With all the fabulous work going on with AAR’s Special Titles Listings, it has brought up some interesting questions about genre classifications. When the Special Titles Listings were first created over 10 years ago, Alternate Reality was a catchall for any book that didn’t fit into Historical or Contemporary settings. Since then, however, the world of Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy, etc. has grown significantly and we thought that some of the questions that came up were a call for some definitive classifications of these areas both for our readers and our reviewers.

If we were to take anything that wasn’t Historical or Contemporary Romance, there are a bunch of terms out there that tend to be used interchangeably and not necessarily consistently. Readers and reviewers all around the web have classified everything from witches and vamps to psi and Time Travel series as Paranormal. And I am not saying that any of them are wrong. In a sense, they are all correct. But that classification is becoming too general for everything that is out there and we are hoping that by making more distinct classifications – with examples – we can make it more “user friendly” going forward. With the examples after each, I have included the series that fits this classification since an author may have multiple series/books with each fitting into different genres After all, most good authors do not write the same thing all the time!

Fantasy Romance: I think this is one of the easiest ones, so I will start here. I like to think of these as Lord of the Rings-style romance. Generally they are on a made up world with a that is often vaguely medieval in nature. People live in castles and fight with swords and bows – and of course a little magic thrown in. They are not historical, because though there may be a British bent to settings, they are definitely not of our world. And like Lord of the Rings, in addition to humans, you have often have otherworldly creatures – most have dragons, fairies, elves, mages, and other mythological beasts. These stories often have a fairy tale quality about them. But there is a catch. Though some may not, they are frequently written as trilogies (or more) and one couple’s story can carry over into multiple books. If you hate cliffhangers, research and make sure that the series is complete or you may be throwing a book at the wall at some late hour of the morning when you realize it is a year before you get to hear the rest of the story. Unlike Urban Fantasy, which has a darker bent to it, Classic Romantic Fantasy still keeps the romance as center stage even over multiple books.

Series that fit in this category: C.L. Wilson’s Tairen Soul, Lynn Kurland’s Nine Kingdoms, G.A. Aiken’s Dragon Kin, Alexis Morgan’s Warriors of the Mist, Kylie Griffin’s Light Blade

Sci-Fi Romance: Though this and Fantasy are often lumped together, to me they are very different. While they can share elements of dashing sword fights and made up worlds, to me Sci-Fi would happen in a futuristic setting as opposed to the more medieval setting of a Fantasy Romance. If Fantasy Romance is the Lords of the Rings of romance, Sci-Fi would be the Star Wars. Things in a Sci-Fi romance may include space ships, computers, and aliens. Often times in Sci-Fi romance there are either strong military themes or they can take place in a post-apocalyptic world. Magic may or may not be a part of the book. In many cases, it is the advanced technology that is the “magic”. Like Fantasy Romance, the HEA is not guaranteed in each book. Some series take more than one book to tell a couple’s story, while in others each couple stands alone in their book.

Series that fit in this category: Linnea Sinclair’s Dock Five, Susan Grant’s 2176, Sandra McDonald’s Outback Stars, Joss Ware’s Envy Chronicles, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s League

: Of them all, Steampunk is the easiest to classify, but the hardest to understand for some. Talking about steampunk for many is almost like Justice Stewart’s line on obscenity – “I know it when I see it.” It is undeniably a class of its own. It is a mix of Science Fiction, Paranormal, and usually has Historical undertones. The key is the idea of steam powered technology. When I think of Steampunk, I think of the movie League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Jules Verne. Often Steampunk is set in an alternate late 1800’s Britain, but it can also be set in the Old West or a post apocalyptic world where the only remaining technology is steam power. You won’t find the use of standard “magic” in these books except through the inventions that are usually at once dated (being steam powered) and ahead of their time. In addition, those gadgets and gizmos are usually crucial to the story and become a major factor. Beyond that, Steampunk Romance would follow the same standards that any other romance would. A particular couple is the main story line and a HEA is guaranteed at the end.

