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Urban Fantasy vs Magical Realism

by

Rachel Seigel

A couple of weeks ago, a PubCrawl reader asked us if we could better define the difference between magical realism and urban fantasy, both of which are sub-genres of fantasy.

The two genres, though often confused, are actually quite different.

In an urban fantasy novel, the setting is usually an urban city such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc… The fantasy creatures live in the city and interact with the population, while their true identities remain unknown to the general population of the city. At some point in the narrative, their true identities are revealed to the main character, who is unexpectedly drawn into paranormal struggles. In YA Urban Fantasy, in addition to dealing with stakes as big as the fate of the world, there are also coming-of-age themes and a teen voice. While some people classify Twilight as Urban Fantasy, (though it’s really more Paranormal Romance) a better example would be the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, or the Wicked Lovely series by Melissa Marr.

Magical Realism on the other hand, is a style of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world, but the story is otherwise grounded in reality. The magical elements are presented in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner, and they draw on fable, folktale and myth. A character may discover a genie in a bottle, (or other devices that grant wishes), or gain fantastic attributes such as telekinesis, flight, or telepathy. Books such as Skellig by David Almond, or Going Bovine by Libba Bray can be classified as magical realism, as can the novels by Middle-Grade authors Laurel Snyder and Wendy Mass.

These days, there are so many crossovers and sub-genres that it’s an increasingly complicated affair to try and figure out which categories a book belongs to. What sub-genres do the rest of you find difficult to define, and what are some of your favourite examples of titles that cross genres?

Rachel Seigel is the K-12 buyer at educational wholesaler S&B Books in Mississauga, Ontario. She also maintains a personal blog at http://readingtimbits.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @rachelnseigel.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted November 7, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks for answering! I understood urban fantasy pretty well, but the whole magical realism genre I did not. Magical realism seems a lot more abstract to me, but you exampled Going Bovine, which I really enjoyed, and I get it now. I can’t come up with any title at the moment, but I did read that Terri Pratchet described his Tiffany Aching series (it might have a different name, but that’s what I always call it) as urban fantasy, which also confused me. It deffinately doesn’t take place in a city that we know of, or can even visit, because it’s fictional. So perhaps it’s urban fantasy, heavy on the fantasy. Haha, well either way I thought it a great series.

    • RachelSeigel
      Posted November 7, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      I think even authors don’t always understand exactly what genre it falls into, but they do have some components of Urban Fantasy, which may make him feel like that best describes it.

  2. Posted November 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post. I write magical realism and so many people (and other writers) are clueless as to what that means. Now I can refer them to this post.

    • RachelSeigel
      Posted November 7, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for your comments! I’m glad I could help!

  3. Posted November 7, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Figuring out genres is getting harder and harder to do these days, thank you for posting this. It really helps me distinguish between the two. I have a story that I’ve been wondering does it go here? Or does it go there? This post has solved that problem for me. Thank you!

    • RachelSeigel
      Posted November 7, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      That’s great that it cleared things up for you! There are so many cross-overs between genres, many books could be classified as many things!

  4. Sharry
    Posted April 27, 2014 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    Where would you place The Master and Margarita or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, or the Golden Compass?
    Seems there is much overlap.
    Which makes me ask . . . why is it important to categorize?

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