Is there a difference between fantasy romance and romantic fantasy?

vintage romantic fantasy lake with swan and magical fairy dust
Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

My latest project, Puck’s Call, is (near as I can tell) a fantasy romance. I’m basing this on the fact that the plot is really fitting nicely into a typical romance plot, and I can even identify the tropes inside it.

In honor of actually, kind of, sort of, knowing what genre my book fits within—which, as you can see from this post, hasn’t always been the case—I’m going to take a little bit of time comparing fantasy romance with romantic fantasy.

Why? Because I like definitions, especially when it comes to finding new things to read.

So here we go.

First off, genres change all the time. A genre will be happily minding its own business and then, bam! A book grabs the imagination of the wider public and soon everyone is talking about this book, especially publishers, who want to repeat that success. Writers come in who either already had books like the one that took off, but couldn’t sell them because “no one reads those kind of books.” Other writers dash off a manuscript that’s a lot like the Big Hit and start shopping it around, thus leading to books that readers kind of enjoy but that, ultimately, make them shrug. And before you know it, bookstores and libraries add a new physical or digital shelf to the marketplace and voila! A genre is born.

Same with subgenres. Originally, there was only fantasy. Then what’s commonly known as “sword and sorcery.” And things kind of blossomed from there.

One of the beauties of writing fantasy is that, as long as there’s magic as a key component, you can do just about anything. And that even means including romance. And now there’s been enough fantasy novels with strong enough elements of romance for it to get its own subgenres.

But this leads me back to my question. Is there a difference between fantasy romance and romantic fantasy?

Given my experiences search? Kind of, but not really. For readers who are looking for more romance in their fantasy, either search term should get you where you want to go, eventually.

From a literary standpoint, I say yes, there is a subtle difference. Here are my definitions, based on what I’ve read so far.

Fantasy romance is romance with a fantasy setting and some fantasy tropes. Romantic fantasy is fantasy with an emphasis on relationships, especially romantic ones.

Sometimes those lines are blurred. The Fire Lord’s Lover by Kathryne Kennedy, though clearly fantasy romance, has such a strong fantasy plot within it that I think it straddles the two genres perfectly.

So, the next question to ask is, what makes a romance. After all I’ve read, both romance novels and books on how to write a romance novel, I say romance is variations on a single theme: Romantic Love Conquers All. If the book in your hands has that as its overarching theme, then it’s a romance.

By that definition, The Fire Lord’s Lover is definitely fantasy romance, because love does truly conquer all, both in the book and in the books that come after it in that series.

Other books to look at, if that’s what you’re looking for, are Master of Crows by Grace Draven, Twelve Days of Faery by W.R. Gingell, and just about anything written by Kristine Grayson.

Romantic fantasy, on the other hand, has fantasy’s themes as its main focus. And since fantasy is all about power, it’s about a character, typically female, coming to grips with her own power, both personally and as a member of the wider community. Romance is definitely part of that, and can be a very strong part of it, but unlike fantasy romance, it’s not the main focus.

An example is Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series. The first half of each book I’ve read in that series has nothing to do with romance. Instead, it’s about a woman finding her feet and coming to terms with who she is and what she wants to be. Once she’s done that, then romance enters her life. The first book in the series, The Fairy Godmother, was especially good at that. Other examples include Tamora Pierce’s The Immortals series (Middle Grade, but still good), Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, and I would even include, if you’re into something darker, Anne Bisop’s Black Jewels series. (Hesitant to add that because I’ve only read the first two books in the series. But it seems to fit the definitions I’ve given for romantic fantasy, so far.)

What about you? Does this sound right, or are my definitions off? What other books would you add to these lists? Let me know in the comments!

*An exception appears to be Selene Quarterly, a magazine devoted to spec fic romance. (WARNING: as of my linking today, the cover art on the page is NSFW [Not Safe For Work]. Click at your own risk!)



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