If you’ve been around the block for this genre a few times, you’ll have noticed that there’s a considerable breadth and depth to the type of stories that are in some ways claimed as part of the genre, and a lot of ways to break that down into categories. You’re probably familiar with genres like Epic, Urban, and Portal, although you might be confused with them. You might know of various academic breakdowns, such as Mendlesohn’s Portal-Quest, Immersive, Intrusion, and Liminal, or seen fan proposals such as Dunsanian, Howardian, and Tolkien-esque.
Do we need more?
Maybe. I often find the current definitions sometimes don’t tell me all that much, or have too many definitions for one word. Plus looking at the genre’s history, other ways of looking at it that seem more useful to me (in that particular moment, not at all times) occur. So have a look at the following and tell me what you think.
Fantasy As An Addition To Other Genres
Fantasy is a genre of its own but it is not necessarily a genre in the way other books are, in that it describes elements the reader will meet rather than the main action of the plot. As such, it is a wonderful sponge that can take in other genres, and to no small extent what we think of as fantasy comes from which other genres many of the foundational authors chose to take in. What if we chose to define fantasy by what other genre it has its closest tie to? This gives you:
Mystery Fantasy: Drawing from murder mysteries and the like. Pioneered by Glen Cook, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Terry Pratchett in the 80s, this has become a predominant form of urban fantasy but we do see less-modern versions out there like Martin Scott’s Thraxas and Richard Swan’s The Justice of Kings (I think…)
Thriller Fantasy: A fairly new brand of fantasy, drawing off thrillers as written by Tom Clancy et al. Me, I think of Scott Dickinson and The Traitor Baru Cormorant, but Sam Hawke’s City of Lies is a good example too, and I think Abercrombie’s said he’s going to publish something in this vein – and I think it’s going to get big. Would you count Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora here? Or should Heist Fantasy be its own thing? Here we reach a flaw of this method – other genres aren’t always clear cut either.
Romance Fantasy: Another booming category as more and more successors spring up to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books. A lot of them are in Urban Fantasy milieus, in which is commonly called Paranormal Romance, but we also see more authors in trad fantasy milieus like Grace Draven and T. Kingfisher.
Swashbuckling Fantasy: I could have called this action-adventure too. But this is a very old form of fantasy, and has become so associated with fantasy that modern authors of historical swashbuckling often come back to fantasy for inspiration. I’m thinking R.E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, some of Raymond E. Feist’s work, some of Michael J. Sullivan’s work – mostly Swords & Sorcery, or D&Desque quests.
Literary Fantasy: A genre we already know; essentially work that follows the traditions of literary fiction with fantasy elements. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi are obvious candidates, and I’m thinking Madeleine Miller’s Circe and its spiritual successors fall into this one too.
Military Fantasy: Books predominantly about a military unit and its wars. Glen Cook’s The Black Company feels one of the first of its type, with Django Wexler a more recent addition to the style, with Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion in between.
Historic Saga Fantasy: Books like War and Peace, or James Clavell’s Shogun, or a Shakespeare History. For a while the dominant form within fantasy thanks to Robert Jordan and GRR Martin, and one that I think still has a great hold on people’s imaginations (along with swashbuckling). Incidentally, I think this could also be called, or is very similar to, Space Opera Fantasy. Hands up all those fantasy authors influenced by Dune and Star Wars?
Of course, a lot use a mix of those two. Of a mix of others (Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace is romance fantasy). And there’s a long list of other possible genre-mixs, some known – Sci-Fantasy, Dark Fantasy (i.e. horror), Fantasy of Manners, Weird Western – and some more theoretical like… can’t think of any right now.
What does this usefully add? I think it adds another way of looking at everything out there and working out what you want. If you’ve just finished a Rivers of London book and want more like it, do you want Urban Fantasy, or do you want Mystery Fantasy, or even Police Procedural Fantasy? I know some people already work that way. I also think it’s an interesting way of examining the growth of the genre. We talk so much about fantasy authors being influenced by fantasy authors, but I think you’re into this millennium before the majority of fantasy authors list fantasy authors as the majority of their influences.
