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, 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. Occasionally certain contemporary fantasy novels will make reference to pop culture.
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 thus 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 White Witch Jadis gets to London, tried to take over the Earth and clashes with police and a crowd of cockneys, would qualify as such.
Contemporary fantasy is also to be distinguished from horror fiction, which also often has contemporary settings. When encountering magical events and creatures, the protagonist of a horror novel is horrified, while the protagonist of a fantasy novel (contemporary or otherwise) is filled with a sense of joy and wonder. Horrifying events may happen, but the fundamental distinction is vital.
In his preface to That Hideous Strength, one of the earlier works falling within this sub-genre, 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.
- 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
- Charles Williams: An early innovator of theology-oriented contemporary fantasy.
- Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita
- 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
- 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.
- Various works by Tanya Huff.
- Isaac Asimov's "The Two-Centimeter Demon" and other stories involving the tiny demon Azazel.
- J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series - set in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s and 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
- 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
- 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 USA 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 series, set in 21st century United States
- 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)
- Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (series)
- Raymond E. Feist's Faerie Tale
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.
Type-Moon's Fate Stay Night is in Fuyuki City, certain families have magical circuits in their blood, 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 sub-genre, 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.
- 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