Where to draw the line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy is hardly a new question. A number of articles and blog pieces have been written on the subject, including this one and also this piece . Given the manner in which books are marketed, it seems that many titles blur the lines and I seem to find books many consider urban fantasy shelved in the romance section or vice versa. So, where does one draw the line? For me, a paranormal romance focuses primarily on the primary hero/heroine relationship, and there needs to be an HEA. In urban fantasy, however, there may be some romantic elements, but the primary focus is on the fantasy plot(often the main character’s quest) itself – and the ending of any romantic subplot might not necessarily be happy. For example, I would consider Vicki Pettersson’s Signs of the Zodiac series urban fantasy but J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romance.
Shortly before I went on vacation earlier this month, I followed an interesting discussion started by @bantamspectra on Twitter regarding the difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. You can find an article summarizing it here. I appreciated what a lot of commenters had to say though I was somewhat disheartened to see a number of them denigrating paranormal romance, including one commenter who described it as “housewife porn”.
Granted, as another commenter noted, some of the book covers don’t exactly help. Still, it’s worth noting that a story focusing primarily on a relationship is not the same thing as pornography. Though, given that cover artists seem to labor under the notion that most paranormal heroes don’t own shirts, it can sometimes be difficult to hold up my paranormals and expect someone to accept my “But it’s not just about the sex!” argument without a hell of a lot of persuasion.
So, does this mean that paranormal romance is just sex with vampires and werewolves thrown in? Perhaps in some of the less-than-stellar books, that is all we get. However, really good paranormal romance seems to feature not only strong emotion between a hero and heroine, but also some fantastic world-building. For example, in Pamela Palmer’s Feral Warriors series, the romances are hot, but her characters also have to follow the rules of a sometimes complicated world.
Other examples also abound. Not every book in C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp‘s Tales of the Sazi has worked for me, but their complex realm of shapeshifters contains a lot more than mere “creature porn”. And then there are the worlds created by Lori Devoti in her Unbound series for Silhouette Nocturne. Not only are the romances enjoyable, but her books feature a variety of different magical characters and a world that seems more and more real each time I visit.
During the Twitter discussion, author Diana Rowland (whose debut novel, Mark of the Demon, is one I really want to read), commented, “I think that when UF fans refuse to set foot in Romance section of bookstore, they limit themselves. Lots of PR is not all sexxory.” I wholeheartedly agree. There are some great fantasy writers out there, some of whom include enjoyable romantic elements in their stories just as there are some paranormal romance authors out there who not only tell a good relationship story, but build amazing worlds.
In paranormal romance, the romance enjoys a position of prominence in the story that it does not in urban fantasy. However, that is no reason to denigrate the subgenre. There are well-written and poorly written books to be found in each camp, and I’m glad when I see readers crossing over to try new things, whether it’s romance readers discovering urban fantasy or fantasy readers finding a good romance.