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.

9 thoughts on “Fantasy Romance vs Romantic Fantasy: Is there a difference between these subgenres?”

  1. I absolutely LOVE that your conclusion to this whole affair is: darn, my TBR pile is a lot bigger than before (because that is exactly what would have happened to me too!! One goes looking through Amazon bestsellers at one’s own peril…).

    I think the distinction, while fuzzy in some titles, IS a valid distinction, and can be better found through deeper digging: what is the POINT of the book? The point of romance books is romance. Sometimes the romance is sweet and very mild (not everybody likes steam), but still, the point of the book is the relationship, and the satisfaction of that relationship. Fantasy, on the other hand, uses romantic plots to move along the larger theme which could be anything. While I’ve only read your first novel so far, an overarching theme for your series so far is that of duty (not the dry idea but the real, powerful, life-changing pull of purpose) and belonging. Secondarily it is about family, loyalty, and love. Even though I’m sure your romantic plotline grows to be a much larger part of the story later, I suspect you might agree that your series isn’t about the romance, it is about bigger picture ideas that use the romance to illuminate larger truths.

    I think the Court of Thorns and Roses series is a good example. It very very closely tiptoes the line between fantasy and romance, but in the end it is a romantic fantasy, not a fantasy romance, because in the end it is about Feyra’s finding her place in the world and fighting death and tyranny to protect the people and land she loves. Yes, her relationship with Rys is a huge part of it, and Maas definitely was writing to attract the romance crowd with her explicit love scenes. But still, in the end, the story isn’t about romance, it is about something much bigger and deeper, and that is sacrificial love, something that is quite a bit different than romance.

    Not sure you would agree with me, but I too spend a lot of time considering the nuances of genre (I created my own: cozy fantasy, haha! I write a modern/urban fantasy that has strong elements of cozy mystery as well as some epic fantasy with a bit of paranormal romance thrown in).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Genre nuances are fun! I like your way of drawing the distinction between the two subgenres, though I think it can also be a bit subjective what the ‘point’ of a book is. I’ve also become increasingly interested in where the border lies between romantic fantasy and non-romantic fantasy, since most fantasy has some romance in it somewhere.

    Clearly what we need is a comprehensive categorisation matrix in order to properly sort everything!

    (And thank you for your nice words re: The Lord of Stariel’s themes. It’s so interesting to me to see what people take from it!)


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