High, Low, and Middle Fantasy

Okay, so, “high” and “low” fantasy came up here fairly recently. I said my tendency was to define high fantasy as epic or heroic fantasy that also has a more poetic or formal tone; low as non-heroic fantasy that has a grittier or more casual tone.

However, the terms are also, perhaps more commonly, used this way:

High fantasy = secondary world

Low fantasy = contemporary world.

I think that’s an odd usage, as it seems sensible to me to say “secondary world fantasy” if that’s what you mean and then divide secondary world fantasy into high and low; ditto for contemporary fantasy. But fine, either way, this post at Book Riot caught my eye:


Okay, I said, what do YOU mean by “middle fantasy?” It’s certainly true that if you have high and low, then you should have middle! Do you mean, um, halfway between secondary and contemporary worlds? Because that would actually sort of be interesting! The Death of the Necromancer might fit, as the world is secondary BUT highly reminiscent of gaslamp London. I’m sure it would be possible to think of plenty more examples like that.

OR, do you mean the novel strikes a tone that is midway between the poetic or elevated or formal tone of high fantasy and the everyday or gritty tone of low fantasy? That could be … lots and lots of books, I guess, including some that reach for a high fantasy tone but don’t quite make it.

So let’s see what this Book Riot Post has in mind — one of those options or something else:

The term “high fantasy” has only been around since the 1970s and describes books that are set in a fictional alternative world (think Middle-earth). Literarily, the term was used to differentiate between real-world and alternative fantasy world …

Okay! So that’s clear. High fantasy means secondary world, low fantasy then presumably means contemporary world. … Yes, that’s the starting point for this post.

Okay, then, what’s middle fantasy? ???

Without reading further, here are some options that occur to me:

a) Portal fantasy, that starts off in the contemporary world but then the protagonist(s) go to a secondary world. We don’t really need a special term for that, as “portal fantasy” is well understood.

b) The world started out as our contemporary world or as our historical world, but WOW is it different now because something dramatic happened. There are lots of examples and have been practically forever. I’m thinking of Ariel by Boyett. The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews also fits this type.

c) The world has some contemporary elements, but the fantasy elements are big and dramatic and always have been in the history of this world. A whole lot of paranormal and UF fantasy falls into this category, including, oh, say, the Others series by Anne Bishop. So do lots of other novels, such as, hmm, well, Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede, say. Zillions of examples, some historical and some contemporary in flavor, but all with lots of important fantasy elements that thoroughly shift the world away from the real world.

d) Something else.

Let’s see how Book Riot defines middle fantasy …

In middle fantasy, the rules are bent, known mythologies and folklores are explored, and magic abounds!

Okay, so (d) then! I hadn’t thought of this option — lots of magic, but it draws on actual mythology and folklore. A perfectly fair conception for the term! Not quite real, known world, but real, known mythology. What have I been calling that kind of fantasy all this time … probably “mythological fantasy,” if I used a term. Not sure I did. That’s probably the term I would choose, rather than “middle fantasy,” because here I’ve come up with three other possible ways to define a chunk of middle ground between high and low fantasy. Given a choice, I prefer descriptive terms that are harder to misunderstand or define in confusing ways. But the category itself seems fair to me.

Let’s see what specific works Book Riot chose to exemplify the category:

Wow, not a single title that I’ve read. In some cases, the book doesn’t really appear to fit the category — a category they just defined! Come ON, this is not a difficult category at all. I believe the post is trying much too hard to stick to very recent titles and also perhaps to titles that echo current events. I’d rather stick to the topic of the post and pick titles that actually exemplify the category.

And to exemplify the category, well, I thought immediately of the Percy Jackson novels. I only read the first one — it was a bit young for me — but it’s a very obvious example.

There are surely lots of others. Let me see. American Gods, obviously. Hounded, by Kevin Hearne.

My actual favorite is the Powers and Dominions duology but Burton/Hetley. Here’s my post about Powers. I should re-read those.

What titles would you put on this kind of list?

Middle Fantasy; eg, contemporary fantasy that draws heavily on mythology or folklore, but is not a retelling:

  1. American Gods
  2. Hounded
  3. Percy Jackson stories by Rick Riordan
  4. Powers and Dominions
  5. Agent of Hel series by Jacqueline Carey
  6. …. What else?

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5 thoughts on “High, Low, and Middle Fantasy”

  1. These fall just short of contemporary, but fit the known mythology criteria:

    The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden
    Sorceror to the Crown by Zen Cho (and the sequel)
    Host’s Pyramids of London
    Novik’s Spinning Silver—Temeraire certainly fits category (c)

  2. Discord’s Apple, by Carrie Vaughn – greek gods
    Quicksilver, Quiver by Stephanie Spinner – Hermes, Atalanta, respectively
    The United States of Asgard by Tessa Gratton – you can probably guess
    Charles de Lint’s Newford books – first nations and irish mythology
    Scorpio Races – irish water horses (or is that folklore? Is that different enough not to count)
    The Brides of Rollrock Island – selkies
    Deathless by Catheryne Valente – Koschei the Deathless
    Mercy Thompson’s inclusion of coyote probably qualifies, no?

    I think this list could get really long

  3. “Low fantasy” is a term that is used in opposition to “high fantasy” but in so many different oppositions that I think it’s useless except in specified contexts where it’s defined for use there.

  4. Mary, I agree! “Low” fantasy is like “soft” science fiction: too many competing definitions, so unless you start be defining your terms up front, no one can even have a discussion. Therefore, it’s really better to stick to terms that means something, like “contemporary mythological fantasy” or “sociological science fiction,” even if those terms have lots of syllables.

    And yes, I see there is nooooo shortage of titles to drop on a list of this kind of “middle” fantasy. I thought of Pyramids of London, Mona, but that world is SO ornate that it’s really difficult to put the book in the same subgenre as, say, The Scorpio Races, which is the exact opposite of ornate. I wonder what a good term would be for “barely fantasy at all, and yet the whole story depends on this one important fantasy element.”

    Here’s another for “contemporary mythological fantasy” — Bone Gap by Laura Ruby.

  5. That’s an interesting definition of middle fantasy. I think you’re right, though, with high and low fantasy being such variable terms, it’s hard to get any traction with a term that’s between them. “Myth” is usually a fantasy category, so that’s where I’d put those books.

    I still remember trying to figure out what low fantasy is. Authors not writing it and critics often went with the “set on Earth” definition. People who called themselves avid low fantasy readers and mega fans always went with the gritty, realism, low-magic definition.

    When I asked fans for what books epitomized low fantasy, they said Game of Thrones and A Natural History of Dragons. The critics usually said Narnia or Harry Potter.

    I guess that’s why Amazon has “epic fantasy” and “sword & sorcery.” Fans and critics may disagree vehemently on whether or not Game of Thrones is low fantasy, but they usually agree it’s epic fantasy.

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