So, you may have noticed, but we here at The Speculative Post feature Speculative Fiction media. And then we describe Speculative Fiction as an umbrella term for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. And then we tag things as Steampunk, Alternative History, Sword and Sorcery...and you might just be wondering what exactly we’re talking about when we mention all these classifications.
When we first started The Speculative Post, I wanted to be able to be clear in our genre distinctions...and that ended up meaning that I compiled a list of 54 subgenres. That’s a bit too much to read through in one sitting (and it was a marathon of typing and research to put it together). Over the next few weeks, I’m going to pull it apart into smaller, easier to swallow lists that will let you get an idea for the width and depth of Speculative Fiction while hopefully avoiding eye glaze.
Dan and I read a lot (and as you’ve seen, I do mean a lot) of Fantasy. So I thought I’d start with some of the breakdowns of Fantasy’s myriad subgenres. For this list I’m going to stay with some of the big subgenres, and then move into the smaller/more stand alone ones later in my final list. You may notice a few subgenres missing that you’d expect to find on this list; I’m saving them for later because either they are more about the intersection of Fantasy with Science Fiction or Horror, or because that subgenre is not limited to Fantasy elements.
Fantasy: Fantasy is the overarching genre for all stories that include magic and other supernatural phenomenon as key to the plot, theme, and/or setting of the story. In general, the story also avoids scientific themes or macabre themes, thus separating it from Science Fiction or Horror. All subgenres of Fantasy will fit this definition, with more delineations in type of plot, themes, setting, and use of magic and worldbuilding to form further classifications of subgenres.
Contemporary/Modern Fantasy: A Fantasy that is set in the modern day world we know. Fantastical elements can be native to our world or coming from a space outside of our known world, but are generally not a part of mainstream knowledge and/or culture. Alex Bledsoe’s The Hum and the Shiver is an excellent example.
Dark Fantasy: While sharing a lot of elements with High Fantasy (pre-modern setting, magic, mythological creatures), Dark Fantasy tends to focus either on anti-heroes or other protagonists that do not fit the standard definition of hero. Dark Fantasy also includes a higher than normal emphasis on violence of all types, psychological abuse, and other controversial topics. A good example is Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns.
Epic Fantasy: I’m doing this a bit differently than you might have seen it before. Often, this is used as an alternative name for High Fantasy. I’m splitting the genres, and am defining Epic Fantasy as any work of any type of fantasy that spans more than a three book arc. Think A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (also High Fantasy) or Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan (also Low Fantasy). You’ll often see me classify books as Epic High Fantasy or Epic Low Fantasy based on this distinction, and maybe even Epic Dark Fantasy, because Epic Fantasy is never just its own thing.
Fairy Tales/Mythology: Based in folklore, this genre can include traditional fairy-tale creatures such as fairies, dwarves, trolls, goblins, giants, and more. They can be old folk tales (example: The Brother’s Grimm), older original stories (Hans Christian Andersen), new original tales based on either of the above (Robin McKinley’s Beauty), or fully original tales (Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted).
Heroic Fantasy: A Fantasy tale which follows the adventures of a single hero and accompanying characters. These tales often take inspiration in myth and folklore, but are further removed from their roots than Fairy Tales, and they share a number of characteristics of Sword and Sorcery tales. They almost always follow the story format laid out by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces(you may have studied this story format in high school English as the Heroic Journey). A good example is Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy.
High Fantasy: This is the stereotypical Fantasy work. Typically using a pre-modern setting, the story follows either a single hero or group of heroes in a plot that uses magic and/or supernatural phenomenon as a key element. While typically listed as an alternative name to Epic Fantasy, here we have chosen to spin-off Epic Fantasy into its own subgenre. Another key element is that High Fantasies take place in a world that is completely separate from ours (as in, you cannot get there from here).The Silvered by Tanya Huff is an excellent recent example.
Historical Fantasy: A subgenre that is a Fantasy that takes place in a historical setting on Earth (not an original world). Like all fantasies, a supernatural and/or magical element must be pivotal to either the setting or the plot. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon is a classic example.
Low Fantasy: Fantasy that is set in a world that is accessible from the real world. In other words, if you can get there from here, it’s Low Fantasy. Otherwise, the subgenre shares a great deal in common with High Fantasy, but does not always follow the pre-modern society clause. The classic example is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
Magic Realism: This subgenre features stories where magic is a natural part of our mundane world. While this can be used to describe a large swath of the Fantasy genre, here we’re going to try and define Magic Realism a little more specifically. First, the work is set in the “real world,” a.k.a. a modern setting in countries that we know. Second, the magical element is somewhat subtle. It could be that one of the characters has an abnormally long life, or perhaps the supernatural element is deftly woven into the text so as to require as little suspension of disbelief as possible. What supernatural elements are present are limited and usually unique to the central person or place within the story. What separates Magic Realism from Contemporary Fantasy is the subtlety of the supernatural element, and how the magic is often woven into the natural world as to almost disappear. Magic Realism also tends to be more literary than Contemporary Fantasy. The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw is a nice example.
Militaristic Fantasy: A Fantasy that is set in a military setting, often including fantastical elements for its soldiers. Where Militaristic Science Fiction tends to look into the far future of a human race that has left Earth, Militaristic Fantasy tends to either look backward or stay close to our current time frame. An excellent example is Control Point by Myke Cole.
Paranormal Romance: A subgenre that marks an intersection between the Speculative Fiction genres and the Romance genre. Romance is defined as being a story about two people building a romantic relationship that culminates in an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending, and that’s still true here. Paranormal romance introduces a paranormal/supernatural element into the story as something that affects the main plot. Current trends call for vampires, werewolves, fairies, and demons as romantic partners. Because of the influence of the Romance genre, series of Paranormal Romance feature just a single couple as protagonists per book, switching couples for each new installment. Here at The Speculative Post, this subgenre also includes Romantic Fantasy and Romantic Horror, as to split the three apart would require some excruciatingly fine lines. A long-standing example of Paranormal Romance is Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series.
Sword and Sorcery: This subgenre is often used as an alternative name for Heroic Fantasy, but once again, I’m splitting hairs. For me, Sword and Sorcery is not always about just a single hero, but a group of them. More so than Heroic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery will often play on fantasy archetypes such as the character classes seen in role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and it does not always follow the Heroic Journey plot archetype. An example is Greatheart by James Maxey.
Urban Fantasy: A subgenre that marks the intersection of Fantasy and Horror. These books often include traditional Horror elements, such as vampires and shapeshifters, while embracing traditional Fantasy elements such as magic and fairies. Many Urban Fantasies also embrace a hardboiled mystery format and are set in the modern day. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series, and Patricia Briggs’Mercedes Thompson series are all benchmark examples of this subgenre.
And there you have it: fourteen key definitions to aid in your understanding of the Fantasy genre and its subgenres. I hope you’ll stayed tuned through the coming weeks for further forays into the Subgenre Jungle!