Series that fit in this category: Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas, Kate Cross’s Clockwork Agents, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate

Time Travel: This category can be a little tough to place. What do you do with a story that has a character from the present going back to the past but the majority of the story takes place in the past and reads like a historical romance? Publishers tend to put books with Time Travel into the Paranormal Romance category, but we at AAR have a separate listing for Time Travels. That is where stories with a primary character (hero or heroine dealing with the ramifications of traveling through time to an unexpected place) go. Beyond that, the reviewer may place an additional designation. For example, for a story where a Highland Laird gets sent to the future, that book may be classified Time Travel – Contemporary Scotland. This includes books that may otherwise, without the Time Travel, have paranormal elements such as a fae character or a ghost. Then it would be Time Travel – Paranormal. This way, readers can look at the Time Travel books and see that the book is a Time Travel first and then read the review to see whether the rest of the story and setting would appeal to them. But it gives the reader the knowledge that the book has the Time Travel element and that the “fish out of water” theme is a likely scenario of the book.

Series that fit in this category: Melissa Mayhue’s Daughters of the Glen, Lynn Kurland’s dePiaget/MacLeod, Sandra Hill’s Vikings, Karen Marie Moning’s Highlanders, Janet Chapman’s Highlanders
*Note: Though Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander would be a Time Travel, not every book in the series would meet that classification. Since the examples list series, and in that case the first book and the series are usually referred to with the same name, I thought that would be confusing so I left it off.

Paranormal: These are the stories where the hero and/or the heroine is something not quite human, and where the focus is on the romance. The characters can include the gamut. They can be Werewolves, Vampires, Berserkers, Demons, Witches, Greek Gods, Shape Shifters, or just about any other type of creature you can imagine (Thunderbird anyone?) Though Paranormals often have a contemporary setting, they can take place in historical settings, as well. What separates Historical Paranormal Romances from Fantasy Romances is that the historical setting is, well, historical. Whether it is present day earth or Britain in the Regency era, in a Paranormal, the setting is a real place and the details are(more or less) historically accurate. A contemporary Paranormal has the creatures, usually immortal, acting in the real world – such as New Orleans, Budapest, Chicago – and existing within it either in secret or not. The elements of the paranormal must be integrated into the story and world building is important, but the main plot of the story is a romance. To be a true paranormal, the paranormal elements have got to be organic to the story. Each book usually features a couple – though couples can have their build up or backstory in a previous book. A couple is guaranteed a HEA in the end.

Examples: JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark, Gena Showalter’s Lords of the Underworld, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunters, Larissa Ione’s Demonica/Lords of Deliverance, Lydia Dare’s Westfield Wolves, Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London
*Note: I know that the first example is controversial. I did a lot of research on this one and I know not everyone may agree. However, based on the criteria listed above and below, the Black Dagger Brotherhood would still fall into Paranormal.

Urban Fantasy: The line between paranormal and urban fantasy can be a tricky one to draw. It’s a debate we’ve discussed here previously. The key word when classifying the difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is WORLD BUILDING. In Paranormal Romance, the Romance is the main plot (though not necessarily the only plot.) In Urban Fantasy, the World is an important “character”. There can be a romance and two characters may be the “star” of the story, but there is usually a lot more going on in the story than just the main couple and that is where the true focus lies. The romance and the main couple are incidental to the major storyline. In addition, though Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance can share a setting and a slew of characters as the norm, Urban Fantasy usually has an Urban setting (hence the name) and it can be a little darker than a regular paranormal. As the Romance isn’t the main theme, a HEA isn’t a guarantee in an Urban Fantasy. The book is usually told from a single POV throughout a whole series and that is often a first person POV. Like Classic Fantasy romance, a couple’s story may be told over multiple books. However, the greater story arc will be furthered in some way in each book and again – romance is not the primary focus.

Series that fit in this category: Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson, Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson, Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunters, Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress, Vicki Pettersson’s Signs of the Zodiac, JR Ward’s Fallen Angels

Hopefully, with these new classifications and divisions, it will be easier to find just the right book to scratch the itch! What do you think about these classifications? Is there anything else that the list needs? Do these seem logical? Would they work? Let us know!

– Louise VanderVliet

Website | + posts

I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.