Have you ever picked up a fantasy book and loved it, then tried to follow-up with another, only to find that it’s just not working for you? Have your friends ever complained that they just couldn’t get into fantasy, but when you ask, they’ve only tried one or two books before giving up on the whole genre? If you answered yes to either question, you or someone you know may need to discover their “brand” of fantasy!
Fantasy is a huge genre, divided into many distinct and varied sub-genres. While some readers may love to delve into any type of fantasy, others may find themselves loving one book, then being utterly bored or bewildered by the next. Some readers may even be amazed to discover that they are reading a fantasy because the fantastic elements might be so subtle within the novel.
For example, one reader could love Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones but be unable to finish Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. Another could love Eragon but immediately dislike Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Yet another could love Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but be put off by Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.
So how would a reader discover what fantasies they do like? Start by recalling the title of the last fantasy that you or they enjoyed. What about that specific book was the most appealing? Was it the world-building, the characters, or the plot? A combination of all three? Armed with this knowledge, a reader can then potentially identify the sub-genre within fantasy where that book would fit and find more books of a similar nature.
Though the fantasy sub-genre list is constantly evolving as the publishing market changes, and many writers are blending genres, there are some tried and true sub-genres that can be consistently looked to when hunting for new favorite titles. One of the very first and most important distinctions that can be made is between High/Epic Fantasy and Low Fantasy.
High/Epic Fantasy is fantasy set in entirely new worlds with fantastical creatures and distinct rules for how this world works. There is also usually an entire imagined history for the world, and many times authors include maps to help readers envision the lands in which the stories take place. Great examples would be J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series or George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.
Low Fantasy is fantasy set in our ordinary world with magical elements but without the fantastical creatures or lands. This type of fantasy is often now called Magical Realism. Examples would include Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story or Marissa Doyle’s Bewitching Season.
While many high fantasy readers will embrace low fantasy, readers who only like a touch of magic in their stories are much less likely to venture into a wholly imagined new world. Once you know what broad type of fantasy reader you are, you can narrow things down even further by exploring the smaller sub-genres. Let me show you some examples:
- Alternate World: These books have worlds that are hidden within or are parallel to our own. A great example would be Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars, in which Alyss Heart travels between Victorian London and her own home world, Wonderland. (High Fantasy)
- Comedic: These books are devoted to being humorous and delve deeply into satire. Piers Anthony’s Xanth series or Robert Aspirin’s Myth series are examples. (High Fantasy)
- Court Intrigue: These books are set in medieval-like castles, either in our own world or a recognizable alternate world. A new example of this sub-genre would be Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass, where an assassin must compete to become Royal Champion. (Low/High Fantasy)
- Heroic: These books feature a flawed conquering hero, often facing a forgivable villain. An example would be Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, in which a scarred prisoner becomes the people’s hope in a world where the villain had come to rule. (High Fantasy)
- Mythic: These books are generally set in our world and in some way incorporate the already existing mythologies of our cultures. Perfect examples would be Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which features Greek mythology, and Joanne Harris’s Runemarks, which delves into Norse mythology. (Low/High Fantasy)
- Quest: These books feature a protagonist that embarks upon a dangerous and vital quest. An example would be Carolyn Hennesy’s Pandora, series in which a teenage Pandora must travel the world to retrieve the evils that escaped from the infamous box. (High Fantasy)
- Science Fantasy: These books feature a world that is highly developed and dependent upon technology but also contains elements of high fantasy. An example would be Anthea Sharp’s Feyland series, which blends the video game technology of our world with an alternate fey world. (High/Low Fantasy)
- Urban Fantasy: These titles are set in a contemporary, city environment where fantasy elements bleed in to the world. Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series is a great example, as would be Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. (Low Fantasy)
For more examples of fantasy sub-genres, you can visit Writing to Publish’s Fantasy Subgenre Definitions page, which I found to be a fairly inclusive and comprehensive source.
Hopefully with the clarification of these divisions within fantasy’s broad spectrum, more readers will determine that yes, they do enjoy at least some aspect of the fantastic. These readers will be better able to select books they will find enjoyable and they will be able to proudly proclaim, “I have a brand of fantasy!” At least, as an avid and unashamed fantasy lover, that is my hope…
— Jessica Miller, currently reading City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster