The subgenre. Oh ye fickle beast. As a genre fiction blogger I find that when in doubt, argue a novel’s right to claim itself as urban fantasy or paranormal romance or magical realism. Trust me. It’s great fun and always manages to generate comments. In reality, genre predates blogging. Hard to imagine, I know.
For the modern layman, there are three primary literary genres — fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. From a reader’s perspective, genre is an invaluable tool. It helps define preference. Unfortunately, ‘fiction’ as a genre doesn’t narrow things down very well, and thus the subgenre is born. I could list the dozens of different fiction subgenres, but since this is an article about Fantasy, let’s skip ahead. Fantasy is a subgenre of the speculative fiction subgenre, which is a subgenre of fiction.
Oh, this is going to be fun!
According to the infallability that is Wikipedia, fantasy “is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting.” Not bad. Wouldn’t you know it though, for the purposes of marketing things get quite a bit finer. Below I offer the subgenres of fantasy fiction and the definitions I work from when categorizing the books I read. I’ll say up front that I strongly value structure and theme over plot and setting when it comes to describing subgenres.
Either way, I’m right and you’re wrong. Also, I am not including every possible subgenre here, merely some of the larger ones that I believe are either frequently debated, misused, or poorly conceived in the first place.
High and low fantasy are, in my mind, two sides of the same coin that provide the base unit for most of the traditional fantasy market. They are set in a secondary world, or alternate reality (portals), with magic and individual efficacy as common plot devices. Themes include a hero’s journey and conflict between good and evil, or the subversion of same. They tend to be narrower in scope with single (or dual) points of view.
Traditionally, low fantasy has been used to describe stories with unexplained magic in the real world. An example in that case might be The Indian in the Cupboard or The Green Mile (both probably belong in Magical Realism, see below). Under this definition magical realism is highfalutin low fantasy. I think it’s a flawed term.
I use low fantasy to describe the emerging (some would say its always been there) wave of gritty anti-hero fantasy. If high fantasy is the heroes journey, low fantasy is a more realistic and cynical reflection. There’s also a tendency in low fantasy to remove the wonder from magic, to make it a blunt, messy tool, or in some cases to remove the magic all together.
Both high and low fantasy are often integrated with epic fantasy to form ‘The Neverending Tome’! Believe it or not though, epic fantasy has very little to do with length. Instead, it’s about scope and narrative style. By that I mean the narrative encompasses a wide swathe of the world and the world’s history — not a snapshot in time. Likewise, the author gives points of view to characters on both sides of the conflict. Politics, large scale wars, and cataclysmic events are common plot elements.
Many series start out high/low fantasy and become epic over time, making it easy to wrongly assume that standalone novels cannot be epic.
High Fantasy Examples: Spellwright (Charlton), The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin)
Low Fantasy Examples: Prince of Thorns (Lawrence), Heroes Die (Stover), Among Thieves (Hulick)
High/Epic Examples: The Wheel of Time (Jordan/Sanderson), Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson/Esslemont)
Low/Epic Examples: A Song of Ice and Fire (Martin), The First Law Trilogy (Abercrombie)
Sword & Sorcery
Originally coined by Michael Moorcock and Fritz Lieber in the fanzine Amra, this subgenre is all about small stakes and self interest. If the goal of the epic fantasy is to save the world, then the goal of Sword & Sorcery is make money, score some tail, and poke holes in monsters. It is therefore inherently character driven and tends to be shorter in length as the simplicity of the plot can fall apart the longer it gets. I believe in the modern fantasy novel, it makes more sense to use Sword & Sorcery to describe characters, as opposed to narratives. For example, in in The Wheel of Time, Mat is a Sword & Sorcery inspired character. Regardless, elements of this genre have spilled heavily into all others, making its themes somewhat pervasive.
Examples: Conan the Barbarian (Howard), Elric (Moorcock), Legend (Gemmell)
In simple terms, dark fantasy implies the integration of overt horror themes into the fantasy model. Setting isn’t terribly important, nor is there a particular narrative arc that fits the mold. The term is often misused to describe what I call low fantasy. Dark Fantasy, like Sword & Sorcery, is often an element as opposed to a style in itself. Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle has a huge horror influence, but is more epic fantasy with dark tones. Nevertheless, full length Dark Fantasy novels do exist, often wrongly classified as straight horror.
Examples: The Croning (Barron), Fevre Dream (Martin), Mr. Shivers (Bennett)
Mythic Fiction - Magical Realism
These are easily blurred, and with the right argument, a qualifying book could be placed in either. The notion that joins them together is magical elements blending with the real world and explained as real occurrences. There’s also an aesthetic quality to prose and structure that lends itself to this particular genre, although I would argue that’s an entirely subjective measure at the best of times. As a result, I’m going to have to throw that criteria into the famous pornography exemption (i.e. – I know it when I see it).
The divergent points between the two subgenres is the use of recognizable cultural mythology as the fantastic element. Themes reflected tend toward human relationships with the divine and why belief structures exist.
Magical Realism Examples: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Clarke), The Magicians (Grossman)
Mythic Examples: Mythago Wood (Holdstock), American Gods (Gaiman), The Magician King (Grossman)
Let’s get one thing out of the way… I don’t believe Urban Fantasy has ANYTHING to do with place. Saying it “is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting,” is plain nonsense as far as I’m concerned. Are you telling me that if The Dresden Files were set in Laramie, Wyoming on a farm, but was the same in all other ways it wouldn’t be Urban Fantasy? Please. I’m not buying that.
In my opinion, Urban Fantasy is about NARRATIVE STRUCTURE. It requires a single protagonist, either in a tight third person or first person point of view, and follows a crime/suspense style of storytelling. The novels are often by nature episodic, with change to the characters taking place slowly or not at all. There’s an element of humor or sarcasm that usually manifests itself in the protagonists cynical personality.
Examples: Rivers of London (Aaronovitch), Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter (Hamilton)
See above, integrated with romance elements. Almost always contain vampires, werewolves, or demons.
Examples: I don’t read this. I’m sure you can find it!
As said above, there are plenty of subgenres I don’t mention here. Regency, Slipstream, Historical Fantasy, Mythpunk, Hard Fantasy, Weird, New Weird, and Sword and Planet, to name a few. I haven’t talked about them because:
- I don’t think they’re different enough from what’s above to justify their own subgenre, or
- They’re clear cut enough to warrant not discussing them, or
- It’s a false genre (i.e. historical fantasy which has no reason to be its own genre as historical fantasy does nothing but describe the time period and has nothing to do with the stylistic or plot elements).
I’d love to hear what everyone has to think. Where am I off base? Are there any novels you can think of that don’t fit into any of these molds? Is there a significant subgenre that I should flesh out a definition for?