Fantasy Subgenres

Ah, the continual and entertaining project of sorting out subgenres! This is a post from Book Riot: IT’S FANTASY ALL THE WAY DOWN: A FANTASY SUB-GENRES PRIMER

It’s smart to add the word “primer” to this post title. That suggests that you’re not going to try to get ALL the subgenres lined up in a neat row, which is an impossible task. No, this is a primer! It’s just meant as a starting point! Good idea. What subgenres does this Book Riot post pull out as basic to the genre? All the ones you’d expect, probably: High, Low, Epic, Fantasy of Manners — that one is interesting! — Historical, Grimdark, Magical Realism, Paranormal, Urban, Portal — oh, I wouldn’t include that as a BASIC subgenre. Also Fantasy Romance, SF Fantasy.

I’d say that Fantasy of Manners — which must mean anything in a Pride and Prejudice style — is probably a sub-subgenre under “Historical.” But this is still an interesting category, one I hadn’t thought of particularly, but agree that it’s reasonable to break it out of the main subgenre. The examples given in this Book Riot post are Zen Cho’s The Sorcerer to the Crown, India Holton’s The League of Gentlewomen Witches, and Oliva Atwater’s Half a Soul. I’ve read none of them. What leaps to mind for me is Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton, for perhaps obvious reasons.

But what subgenres would you consider essential to a primer on fantasy subgenres? Because, after writing various recent posts on positive fantasy, such as here, I think I’ve come to disagree in a fundamental way with this Book Riot post and basically all other lists of subgenres as well.

Here are the basic subgenres I see in Fantasy:

1) Epic fantasy. Secondary world, big events, broad scale, almost certainly a quest structure to the plot, very likely multiple points of view. This is NOT a synonym for high fantasy. Although a lot of epic fantasy is indeed high fantasy, other epic fantasy is grimdark. Also, lots of high fantasy is not epic at all! Plenty of high fantasy is much smaller in scope and more intimate in focus. Epic fantasy has to be epic!

Great examples of epic fantasy:

Eternal Sky by Elizabeth Bear. Here’s my review of the first book. It’s a great trilogy, and it definitely has all the above characteristics. I think this exemplifies epic fantasy.

Freedom’s Gate trilogy by Naomi Kritzer. Here’s my review of the trilogy, which I loved very much. Like Novik’s Scholomance trilogy and “Katherine Addison’s” The Goblin Emperor, the Freedom’s Gate trilogy is so good that when I pause to think what I would have done differently, I really have trouble thinking of anything.

The four-book Inda series by Sherwood Smith, which I once used to define epic fantasy. I loved this quadrilogy, but I’ve only read it once. I should read it again, maybe after reading all the Norsunder War books Sherwood is working on now. This isn’t my favorite of her works, but it’s up there. The Inda series is a LOT more approachable for me than some of her other works because the focus on Inda is tighter, there are fewer pov characters overall (still more than one!), and I like all or most of the pov characters.

The closest I’ve come is Winter of Ice and Iron. As a single standalone book, I think Winter might just barely fit the category. When we think of epic fantasy, we think EPIC, and it’s hard to really do EPIC in one novel.

2) Adventure fantasy. When you think, “Is there something like SF space opera, but fantasy?” the answer is yes, and I think the best term for that is adventure fantasy. Secondary world. Scale can be small, intimate. Doesn’t have to involve any kind of quest, but it does involve action. May have a fast pace. Can easily take include romance or other relationships, but the adventure is the focus. There are so many books in this category that I’m throwing darts at a universe of titles to pick any, but fine:

The Sunwolf and Starhawk books by Barbara Hambly, and in fact most of her fantasy probably falls into this category.

The Alanna series by Tamora Pierce is adventure fantasy.

Most of my books probably fall into this category. The Floating Islands, for example.

3) Urban fantasy. Smaller scale, smaller timeframe, high tension, solving a mystery structure to the plot, probably just one or two points of view. Takes place in a city environment (probably). Setting derived from a contemporary setting (probably). Includes vampires, werewolves, or various other supernatural elements of that sort (probably).

