In this extract from Fantasy Fiction, the first fantasy-writing textbook to combine a historical genre overview with an anthology and comprehensive craft guide, Jennifer Pullen discusses the many, varied sub-genres of fantasy fiction.
Any fantasy that is set in a world other than the “real” or primary world. It is a fictional world, not merely a modification of a real-world culture, though real-world cultures can be part of its inspiration. Some fantasy genres (like portal fantasy) can include both the real world and a secondary world.1Most high fantasy is secondary-world fantasy, so the history of the genre is very similar, though not identical to that of epic/high fantasy. It also includes gothic secondary-world fantasy like Gormenghast in its genealogy.
Epic Fantasy / High Fantasy / Sword and Sorcery / Quest Fantasy
When people think of fantasy fiction, this series of overlapping genres is often the first that comes to mind. High fantasy and epic fantasy are sometimes seen as synonyms of each other. High fantasy is set in a secondary imagined world. Most, but not all, epic fantasy is also high fantasy. Early writers in the genre include William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Epic fantasy has roots in the classical epic and tends to focus on heroic characters who have extraordinary abilities or ordinary people who do extraordinary things. The stakes in epic fantasy are high, the fate of the world (or a nation) rests on the actions of the characters. The hero is often an orphan or younger son (paralleling fairy tales where the seventh son of a seventh son is significant or magical) or someone who comes from a mysterious or powerful lineage. Sometimes they are chosen by outside forces like gods or wizards. They frequently oppose forces of evil bent on domination and can overlap with quest fantasy. For example, The Lord of the Rings is a quest fantasy and an epic fantasy at the same time. Historically, the Eurocentric and male-centred Hero’s Journey has driven the plot. Sword and sorcery, like Conan the Barbarian, has high stakes, but more morally gray heroes. The white-male-centric focus is shifting, the moral certainty of early epic fantasy is giving way to greater ambiguity.
Early tendencies to centre plot over character have largely fallen away. Important contemporary writers include N. K. Jemisin, Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, Guy Gavriel Kay, Patrick Rothfuss, Tamsyn Muir, Rebecca Roanhorse, S. A. Chakraborty, Jenn Lyons, Robert Jackson Bennett, Andrea Stewart, and Zen Cho.
Gaslamp Fantasy / Steampunk / Fantasy of Manners
Gaslamp fantasy is a subgenre of historical fantasy and alternate history fantasy, but so prolific that it contains within itself a series of further subgenres including fantasy of manners and steampunk. Gaslamp fantasy is set in a pseudo-Victorian, Regency, or adjacent time period, most often in England, America, or a secondary-world proxy. Sometimes gaslamp fantasy mimics period novels in style, like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Sometimes gaslamp fantasy riffs on a specific aspect of period culture, like A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan. Fantasy of manners novels are sometimes set in secondary worlds set in the past, such as Ellen Kushner’s queer cult novel Swordspoint (often credited with inventing the fantasy of manners genre). A fantasy of manners uses/subverts tropes of the novel of manners, centring interpersonal or romantic relationships.
Not all fantasy of manners novels are romance novels, though there are gaslamp romances (like Soulless by Gail Carriger). They are usually focused on female identified characters and set out to highlight the problematic gender norms of the inspirational periods. Some are simultaneously gothic, such as The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Mark Anthony. Steampunk is gaslamp fantasy with an emphasis on steam technology and the promises and perils of industrialization.
Gaslamp fantasy is increasingly used to critique colonialism. Genre mashups are common. Influential contemporary novels in this genre include Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun, C. L. Polk’s The Midnight Bargain, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, and Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.
Silkpunk / Other Punk Genres
Silkpunk, like steampunk, blends science fiction and fantasy, and examines how technology can be simultaneously glorious and problematic. The term was coined by Ken Liu, one of our most important silk punk writers, though novels that could qualify existed before (terms usually aren’t created until a genre begins to coalesce). It is not just Asian-flavoured steampunk. It takes its inspiration from the Romantic storytelling tradition (big R romantic, not bodice rippers) of East Asia, and classical East Asian antiquity.
