The Many Sub-Genres of Fantasy

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As I draw closer to completing my work in progress I’ve begun to wonder what sub-genre of fantasy it actually fits into. I’ve always assumed it falls into Epic/High Fantasy, but set in a world with little magic I wondered if there were any other sub-genres to which it may be better suited.

In identifying your sub-genre you can better target your readers as well as publishers that look for that type of tale. It’ll help you make useful comparisons to other, well-known books in that sub-genre too which may, with luck, help you sell more!

So I embarked upon a quest to catalogue the many sub-genres of fantasy, and this is what I found (note: new sub-genres are coming out all of the time as authors experiment with different elements of sub-genres to find their own niche. This list covers the main types of fantasy sub-genres and is in no way exhaustive, nor in any particular order. Many of these sub-genres have sub-genres of their own).

 

  1. High fantasy

Hobbit_cover

A close relation of Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy encapsulates a tale set in a rich and unique world where magic exists with clearly defined rules. No drugs involved, sorry. It’s arguably what most people think of when they hear the term ‘fantasy’. Lord of the Rings and such. Plots tend to be complex, characters go on journeys not just physically but mentally too.

This -subgenre has probably influenced every fantasy writer in one way or another, some deciding to go in a different direction, others extracting elements of it and using it in their own way.

Coming of Age, Epic, Sword and Sorcery, Heroic, and many more sub-genres are all linked to High Fantasy.

 

Examples

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson

 

  1. Epic fantasy

magician.jpg

This is perhaps the most popular sub-genre, involving a struggle between good and evil spanning several books or series with a significant cast of characters. Epic Fantasy encapsulates gritty, realistic tales as well as those filled with magic and creatures such as dragons, orcs, or white walkers. The distinction between this sub-genre and High Fantasy lies in the scale of the story.

 

Examples

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Riftwar Cycle, Raymond E. Feist

A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin

Chronicles of The Raven, James Barclay

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan

Shadows of the Apt, Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

  1. Urban Fantasy / Contemporary Fantasy

harry01english.jpg

This sub-genre, the name of which is used interchangeably, takes place in real world or present-day settings such as those in built-up areas like cities. Usually, the fantasy world is hidden amongst the normal one. It’s a broad sub-genre, but the key ingredient is magic within a real-world setting.

 

Examples

Fevre Dream, George R.R. Martin

Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

 

  1. Low Fantasy

neverwhere-book-cover.jpg

The opposite of High Fantasy, though it’s title is no reflection on its standing. It involves a real-world setting with magical or supernatural features, like contemporary fantasy. Stories tend to involve a character who discovers this secret, magical world. There is less emphasis on the traditional High Fantasy features. In some cases, magic does not even exist. Low Fantasy stories tend to be grittier with more focus on characters than the world.

Themes explored include social and political upheaval, questionable morals, and flaws in human nature.

 

 

Examples

Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

Twilight, Stephanie Meyer

 

  1. Sword and Sorcery / Heroic Fantasy

dawnthief.jpg

Both of these sub-genres find their roots in High Fantasy. They tend to involve competent heroes who cut and blast their way to glorious victory. They’re linked because in the classic hero’s tale swords and sorcery tend to feature.

 

Examples

Chronicles of The Raven, James Barclay

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Riftwar Cycle, Raymond E. Feist

 

  1. Historical fantasy

vampire.jpg

Stories of this type tend to be set in our own world, though with fantastical twists. They can also be set in other worlds which share similarities to our own. There tends to be a balance between realism and fantasy. Plots are complex and the levels of violence are pretty high. Related genres include Steampunk, Alternate History Fantasy, and Celtic Fantasy.

 

Examples

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

The Falconer, Elizabeth May

 

  1. Dark Fantasy / Horror

king.jpg

Horror and Dark Fantasy are terms used interchangeably to refer to this sub-genre, though dedicated fans can distinguish between the two (I won’t go into the differences now). Dark Fantasy tends to focus on creating a creepy, intense atmosphere. It can feature fantastical creatures like werewolves, or supernatural elements too.

 

Examples

The Dark Tower, Stephen King

Coraline, Neil Gaiman

The Black Company, Glen Cook

 

  1. Grimdark

abercrombie-01-the-blade-itself.jpg

Grimdark has its roots in High Fantasy, though takes a different path. Featured characters may be anti-heroes or have moral flaws, with the setting being quite grim and gritty, hence the name.