One of the series that springs to mind for UF is The Dresden Files by Butcher. Though I hear he got many, many details about Chicago very wrong.

I’ve always somewhat reluctantly put Black Dog series in this category, even though almost none of it takes place in a city. If a series includes a contemporary setting (or anything close to contemporary), and involves vampires and shapeshifters, and romance isn’t front and center, then it’s probably UF no matter whether the setting is urban or rural. I realize this is not ideal, but there we are.

4) Paranormal romance. I know this intersects with UF. Lots of same characteristics, but centers a romance. Is that enough to separate it out as a different subgenre? I kind of think it is, because whatever else is going on, the structure of the plot is a romance structure — the beats are romance beats.

The Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews. I realize one can go back and forth with a lot of Ilona Andrews’ books: UF or paranormal? The romance is so central in this series that I think it’s paranormal even though I don’t think there are the standard vampire/werewolf elements. Also, in my opinion, the authors are really at the top of their game with this series, which I love very much. Did you know the the fifth and sixth books are out? I did not, until I went to get the link for the first book in the series. I’m surprised I’m that far behind, but I see the sixth book just came out this past August and I’ve been busy. The first three books form one unit, by the way, and the second trilogy forms another set. I’m currently re-reading the Murderbot novellas and novel, because I really do not want to be distracted from Tasmakat, but I think these are up next. I’ll have to re-read the 4th book to get back up to speed — fortunately, re-reading is exactly what I’m in the mood for anyway.

5) Contemporary fantasy. Takes place in our world or a very close approximation of our world, in the present day or close to it. Not UF or paranormal romance, which means no vampires, werewolves, or anything like that. Anything else. Or maybe this is the actual subgenre while a lot (but not all) of UF and paranormal fit into contemporary fantasy as sub-subgenres? Regardless, there are certainly other works which are contemporary fantasy but not UF or paranormal.

Now, when I was trying to come up with examples for this category, I thought of a couple of books that only sort of fit, but I’m going to put them in here with links because they are VERY HARD TO FIND. That is, searching “Powers Burton” doesn’t do it, and searching “Bladesmith Hetley” doesn’t do it either. It was so annoying to find these I went to my personal orders and searched for them there, then clicked through to the Amazon pages. This is a duology, but though the author published these two books under one author name, he never got Amazon to link the two books, so seriously, that’s a problem. But here they are: Powers and also Dominions by James A Burton. He has also published fantasy novels as James A Hetley, but the one of those I tried didn’t appeal to me and I DNF it. But I loved Powers and Dominions. Here’s my review of Powers.

However, though they start off in a contemporary (and urban) setting, they don’t stay there. So I should come up with some other examples of contemporary fantasy. Okay:

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, and for that matter, her excellent The Scorpio Races. I had some issues with the way the former series ended, though I nevertheless really enjoyed this quadrilogy. I loved practically everything about The Scorpio Races, which was one of my favorite books of the year when I first read it. It’s been some time. I should (sigh) re-read that sometime, along with the vast number of other books I’d like to re-read. Anyway, both are excellent examples of contemporary fantasy that is neither UF nor paranormal.

6) Magical realism, and here I always think of A Winter’s Tale by Helprin, which is my favorite magical realism fantasy ever. The rating on Amazon is 3.7, so I guess this is a love-it-or-hate-it book. It’s certainly long and leisurely. It took me a long time to appreciate it. In fact, I read it multiple times at different ages and finally loved it, but certainly not the first time I read it.

When I think harder, I add Sarah Addison Allen, who writes those lovely magical realism romances, such as The Peach Keeper. Her writing is so lovely.

The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she’d had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air was as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, the rivers had crested at flood stage, and, for the first time since 1937, the mail couldn’t be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handing the misdelivered pieces of mail over fences to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and the careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor’s office with infected paper cuts because the envelopes had sealed, cement-like, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson’s invitation disappeared for two days, then popped back up in a bird’s nest outside. Harper Rowley’s invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley’s in his elderly mother’s garden shed.

