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Fantasy: A Subgenre Taxonomy

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fantasy: A Subgenre Taxonomy

The subgenre. Oh ye fickle beast. As a genre fiction blogger I find that when in doubt, argue a novel's right to claim itself as urban fantasy or paranormal romance or magical realism. Trust me. It's great fun and always manages to generate comments. In reality, genre predates blogging. Hard to imagine, I know.

The first recorded use of genres can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Plato argued for a triptych including drama, dithyramb, and epic. Aristotle provided something that makes a lot more sense to a modern reader with tragedy, epic, comedy, and parody. Modern discussions of genre get real complex real quick with concepts like rhetorical situation, ecology of genre, social contract, et. al. One of the more salient concepts that's sprung from modern criticism is the notion of 'tyranny of genre'. Genre theorist Richard Coe wrote that "the 'tyranny of genre' is normally taken to signify how generic structures constrain individual creativity" In other words, move along nothing to see here. Where's the fun in that?

For the modern layman, there are three primary literary genres -- fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. From a reader's perspective, genre is an invaluable tool. It helps define preference. Unfortunately, 'fiction' as a genre doesn't narrow things down very well, and thus the subgenre is born. I could list the dozens of different fiction subgenres, but since this is an article about Fantasy, let's skip ahead. Fantasy is a subgenre of the speculative fiction subgenre, which is a subgenre of fiction.

Oh, this is going to be fun!

According to the infallability that is Wikipedia, fantasy "is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting." Not bad. Wouldn't you know it though, for the purposes of marketing things get quite a bit finer. Below I offer the subgenres of fantasy fiction and the definitions I work from when categorizing the books I read. I'll say up front that I strongly value structure and theme over plot and setting when it comes to describing subgenres.

Either way, I'm right and you're wrong. Also, I am not including every possible subgenre here, merely some of the larger ones that I believe are either frequently debated, misused, or poorly conceived in the first place.

First up...


High Fantasy - Low Fantasy -Epic Fantasy

I group these together because they are often intermingled with one another.

High and low fantasy are, in my mind, two sides of the same coin that provide the base unit for most of the traditional fantasy market. They are set in a secondary world, or alternate reality (portals), with magic and individual efficacy as common plot devices. Themes include a hero's journey and conflict between good and evil, or the subversion of same. They tend to be narrower in scope with single (or dual) points of view.

Traditionally, low fantasy has been used to describe stories with unexplained magic in the real world. An example in that case might be The Indian in the Cupboard or The Green Mile (both probably belong in Magical Realism, see below). Under this definition magical realism is highfalutin low fantasy. I think it's a flawed term.

I use low fantasy to describe the emerging (some would say its always been there) wave of gritty anti-hero fantasy. If high fantasy is the heroes journey, low fantasy is a more realistic and cynical reflection. There's also a tendency in low fantasy to remove the wonder from magic, to make it a blunt, messy tool, or in some cases to remove the magic all together.

Both high and low fantasy are often integrated with epic fantasy to form 'The Neverending Tome'! Believe it or not though, epic fantasy has very little to do with length. Instead, it's about scope and narrative style. By that I mean the narrative encompasses a wide swathe of the world and the world's history -- not a snapshot in time. Likewise, the author gives points of view to characters on both sides of the conflict. Politics, large scale wars, and cataclysmic events are common plot elements.

Many series start out high/low fantasy and become epic over time, making it easy to wrongly assume that standalone novels cannot be epic.

High Fantasy Examples: Spellwright (Charlton), The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin)
Low Fantasy Examples: Prince of Thorns (Lawrence), Heroes Die (Stover), Among Thieves (Hulick)
High/Epic Examples: The Wheel of Time (Jordan/Sanderson), Malazan Book of the Fallen (Erikson/Esslemont)
Low/Epic Examples: A Song of Ice and Fire (Martin), The First Law Trilogy (Abercrombie)

Sword & Sorcery

Originally coined by Michael Moorcock and Fritz Lieber in the fanzine Amra, this subgenre is all about small stakes and self interest. If the goal of the epic fantasy is to save the world, then the goal of Sword & Sorcery is make money, score some tail, and poke holes in monsters. It is therefore inherently character driven and tends to be shorter in length as the simplicity of the plot can fall apart the longer it gets. I believe in the modern fantasy novel, it makes more sense to use Sword & Sorcery to describe characters, as opposed to narratives. For example, in  in The Wheel of Time, Mat is a Sword & Sorcery inspired character. Regardless, elements of this genre have spilled heavily into all others, making its themes somewhat pervasive.

