Fantasy is a genre of literature that features magical and supernatural elements that do not exist in the real world. In broad terms, the fantasy genre is one of the most popular and enduring of the twenty-first century literary market, spawning many New York Times bestsellers. Fantasy is also known for its many subgenres that range from mythical to modern, from kid-centric to frightening, from gritty to otherworldly.
The existence of so many types of fantasy helps explain its widespread popularity among today’s fiction readers. Speculative in nature, fantasy is not tied to reality or scientific fact and can include a range of subject matter. Although some writers juxtapose a real-world setting with fantastical elements, many create entirely imaginary universes with their own physical laws and logic and populations of imaginary races and creatures.
18 Common Fantasy Subgenres
Fantasy novels take on many forms, and the number of distinct fantasy subgenres seems to grow with each passing year. Here are 18 particularly important subgenres within the world of fantasy:
- Dystopian fantasy: Sometimes grouped in with science fiction, speculative fiction, and literary fiction, dystopian fantasies imagine worlds gone wrong. The settings are at once familiar to contemporary audiences and also alarmingly worse than the present world. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series is a pulpy example of this subgenre of fantasy fiction.
- High fantasy: Sometimes called “epic fantasy,” high fantasy is set in a magical environment that has its own rules and physical laws. This subgenre’s plots and themes have a grand scale and typically center on a single, well-developed hero or a band of heroes, such as Frodo Baggins and his cohorts in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves in The Hobbit. George R.R. Martin combines high fantasy with elements of medieval fantasy and romance in his Song of Ice and Fire series (and the Game of Thrones television series based upon those books).
- Low fantasy: Set in the real world, low fantasy includes unexpected magical elements that surprise ordinary characters, like the plastic figurines come to life in Lynne Reid Banks’s The Indian in the Cupboard.
- Magical realism: While similar to low fantasy, magical realism characters accept fantastical elements like levitation and telekinesis as a normal part of their otherwise realistic world, as in Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism classic One Hundred Years of Solitude.
- Sword and sorcery: A subset of high fantasy, this subgenre focuses on sword-wielding heroes—such as the titular barbarian in Robert E. Howard’s Conan pulp fiction stories—as well as magic or witchcraft. J.K. Rowling popularized the sword and sorcery subgenre for young adults with her Harry Potter series.
- Urban fantasy: Urban fantasy is a genre of literature encompassing novels, novellas, and short stories in which fantastical characters and concepts are placed in a real world urban setting, often in the present day. Urban fantasy novels have devoted followings and they have spawned film and TV adaptations. Urban fantasy stories often draw from noir and gritty police procedurals. They also may incorporate fantastical elements and supernatural creatures. These could involve undead zombies, vampires, druids, demons, wizardry, witchcraft, and other such fantasy tropes. The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and American Gods by Neil Gaiman are examples of urban fantasy.
- Paranormal romance: This fantasy subgenre combines romantic themes with fantasy elements like vampires, werewolves, shifters, faeries, and zombie armies. Many contemporary fantasy series blur the line between urban fantasy stories, coming-of-age tales, and paranormal romances. Patricia Briggs and Jeaniene Frost are popular authors in this subgenre.
- Dark fantasy: Combining elements of fantasy with the horror genre, dark fantasy’s aim is to unnerve and frighten readers. For example, consider the gargantuan, otherworldly monsters in H. P. Lovecraft’s universe. Gothic and Victorian dark fantasy tends to embrace a paranormal setting and supernatural elements, which can range from vampires to werewolves and beyond. Note that by no means is every paranormal fantasy a dark fantasy.
- Grimdark fantasy: One step beyond dark fantasy, grimdark novels pry into the blackest depths of the human condition, often in the proverbial underbelly of an alternate world. The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark is a popular book within this subgenre.
- Fables: Using personified animals and the supernatural, fables impart moral lessons, like the stories in Aesop’s Fables and Arabian Nights.
- Fairy Tales: Intended for children, fairy tales and folk tales are typically set in distant magical worlds (with beginnings like “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…”) where trolls, dragons, witches, and other supernatural characters are an accepted truth, as in the Brothers Grimm’s Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
- Superhero fantasy: Unlike stories in which a hero acquires special abilities through scientific means, such as exposure to radiation, the protagonists’ powers in more fantastical superhero stories are supernatural. Many superhero stories are set in a low fantasy world—one that’s quite similar to our own world. Superheroes ranging from Wonder Woman to Thor bring fantasy elements to worlds that otherwise obey the known laws of science. Many superhero fantasy authors have worked in the comic book medium, from Stan Lee to Bob Kane. As such, superhero fiction in the fantasy genre is also known as comic fantasy or comic book fantasy.
- Fantasy of manners: This subgenre, exemplified by fantasy books like Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake, combines supernatural world-building with the type of society-centric concerns one might encounter in a work by Edith Wharton or Noel Coward. Human drama and pettiness may outweigh magical powers in this subgenre of fantasy literature.
- Crossworlds fantasy: Sometimes called portal fantasy, this subgenre involves characters transporting from a normal world to a magical one. This requires authors to engage in both magical world-building and grounded realistic world-building. Crossworlds fantasy stories often appeal to children, as seen in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. These works also fit a category known as juvenile fantasy.
- Steampunk fantasy: This highly specific subgenre combines the Victorian science and technology of the Industrial Revolution with contemporary takes on robots and machines. As such, steampunk fantasy is at once alternate history, science fantasy, and a modern fantasy—although the specifics vary with specific novels. Soulless by Gail Carriger is a particularly well-regarded steampunk fantasy novel.
- Arthurian fantasy: These historical fantasy stories exist in a magical world of King Arthur, although Arthur himself is not always the main character. Due to their magical setting, Arthurian fantasy novels and short stories tend to feature mythic creatures like dragons, and many of their heroes are knights—which also makes them part of the heroic fantasy subgenre.
- Sci-fi fantasy: These stories can be set in any variety of time periods—which means they can be a contemporary fantasy, a modern fantasy, a futuristic fantasy, or even historical fantasy—but they establish a new world where scientific advancements have changed the rules of engagement, while still incorporating magical elements. The Star Wars series and the various works of Isaac Asimov have helped set the bar for sci-fi fantasy.
- Wuxia fantasy: This subgenre is rooted in classic Chinese literature. It involves elements of fantasy interspersed with martial arts. Jade City by Fonda Lee is an example of wuxia fantasy.
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