I was in a bookshop last week, endlessly roaming aisle after aisle of books and just looking for an excuse to spend my money (you know how it is). There were a few titles that I was keeping an eye out for in particular, but one of the hurdles I had to overcome in order to uncover their whereabouts was to figure out which genre the bookstore had sorted them into.
It got me thinking about the way we classify fiction novels, especially those belonging to the genre of my One True Love: fantasy. There are so many ways to classify fantasy books, with new and weird and wonderful sub-genres appearing all the time, and this often makes it difficult to figure out what single category the fantasy book you’re seeking fits into (hint, hint–often it’s more than one!).
So this post is about my take on the myriad sub-genres of fantasy fiction. It’s not going to be an in-depth analysis on the similarities and differences between heroic fantasy and epic fantasy, or whether or not grimdark and dark fantasy are the same thing (there are some great posts which go into more depth here and here). It is simply an overview of how I like to think about fantasy’s broad categories, and how I sometimes organise my shelves on Goodreads. If you have a moment, I’d love to hear how you define them!
High fantasy is perhaps the most traditional of the fantasy sub-genres. Its key defining element is that it is set in an alternative, fictitious world which is internally consistent, but usually follows different rules to the “real” world (that is, the world we live in). Magic is often involved, but it doesn’t have to be.
Obviously, high fantasy is a pretty broad category, which is why I often break it down into the “sub-sub-genres” listed below…
Epic fantasy is often used interchangeably with high fantasy, however I consider them to be subtly different. In itself, the term “epic” suggests something about the scope of the story. Epic fantasy is therefore characterised by large-scale quests and/or good-vs-evil end-of-the-world type struggles, is usually told from multiple points of view (but not always), and often spans multiple lengthy volumes.
Sword and sorcery / heroic fantasy
Sword and sorcery, sometimes known as heroic fantasy (in my mind, anyway), generally focuses on a sword-wielding swash-buckling hero (often reluctant), lots of hand-to-hand action, exciting adventures, and violent battles. The sorcery aspect is usually attributed to a villain or antagonist of some kind, which the hero can only defeat after enduring a number of physical and spiritual challenges. This sub-genre differs from epic fantasy in its smaller scope and lower stakes.
In contrast to high fantasy, low fantasy is set in the “real” world (our world), but includes magical elements. The use of the term “low” does NOT, in any way, refer to the book’s quality. One common theme in this sub-genre is a character’s discovery of these supernatural elements within a seemingly normal world (a common trope in YA fantasy). However, they may also be fully integrated and accepted into the society.
Low fantasy is also pretty broad category, and can be broken down into a number of “sub-sub-genres”. I have listed a few of the most common/popular ones below…
Urban fantasy is currently a very popular type of low fantasy where the story takes place in a predominantly urban setting. It often features glittering cityscapes, lots of nightlife, and explores the coexistence and conflict between humans and supernatural beings. A lot of urban fantasy is set in the modern era (called contemporary fantasy), but some argue it can also take place in the past or future.
Paranormal books include elements of the occult, people with psychic abilities, and supernatural creatures such as vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, or almost anything else of an otherworldly nature. There is a lot of crossover between paranormal and urban fantasy, and paranormal stories often involve romantic relationships between humans and said otherworldly creatures (known as paranormal romance).
I had a bit of trouble placing this sub-genre, but I think historical fantasy can best be categorised as a subset of low fantasy. Most books of this type are either a retelling of a historical event with fantastical or magical elements thrown in, or simply a low fantasy set in the past rather than the modern era. Historical fantasy may, at times, also be considered a sub-genre of paranormal or urban fantasy and vice-versa.
Other fantasy sub-genres
There are a number of other fantasy sub-genres that can’t be forced into either the high fantasy or the low fantasy category because (A) they span both categories within the one story (e.g. in portal fantasy), or (B) they are more thematic and can therefore be used to define either high or low fantasy books. Some of these sub-genres are listed below…
Portal fantasy is where the characters travel (either willingly, accidentally, or because they have been forced in some way) from the “real” world (thus low fantasy) into a fantasy world (thus high fantasy) via a gateway or portal. They may do this many times throughout the story, or it may be a one-way trip (damn!). There are some examples of characters travelling from the fantasy world to our world, though these are far less common.
Dark fantasy / grimdark
Dark fantasy is a fantasy sub-genre that incorporates darker, frightening themes and/or a gloomy, horror-filled atmosphere. Grimdark is a relatively recent term used to describe fiction that is particularly amoral or violent. Obviously, there’s a bit of overlap between the two, but I’m not going to delve into their differences here. Some argue that these normally fall under the high fantasy category, but given their definitions, I’m not convinced they can’t be used to describe certain low fantasy books as well.
Science fantasy is the lovechild of science fiction and fantasy. It is characterised by a blend of magical or supernatural elements with technology (often advanced) and scientific theory. Stories in this sub-genre can be set in either the “real” world, or a fictitious world, or both, hence its placement here.
Of course, there are many many many more fantasy sub-genres (and sub-sub-sub-genres) out there, and everyone you ask will have a different opinion as to how they should be sorted. The categories described above are simply the way I consider things, and should be taken with a grain of salt. No, it’s not perfect, and yes, there’s a bit of crossover, but it works for me and keeps those OCD tendencies at bay!
Now if only bookstores would come around to my point of view…
How do you define fantasy sub-genres? Are your methods similar (or completely different) to mine?