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?



  1. I was thinking Jum Butcher’s Dresden Files the whole time I was reading this. Event things like Jurrasic Park. It seems like book stores have decided fantasy and science fiction all go in the same place now, so that would make those all more like contemporary fantasy 🙂

    1. I’d argue that Jurassic Park is science fiction instead of fantasy, though. Its basic premise is a question about science ethics: What if we cloned dinosaurs so that they live in our world?

      A living dinosaur reserve similar to Jurassic Park is possible in the near future; that isn’t fantasy. Some real-life scientists look for viable DNA to do that. Others are reverse-engineering modern animals to bring back dinosaur traits. (Have you heard of the chicken experiment? http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150512-bird-grows-face-of-dinosaur) A more fantastical version would look like Land of the Lost.

    2. Book stores make indecipherable decisions at times. Sometimes it’s out of ignorance. Before Borders closed, I’d hang around to talk to other customers, because I felt sorry for anyone who asked the employees for help.

      “Excuse me. My daughter likes The Mortal Compass. Can you recommend any books like that?”
      “Uh… yeah? Our Philosophy section is over there somewhere.”

      It was painful. I’ve unfortunately had the same experiences at other book stores. Don’t trust all store categories!

  2. I’ve been having concerns about whether or not to call my fantasy trilogy Contemporary Fantasy (or what, if anything). It’s set in a technologically-modern secondary world—so it’s not our world, but with our 2018-level technology, more or less.

    Analogies I like to use are “A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones with cellphones and guns” and “Americans Gods set in a fictional country in a fictional world with fictional gods from fictional religions.”

    I avoid calling it Urban Fantasy because the character travel to rural and uninhabited places, so it’s not limited to an urban setting, but mainly because I avoid all of the Urban Fantasy tropes (fantasy creatures, magic professions, institutionalized magic, etc) since I really don’t like Urban Fantasy. The Craft Sequence is perhaps the best-known example of a technologically-modern secondary world, but I stopped reading after the first chapter of book one since that one chapter had all of the Urban Fantasy tropes I don’t like. I have no reservations calling that book Urban Fantasy, but my books have none of those things that Irban Fantasy readers want—so I don’t call it Urban Fantasy.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Hi, LawrenceC. I agree that your story does not fit well in Urban Fantasy. With as much as I know from your description, there isn’t a clear Fantasy sub-genre that would tell your readers want to expect. How are you doing with this trilogy?

      1. Thanks for your reply.

        Yeah, trying to find a suitable sub-genre for my book seems kinda pointless. Maybe “epic fantasy” since that’s the scale and scope I’m going for, but epic fantasy is almost exclusively medieval/historical.

        I started writing about 6.5 years ago having never written anything previous, so it’s been a lot of on and off, mainly off. I have about 130k words written so far, but that covers only about 1/3 of the first book, so I still have a long way to go. I’m planning on using NaNoWriMo to write another chunk of it like I did a couple years ago.

        Sorry if this against the rules or anything, but if you’re inserted in checking out the first scene of chapter one to see how I’m doing the technologically-modern secondary-world thing and what kind of “feel” I’m going for, feel free to check it out. It’s the current (3rd) draft and there are still things I need to fix/change, but hopefully I get “the point” across. Or just pass on checking it out if you’re not interest. Lol


        Thanks again for your time.

  3. I’m having some of these same questions about my current story. I’ve always thought of it as Urban Fantasy, but other than taking place in a city at the present time, with secret societies of alchemists battling it out using special powers, I’m not sure Urban Fantasy is appropriate. There are no fantastic creatures other than the beings to which the alchemists bond in order to gain those powers, and the powers themselves are not considered magic. (somewhat like Brandon Sanderson’s Alloy of Law Mistborn abilities) I’m afraid if I were to market it as an Urban Fantasy, I might end up targeting the wrong audience and upsetting readers who thought they were getting something else.

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