What is Contemporary Fantasy?


fantasy girls among modern books

Readers use genre to narrow down their interests. Librarians and reviewers want to know how to tag or shelf books. Authors need to reach a suitable audience to sell a story, whether it’s an agent or editor who asked for work in a specific genre or ebook buyers searching on categories.

At least among authors and us nerds who catalogue our books, one question that repeatedly comes up in publishing is What is Contemporary Fantasy?

Note: One of many ongoing debates among fiction authors is when to capitalize genre names. My preference is to differentiate between a type of story (fantasy) and the genre (Fantasy, capitalized as a proper noun). That’s what you will see here.

Most people figure out what Fantasy is without much effort. There’s magic or fantastical creatures. Contemporary Fantasy is harder to define. Let’s try!

A Slice of the Fantasy Timeline

Fantasy is divided up in several ways, each way working for distinct purposes. To pick out Contemporary Fantasy, we can divide the genre on a loose timeline that relates to our world.

  • Historical Fantasy is fantastical fiction based on research of history. It appears to be set in our past, no sooner than 50 years ago.
  • Science Fantasy overlaps the Historical Fantasy up through the far future, but does not look like the world we live in today. (Star Wars is a popular example.)
  • Contemporary Fantasy is set in our present time and in a world that mostly looks like ours.

This breakdown doesn’t include all of Fantasy; however, it makes the point for the one sub-genre we’re discussing.

Contemporary Fantasy is set in our present time and in a world that mostly looks like ours.

An easy way to remember this is to remember the definition of contemporary. It’s from a Medieval Latin word, contemporarius, which means con- (with, together) plus temporarius (of time), coming from tempus (time). “Contemporary” is another way of saying “present-time” or “modern”.

Alternative Definition

An uncommon use of Contemporary Fantasy is for a category of fantasy fiction that is written in modern times but is not necessarily set in the present. That would mean my folktale-inspired fiction set in an alternate twelfth-century Germany would be contemporary fantasy. This definition appears to be used only in literature studies.

Related Fantasy Subgenres

Here’s an intermediate-level breakdown on genres for the curious.

Contemporary Fantasy is sometimes an umbrella category for Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Mythic Fiction, Noir Fantasy, or Dark Fantasy.

Contemporary Fantasy is sometimes an umbrella category

Exhibit A: Paranormal anthology, ©St. Martin’s Griffin

Urban Fantasy is set in a current city or densely populated area that would be recognizable to the area’s real-life residents except for the fiction’s addition of magic or fantastical creatures (e.g., vampires, werewolves, and ghosts).

When Urban Fantasy is action chick lit involving sexy, magical creatures and a Happily Ever After (or For Now) ending, it’s Paranormal Romance. In bookstores, PR covers are identifiable by a lean-proportioned, scantily-dressed, but introspective model or two. PR is often seen as another sub-genre within UF.

Mythic Romance draws from myths and more Literary techniques than the Action-inspired Paranormal Romance.

Noir Fantasy is a type of noir-style crime story with strong fantasy elements. Dark Fantasy contains elements of horror.

A book belonging to any of these sub-genres can be Contemporary Fantasy. Remember,

Contemporary Fantasy is set in our present time and in a world that mostly looks like ours.

Historical, post-apocalyptic future, and alien other-world fantasy stories belong to other categories. They aren’t considered contemporary.

Popular Examples

Everyone likes examples, yeah? Here a few of contemporary fantasy.

See more at the collections at book cataloging sites.

Contemporary Fantasy on Library Thing — tagged books

Goodreads Shelf of “Popular Contemporary Fantasy Books — a list

What do you think? Was this helpful in understanding the genre?