Fantasy Subgenres: A Plethora of Choices UPDATED

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!

Since my original post, I have learned about and read a few new subgenres, which I am now adding to the list. Let me know what you think!

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; Path to Villainy: An NPC Kobold’s Tale by S.L. Rowland

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; A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow

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.

Fantasy of Manners: I’m a little newer to this subgenre ( Thank you to Way Too Fantasy for telling me about this one). You won’t see many dragons or violent battles. This subgenre is defined by its wit and its use of words as weapons. There is often a sort of hierarchy and the battles tend to be more involved with social maneuvering. I tend to picture Jane Austen-meets-fantasy.
Examples: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Sword-free Fantasy: Sans fantasy violence, sword-free fantasy uses wondrous, reality-free worlds to explore very real emotions and relationships. Look for themes of family, love, self-acceptance, or self-discovery.
Examples: The Living Waters by Dan Fitzgerald; The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune; Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons by Quenby Olson

Viking-Inspired Fantasy: This subgenre could go a few different directions. It could borrow from heavily from Norse mythology or it can be set in a world that borrows elements from the Norse mythology or Viking way of life while still having its own mythologies or pantheons.
Examples: The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwyne; The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

Fantasy Comedy: Irreverent and witty, fantasy comedy often takes a humorous look at the fantasy genre, either creating new and entertaining fantasy worlds that focus on humor, parodying common fantasy tropes, or even poking lighthearted fun at specific works of fantasy.
Examples: The Part About the Dragon Was (Mostly) True by Sean Gibson; Harpyness is Only Skin Deep by D.H. Willison; Iliad: The Reboot by Keith Tokash

Time for you to weigh in! What did I get right? What did I mess up? What am I still missing? Let’s talk!

A Spindle Splintered (Fractured Fables) by Alix E. Harrow

It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no-one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate. (taken from Amazon)

Here’s the thing: Alix E. Harrow is a brilliant writer. She could write a book about the color taupe and I would stand in line to read it. She’s that good. So when I heard about A Spindle Splintered, I grabbed it as quickly as possible. I didn’t know too much about it, but I knew I needed to read it.

I was a little surprised at how short it was. I expected it to be longer based on Harrow’s last few books (which I highly suggest reading, by the way). I am always a littles hesitant about shorter books, wondering whether they can tell complete tales as well as a longer novel can. That’s a silly hang-up on my part since I’ve read many shorter novels that have been absolutely amazing, but we all have our failings.

The author embraces the shorter format, eschewing long character introductions in favor of quick ones with the development continuing at a rapid pace throughout the rest of the story. While there is no doubt that the characters are fully rounded (especially Charm), I do wish that there had been time to really get into the nitty gritty of what made them tick. For example, Zinnia has spent her entire life in a tug of war between trying to do the things that every kid and teen does and the awareness that she is living on borrowed time. I would have loved to see more of that struggle and view how that has shaped her every action. There is a bit of explanation about her relationship with her parents which I found very interesting but I would have loved to see more.

I loved that there wasn’t a ton of lead up to the main event. Instead, we are pretty much tossed right in, which added to the tone of unbelievability meets why the crap not? that pervaded the story. The side characters were great, especially the witch that cursed the Sleeping Beauty that Zinnia meets. That whole confrontation did not go at all the way I expected and I was completely on board with that.

There wasn’t a lot of time spent on the world building because there didn’t need to be. It was every fairy tale you’ve ever read, every fantasy trope played out in exaggerated detail. It worked very well for the plot as everyone knows the original story of Sleeping Beauty (or at the very least, the Disney version) and this was a new take on the tale. There didn’t need to be a ton of explanation. That being said, Alix E. Harrow made sure to provide extra details where it was needed, without slowing the pace of the book, again showing off her writing chops.

There are Arthur Rackham illustrations throughout, which provided an enchanting touch, if a wee bit twisted. In fact, the entire book points out the less-than-savory parts of fairy tales and fables, and finds ways to compare them to the less-than-wonderful things in real life. It was very well done.

My big quibble with A Spindle Splintered is that I really didn’t like the length. I wanted more. More detail, more expansion, more from the final confrontation. Not because the book was bad, but because Alix E. Harrow is such a good writer. I wanted to live in her story for much longer than I was able to.

At the end of the day, I really did enjoy A Spindle Splintered, but not nearly as much as I loved The Once and Future Witches and The Ten Thousand Doors of January. In this case, definitely blame the reader and not the book.

Midnight Sisters by Sarah E. Boucher

Midnight Sisters: A Retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses by [Sarah E Boucher]
Do not meddle with the Master’s daughters.The words rattled around Jonas’ head. What was the punishment again? Death? Dismemberment? Jonas, the newest addition to the gardening staff, can’t recall the exact penalty for breaking the rule. What does it matter anyway? He would never dream of meddling with the Earl of Bromhurst’s haughty daughters. Until he comes face to face with Lady Ariela, the eldest of the Master’s daughters. Her elusive smile and open manner cause him to question his convictions. In no time, he’s drawn into Lady Ariela’s world of mystery and intrigue, a world where she and her sisters will do anything—including leaving twelve empty beds at midnight—to escape their father’s strict rules.Only Jonas can uncover the truth and save them from their father’s wrath and their own folly, if he is willing to risk everything he’s ever worked for.Midnight Sisters is a reimagining of the classic fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses that will win the hearts of readers of all ages. (taken from Amazon)

 

Once Upon a Time…there was a reimagining of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I really liked that fairy tale when I was a child, so I thought I’d give this book a go. It looked to be a far cry from the other recent retelling of this tale, so I was curious about the direction the author would take.