If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized the air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.

But no one was paying attention. Least of all Willa Jackson.

I just adore Sarah Addison Allen’s books, though I grant, some are better than others. I loved The Peach Keeper, I loved Sugar Queen and Garden Spells, my favorite is actually The Girl Who Chased the Moon. Her most recent book was something of a disappointment to me. But … Oh, look, her most recent book Other Birds just came out August. I’d forgotten it was on the way. FINE. I’ve picked it up.

Down a narrow alley in the small coastal town of Mallow Island, South Carolina, lies a stunning cobblestone building comprised of five apartments. It’s called The Dellawisp and it’s named after the tiny turquoise birds who, alongside its human tenants, inhabit an air of magical secrecy.

When Zoey Hennessey comes to claim her deceased mother’s apartment at The Dellawisp, she meets her quirky, enigmatic neighbors including a girl on the run, a grieving chef whose comfort food does not comfort him, two estranged middle-aged sisters, and three ghosts. Each with their own story. Each with their own longings. Each whose ending isn’t yet written.

Wow, I let myself get totally distracted. What was the topic again? Oh, right, subgenres of fantasy. Okay, onward!

7) Fairy tales, and for this subgenre I’m inclined to include straight-up retellings such as Beauty by Robin McKinley (still and always a great favorite of mine), and also novels that are told in a fairy-tale way but aren’t in any sense a retelling, such as my debut novel, The City in the Lake.

Fairy tales have a certain feel to them and a certain kind of magic and certain tropes, all of which are different from adventure fantasy or epic fantasy. Patricia McKillip wrote fairy tales such as The Changling Sea as well as epic fantasy such as the The Riddlemaster trilogy. In a fairy tale, we get enchanted forests or enchanted countries, and inexplicable magic, and if an animal asks you for help, probably you should help. I very much love fairy tales, but, though I think The City in the Lake worked really well — it’s still one of my personal favorites — it’s hard for me to capture the fairy-tale feel in a novel and I don’t think I’ve managed it as well again.

8) Science fantasy, which is of course fantasy with technological handwaving. It’s fantasy that sort of looks like science fiction and has some science fiction elements, but is really fantasy. Pern, I’m looking at you. It’s been a long time since I read these, and I think the original trilogy plus The Harper Hall trilogy are by far the best. But I admit, I haven’t read them all. I’m mildly tempted now to go try The Masterharper one. Have any of you tried it?

Anyway, science fantasy: slightly disguised fantasy with a few hand-wavy science fiction elements around the edges. Sharon Shinn’s Archangel is another excellent example.

9) Historical fantasy. This one is too obvious to need any kind of description. Historical setting, fantasy, boom, there you go. Whenever I think of this category, I think somewhat wistfully of Judith Merkle Riley’s Margaret of Ashbury trilogy. It’s superb. Or rather, the second book is superb. I bought it used, read it with delight, added the other two to my TBR pile, and somehow I’ve don’t believe I’ve ever read the whole trilogy in order. This is absolutely ridiculous. You know what, even though I have the first book in paper, I’m getting it now as an ebook because maybe that way I will FINALLY read it.

Also, sure, Fantasy of Manners. I do like that notion for a sub-subgenre.

10) Not sure what other subgenres I think are fundamental, if any.

I agree that stopping at nine is not aesthetically satisfying. Please suggest another fundamental subgenre. But before you do that, here’s a different, orthogonal method of categorization that I think takes out of consideration a lot of possible subgenres. I mean, I’m sure you will have noticed a lot of possible subgenres missing from the list above. That’s because I’m sort of thinking that these aren’t subgenres, but tones or styles — one might even say categories of themes — which can and do get used within multiple subgenres. These include: Positive fantasy, high fantasy, gritty fantasy, dark fantasy, horror fantasy, and grimdark fantasy.

