Urban Fantasy vs Magical Realism


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.


13 Responses to Urban Fantasy vs Magical Realism

  1. Kateri Ransom Nov 7 2012 at 9:35 am #

    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 Nov 7 2012 at 7:13 pm #

      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.

    • Jean Stevens Jun 14 2018 at 7:25 pm #

      I just recently heard the term urban fantasy, and I’m a college professor who has taught children’s literature for twenty-five years. Shows you what I know! Thank you for the clarification, though I find the distinction rather negligible.

  2. Robin Hall Nov 7 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    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 Nov 7 2012 at 7:14 pm #

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

  3. JQ Trotter Nov 7 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    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 Nov 7 2012 at 7:15 pm #

      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 Apr 27 2014 at 2:45 am #

    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?

    • Jean Jun 16 2018 at 5:09 pm #

      I agree, Sharry. Not important in the larger scheme of things.

  5. Scot Bayless Aug 15 2014 at 8:57 pm #

    So where would you put a contemporary story with a romantic slant, inspired by a celtic myth about shapeshifting and the sea?

    Yikes. I’m scaring myself just reading that…

  6. Clodagh Nov 28 2014 at 12:16 pm #

    Thank you so much. You’ve cleared that up for me too. The problem I have is that I am publishing on Kindle and so far I haven’t found ‘Magic Realism’ as a category. Going by your excellent explanation that is my category – the book is set against a real event (the King’s Cross tube fire) and in various buildings and parts of London. It could be urban fantasy except that none of them are fantasy creatures. One of them has appeared from a past life, but it’s not fantasy. The only description I can find on Kindle to fit in is ‘Urban Ghost’ but even that is not quite right. I would appreciate your comments. Thanks again for such an enlightening post.

  7. fantasy novelist Dec 31 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    Simply wish to say your article is as amazing.
    The clarity in your post is simply cool and that i can suppose you are knowledgeable in this subject.
    Well along with your permission allow me to clutch
    your RSS feed to stay updated with forthcoming post.

    Thank you a million and please carry on the rewarding work.

  8. Hansen Jun 20 2017 at 10:28 am #

    The way I see it, is that in magical realism, there are no explanations required. In fantasy, there are magical systems and other ways that explains who the magic works and you can sometimes go to a school of magic and educate yourself to become a witch or a wizard.

    In magical realism, people continue to live and act exactly as to do in the real world, even if some adjustments will sometimes have to be done (but I suppose it is possible to write about historical magical realism, set in another time period).
    Your boss at work could be a giant lizard, and nobody questions it. There are impossible elements involved, but unlike fantasy where it is often hidden, everybody knows about them and takes it for granted, just as we take electricity, internet and cars for granted today.
    But there should probably be a reason for all of it. No point in adding a lot of weird impossible things in a story if their presence doesn’t really mean something or add something to the tale.

    There might be a special place in town where the gravity doesn’t work, or where it is always pitch black, even if you bring a flashlight. In fantasy, or science fiction, there would most likely be an explanation for this, and it would freak people out or be a sensation. In urban fantasy, that’s just the way it is, and people accept it as something natural. It is never really explained or questioned.
    If there is such an area where it is always black, it could be a place where blind beings live. Either blind humans or a race without eyes (who are also taken for granted, and might even be nice guys and others not so nice, just like real life humans). Of the main characters could use the place to hide themselves from someone following them.
    The impossible is not written as the impossible, but as everyday mundane elements.

    At least that’s the impression I have of what separates the genres.

Leave a Reply to Robin Hall Click here to cancel reply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.