Contemporary Fantasy

Have you ever read novels like City of Bones (2007) or any of the Harry Potter (1997–2007) novels and wondered what genre they are written in? All these amazing books that transport us to new worlds are part of the contemporary fantasy genre.

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Table of contents

    The fantasy novel genre has existed for hundreds of years with different subgenres forming from it, one being contemporary fantasy.

    Contemporary Fantasy Definition

    Contemporary fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction. The stories are set in the same time period when they are written. So a contemporary fantasy text written in the 21st century would also be set in the 21st century.

    The most important aspect of contemporary fantasy is that it is set in modern times and interacts with fantastical elements. The characters live in the modern day with magical and supernatural elements interwoven into the setting. The magic system or magical creatures are either present in the world or live in an alternate world that interferes with the present world. In other words, magic is either an integral part of normal society or is something present in another world that the protagonist can travel to. Contemporary fantasy fiction can make characters and plots more relatable to the readers.

    Notable contemporary fantasy fiction includes C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia (1956) and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995–2000).

    Sub-genres of Contemporary Fantasy

    Contemporary fantasy fiction is an umbrella category for other subgenres such as the following:

    Urban Fantasy: Urban fantasy is also set in the present day but is set explicitly in a densely populated place or current city. We will explore this in more detail later.

    Rivers of London (2011) by Ben Aaronovitch

    Mythic Romance: This fantasy takes inspiration from myths and includes elements of romance in the plot.

    Elsker (2013) by S. T. Bende

    Noir Fantasy: This fantasy sub-genre is a form of noir-style crime plot with strong fantastical elements.

    Jim Butcher’s novel series The Dresden Files (2000–Present)

    Other forms of Fantasy Literature

    Fantasy can be divided into sub-genres as well as different periods.

    Contemporary fantasy fiction is always set in the modern world and is based in the present time. There are other genres of fantasy literature which are set in different times: Historical Fantasy (past) and Science Fantasy (future).

    Historical Fantasy: This is a subgenre of fantasy fiction set in the past and based on historical research. It includes fantasy elements in the plot. A lot of stories in this genre are set before the twentieth century.

    The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn (2011)

    Age of Myth by Michael J Sullivan (2016)

    Science Fantasy: Science Fantasy fiction can be set in the past or even up to the far future. What makes it distinct from contemporary fantasy is that it doesn’t look like the modern world (an example of a science fantasy would be Star Wars). It can also include scientific elements and fantastical elements in the plot (for example, cyborgs and wizards).

    Contemporary Fantasy Elements

    Mythology: Mythology and folklore play a huge role in contemporary fantasy. Writers may also use plotlines and character archetypes from mythology when writing contemporary fantasy.

    In Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2005), Rick Riordan incorporates ancient Greek mythology into the fantasy plot

    Paranormality: In contemporary fantasy, the paranormal is anything that has supernatural or magical elements. This similarity connects contemporary fantasy to traditional fantasy: both explore magical/supernatural elements.

    Imaginary Settings: Most contemporary fantasy novels include imaginary settings to support the paranormal activities that go on and myths being explored. The society in these settings has its own norms, laws, histories and politics.

    Contemporary Fantasy Characteristics

    Farah Mendlesohn, a writer and British academic historian, states that four characteristics of fantasy include portal-quest, immersive, intrusion and liminal. These four types of characteristics explain how the protagonist will act in the fantasy world.1

    These features are common in the broad genre of fantasy fiction, and contemporary fantasy is no exception to the rule. But the ways these elements manifest are different in contemporary fantasy, as will be explained below.

    In portal fantasies, the character leaves a familiar setting, passes through a portal and enters an unknown destination. These can often become portal and quest fantasies, where the protagonist leaves their ordinary home to fulfil a quest in a new setting, often with the help of a guide.

    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) by C.S. Lewis

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll

    A Darker Shade of Magic (2015) by V. E. Schwab

    In an immersive fantasy, the characters accept and understand the rules of this fantastical world. To them, these magical or fantastical elements are ordinary, so it is the role of the author to inform the reader of the new fantastical rules and world. The reader relies on the protagonist’s experience (and therefore, the protagonist’s personal beliefs and notions). Immersive fantasies in contemporary fantasies could be set in a modern world that looks a lot like ours, but where magic is normal.

    In intrusion fantasy, the fantastical and magical worlds intrude on the contemporary world. In some sense, it is the reverse of the portal quest, as this time the magical is entering the real world, rather than a character in the real world entering the magical.

    Freaky Friday (1972) by Mary Rodgers

    Twilight (2005) by Stephenie Meyer

    The liminal fantasy is a type of fantasy where it is ambiguous if the fantasy is something real in the fictional world or if the fantasy is simply just the product of the protagonist's imagination.

    Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959) could be an example as the unreliable narrator throws into doubt whether the fantastical elements are indeed part of the plot or rather are imagined by the narrator.

    Contemporary Fantasy, a large antique door, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Portal fantasy is a subgenre of contemporary fantasy.

    Contemporary Fantasy vs Urban Fantasy

    The difference between contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy is that urban fantasy is a sub-genre of modern fantasy where the plot primarily happens in a city. It is a type of fantasy that occurs in the real world and deals with issues from modern urban spaces. It can even include characteristics present in thrillers and science fiction and overlaps with other fantasy sub-genres such as high fantasy, dark fantasy, sword and sorcery and epic fantasy.