The above list doesn’t include low fantasy because that particular term is SO badly defined that it’s utterly useless. The term “low fantasy” means radically different things to different people — contemporary setting to some, gritty to others, small-scale events or slice-of-life to others. There’s no convergence, no agreement, not even any overlap in meaning. The term is just entirely useless and is probably going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

But the others … what do you think? It seems to me that when one says “Epic Fantasy,” one can equally well mean Joe Abercrombe’s grimdark First Law trilogy as Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy or Mckillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy. They’re all epic. The difference isn’t in whether they’re epic or not epic. The differences are in tone, style, and theme, not epic scale.

The same goes for Adventure Fantasy. Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora series is almost (but not quite) too gritty for me, but it’s adventure fantasy just as much as, I don’t know, okay, just as much as the otherwise totally different Wings of Fire series by Tui Sutherland. I mean, there’s absolutely no overlap in tone. They might as well be in different genres. They’re nothing alike. But I think they’re both Adventure Fantasy.

And so on. You can’t write a gritty novel in the Fairy-Tale Fantasy subgenre. But you can write a story that’s high fantasy, dark fantasy or probably even grimdark fantasy and have them all belong to the Fairy-Tale Fantasy subgenre.

I think I’m leaning toward preferring to define fantasy by terms that indicate tone, style, and theme rather than subgenre or sub-subgenre. I really enjoy every subgenre of fantasy. I’m not picky about subgenre! I’m picky about tone, style, and theme. Rather than saying “This is an epic fantasy,” I’d rather say, “This is positive epic fantasy” or “This is epic high fantasy” or “This is dark epic fantasy.” That gives me a MUCH MUCH clearer idea of which particular epic fantasy trilogy I might like to start and which I might not be in the mood for, or might want to avoid forever. Two terms, one for tone and the other for subgenre, that’s what I want.

I guess the first part is getting people to agree that “high fantasy” is a tone and style, not a subgenre, so I’m not holding my breath. But I’m going to make at least a moderate effort to try using this kind of categorization myself and just see how it works in practice.

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15 thoughts on “Fantasy Subgenres”

  1. Maybe it’s the mathematician in me, but it makes sense for there to be multiple axes you’re mapping books to. The tone & dominant themes & the type of setting/premise it is are pretty independent, so should be different axes. YA, grimdark, whatever we decided the opposite term for grimdark was, are about tone & themes, whereas urban fantasy, historical, etc are about setting and fantasy premise.

    Fyi, there’s also another raven boys trilogy, so it didn’t precisely end there.

    I absolutely love the first Hidden Legacy trilogy, slightly less in love with the next 3, but still definitely a pleasure to read more in that world. The latest innkeeper will be out soon also.

  2. Or maybe adventure fantasy? But I would call Scholomance contemporary, yes.

    SarahZ, that’s right, I’d forgotten that Stiefvater went on with the Raven Boys world. If you’ve read the second trilogy, what did you think?

    I agree that I LOVED the first Hidden Legacy trilogy and didn’t find the 4th book quite at that level, but as you say, I still liked it a lot. The Innkeeper series is my least favorite of Andrews’ series. I mean, I like that one too, but not as much. The worldbuilding has some silly aspects that take an effort to ignore.

  3. I started reading the new raven boys books, but it wasn’t jiving with my current stress level tolerance, so I had to shelve them for later. I’m reading a bit more lately, so maybe I’ll try to revisit some things soon (that and Libba Bray’s Diviners were highly anticipated books I couldn’t manage). I did enjoy Stiefvater’s magical realism standalone, though.

  4. Definitely multiple axes.

    Marketing categories are an influence. People rarely talk about a pure philosophical definition of genres. Also history — portal fantasies are a thing because they were a thing long before many of the others came along.

  5. I just briefly glanced through the Book Riot post after reading yours, and wow, it’s different. I agree that high fantasy implies a certain tone and style. I was surprised to see that they define it according to the extent of the world building.