Examples: Conan the Barbarian (Howard), Elric (Moorcock), Legend (Gemmell)

Dark Fantasy

In simple terms, dark fantasy implies the integration of overt horror themes into the fantasy model. Setting isn't terribly important, nor is there a particular narrative arc that fits the mold. The term is often misused to describe what I call low fantasy. Dark Fantasy, like Sword & Sorcery, is often an element as opposed to a style in itself. Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle has a huge horror influence, but is more epic fantasy with dark tones. Nevertheless, full length Dark Fantasy novels do exist, often wrongly classified as straight horror.

Examples: The Croning (Barron), Fevre Dream (Martin), Mr. Shivers (Bennett)

Mythic Fiction - Magical Realism

These are easily blurred, and with the right argument, a qualifying book could be placed in either. The notion that joins them together is magical elements blending with the real world and explained as real occurrences. There's also an aesthetic quality to prose and structure that lends itself to this particular genre, although I would argue that's an entirely subjective measure at the best of times. As a result, I'm going to have to throw that criteria into the famous pornography exemption (i.e. - I know it when I see it).

The divergent points between the two subgenres is the use of recognizable cultural mythology as the fantastic element. Themes reflected tend toward human relationships with the divine and why belief structures exist.

Magical Realism Examples: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Clarke), The Magicians (Grossman)
Mythic Examples: Mythago Wood (Holdstock), American Gods (Gaiman), The Magician King (Grossman)

Urban Fantasy

Let's get one thing out of the way... I don't believe Urban Fantasy has ANYTHING to do with place. Saying it "is a sub-genre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting," is plain nonsense as far as I'm concerned. Are you telling me that if The Dresden Files were set in Laramie, Wyoming on a farm, but was the same in all other ways it wouldn't be Urban Fantasy? Please. I'm not buying that.

In my opinion, Urban Fantasy is about NARRATIVE STRUCTURE. It requires a single protagonist, either in a tight third person or first person point of view, and follows a crime/suspense style of storytelling. The novels are often by nature episodic, with change to the characters taking place slowly or not at all. There's an element of humor or sarcasm that usually manifests itself in the protagonists cynical personality.

Examples: Rivers of London (Aaronovitch), Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter (Hamilton)

Paranormal Romance

See above, integrated with romance elements. Almost always contain vampires, werewolves, or demons.

Examples: I don't read this. I'm sure you can find it!


As said above, there are plenty of subgenres I don't mention here. Regency, Slipstream, Historical Fantasy, Mythpunk, Hard Fantasy, Weird, New Weird, and Sword and Planet, to name a few. I haven't talked about them because:
  • I don't think they're different enough from what's above to justify their own subgenre, or
  • They're clear cut enough to warrant not discussing them, or
  • It's a false genre (i.e. historical fantasy which has no reason to be its own genre as historical fantasy does nothing but describe the time period and has nothing to do with the stylistic or plot elements).
I'd love to hear what everyone has to think. Where am I off base? Are there any novels you can think of that don't fit into any of these molds? Is there a significant subgenre that I should flesh out a definition for?



At May 17, 2012 at 2:01 PM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

So, High and Low Fantasy have lower Stakes (to use my term) than Epic fantasy, and what distinguishes them from the latter?

At May 17, 2012 at 2:03 PM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

As far as Urban Fantasy--I think most of the books I would consider UF, you would too, and vice versa, despite our divergent definitions.

At May 17, 2012 at 2:03 PM , Blogger Justin said...

I think it like bananas are plantains, but plantains are not bananas. All epic fantasy is either high or low fantasy, but all high or low fantasy is not epic.

At May 17, 2012 at 2:13 PM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

But what makes Secondary World Fantasy (which is my term for High and Low) epic, in your view?

At May 17, 2012 at 2:21 PM , Blogger Justin said...

"Believe it or not though, epic fantasy has very little to do with length. Instead, it's about scope and narrative style. By that I mean the narrative encompasses a wide swathe of the world and the world's history -- not a snapshot in time. Likewise, the author gives points of view to characters on both sides of the conflict. Politics, large scale wars, and cataclysmic events are common plot elements."

Most straight high/low fantasies don't do most those things.

At May 17, 2012 at 2:31 PM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

I feel like the Laramie, Wyoming thing was for me. It probably wasn't, but I'm taking it as so. :D

Also happy to be leaving (and never going back) next week.

Also (like pps), great post, I will be referring back to it in the future. Jacob at Drying-ink did a couple posts along this same theme...I don't know how it applies here, but do I get points for putting those together?

