Contemporary fantasy is a fantasy work that is set in the time period of when the story was written. It’s safe to say that all contemporary fantasy is set in ‘modern times’, mostly in the real world. But a book might have been written three hundred years ago, been set in the time period of three hundred years ago and be contemporary fantasy. Unless you consider some of Shakespeare’s plays to be technically fantasy, you might be hard pressed to find any contemporary fantasy over about two hundred years old.
My favorite example would have to be Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”. It was written in 1897 and was set basically in 1897 or thereabouts. It’s a vampire novel, obviously, so it’s fantasy. One might not see it as contemporary now, but in 1897 it would have been. So it’s just ‘old contemporary fantasy’.
This particular genre could span so many types of fantasy, it’s sometimes pointless to use this as a sub-genre. It really is the genre. The normal usage for the term these days is fantasy set in the last decade or two. Harry Potter could be a good example of this as the books were mostly set in the time period they were written, though a few anachronisms exist. The anachronisms are somewhat explainable as it took Rowling something like seventeen years to write a set of books that took place in a seven year period (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was started in 1990 or so, finished in 1995 and published in 1997). Still, they are very good examples of contemporary fantasy.
There are a ton of these books out there. Almost any other sort of fantasy could be considered contemporary fantasy. Lots of vampire, witch, demon and paranormal romance easily falls under the umbrella of contemporary. A large part of urban fantasy is also contemporary, so much so that many times the two genres are confused. If you go take a look at Amazon under the science fiction and fantasy section you’ll see they don’t even have an urban fantasy category, just contemporary. So you might be hard pressed to find specific reading material in your niche say if you wanted demon themed urban fantasy set in the modern day.
These books are usually “Low Fantasy”, which basically means that most of the story does not take place in a fantastic place. It’s usually set in the real world, with locations that either exist or a fictional location within a real one. The most common template you see is when the author uses their hometown, or some place they are very familiar with as the setting. You can look at just about any urban fantasy novel for examples of this. I like the Anita Blake series as a model, mostly because it’s set in Saint Louis not Los Angeles, Chicago, New York or Dublin (Ireland) which seem to be really common.
Contemporary High Fantasy is certainly possible, though there doesn’t seem to be a lot of it. You could consider Alice in Wonderland to fit the description though as it takes place in the time of the author and is set in a fantastical place. There’s a huge selection of books that deal with people from the real, modern world being tossed into a fantastic setting. I don’t know that you could technically call them ‘contemporary high fantasy’ but they fit the description and are fun to read. Some of my favorites are The Soprano Sorceress by L. E. Modesitt Jr., A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling, and A Magic Kingdom for Sale SOLD! by Terry Brooks.
I categorized vampire novels as being contemporary fantasy. I’d say most of them are contemporary fantasy. You can’t throw a rock in a bookstore and not hit a vampire novel it seems. There’s a ton of self published stuff out there too, and some of it isn’t completely horrible. The old soap opera “Dark Shadows” was a really good example of contemporary vampire fiction of its day. Some of Anne Rice’s stuff is contemporary too, and much if it is worth checking out. I really enjoyed Dracula by Bram Stoker, Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice, and the Anita Blake series by Laurel K Hamilton (come on, they’re mostly about vampires existing and what people do to them). I heard an interview with Charlaine Harris one time and though I’ve never read The Southern Vampire Mysteries, I want to mention them because she just sounded like an awesome southern lady. I can’t say I’m much of a vampire novel fan, but I do thoroughly enjoy the mythology in most of its forms.
Your basic “hot chick with a tramp stamp and crossbow” novels are typical contemporary fantasy. A lot of this is urban, but not always. Calling them chick with tattoo and crossbow fiction really isn’t fair. A lot of that is just cover art, the few I’ve read made no mention in the book about any character’s ink. Also they don’t always have crossbows. This particular type of fantasy is more ‘hunter fantasy’. You’ve got a pretty heroine who hunts a particular type of monster and gets caught up with either the bad boy, or one of the monsters she’s supposed to kill. This is standard fare these days and I think is heavily inspired by Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. If vampire books are prevalent I’d say these are absolutely prolific. Go to a bookstore, hit up the sci-fi and fantasy section, pick three random non-sci-fi books and I’d bet one of them is this sort of story.
One other type of contemporary fantasy that I think is worth mentioning is the ‘fantastic detective novel’. There are a lot of these out there and many are worth picking up. The idea here is that a person involved somehow in the supernatural is a detective asked to help solve magical or supernatural cases that can’t be solved by modern forensics. Sometimes the detective has supernatural abilities, other times they are just thrown into it. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher is my favorite, the Merry Gentry Series by Laurel K. Hamilton is cool too (Yes Laurel K. Hamilton will get a lot of mentions on this blog)
So in summary, contemporary fantasy stories are those that are set in the time the book was written and contain elements of fantasy. It is a genre determined by the times, not the place, or the theme, or the characters, that the book is set in and can contain practically other type of fantasy you can think of.