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!

Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa Albert

Before The Hazel Wood, there was Althea Proserpine’s Tales from the Hinterland…

Journey into the Hinterland, a brutal and beautiful world where a young woman spends a night with Death, brides are wed to a mysterious house in the trees, and an enchantress is killed twice―and still lives. (taken from Amazon)

The funny thing about The Hazel Wood (and its sequel) by Melissa Albert is that, for me, the best parts weren’t the main storyline. Nope. The best parts were the undeniably eerie fairy tales come-to-life that bled through into the pages of the books. I told my husband that if a collection of Hinterland tales was every published, I’d be super excited to read it. So, of course I had to snag a copy of Tales from the Hinterland!

These completely original fairy tales were about characters that crossed over from the fictional world into the real one in The Hazel Wood books. And they were as creepy as it gets without descending into full-on horror. Let’s just say that the majority of them did not end well for the “hero”. In fact, most of them didn’t have a hero per se. What they did have was a ton of creativity and a darker tone that sent shivers down the spine.

One thing that stood out to me was that the main characters were all female. There were naïve females, clever ones, even evil ones. But males were always in a supporting role. It was an interesting choice. It didn’t change my enjoyment of the book, either positively or negatively; it was just something I noticed.

Another thing that I really liked was that not a single tale seemed even remotely like an existing fairy tale. There were no Beauty and the Beast retellings, and Little Red Riding Hood didn’t make an appearance. The stories were 100% original. It was refreshing to see entirely new ideas (not that I mind a good fairy tale reimagining).

There wasn’t a single story that felt lesser than or out of place. My main complaint, in fact, is that the tone was similar in several tales. I am not even sure if that should be a complaint: that the stories fit well together. Hmm…something to think about.

There were three stories that stood out to me. One was The Door that Wasn’t There, which was equal parts creepy and sad. It’s about two sisters who were locked in a room to starve and what one of them does to survive (no, there’s no cannibalism. Ew!). The feeling that Melissa Albert created in this story was a little bit gothic and a whole lot of unearthly.

The second story that kept me enthralled was The Mother and the Dagger. This felt like your usual tale told to scare kids into coming home before dark- but with a twist that was uncanny and creeptastic. The way this one was written, like someone is talking to you, stood out from the other stories and drew me in. I loved the ending, which had an abrupt finality to it.

Finally, was Twice-Killed Katherine. That character was one of the bits of fairy tales that showed up in The Hazel Wood, and the one that I found the most intriguing. While the story didn’t go the way I expected, it was nonetheless fascinating and really cool to see the backstory the author had for her. That one also felt different in that what was left unsaid could have been stretched and expanded on to create an entirely separate novel in its own right.

Tales from the Hinterland was by far my favorite book that takes place in the Hazel Wood universe (so to speak), even though it’s not a straight-through narrative. It was eerie and intelligent, and definitely not a book to read alone at night. I wouldn’t necessarily call it horror- maybe horror-adjacent. Either way, it was really stinking good.

The Serpent Slayer: And Other Stories of Strong Women by Katrin Tchana, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

This volume is an anthology of 18 stories about heroines with as much courage, wit and intelligence as their more familiar male counterparts. It includes Li Chi, the serpent slayer, and the old woman sly enough to outsmart the devil. (taken from Amazon)

I love a good fairy tale collection, and The Serpent Slayer delivers! As the title suggests, this book highlights female heroes. There are no heroic knights or true love’s kisses. Rather, these women kick butt all on their own.

One of the many things I love about this collection is that the stories come from all over the world. There are tales from Indonesia, China, and India, to name a few. Each one is so original, and very different from the average fairy tale fare. Let me tell you-this book has it all! There are dragons, devils, fey folk, and more.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the illustrations. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators anyway, and she outdoes herself in this book. Everything comes to life and a beautiful and fantastical way. The colors are bright and beautiful, and each illustration strives to capture the place of the story’s origin. The pictures elevate the book from good to freaking amazing!

Obviously, I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fairy tales, especially lesser-known ones. Go ahead and buy it; you’ll want to be able to read this one again and again.

Fantastical Illustrations in Picture Books

Lately, I’ve been trying to read more outside my comfort zone. I have tried to not judge a book prematurely based on its cover (I struggle with that one, to be honest). I find this kind of funny, because children judge books first and foremost by their covers.

Before readers can read on their own, a cover is what draws them in. As an adult, the books I remember most from my childhood have amazing illustrations. I was particularly interested in fairy tales and Arthurian stories (are you surprised? I know, who would have thought?), and the amazing illustrations found in some of those books have stuck with me.