At May 17, 2012 at 3:51 PM , Anonymous Joris M said...

Going by definitions these definitions would almost by necessity put Pat Rothfuss' books into Sword & Sorcery. Which probably shows no scheme is perfect.

At May 17, 2012 at 5:14 PM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Oh, I think its stakes, not word count.

Erin Hoffman's Sword of Fire and Sea is amazingly compact in terms of number of pags--but definitely is Epic Fantasy.

At May 17, 2012 at 5:19 PM , Blogger Nathan (@reviewbarn) said...

See, I don't have magical realism on its own, because I think that is an easy way for people to take some of the best of fantasy and then declare it "not fantasy." So in turn, I do use historical fantasy as its own sub genre. American Gods is Urban fantasy to me, Jon Strange is Historical.

At May 17, 2012 at 5:43 PM , Blogger Justin said...

I was wondering if someone would mention Rothfuss. I totally agree with you, I really have no idea what to call what he's doing although I would probably say high fantasy. While the scope of the plot is huge, there's little politicking or large scale conflict.

At May 17, 2012 at 10:35 PM , Anonymous Jared said...

Wow. This is great. I actually agree with you with almost every example too. But a couple of discrepencies...

1) "if The Dresden Files were set in Laramie, Wyoming on a farm, but was the same in all other ways it wouldn't be Urban Fantasy?" It wouldn't. No. Because it *couldn't* be the same in all other ways - the city (the cosmopolitan, the contemporary, the teeming throngs, the 24hoursness, vastness, modernity, etc) is central to it. I'd find a more compelling argument to be the Sookie Stackhouse books, as they're urban fantasy set in a small town - but, in that case, they're a small town that's the CENTER OF EVERYTHING (like, say, Sunnydale).

2) I'd probably move Joe Abercrombie into Swords and Sorcery, but, you know? I'm not sure any more.

3) I'm not sure about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It has epic scale and a secondary world setting, but the plot is very insular and, er... romantic. Is there an epic/PR category? That's where I'd stick Rothfuss as well. I don't mean for this to sound dismissive, it isn't. But both of those books are themed around romantic relationships, and, in many cases, make deliberate elisions in the plot - choosing to focus on the minutiae and/or empathy of the romance rather than the greater scale.

At May 18, 2012 at 12:03 AM , Anonymous Sarah E. said...

I find the paranormal romance category problematic. There are romantic elements in the over-arching plot in the Dresden Files, and in Anita Blake's work. In fact, the romantic element becomes crucial for Dresden. So where is the line drawn? Is it when the balance tips to romance rather than detection/ass kicking?

Romance writers say that everyone likes to look down on their genre, and it feels to me like they're being dismissed a bit here, too.

At May 18, 2012 at 1:16 AM , Blogger Joe Abercrombie said...

I think you need a double axis in your core fantasy classification, there. High-Low and Epic-Personal. High, being lots of fantastic elements, low being mundane. Epic being broad scale and Personal more limited and character focused. Then Sword and Sorcery would tend towards the Low/Personal end, classic Tolkien at the High/Epic end. Legend would probably rank more middlish on both. Rothfuss, very personal, relatively high. If you wanted you could add a heroic-cynical axis as well to further clarify. ASOIAF - cynical, epic, low. Legend - heroic, middlish, middlish. Tolkien - heroic, epic, high. Get me? You could then add a sweary/not very sweary axis. Steel Remains - cynical, personal, high, really sweary. Belgariad - heroic, epic, high, not sweary at all.

At May 18, 2012 at 2:03 AM , Anonymous Joris M said...

With most books the genre I put them in is based on the current discussion (often recommendation threads). They do tend to live in a more vague cloud in my head. And most of the time I look at the similarities to the core (which 'I know when I see it'), rather than focus on the differences.

At May 18, 2012 at 2:10 AM , Anonymous Joris M said...

I have seen books by publishers in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance spectrum that kind of use this scheme. With simple icons indicating the level of romance, violence, sex (and a few more) on the back cover.

At May 18, 2012 at 5:17 AM , Blogger Justin said...

#1) Alright, fine. But, it would still be an Urban Fantasy just as Sookie is. I suppose PLACE is important in an Urban Fantasy novel, but not necessarily required that it be some big cosmopolitan city.

#2) Except Joe is doing things that are fundamentally epic fantasy. Multiple PoVs, massive conflicts, perspectives from every layer of the narrative. I'd say he's go quite a bit of S&S influence though, particularly in character.

