Every now and again, I’ll hear someone say “I don’t like fantasy,” even though they’ve never read any. Of course, everyone has their own preferences in literature, which is totally fine, but I sometimes think that what people mean is that they don’t like a certain type of fantasy. There’s much more than just swords and magic when it comes to fantasy (although I happen to love books that have swords and magic).
Here are a few sub-genres, with explanations, as well as examples of books that fit into each category. Of course, I’m in no way an expert, and some of these books can fit quite comfortably in multiple sub-genres. Talk to me! Tell me what I got right, what I messed up, and what I missed completely. Here goes nothing!
High Fantasy: High fantasy is probably what comes to mind first when people hear “fantasy.” There are some characteristics that separate high fantasy from other kinds of fantasy. First of all, it’s very character-focused. The choices made by a single character, or a few, are most important. High fantasy is set in its own world with its own defined rules of magic. A common theme is good vs. evil.
Examples: The Swans’ War trilogy by Sean Russell; The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman; The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Epic Fantasy: Epic fantasy is, well…epic. It usually consists of a threat to the entire world and has a large cast of characters, as opposed to the few that characterize high fantasy. While The Hobbit, for example, is high fantasy, The Lord of the Rings is what I would classify as epic fantasy. There’s a larger cast of characters, and a danger to the entire world.
Examples: Game of Thrones; Wheel of Time; Lord of the Rings
Low Fantasy: Low fantasy is characterized by magical events that intrude on daily life in a normal world.
Examples: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Sword and Sorcery: Well, aside from the obvious (swords and magic), think romance, and adventure. Sword and Sorcery is a bit on the pulpy side (nothing wrong with that). I always picture 80’s era Sylvester Stallone as the movie equivalent of a Sword and Sorcery hero.
Examples: Conan the Barbarian; Legend by David Gemmell. Honestly, I’m on the fence about including Legend here, as it doesn’t seem as pulpy as other Sword and Sorcery books, but I’m drawing a blank on other examples. What would you add to this category?
Military Fantasy: This is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s basically military life in a fantasy setting, often following one solider, or a small company.
Examples: The Codex Alera by Jim Butcher; The Black Company by Glen Cook
Grimdark Fantasy: Don’t expect happily ever after’s or the archetypal heroes. Grimdark is marked with violence, morally gray as well as completely amoral characters. It also doesn’t shy away from violence.
Examples: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff; The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Dark Fantasy/ Gothic Fantasy: This sub-genre incorporates themes of death, fear, and romance. It has a darker tone, and elements of horror. Think Edgar Allen Poe- goes fantasy, and you’ve got the general idea.
Examples: Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman; Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan
Urban Fantasy: This is interesting in that there are a few different routes urban fantasy is known to take: either a separate fantasy world with rules that are similar to ours or, conversely, our world with fantasy elements mixed in. Go figure.
Examples: Jackaby by William Ritter; City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Arthurian Fantasy: This is fantasy based directly on the myths and legends of King Arthur.
Examples: The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart; The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Superhero Fantasy: This is fantasy based on the character of a superhero. Easily defined.
Examples: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson; Vicious by V.E. Schwab
RPG Lit: Combining fantasy with role playing games, the main character is generally aware that they are in a game-type world. Stats. are very much a part of the book, and the characters interact and progress through the book as they would an rpg.
Examples: The Other Normals by Ned Vizzini; Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (at least part of the book follows the rules of rpglit.)
Fairy Tales: Starting as children’s stories, lately there have been many re-imaginings of these books that are marked by fantastical elements and magic.
Examples of fairy tale retellings: Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer; Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik; House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
Portal Fantasy: I argue that this is a sub-genre in its own right! This would be books in which the characters leave their own world through a portal/door/etc, and travel to a world with different rules than their own. Often, fantasy elements such as magic are present.
Examples: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
Well, there you have it. There are so many different types of fantasy that I beg readers to at least give some a go before writing off the entire genre. However, to each their own. This list is in no way comprehensive. I’ll be adding to it over time, and possibly editing based on comments made by you all. So…what do you think? Did I get it right? Or completely mess it up?