    Drug issues, gang crime, pollution and problems with the police are some examples of what is explored in urban fantasy. Usually, the monsters/creatures are classical romance villains like ghosts, demons, and vampires. These characters are popular as villains and heroes in urban settings as it presents the dark and light side of humanity. For example, vampires look like ordinary people, but they have a thirst for blood. Urban fantasy also often incorporates romance in its stories.

    One of the earliest urban fantasy books was created by C.S Lewis, who brought monsters and wizards to contemporary London in The Magician's Nephew (1955). The story begins with two children (Polly and Diggory) playing in a garden in London; they eventually come across a magic ring that leads them into the world of magic.

    Key Elements in Urban Fantasies

    Urban setting: Most urban fantasies occur in large cities, though they can also take place in small towns.

    Oxford in Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife (1997)

    Chicago in Jim Butcher’s Storm Front (2000)

    Mythical creatures: Urban fantasies include supernatural, magical creatures, including vampires, werewolves, wizards, mages, and druids.

    The vampires and werewolves in Stephenie Meyer'sTwilight (2005)

    Fantasy tropes: Urban fantasies incorporate the elements of the real-life urban, modern world together with fantasy elements.

    The magical assassin Gin who also works at the barbecue Pork Pit in Spider's Bite (2010) by Jennifer Estep.

    Noir: Urban fantasies often deal with noir themes (dealing with dark and disturbing matters). This fantasy sub-genre is a form of noir-style crime plot with strong fantastical elements.

    Harry Dresden solving the detective mystery in Jim Butcher’s Storm Front (2000)

    Young protagonist: Young protagonists who are practising magic are popular in urban fantasies. Usually, the protagonist has access to both worlds, in this case, the urban environments and the magical world.

    12-year-old Will Parry in Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife (1997).

    Contemporary Fantasy: Novels & Books

    Here we will take a close look at contemporary fantasy novels and examine how they use certain tropes.

    City of Bones by Cassandra Clare (2007)

    This contemporary fantasy novel is the first in a series called The Mortal Instruments (2007–2014). It is set in modern New York and is an urban fantasy novel.

    Adhering to the young protagonist trope, 15-year-old Clary Fray is out at a club when she notices a boy with green eyes and blue hair. She watches as he follows a beautiful girl into a closet with two boys and as they kill the boy with the blue hair. She realises that no one else in the club has noticed the event and thinks she has imagined it.

    It is here when the mythical creatures enter the urban setting, as one of the murderers, Jace, says the boy he killed was a demon and that they were shadowhunters. He also said ordinary people wouldn’t be able to see them. Later, Clary's mother is captured. Clary journeys to the City of Bones to unlock her memories and find her mother.

    We Hunt the Flames (2019) by Hafsah Faizal

    The novel is set in an imaginary world named Arawiya. Although the imaginary setting is inspired by the world of ancient Arabia, the characters in this novel relate to modern readers in how they interact with each other and communicate. Inspired by Arabian mythology, this novel is an immersive fantasy as magical or fantastical elements are perceived as ordinary by the characters.

    The young 17-year-old protagonist Zafira is known as the Hunter though no one knows it is her as she can’t reveal her identity as a woman. She disguises herself as a man and enters the cursed forest named the Arz to feed her people. The Arz grows every day, and each day, people are threatened with its curse. Zafira goes on a quest to get a lost artefact that would supposedly restore magic to Arawiya and end the curse of the Arz.

    Nasir is the Prince of Death and an assassin for his father, the King. He is sent by the King to kill the infamous Hunter and take the artefact (an ancient book filled with the knowledge that the Lion of the Night desires to know). When Nasir finds out that the Hunter is Zafira and Zafira finds out that the Prince of Death is just a boy, their plans change to one of unity.

    Contemporary Fantasy - Key Takeaways

    • Contemporary fantasy is a subgenre of the fantasy genre set in the modern world. Other subgenres are historical fantasy and science fantasy.
    • Contemporary fantasy can be further categorised into urban fantasy, mythic romance fantasy and noir.
    • The elements of contemporary fantasy are mythology and folklore, paranormality and imaginary settings.

    • The elements of urban fantasy include urban settings, mythical creatures, fantasy tropes, noir themes and young protagonists.

    • Contemporary fantasy was popularized by writers like C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia (1956).

    1 Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy, 2014.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Contemporary Fantasy

    What makes a book contemporary fantasy?

    The main characteristic of contemporary fantasy is that it is set in the modern-day with a modern setting.

    What is the difference between contemporary and urban fantasy?

    Contemporary fantasy is fantasy set in the modern-day context and in the normal world. Urban fantasy is a subgenre of contemporary fantasy (so is the same thing) but the difference is that urban fantasy is always set in a densely populated area like a city.

    How do you write contemporary fantasy?

    To write contemporary fantasy, decide whether you want your fantasy world to be hard fantasy or low fantasy. Then work on hard worldbuilding and soft worldbuilding to build your fantasy world.

    What is the contemporary fantasy genre?

    Contemporary fantasy set in the modern-day with a modern setting. 

    What are contemporary fantasy elements?

    Paranormality, mythology and an imaginary setting.

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