And speaking of mapping influences, let’s try another approach…
Fantasy As Defined By Closest Form Of Taproot Text
As many of us know, the fantasy genre is often seen as a growth of invented texts that draw on the traditions of the stories of old – the taproot texts – but that are not part of them. However, many fantasy stories, particularly at the dawn of the genre, are heavily marked by their preferred taproot texts, and there is a great deal of differentiation between them.
So what do you get if you look at it this way?
Heroic Epic Fantasy: Anything influenced by heroic epics, from Gilgamesh and the Iliad to Cuchulainn and the Norse Sagas. Tolkien is the very obvious example of this, as are William Morris and Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. I think you’ll find some Howard and Moorcock in here too. More modern, I think Nicola Griffith’s Spear is a fine example of this.
Chivalric Romance Fantasy: Do you like the Mort d’Arthur, or Charlemagne? Then this the bucket. I think ER Eddison, and Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, and in a very twisty way David Eddings’ work. You’d think most Arthurian reimaginings would fall here but most seem to shy away from the chivalric romance and go for historic ideas.
Gothic Fantasy: Not all taproot texts are myths and legends (personally). The rise of gothic fiction leading up to Edgar Allen Poe does have a great influence on many fantasy authors, particularly those of the Weird Tales era. Beyond that, I’d say Peake’s Gormenghast owes an obvious debt and more recently, RJ Barker’s Age of Assassins.
Fairy Tale Fantasy: By far the most vibrant taproot vein going today thanks to authors like Gaiman and Angela Carter continuing the legacy of Dunsany and Mirrlees and the sources they drew on, and now Katherine Arden and Naomi Novik and right up to date with Ava Reid and Hannah Whitten.
This one didn’t work as well as I’d been expecting, largely because you look at authors seen as continuing in the footsteps of Tolkien and Arthurian traditions and the tip of the hat to the feeling of the originals is very light. You see authors try to make a case for staying close to the taproot – like Kay with The Fionavar Tapestry – and you see authors deliberately mixing the taproots together, like Jordan did. But mostly, it feels like writers want to take the ideas of myth and give them entirely new feelings and meanings. This is useful for discussing the beginnings of the genre and some underlying currents, but not really for what’s getting published today.
So let’s try something that might be more use
Fantasy on Spectrums
Again, nothing new. Grimdark and subgenres like Noblebright and Hopepunk are already proof of this, as is the way some people use High and Low Fantasy to talk about magic levels, and they can also be used fairly synonymously with terms in the first part of the sentence. But what other useful spectrums are there?
This one occurred to me when thinking about you could have a Romantic vs Mimetic, or Low Fidelity vs High Fidelity, in terms of how much the author thinks setting details matter. Examples would be the lack of squires in Eddings’ Elenium vs their utility in GRR Martin’s or Miles Cameron’s work, or the sparse setting details of David Gemmell’s Drenai vs the hugely detailed (not always realistically, but detailed) world of Jordan’s Wheel of Time. That one matters to me as I find Low Fidelity a bit out of fashion, but find it enables sprightlier stories.
The list of useful spectrums is endless. Blood and Gore vs Pacifistic Comfort. High and Low Heat for explicit sexuality. Scabpicking vs Hugboxing. All the permutations of scope you can think of (size of the map, number of PoVs, number of people in dramatic battles, and so on, scale of stakes). Prose!
Now this is a useful tool for measuring the genre and its journey. The extent to which we see the genre’s big titles of any moment swing between brutality and comfort, or low and high fidelity, shows us a lot about where it is. But I think it’s even more useful asking for recs. It’s just a useful internal shorthand for what type of Epic Fantasy, or Urban Fantasy, or whatever you like, that’s easily understood.
So are any of these ways of categorising the genre that might have use to you?