I have my own children now, and they love books too. I’ve used that as an excuse to buy myself some of my favorites from my childhood, and my husband likes to surprise me with them as well.

Here are a few of my favorite fairy tales, based on language of course, but also on the incredible pictures lurking on the pages. Pick these up for any child who likes the fantastical.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Mayer, Mercer, Mayer, Mercer ...

ANNIE AND AUNT: East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Mercer Mayer is pretty popular for his Little Critter books. However, his fairy tales are absolutely stunning. The writing flows well and the illustrations are magical.
Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges, Trina Schart Hyman ...

Joy Clarkson on Twitter:

I’m not sure if this was the original dragon book that started my (ongoing) love of dragons, but if it wasn’t the first, it was close. Trina Schart Hyman rightfully deserves the Caldecott Award she received for her pictures in this one. Parents, plan on reading this one aloud to youngsters at first: it’s on the wordy side.

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Michael Hague

The Reluctant Dragon | Children's Books Wiki | Fandom

Animal Kingdom needs a dark ride. | Art, Illustration

Michael Hague is one of my favorite illustrators. His Alphabears is so charming and sweet. He lent his talents to this book and it works wonderfully. I love the whimsical touch he added.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft

The Twelve Dancing Princesses - Marianna Mayer - Paperback

Twelve Dancing Princesses - Exodus Books

Isn’t that art gorgeous? I have yet to add this one to my collection, but I loved it as a child. My favorite part was actually the images of the travel through the forest back and forth from the palace. It’s so beautiful.

Merlin and the Dragons by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Li Ming

Merlin and the Dragons (Picture Puffin Books): Yolen, Jane, Ming ...

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There’s no way I could have a post about fairy tales and Arthurian stories without including one written by Jane Yolen. The illustrations by Li Ming bring this book to a new level. I’d happily frame the picture of the dragons and hang it on my wall.

Beauty and the Beast by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Mercer Mayer

Beauty and the Beast: Mayer, Marianna, Mayer, Mercer ...

Mercer Mayer, Beauty and the Beast | Beauty and the beast art ...

Are you noticing a trend? I am. Let’s just go ahead and say that any fairy tale illustrated by Mercer Mayer is going to be beautiful. I also highly suggest Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like and Sleeping Beauty.

Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zlinsky

Rumpelstiltskin] (By: Paul O. Zelinsky) [published: September ...

Paul O Zelinsky- Rumpelstiltskin

Okay, I know Rumpelstiltskin is supposed to be the villain, but I contend that everyone in this story is a little shady. Either way, I love the pictures in this version. This is another Caldecott Award winner, and with good reason.

The Kitchen Knight by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

The Kitchen Knight: A Tale of King Arthur: Margaret Hodges, Trina ...

20200727_093945

Last, but most certainly not least, I have another Arthurian tale illustrated by the incomparable Trina Schart Hyman. If only I had an iota of the talent she possesses. Sigh. Absolutely amazing.

What do you think? Are any of these household favorites? What amazingly illustrated fairy tales do I need to check out?

Between Worlds: Folktales of Britain and Ireland by Kevin Crossley -Holland- ARC Review

Rich and strange, these eerie and magical folktales from across Britain and Ireland have been passed down from generation to generation, and are gathered together in a definitive new collection from the master storyteller and winner of the Carnegie Medal, Kevin Crossley-Holland. Dark and funny, lyrical and earthy, these fifty stories are part of an important and enduring historical tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Described by Neil Gaiman as the “master”, Crossley-Holland’s unforgettable retellings will capture the imagination of readers young and old alike. (taken from Amazon)

                     Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this, in exchange for my honest opinion. This will be available to purchase on October 8th.

This is the sort of book I love. I’m a huge fan of fairy stories and folktales, especially those from Ireland. They’re rich and magical. So, I went into this with the expectation that I’d enjoy it. And I did, indeed.

This is a very well-rounded collection. There were some stories that I’d already heard versions of, such as Tom-Tit-Tom, but also many that I hadn’t. The book was divided into different sections, based on the type of story was being told. For example, one section was devoted to Tricksters and Fools.

This book had it all. I’m a sucker for fairies, and there were fairies galore. And changelings; boggarts; giants! Everything my fantasy-loving heart could desire. They were told with great care taken to ensure the integrity of the way the stories were originally told. It was wonderful. I was reminded of the stories I read when I was young that made me fall in love with fantasy of all kind.

If you enjoy fairy tales, or fantasy of any kind, this is one to add to your collection.