 

Examples

A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie

 

 

  1. Steampunk

tchai.jpg

One of the key characteristics of Steampunk is Victorian-era technologies, such as steam-powered machinery and equipment. Settings range from Victorian England to made-up worlds and the American Wild West. Victorian-era fashions tend to feature in these stories. It does not tend to feature much magic, though a few stories do include it. The detail in such stories tends to be quite high, which is one of the reasons why it’s so popular.

 

Examples

The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers

Perdido Street Station, China Miéville

Shadows of the Apt, Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

  1. Science fantasy

jemisin.jpg

This sub-genres sees something of a fusion between Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Technology tends to feature heavily, as does magic. The biggest difference between Sci-Fi and Science Fantasy is the lack of an obligation on the latter to set out the laws of the world according to science. Settings can be the real-world or another world.

 

Examples

The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin

Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

 

 

What’s apparent from this non-exhaustive list is that Fantasy is more of an umbrella term for a whole host of sub-genres, just like the term Speculative Fiction encapsulates Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Horror etc. The Fantasy genre is huge! Bigger than any other, I’d say. And it’s expanding all the time, which just goes to show how much of a vibrant and popular genre it is. It also shows it’s a genre constantly evolving. What could the next sub-genre be?

So what have I learned about my own book? There are elements of High Fantasy, but with little magic, it would appear to sit closer to Low Fantasy on the spectrum. I have two different protagonists whose stories are very different, though linked. One follows a classic Epic Fantasy adventure, battling to save the world, whereas the other protagonist is based in a city, struggling to overcome the injustices occurring there every day. I like my stories to be quite real and gritty so there’s certainly elements of Grimdark in there too. It’s something of a cocktail, it seems.

 

Further reading

I said at the beginning that the list above is non-exhaustive. You might be reading this thinking your story fits into none of these. Well, there may be other sub-genres or sub-sub-genres which better define it. Checking out some of these other guides may help you out:

 

http://bestfantasybooks.com/fantasy-genre.php

https://thoughtsonfantasy.com/2015/12/07/17-common-fantasy-sub-genres/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-5

https://www.worldswithoutend.com/resources_sub-genres.asp

https://editorialdepartment.com/what-the-heck-is-it/

http://marcykennedy.com/2014/04/crash-course-fantasy-sub-genres/

25 thoughts on “The Many Sub-Genres of Fantasy”

      1. Thank you! Of course let me know what you think. I have a few short stories you can read for free on my short stories page. If you’re in a generous mood there’s one you can buy too. All the proceeds donated to charity. I see you do book reviews. I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for them!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Nice list. I would add space opera to your list, even though it is pretty close to science fantasy. The difference seems to be that at least with sci-fan, there is some science. Stuff like Star Wars (which I love!) has no science, no scientific explanation of how ships fly or lightsabers ignite. Nothing is explained. The one thing Lucas added to try to sci-fi up his work, the midichloreans, is one of the most derided things of the entire franchise–the fans never wanted the force to be explained. So it is essentially fantasy whether people recognize it or not.

    Like

  2. Hi Richie
    Second attempt [Wordpress suddeny decided NOT to recognise my (allegedly) “too weak” password!!]
    My planned series of childrens’ books (starting with “Rocking Horse Droppings” seem to fit nicely with the Fantasy genre. Do you think perhaps ALL childrens’ stories deserve to be given their own “sub-genre” classification?

    Like

  3. Hi Richie
    Second attempt [Wordpress suddenly decided NOT to recognise my (allegedly) “too weak” password!!]
    My planned series of childrens’ books (starting with “Rocking Horse Droppings”) seem to fit nicely with the Fantasy genre. Do you think perhaps ALL childrens’ stories deserve to be given their own “sub-genre” classification?

    Like

    1. A lot of newer novels seem to be using bits of all types of sub-genres. I’ve just finished Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky and that was a terrific blend of steampunk, high fantasy, and epic fantasy. Experimentation is encouraged I say! What do you reckon?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Richie Billing and commented:

    For Fantasy Friday this week, I’m revisiting an old post: The Many Sub-Genres of Fantasy.

    In identifying your sub-genre you can better target your readers as well as publishers that look for that type of tale. It’ll help you make useful comparisons to other, well-known books in that sub-genre too which may, with luck, help you sell more!

    Like

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