The reader grabs her trusty bookmark and is ready for adventure. The story-line was relatively close to the original tale, with minor changes here and there. The main character is a gardener named Jonas. He has the misfortune to fall in love with one of the king’s daughters, the one thing all the staff is warned against. As he gets to know the princess better, he starts to think he is the only one who can save all of the princesses from both their father and themselves.

There are dangers ahead.  Unfortunately, I had a bit of an issue with the main character. Jonas seemed forever surprised that the princess had the ability to be both attractive and intelligent. A misogynist hero isn’t quite to my liking. He was also kind of a jerk to his fellow gardener who was in a similar situation. As for his fellow gardener: he vacillated between using any female who seemed to find him attractive and being a decent guy. He was the most likable character in the book, however. I suppose that sort of says something about the characters.

Magic abounds. While it took a while to get flowing, the story settled into a nice pacing. It was obvious that the author is a fan of the original fairy tale and she carried some of that wonder over to Midnight Sisters. The setting felt very real and was well thought out.

They lived happily ever after? To be entirely honest, this book fell a little flat. I place the blame on the characters. It’s hard to enjoy a book when the characters are so difficult to read about. I don’t mind having a character that’s a little rough around the edges, or even a character that’s a jerk, as long as they aren’t all like that. If you don’t mind wanting to smack each character multiple times throughout the book, Midnight Sisters might be enjoyable for you.

Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

Image result for dark and deepest red by anna-marie mclemoreSummer, 1518. A strange sickness sweeps through Strasbourg: women dance in the streets, some until they fall down dead. As rumors of witchcraft spread, suspicion turns toward Lavinia and her family, and Lavinia may have to do the unimaginable to save herself and everyone she loves.

Five centuries later, a pair of red shoes seal to Rosella Oliva’s feet, making her dance uncontrollably. They draw her toward a boy who knows the dancing fever’s history better than anyone: Emil, whose family was blamed for the fever five hundred years ago. But there’s more to what happened in 1518 than even Emil knows, and discovering the truth may decide whether Rosella survives the red shoes. (taken from Amazon)

     Here’s the thing: I love The Red Shoes. The original story that I know, for those who aren’t familiar, goes a little like this: there’s a girl who’s adopted by a rich family. She’s very spoiled and she thinks she’s all that and a bag of chips. She’s given a pair of red shoes, which only adds to her arrogance. After wearing them to church, despite being told not to, she’s cursed by an old man (I think who does the cursing varies). The curse is that, once she starts dancing, she won’t be able to stop (also, the shoes will superglue themselves to her feet). Of course, the inevitable happens. She even chops off her feet- which stay dancing in the shoes and bar her way into the church. Eventually she learns her lesson, prays for forgiveness for her arrogance, and her heart bursts. It’s a real upper. Deliciously morbid.

The Red Shoes  movie is more about an obsession with dance (the ballerina is performing the Red Shoes ballet). Think The Black Swan, but done first, with better acting and no sex stuff. It’s brilliant.

Since I love this fairy tale so much, I had to grab this retelling. However, I wasn’t feeling it. There are several reasons for this, although I’m sure at least a couple of them fall into the “it’s not you, it’s me” category.

First of all, the chapters are incredibly short. Because of this, it feels like small staccato bursts of storytelling and it didn’t give me a chance to connect with the story-line at all. I don’t necessarily want super long chapters in every book I read, but more than a few pages per chapter would have helped, doubly so because there were multiple points of view.

The first point of view was that of Rosella, who makes herself a pair of red shoes using fabric left from her grandparents. The shoes take hold of her and she can’t control herself or stop dancing. There wasn’t really all that much to her personality, however.

Emil was Rosella’s sort-of boyfriend. He knows the history of “the dancing fever” because his ancestors were in Strasbourg in the 1500’s when a mysterious mass hysteria (curse?) caused many people to dance uncontrollably until their hearts gave out. Because of this, he is the only one able to help Rosella.

The third point of view was that of Lavinia, a girl from the 1500’s who is blamed for the “dancing fever” that grips Strasbourg. She’s blamed because she’s different, which is what this book boils down to; accepting and celebrating diversity. It’s an important message, but not one I was wanting in my fairy tale retelling. It eclipsed the actual plot of the book and, because the book focuses so much on Lavinia being “different”, she’s not given much of a personality. She’s a plot device instead of a character and I feel like that was a real missed opportunity.

Anna-Marie Mclemore used colors to great advantage in telling her story, and was able to paint a vivid setting for the dance fever, but the story in and of itself never felt fully realized to me. It turns out I’ve read another book that this author’s written, and that one wasn’t my bag either. I think it’s just one of those things where my reading personality and her writing just don’t mesh.

I have a feeling this book will get good reviews and become very popular, but it most definitely wasn’t for me.

I do highly recommend watching the 1948 movie, however. It’s fantastic.