’s face it, no one really wants to read book after book about a happy couple (well, maybe Eve and Roark from J.D. Robb, but I’ve even cooled on them lately). Relationship building is much more conducive to plot, bringing conflict and drama. Relationship sustaining is much harder to make interesting.

So it looks like the main criteria for separating paranormal romance from urban fantasy is the focus on romantic love. Some readers like to have this element in their stories, some never EVER want even a whiff of romance. Lots of readers fall somewhere in the middle.  Luckily there are books to satisfy any taste. Charting them made one thing obvious to me, which is that lots of paranormal romances have excellent worldbulding and lots of urban fantasies have a swoon-worthy romantic storyline. So personally, I think there should be more cross-pollination between these fanbases.

THE CHART
I grabbed 100 popular series that are considered either paranormal romance or urban fantasy (mainly looking at lists in Goodreads) and decided I would try to chart them as to their appeal to a romance reader and their appeal to an urban fantasy reader.  My only criteria were that they be set in our world (no secondary world or epic fantasy) and that it was well-known or well-regarded by fans of the genre (GoodReads averages hovering near 4). When judging their appeal for fantasy and romance, I polled some big readers I know to help me out. We came to a general consensus, but of course your mileage may vary. From that original 100, there were some that none of us had read and which it was too hard for me to get a solid read on their appeal from reviews. There were some that were more mystery than they were either fantasy or romance. And there was a saturation point where the chart was getting too crowded to be readable. I ended up with about 75 entries. Overwhelmingly these ended up being series, and that’s where the second big decision came: judge by the book or by the series? Books like the Anita Blake series that take a dramatic shift in tone are hard to place (I adore the first few, read the next few and went “huh, okay”, read a few more and went “WHOA”). Lots of great urban fantasy series have a romantic arc that builds over time.  For example, the Kate Daniels series is one where the first book or two barely has a romance angle at all (although the potential is there from the beginning – just thinking about “Here, kitty, kitty” makes me smile). By the most recent volume there is a much stronger emphasis on the romantic couple.  Where to chart, then?  I decided to try to think about these series as a whole, and whether the arc is appealing to romance fans, even if a particular book is less or more romantic.

Each series gets a rating of 1-10 for romance appeal, where a 10 would be a book that was hugely satisfying for romance readers, with a heroine and hero that you root for and a believable happily ever after.  1 on that romance axis would be a book that had no romance or so little that it doesn’t really impact the story.  On the fantasy axis, again 1-10, the highest ranking of 10 would be a book with amazing worldbuilding, a landscape that lives and breathes with magic.  Conversely, a 1 would be a book that has a very small fantasy appeal, where the fantasy in the story is not very important to the story. I’ve included a copy of the spreadsheet here for those who prefer to look at text and numbers rather than graphics and covers. Huge thanks to  Alicia Ahlvers, Tamara Bevard, Kristi Chadwick, Stephanie Flinchbaugh, Shelley Hughes and Jessica Moyers, who all looks at the titles with me and contributed votes on where a series should fall.

Title Author Series Romance Appeal (1-10) Fantasy Appeal (1-10)
Already Dead Charlie Huston Joe Pitt 1 6
Angel’s Ink Jocelynn Drake The Asylum’s Tales 6 8
Angels’ Blood Nalini Singh Guild Hunter 8 6,5
Bitten Kelley Armstrong Women of the Otherworld 5,5 6, 5, 7
Blood Rights Kristen Painter Comarre 8 3, 5
Child of Fire Harry Connolly Twenty Palaces 1 6
Cry Wolf Patricia Briggs Alpha & Omega 6 6,5
Dark Currents Jacqueline Carey Agent of Hel 3 7
Dark Lover J. R. Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood 8 6
Dark Prince Christine Feehan Dark 7 4
The Darkest Night Gena Showalter Lords of the Underworld 7 3
Darkfever Karen Marie Moning Fever 7,6 8,7
Dead Until Dark Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse 3, 4 6, 8
Dead Witch Walking Kim Harrison The Hollows 3, 4, 5 8
The Devil You Know Mike Carey Felix Castor 1 7
Dirty Magic Jaye Wells Prospero’s War 2,2 7,8
Discount Armageddon Seanan Mcguire InCryptid 2,4 8
A Discovery of Witches Deborah Harkness  All Souls 6, 7 6
Dragon Bound Thea Harrison Elder Races 8,9 4
Fated Benedict Jacka Alex Versus 1 7
First Grave on the Right Darynda Jones Charley Davidson 4 5
Grave Witch Kalayna Price Alex Craft 2 8
Greywalker Kat Richardson Greywalker 3 6
Guilty Pleasures Laurell K. Hamilton Anita Blake 5,6 7
Halfway to the Grave Jeaniene Frost Night Huntress 6, 8 7, 5
Hard Magic Laura Anne Gilman Paranormal Scene Investigations 3 7
Hounded Kevin Hearne Iron Druid 2 8
House of the Rising Sun Kristen Painter Crescent City 2,3 8
How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire Kerrelyn Sparks Love at Stake 7 1
The Hum and the Shiver Alex Bledsoe Tufa 4 6, 7
A Hunger Like No Other Kresley Cole Immortals 9 3
Ill Wind Rachel Caine Weather Warden 4 7
Kiss of Midnight Lara Adrian Midnight Breed 7 2
A Kiss of Shadows Laurell K. Hamilton Merry Gentry 7 5
Kitty and the Midnight Hour Carrie Vaughn Kitty Norville 3 8,7
Libriomancer Jim C. Hines Ex Libris 3, 3 8, 9
Magic Bites Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels 6,7 9,9
Magic to the Bone Devon Monk Allie Beckstrom 4 8
Midnight Riot Ben Aaronovitch Peter Grant 1, 1 8, 9
Mind Games Carolyn Crane Disillusionists 6 5
Moon Called Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson 5,4 6,7
Neverwhere Neil Gaiman 2 9
Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs Molly Harper Jane Jameson 5 3
Night Pleasures Sherrilyn Kenyon Dark Hunter 5, 6 8, 6
Nightlife Rob Thurman Cal Leandros 3 6
No Hero Jonathan Wood MI-37 1 7
Omens Kelly Armstrong Cainsville 1,2 4
Pleasure Unbound Larissa Ione Demonica 6, 8 5
Pride Mates Jennifer Ashley Shifters Unbound 6 3
A Quick Bite Lynsay Sands Argeneau 7 2
Red-Headed Stepchild Jaye Wells Sabina Kane 4 7
The Restorer Amanda Stevens Graveyard Queen 6 4
Rosemary and Rue Seanan McGuire October Daye 3,2, 5 8,8, 9
Sandman Slim Richard Kadrey Sandman Slim 1 8
Skinwalker Faith Hunter Jane Yellowrock 2, 3 9, 7
Slave to Sensation Nalini Singh Psy/Changeling 8, 9 8, 7
Some Girls Bite Chloe Neill Chicagoland Vampires 3 8
Something from the Nightside Simon R. Green Nightside 1 6
Spider’s Bite Jennifer Estep Elemental Assassin 4 8
Storm Front Jim Butcher Dresden Files 1, 2, 2 9,8
Stray Rachel Vincent Shifters 4 6
Succubus Blues Richelle Mead Georgina Kincaid 6 5
Sunshine Robin McKinley 3, 5 7, 8
The Taken Vicki Pettersson Celestial Blues 2, 4 7, 5
Tempting Danger Eileen Wilks Lupi 8 3
Tempting the Beast Lora Leigh Breeds 8 2
Tiger Eye Marjorie Liu Dirk & Steel 7 7
Tinker Wen Spencer Elfhome 6 8
Touch the Dark Karen Chance Cassandra Palmer 3 7
Undead and Unwed MaryJanice Davidson Undead 6 1,2
Unholy Ghosts Stacia Kane Downside Ghosts 3 5
War for the Oaks Emma Bull 3, 4 9, 8
White Lies Jayne Anne Krentz Arcana 8 2
Witchling Yasmine Galenorn Otherworld 7 8
Written In Red Anne Bishop Others 2 8
You Slay Me Katie MacAlister Aisling Grey 7 3

