Definition and overview
These terms are used to describe stories set in the putative real world (often referred to as consensus reality) in contemporary times, in which magic and magical creatures exist but are not commonly seen or understood as such, either living in the interstices of our world or leaking over from alternate worlds. It thus has much in common with, and sometimes overlaps with secret history; a work of fantasy in which the magic could not remain secret, or does not have any known relationship to known history, would not fit into this subgenre.
Novels in which modern characters travel into alternate worlds, and all the magical action takes place there (except for the portal required to transport them), are not considered contemporary fantasy. Thus, C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where all fantasy events take place in the land of Narnia which is reached via a magic wardrobe, would not count as contemporary fantasy; on the other hand, the part of The Magician's Nephew, where the Empress Jadis gets to London, tries to take over the Earth and clashes with police and a crowd of cockneys, would qualify as such.
Contemporary fantasy is generally distinguished from horror fiction – which also often has contemporary settings and fantastic elements – by the overall tone, emphasizing joy or wonder rather than fear or dread.
In his preface to That Hideous Strength, one of the earlier works falling within this subgenre, C.S. Lewis explained why, when writing a tale about "magicians, devils, pantomime animals and planetary angels", he chose to start it with a detailed depiction of narrow-minded academic politics at a provincial English university and the schemes of crooked real estate developers: "I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method, because the cottages, castles, woodcutters and petty kings with which a fairy tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who first made and enjoyed the tales". The same is true for many of the later works in the genre, which often begin with a seemingly normal scene of modern daily life to then disclose supernatural and magical beings and events hidden behind the scenes.
Contemporary fantasies often concern places dear to their authors, are full of local color and atmosphere, and attempt to lend a sense of magic to those places, particularly when the subgenre overlaps with mythic fiction.
When the story takes place in a city, the work is often called urban fantasy.
The contemporary fantasy and low fantasy genres can overlap as both are defined as being set in the real world. There are differences, however. Low fantasies are set in the real world but not necessarily in the modern age, in which case they would not be contemporary fantasy. Contemporary fantasies are set in the real world but may also include distinct fantasy settings within it, such as the Harry Potter series, in which case they would be high rather than low fantasy.
19th and early 20th century
- Robert Louis Stevenson: The Bottle Imp
- H. G. Wells: The Wonderful Visit and The Sea Lady
- Selma Lagerlöf: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (orig. Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige)
- Edith Nesbit: The Magic City, Psammead series, House of Arden series, The Enchanted Castle, The Magic World and other works
- Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill
- William T. Cox, Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods
- Charles Williams: An early innovator of theology-oriented contemporary fantasy.
- Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita
- Stella Benson: Living Alone
- Edward Eager: The Magic Series
- P. L. Travers: Mary Poppins
- Erich Kästner The 35th of May, or Conrad's Ride to the South Seas
- Hendrik Willem van Loon: Van Loon's Lives
- C.S.Lewis: That Hideous Strength
- Jack Williamson: Darker Than You Think
Later 20th and early 21st centuries
- The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane - the protagonists live in Manhattan, New York, but each book in the series has a different setting; settings include various planets within and outside of the Solar System and various alternate universes.
- The Borrowers series by Mary Norton.
- Virtually the entire oeuvre of Charles de Lint
- Most of the novels of Tim Powers
- Various works by Mercedes Lackey.
- The Japanese series/franchise Fate/stay night, which takes place in a world where magic has all but vanished as technology has overtaken it and all the gods and magical creatures have either disappeared or simply left.
- Various works by Tanya Huff.
- Isaac Asimov's "The Two-Centimeter Demon" and other stories involving the tiny demon Azazel.
- Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's "Monday Begins on Saturday", where magic and characters from Russian myth exist in the Soviet Union of the time of writing.
- J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series - set in the United Kingdom during the 1990s.
- Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch, set in Moscow. It has three sequels that form a tetralogy; Day Watch, Twilight Watch and Final Watch.
- Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy - The trilogy takes place across several universes including "ours".
- Little, Big and other works by John Crowley
- War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
- The Wood Wife by Terri Windling
- The Word/Void novels by Terry Brooks
- Hannah's Garden by Midori Snyder
- Tithe and a number of other works by Holly Black
- Minions of the Moon by Richard Bowes
- Dangerous Angels and other works by Francesca Lia Block
- Dark Cities Underground by Lisa Goldstein
- King Rat by China Miéville
- The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
- W.I.T.C.H. a comic series by Elisabetta Gnone, Alessandro Barbucci, and Barbara Canepa.
- A number of works by Neil Gaiman, among them American Gods and Neverwhere, set in a secondary world below London with links to the real world.
- Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series
- Hazel Butler's Deathly Insanity series.
- Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Sequence
- Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place and other works by him.
- Josepha Sherman's Son of Darkness
- Tom Deitz's The David Sullivan series
- Clive Barker's Weaveworld and Imajica
- Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series
- Jenna Black's The Devil Inside, set in the United States with demons.
- Natasha Mostert's The Other Side of Silence and Season of the Witch
- Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay mostly set in 21st century Aix-en-Provence
- Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians and Heroes of Olympus pentalogies, set in 21st century United States, though the latter series features scenes in Canada and Europe
- Rick Riordan's The Kane Chronicles trilogy, set in the 21st century
- P.N. Elrod's Vampire Files series following Jack Fleming a vampire P.I.
- Freda Warrington's Aetherial Tales series
- Richelle Mead's Georgina Kincaid series
- Derek Landy's Skulduggery Pleasant (series)
- Raymond E. Feist's Faerie Tale
- Rick Riordan's Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard trilogy, an upcoming series of books to be set in 21st century United States and based upon Norse mythology
- Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim series
Overlap with other genres
Contemporary fantasy can also be found marketed as mainstream or literary fiction and frequently marketed as magical realism, itself arguably a fantasy genre. Examples include Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich, and Mistress of Spices by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni.
In other media
Type-Moon's Fate/Stay Night is set in Fuyuki City, in a world where magic is disappearing as science and technology overtake it and make it functionally redundant, certain families in the city and the world at large have magical circuits in their souls, and can cast spells among other abilities, while Takahiro Yamato's Kaze no Stigma is set in modern Japan and center around a young man with powers to control wind.
The Mighty Thor of Marvel Comics can also be considered to belong to this subgenre, depicting a god of Norse mythology sharing his life between 20th Century New York City and the legendary Asgard. The same can be said of Hellboy.
The Longest Journey is a video game in which the protagonist discovers that an alternate magical reality exists in parallel with her contemporary urban reality.
Once Upon a Time is a television series that are based on fairy tales and the modern, 21st-century real-world acting as one of the settings in the show.
- Martin Horstkotte, The postmodern fantastic in contemporary British fiction. WVT, Trier 2004, ISBN 3-88476-679-1
- Lance Olsen, Ellipse of uncertainty : an introduction to postmodern fantasy. Greenwood Press, Westport 1987, ISBN 0-313-25511-3