indie publishing, writing

Fantasy Romance vs Romantic Fantasy: Is there a difference between these subgenres?

A bit of preface: I wrote most of this blog post aaaaages ago but never got around to finishing it. However, this week I discovered a new FB reader group called Romantic Fantasy Shelf, which has been set up by a bunch of indie authors and is focused on secondary-world Romantic Fantasy / Fantasy Romance / Reverse Harem fantasy and it (a) seemed right up my alley (go join if it’s up your alley too; they’re running a whole bunch of giveaways this month to celebrate the launch of the group) and (b) reminded me of this half-written blog post.

romantic fantasy launch event

Now for the actual blog post:

Because I am me and like organising things into their Correct Places, I have spent a lot of time pondering genre nuances. And because my current project (the Stariel series) contains both fantasy and romance, this specific genre nuance (fantasy romance vs romantic fantasy) interests me particularly. Are they actually different subgenres or just different names for the same thing? Is there any real difference between the two subgenres in terms of reader expectations?

From a purely technical standpoint, fantasy romance is a subgenre of ROMANCE whereas romantic fantasy is a subgenre of FANTASY. In other words, you’d expect the dominant element to be the parent genre.

But if a book has both romance and fantasy, how do you tell which is the ‘dominant’ genre? And what if it’s an equal mixture of both?

I’ve been told that one simple way to figure out if you’re dealing with a book that has romance as its dominant genre is to ask yourself: ‘does the plot still pretty much work if I take out the romance?’ and if the answer is ‘no’, well, there you go; it’s a romance. It works for some books where the balance is clearly tipped more one way than the other.

For example, Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books still work if you take out the romance (though why would you do that!?) since the major plotline is the heroine training to be a knight.

Tamora Pierce Song of the Lioness Quartet

By comparison, Robin McKinley’s Beauty doesn’t work if you take out the romance, since the main plot is about Beauty and the Beast’s relationship.

Beauty by Robin McKinley

However, I have found this question of ‘does it still work if you take out the romance’ overly simplistic for a lot of books. If you take the romance out of C.L. Wilson’s  Lord of the Fading Lands, you’ve still got fantasy worldbuilding and conflicts but you lose most of the character motivations.

Lord of the Fading Lands
Also, this cover is INSANE. Go, giant fire-breathing panther head, go!

Similarly with Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. You can take out the romance and still have intricate politics, sexy courtesans, and war between nations, but, again, you lose major character motivations and some very big subplots.

Jacqueline Carey Kushiel's Dart

For my own series, which falls into the Romantic Fantasy rather than Fantasy Romance camp, the answers to the question ‘does the plot work if you take out the romance?’ are:

  • Book 1: The Lord of Stariel – Mostly yes
  • Book 2: The Prince of Secrets – Mostly no
  • Book 3: The Court of Mortals – Sort of?
  • Book 4: The King of Faerie – Well, it would be a totally different series by now without the romance elements so hard to say

Basically, it gets silly very quickly trying to figure out whether a book still works without half its ingredients. And, really, who wants half a cake? Er, book.

I thought another way to slice this might be to look at Amazon’s categories. Fantasy has a subcategory for “Romantic” and Romance has a subcategory for “Fantasy”. So what’s filed under each one?

A lot of the same books, as it turns out.

There are slightly more sexy man-chest covers under Romance>Fantasy and slightly more women-with-glowy-magic-hands covers under Fantasy>Romantic.

I think the main difference (if any) is that Fantasy Romance series are likely to feature a different couple in each book, whereas Romantic Fantasy series focus on the same characters over multiple books.

However, my main conclusion after looking at a bunch of books that mix romance and fantasy is that this quest has not helped my To-Be-Read list get any smaller.

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