Breaking fantasy into broad subgenres

Of course everyone has done a post like this, including me, but I feel like doing it again, only this time trying to sort out the broadest possible subgenres that constitute the most essential subdivisions of the fantasy genre.

In a recent post, I wrote something like this:

I’m having a hard time imagining trying to judge the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off contest … suppose you are the judge and you have hit two entirely different well-written fantasy novels that might as well be in different genres.

Commenter Megan then added:

[F]antasy has become such a BROAD category it does feel unfair to have one award/list covering “fantasy” instead of starting to break out some of the major categories. Because someone who likes epic fantasy may not be interested in urban or steampunk, and the conventions of each subgenre can be wildly different.

Which is absolutely true, of course. But what are these major categories? Let’s take a stab at identifying the basic, inclusive, big subgenres to which a fantasy novel might belong:

Essential fantasy subgenres:

–High fantasy, which I’m defining by theme and tone, and which grades into epic fantasy, which is bigger in scope and tends to have a larger point of view cast. Lots of books are high fantasy but not big enough to be epic fantasy.

–Heroic or adventure fantasy, which grades into sword and sorcery. I’m defining this category largely by plot and tone. Lots of books are adventure fantasy but don’t reach for the high fantasy tone.

–Contemporary fantasy, which I feel could be stretched out to include magical realism as well as a lot of urban fantasy and paranormals. Oh, and I guess zombie novels too. This is turning into a really enormous category of books that don’t feel the same at all, so now I’m thinking maybe I should pull it apart again. Okay, two subsets:

— Contemporary fantasy, which is no kidding more or less set in our recognizable world, and

— Alternate contemporary fantasy, in which the world might have recently looked pretty much like ours but now doesn’t.

–Historical fantasy, including gaslamp fantasy. It’s then a question of whether to include novels like Death of The Necromancer, which might as well be set in London, and One Night in Boukos, which might as well be set in Athens. I vote yes. Those are in the same essential subgenre as novels set in actual historical locations, because — and this is a key feature — readers who like historical fantasy are probably going to like these not-quite-historical-fantasies too. They hit all the same buttons.

–Fairy tale fantasy, either original or retellings, which grades into dark fantasy and eventually into horror.

–Low fantasy, which I see I am accidentally defining in a nonstandard way. I was not thinking of this as “magic intrudes in the contemporary world,” which is a definition I see all over when I google the term. I do prefer to use terms in whatever way everyone else agrees they should be used, but what I was actually thinking of when I used the term recently was nonheroic fantasy where the protagonist and other characters are not particularly admirable nor meant to be, but instead just getting by, maybe by blundering along or maybe in an antihero kind of way, in a fairly gritty setting. Jack Vance’s Cugel books come to mind. Low fantasy then grades into gritty fantasy.

–Grimdark, which for me is ultimately defined by a basic construction of the world that considers most relationships as zero sum, most trust as foolish and likely to be betrayed, and most striving as ultimately doomed to failure. That is, characters may strive to become better people, but fail; or may strive to make the world a better place, but fail. This is not the same as tragedy, but I guess probably grades into tragic epic fantasy.

Okay, now, is that everything? That’s about eight categories. I realize there would be tons of books that sort of fit in a couple different places (Arthurian retellings, high or fairy tale?) or really don’t fit anywhere (superhero novels). Nevertheless, as broad categories, how does that work?

And by “work,” I mean: would readers tend to prefer many of the books in one of these categories and perhaps really dislike many or most of the books in a different category? I think clearly yes.

If I were handed a lot of fantasy novels and told: Pick your favorite, then whichever one I picked would belong somewhere other than low fantasy or grimdark. If I were told: Pick the best, then in theory the one I picked could belong to any category, except that I am not sure I could bear to read enough of a grimdark or even low fantasy novel to assess its quality in any fair way. I might have to force myself into an analytical, distant frame of mind in order to read these novels all the way through.

If you were tapped as a judge, do you think you would have the same kind of difficulty with one or more categories? Would that be something you could overcome pretty easily, do you think, or would you just pick your favorite and let it go at that?

Or would you instead break down the list in a completely different way, like one of these possibilities:

— first person present tense, first person past tense, or third person past tense.


Single pov, two alternating pov, large cast of pov characters.

And then so strongly prefer or dislike one of those categories that the actual subgenre steps into the background relative to these stylistic and protagonist choices?

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6 thoughts on “Breaking fantasy into broad subgenres”

  1. I think at a bare minimum fantasy should be split between swords-and-sorcery (and maybe early guncraft) tech levels and the urban fantasies. Post-apocalyptic seems to be another category with a ton of current books coming out, but the technology level can swing between those two depending on what the author did. Also splitting out grimdark appeals to me as a way to more easily avoid those.

    I like a lot of your category distinctions. I’m sure people could split fantasy into 5+ categories (I’ve often seen superhero as its own category because the subgenre conventions are both consistent and tend to be fairly different from urban fantasy, where it would likely otherwise get placed).

  2. I wouldn’t want to have to read any horror, grimdark, dystopian and pessimistic gritty books – I couldn’t take part in a fair book-judging if those categories were included and it wasn’t a straight-up popularity contest.
    But even more than these categories, whether I can read the books depends on the general categories that you talked about a few weeks ago. I need some positivity in the book, interesting and sympathetic characters with a good chance at a positive ending; but neutral books with interesting and sympathetic characters are good too.
    I can’t abide books that are too negative, with horrible and nasty characters, and/or a depressing “you can’t win” sort of worldbuilding, regardless of the subgenre it fits in on your list in this post.

  3. I think I prefer the genre to any other. For one thing, I think that readers know what they like in genre best, and so would find that most useful.

    I wouldn’t use the term “low fantasy” though because it’s been used for so many things. (It’s the go-to term for anyone who wants to contrast to “high fantasy.”)

  4. I’m completely with Hanneke on avoiding dark and dystopian and pessimistic.

    I think my absolute favourite is contemporary fantasy, both “this world” and “slightly alternate world”, with some forays into adjacent genres (where does The Goblin Emperor fall, hands down my favourite book? I’d almost call it “historical” because of the steampunk elements. Also, actual steampunk, like Karen Memory).

    I do like high fantasy (and people tell me what I write is high fantasy, though I agree only grudgingly) but I prefer it to stay close to home, not with the world-spanning scope that got me headlong into the genre when I was young and impressionable.

  5. Irina, I’d put The Goblin Emperor in High Fantasy. It’s not remotely epic fantasy, but this is why I prefer not to conflate high and epic fantasy — because high fantasy often includes smaller-scale, more intimate stories. It definitely has a historical fantasy feel to it, though, I completely agree about that. Great sense of the world in that one.

  6. I’m with Hanneke: I can enjoy any of those sub-genres if there is hope for the characters and for humanity (so maybe not grimdark then, by definition). I would never want to limit my reading (or have someone else (or some algorithm) limit my reading) based on categories like this, but that’s exactly what marketing is based on. “Readers who loved this also loved this” is the most successful way to market to me.

    As far as judging goes, I’ve only had experience judging the Cybils, whose YA Spec Fic category includes Sci Fi as well. What was actually more challenging than comparing across very different types of spec fic was when we got a book that wasn’t actually speculative, even though it had enough “non-realistic” elements that the organizers put it in our category. There is something that all spec-fic does that realistic fiction does not: something to do with the way they explore and play with reality using imaginary stuff. We found it hard to define but it was always clear when a book didn’t do it, and then we couldn’t judge whether it was a good spec fic book or not because it just wasn’t.

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