There’s a whole slew of fantasy sub-genres out there. Do we really need all of them? Of course we do. Reader tastes are wide and varied. Added to that, every time a new sub-genre emerges, the sum of the parts becomes greater, the imagination of humankind broadens, and we ensure we’re not simply rehashing the same old stuff over and over.
So, here’s a description of a good number of the sub-genres, along with relevant authors. The list is not exhaustive… and never could be, since over time sub-genres blend one into another, separate, reform and change. By the time you’ve finished reading this page, a few new sub-genres will no doubt have been born.
1. “After the Fall”/Lost Civilization Fantasy
In this sub-genre, humanity makes its home in the ruins of a lost civilization. There is the sense of a lost golden age. When the work is more futuristic, it can feel post-apocalyptic, as the survivors emerge blinking into the dawn of a new day (e.g. Mad Max). Examples of writers in this sub-genre include Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun, and Greg Keyes, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, http://www.gregkeyes.com/.
2. Dying Earth Fantasy
This sub-genre got its name from the Dying Earth series of novels written by Jack Vance, started in the 1950s, http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/v/jack-vance/. Essentially, this genre describes a dying sun, an earth exhausted of its resources or a world reaching the end of time. It’s not really about an apocalypse of fire and destruction – more about a slow winding down, like a tired, old man looking forward to the long sleep of death. It’s definitely about a world in its twilight years. You might think of H.G. Well’s Time Machine as well, where the remnants of humanity have devolved into a monstrous underground race and a childlike, innocent race above ground. More recent authors include C.J. Cherryh, http://www.cherryh.com/www/menu.htm and Stephen Hunt, http://www.sfcrowsnest.com/author/index.php.
3. High fantasy
This is the ‘original’ sub-genre of fantasy. Tolkien’s work is considered defining. There’s a group of friends on a quest to save the world. It is second-world fantasy. Such work takes itself seriously, there is little humour involved and there is often religious symbolism going on. You can find out much more by reading Sub-genres of British Fantasy Literature, by one A J Dalton (ahem).
4. Epic Fantasy
One of the classic sub-genres. Particularly dominant in the 1980s and 90s, with writers like David Eddings, the Belgariad, http://www.eddingschronicles.com/index.html, and the masterful Raymond E. Feist, http://www.crydee.com/. In this genre, the kings and queens are always wise, and a heroic working class hero (‘The Chosen One’) goes on a quest to fight evil and save the world. Where this sub-genre is different to high fantasy is that it has more humour/banter going on, there are strong social, political and economic frameworks, and there are more morally ambivalent characters. However, this sub-genre is, of course, very formulaic and cliched these days.
5. Urban Fantasy
Come the turn of the millennium, what with Y2K, the doomsday prophecy of Nostradamus, the first Iraq War, society becoming more multicultural, the credit crunch approaching, and so on, the dominance of epic fantasy was ended by the arrival of the more gritty and first-world urban fantasy. One of the great writers in this sub-genre is Neil Gaiman, with his novels Neverwhere and American Gods. This sub-genre is usually set in the real, modern world, there is some sort of large-scale and criminal threat, and there is some other/magical/supernatural world intruding.
6. Dark Fantasy
Novels in this sub-genre usually dwell upon vampires, zombies, witches and demons in the real and modern world (first-world). The ‘hero’ is usually beset by problems in their romantic or personal life. The refreshing thing about this genre that it allows for more diversity than other sub-genres, and the anti-hero often becomes sympathetic to the reader. Classic examples include Anne Rice, http://www.annerice.com/, Stephenie Meyer, with the Twilight series, http://www.stepheniemeyer.com/midnightsun.html, and Charlaine Harris, with True Blood. This sub-genre was at the peak of its popularity during the late 2000s.
7. Metaphysical Fantasy
The term ‘metaphysical fantasy’ was coined back in 2008 when I published Necromancer’s Gambit, the first new-wave zombie novel. The term has now become an established category of fiction on Amazon. What metaphysical fantasy did was subvert the usual epic fantasy tropes, making everything darker, more corrupt or more gothic. At the same time, it questioned the nature of heroism, bringing in a more reflective and philosophical set of themes. It also tended to have a set of squabbling, meddling gods, which brought in a lot of fun and dark humour. So, second-world ‘metaphysical fantasy’ did for ‘epic fantasy’ exactly what first-world ‘dark fantasy’ did for ‘urban fantasy’. Metaphysical fantasy reached its height with books by R. Scott Bakker, Alan Campbell, J. V. Jones, myself and a few others during the late 2000s, but it’s now been overtaken by ‘grimdark fantasy’. The trilogy I did for Gollancz (starting with the novel Empire of the Saviours) is often pointed to as being a classic example of the sub-genre.
8. Grimdark Fantasy
What with the credit crunch, the Expenses Scandal, the Phone Hacking Scandal and the Selling of Information scandal, it became clear that those at the top of British society weren’t there based on merit. The establishment is entirely corrupt and corrupting. This second-world sub-genre features shocking brutality, graphic violence and no small amount of rape. Authors include Peter V. Brett, with The Painted Man, http://www.petervbrett.com/, George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie.
9. Heroic Fantasy (aka Sword and Sorcery)
One of your all-time classic sub-genres. Here, the main character tends to be a (muscle-bound) warrior fighting to save everyone and everything. Significantly, the hero is not particularly magically endowed, meaning that they are set ‘against the odds’. This ploy makes it easy for the reader to identify with the protagonist, and probably explains the sub-genre’s enduring popularity. It became big in the 1970s, with Robert Jordan’s Conan sagas, David Gemmell’s work, and the mighty Michael Moorcock’s Elrik cycle. More recent examples are published by the Black Library. A couple of my favourites are Gotrek and Felix, http://www.blacklibrary.com/warhammer/gotrek-and-felix/.
10. Historical Fantasy
This sub-genre is like Historical Fiction (e.g. Bernard Cornwell, http://www.bernardcornwell.net/) but with the occurence of historical events given a fantastical cause or explanation. I don’t know this genre that well, but a book branded with the category is The Nameless Day, by the Australian author, Sara Douglass, who also wrote the brilliant fantasy series called the Axis Trilogy. I wouldn’t particularly recommend The Nameless Day, however. You can find a full review elsewhere on this site.
9. Mythic Fantasy
This sub-genre of fantasy basically involves the return to the world of characters from mythology. There is a sense of the supernatural intruding into the real world. Well known novels in this vein are Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, http://www.robertholdstock.com/, and the books of Mark Chadbourn, www.markchadbourn.net.
10. Romantic Fantasy
Oh, dear. This sub-genre is really not to my taste, but it deserves an honourable mention. Here, a fantasy world serves as a mere backdrop to the emotional angst and or love-life of some character or other. Current authors include Kristin Cashore (who wrote Graceling), http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/14527-1/Author-Kristin-Cashore.htm, and Karen Miller (who wrote the Innocent Mage), http://www.karenmiller.net.
11. Steampunk Fantasy/Scifi
This sub-genre came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used – usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England – but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. A more recent writer of such material is Stephen Hunt.
12. Dystopian YA
Just as grimdark fantasy offers a bleak second-world vision, dystopian YA offers a bleak first-world vision of the future. In this sub-genre young people are usually experimented upon and have to escape. A famous example is of course Susan Collins’s The Hunger Games, but there are of course many many more.
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