    Tor had an article recently trying to define ‘curio fiction’ as fiction with one unexplained and unquestioned fantasy element. Which is basically the same as Book Riot’s definition of low fantasy and their definition of magical realism, minus the political element.

    I’m not sure I see enough of a distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance to justify separate subgenres. One is mystery, one is romance, but both are paranormal with a kinda contemporary or slightly historical setting. Maybe subsubgenres, with ‘paranormal’ as the umbrella term?

  6. A bit off topic, but someone elsewhere recently asked for recommendations of “recent adult portal fantasy where the other world isn’t a parallel Earth but is a high fantasy setting.” Of course I said Death’s Lady, but then I realized that most of the portal fantasies I can think of are either comics with ‘hero summoning’ or the other world is historical. Any recs you can think of? I was surprised that I couldn’t think of more.

    (Although I haven’t read Fionavar yet, it seems like it would fit, except for not being recent.)

  7. Every Heart a Doorway? The other worlds are pretty variable, but not always the main focus – varies a lot from book to book

  8. Barbara Hambly has done at least two portal world series: Silicon Wizard, and Time of the Dark. Both are rather grim.

  9. In Another World, I Must Defeat the Demon King technically describes it except that the guy from the high fantasy world comes here.

    Monster Punk Horizon becomes that in the second book, the first one being just the inhabitants of the world itself.

  10. Karen Myers wrote a very low stress portal series called The Hounds of Annwn which I enjoyed a great deal. Kelly McCullough has a series which might be considered urban fantasy, although it doesn’t take place in our world – it’s The Fallen Blade series, and it reminds me a little of Jim Butcher’s books, as does Douglas Hulick, who wrote two great urban (??) other world (without a portal ) adventure fantasies and then seemed to have stopped writing, sadly for us. I think The Scorpio Races is the best of Maggie Stiefvater’s books, and the books you all have mentioned have me pulling out Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles to read again.

  11. Thanks for the recommendations! I hadn’t heard of most of these, and those that are familiar I didn’t realize had portals.

  12. I’m siting here thinking I must be old, and also about how genre definitions shift over time. Particularly Urban Fantasy, with mystery plot and werewolves… I feel like Urban Fantasy used to be closer to magical realism but grounded in genre – more what you’re calling Contemporary Fantasy. A grimy urban setting where a bit of mostly-hidden wonder might erupt into the everyday, startling and inexplicable and usually noticed only by people moving on the fringe of society or somehow shocked away from the everyday. War for the Oaks (Emma Bull) was the prototypical example, I think. For other earlier examples I’d suggest Charles de Lint’s Newford collections (though the more recent ones I’ve read struck me as depressing and shading more into YA “issue” books) , Meghan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons, most of Lisa Goldstein but particularly Tourists. Maybe Crowley’s Little, Big if you mostly ignore the “urban” requirement. That’s one of my favourite subgenres, and it’s become hard to find.

    The other ‘fundamental’ subgenre I can think of is what we used to call Hard Fantasy, and which I think has morphed into what’s being called the New Weird by people who seem to think it didn’t exist before China Mieville wrote Perdido Street Station. The ones that jump to mind are Jeffrey Ford’s Well Built City trilogy, the Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick, Mary Gentle’s Rats and Gargoyles, Walter Jon Williams’s Metropolitan, maybe. Things that are trying to step outside genre conventions, the quests and feudal social structures and just take the idea of a different reality where things work differently as a starting point for what “fantasy” means, then run with it until stuff gets, well, weird. It’s a difficult grouping to define because it’s mostly defined by what it isn’t.

  13. Kristi (and others) I think you’re right that the actual subgenre would be Contemporary Fantasy and then both UF and Paranormal are sub-subgenres within that category.

    I like this suggestion of a “Hard Fantasy” or “Weird Fantasy” or whatever one might call it. Maybe not a subgenre so much as a catch-all term for “And the other stuff that’s also fantasy but not in one of these defined categories.” Is there a word for pushing boundaries that I’m not thinking of? Because maybe that’s the term that ought to be used for this.

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