 

No matter whether you agree with where I placed your favorite series, I hope this makes it obvious that there are plenty of books on either side of the imaginary dotted line that splits the chart that readers could enjoy.

 

8 Comments on Urban Fantasy versus Paranormal Romance

  1. Gina Drayer
    October 2, 2014 at 8:34 am (2 years ago)

    I love this chart. There is a lot of cross over right now with ParaRomance being a huge seller. Sometimes it’s hard to judge if a book is more romance than fantasy or a good mix.

    Reply
    • Megan M. McArdle
      October 2, 2014 at 8:42 am (2 years ago)

      Thank you! I agree there is a ton of crossover in appeal. The marketing (cover, blurb, etc.) doesn’t always give the reader a clear idea of the romance mix, unfortunately. I end up trying a lot of series on for size.

      Reply
  2. Jude C
    October 3, 2014 at 6:32 am (2 years ago)

    This is brilliant! I love the idea of a spreadsheet on fantasy fiction – what a way to bring it down to earth. I could have a few heated debates on where some series fall, but I would just say that it seems the male authors are a bit shy of expressing their warm and fuzzy feelings – most are firmly in the bottom right corner keeping well away from romance!

    Reply
    • Megan M. McArdle
      October 3, 2014 at 7:59 am (2 years ago)

      Thank you! I started this as a spreadsheet and had SUCH a hard time figuring where to put some series. It’s not about counting sex scenes, but about how a book feels to read, right? So my compromise was to have some friends and colleagues who read these genres also contribute where they think a book falls. We didn’t reach consensus, but it did help! And yes, I think in all genres it is more likely for a woman to include a love story element into her plots. The women in the books on the far bottom right books (by dudes) are more likely to be dead or rescue bait. But there are some good female characters there too, just no emphasis on romantic entanglements (yet). Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  3. Ilene L.
    October 7, 2014 at 7:19 am (2 years ago)

    As a reader of both Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance and being a Librarian, this chart is FABULOUS! It is often very difficult to figure out where to put some of these books. Publishers and readers often have different definitions of romance. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Megan M. McArdle
      October 7, 2014 at 8:29 am (2 years ago)

      Thank you! I’m so glad you liked it!

      Reply
  4. Leigh
    October 12, 2014 at 2:45 am (2 years ago)

    I absolutely love this! I completely agree that these “genres” should really be considered as operating on a fluid continuum between fantasy and romance. You might be interested; I recently published an academic paper that goes into some of the problems of classifying this genre: http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2014/06/26/uf-mclennon/ And I’ve given a conference paper with pretty diagrams with arrows trying to explain the genre relationships… Though I wish it had occurred to me to use this style of infographic! It looks great. And so handy for giving reading recommendations.

    Reply
    • Megan M. McArdle
      October 12, 2014 at 9:24 am (2 years ago)

      Thank you so much! Your article was fascinating as well. There are so many hangups about what to call these books, and NO AGREEMENT among academics, librarians or even fans. You make a great point about the serial and adaptive nature of these books. These long series, sort of like episodic TV in a lot of ways, have an opportunity to tell lots of different types of stories, dabbling in other genres and story styles. It’s part of what keeps us reading them!

      Reply

Leave a Reply