#3) Does it have an epic scale? It's got epic characters (gods), but the story is very narrow. It's a small slice of the larger picture. For me, that puts it squarely in a high fantasy only zone.

Comparing it to Rothfuss though is pretty perceptive. Both first person narrators (mostly), both fundamentally romances, etc. I've not read the subsequent novels in Jemisin's series so I'm not sure I can offer great comments, but I'd be fascinated to see both series broken down and compared.

At May 18, 2012 at 5:19 AM , Blogger Justin said...

I just don't read it or find it interesting. I actually think it can be very well done though. I don't generally read Urban Fantasy either because I find the plots and characters mostly flat.

However, the largest difference between UF and PNR is (usually) the level of eroticism (sex scenes) and a stronger commitment to happy endings (which is a huge romance trope).

At May 18, 2012 at 5:21 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Good thought, Joe. Particularly because it helps address the Rothfuss conundrum which I think is a pretty big flaw in my categories.

I'm also adding a squelchy sex scene axis for you and Morgan while I'm at it!

At May 18, 2012 at 5:29 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Shout out.

At May 18, 2012 at 5:42 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

So we need a multidimensional axis to truly show the complexity of Secondary World fantasy. Right...

At May 18, 2012 at 5:52 AM , Anonymous Peter V Brett said...

My head hurts.

At May 18, 2012 at 7:31 AM , Blogger RobB said...

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Just kidding, of course.

One of the problems we all have when we try to define or codify these things is that we'll immediately realize something defies such codification. Case in point - Conan is Heroic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, and can be considered Low Fantasy.

AMERICAN GODS can be considered MYTHIC FICTION in the same way Charles de Lint. Hell, even Wheel of Time and Jemisin has touches of mythic fiction since gods and mythology are such integral elements to the stories.

Rotfhuss is essentially writing a Bildungsroman, not that that's a genre, but I'd call it High Fantasy.

I'll be back for more later.

At May 18, 2012 at 7:36 AM , Blogger Jared said...

Totally agree with Joe.

I actually got to graph the hell out of a different genre once for a work-related thing. It was a blast.

At May 18, 2012 at 7:37 AM , Blogger Jared said...

Yeah. I agree with this too.

At May 18, 2012 at 8:46 AM , Blogger Galena said...

By that differentiation, I would most definitely put the Anita Blake books in PNR - past book 3, just about the only dang plot point in those books is sex, sex, kinky sex, group sex, sex and sex. It's ridiculous.

Also, I'd like to point out Seanan McGuire's October Daye series as a UF example - no sex and romance is almost nonexistent up to book 5. And I just really like that series :)

At May 18, 2012 at 9:00 AM , Blogger Justin said...

You caught me, I haven't read ANITA BLAKE. I've read VERY little UF. It's not my bag. Seanan McGuire's is one I've heard good things about.

At May 18, 2012 at 9:34 AM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At May 18, 2012 at 9:35 AM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

That's a good way to resolve the problem, plus I'll be referring to everything as either "sweary" or "not sweary" from now on.

This post was not sweary.

At May 18, 2012 at 1:21 PM , Blogger Galena said...

I figured you'd never read Anita Blake when you put it in UF :) It's very very graphic for pretty much the entirety of each book after about book 9. I don't even know why I still read them other than my foolish thoughts of "well, I've already read the others! I've committed and I might as well keep reading to see if LKH gets over her joy of writing weird orgies because before she went there the plot was pretty good..." Seriously, I need to bash those thoughts out of my head. It's not going to get better. I'm a glutton for punishment at this point.

If you do want to dip your toe in the UF waters, I recommend Seanan McGuire. She's one of the better examples, IMO. And (bonus points) it doesn't incorporate vampires and werewolves and all that - it's fae-focused instead.

At May 19, 2012 at 7:58 PM , Blogger John Wiswell said...

One of the handier delineations of subgenre I've read recently! Thank you for it. Though I've read almost no Urban Fantasy, those constrictions make it sound terrible. So little elasticity in what you can do with point of view and structure, minimal character development, plus everybody's expectation of a setting? Because even if someone followed the formula you laid out, if you stick it in Laramie, Wyoming, most readers won't identify it as "urban." Literalism can strike at any time, especially since most sub-genre labeling exists more for the advertisement of art, rather than its generation.

At May 29, 2012 at 8:58 AM , Blogger GunMetalBlue said...

Sub-genere-fying SFF is...pointless. I really have no need to sub-genre-fy books I read. I read sci-fi and fantasy...that's enough for me.

It's also enough for the bookstores.

I'm cool with that. Everything else is hubris.


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