Technology is often biomimetic, using materials indigenous to East Asian and Pacific Islander cultures. Like all punk genres, the punk signifies resistance, reappropriation, and defiance. This a rising genre. Key writers include Ken Liu, Nghi Vo, Zen Cho, J. Y. Yang, and Marjorie Liu. Note: there are punk fantasy subgenres for pretty much any historical time period or region. The thing they have in common is a desire to subvert, rebel, and defy authority, while blending fantasy with technology. Godpunk has been a recent place for writers of colour to subvert white dominance in fantasy. Important writers include Pdjèlí Clark and Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Godpunk overlaps with mythic fantasy. Hopepunk, on the other hand, isn’t really a genre, since it refers to a hopeful tone—any genre can be hopeful. Its inverse, grimdark, also isn’t really a genre so much as tonal and worldview orientation.
Broadly defined, this is fantasy set in the past. The genre is rapidly expanding and can be combined with other genres, like epic fantasy. It is usually set in a real place or a readily identifiable fantasy analogue.
It is usually interested in treating its setting and time period realistically. It will often have limited magic, spending more page space on the political, social, and economic situations of the characters. It is more likely than epic fantasy to focus on ordinary people and de-emphasize destiny. The plots are usually large in scope but also character centred. The prose is frequently lyrical. This genre includes alternate history fantasy, which can be highly magically infused or contain no magic at all. The Netflix TV series Bridgerton is an example of this—it makes Queen Charlotte black and posits a changed social climate around race as a result. One of the most esteemed current practitioners of historical fantasy is Guy Gavriel Kay. The magical element in his fantasy is subtle but real. There are historical fantasy novels set in every imaginable time and place. Common subgenres include Wuxia fantasy, inspired by Chinese and Japanese warrior traditions, and Arabian fantasy, inspired by the Arabian Nights. Recent novels like The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates add fantastical elements to American history to address racism.
Patterned after the Arthurian chivalric Romance. People have written Arthurian narratives long before fantasy was a genre. Famous examples from the 20th century include T. H. White’s The Once and Future King and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. This genre has been blended with nearly every genre one could imagine, from science fiction, to horror, to romance. It has been a constant presence within fantasy, not particular trendy, but never entirely out of fashion. Themes of war, peace, destiny vs. freewill, and true love are common. Nicola Griffith’s Spear is a recent standout example.
Romantic fantasy is a widespread subgenre of fantasy with diffuse boundaries. The stories focus on relationships, interpersonal, political, and romantic.
The love story is crucial to the broader plot, with sociopolitical implications. Romantic fantasy novels can also be epic fantasy novels, or any other genre. They usually centre female-identified protagonists (although not always). There is usually a distinction made between a fantasy romance (a romance novel with fantasy elements) and romantic fantasy (a fantasy novel that includes a romance). The biggest difference between the two is tonal. A romantic fantasy novel doesn’t need to end happily, while a fantasy romance must. Both tend to be compassionate regarding human nature.
Diversity has been steadily increasing, with high-profile examples of works written by and about queer people and people of colour.
Well-known examples include Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, Juliet Mariller’s Daughter of the Forest, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey, and Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne.
Gothic Fantasy / Dark Fantasy
Gothic fantasy draws on the gothic novel. Characterized by extreme emotions (from pleasure to terror), eerie settings, and unsettling images. Similar to dark fantasy and horror, though it tends to contain less explicit violence than some horror. Magic/the supernatural must be the source of the uncanny.
The boundaries between gothic fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror are fuzzy. There are many texts that could easily fit all three categories.
Dark fantasy and gothic fantasy are sometimes considered synonymous, though some argue that you can have dark epic fantasy, but not gothic epic fantasy. There are subgenres that have grown large enough to be considered related but distinct, like cosmic horror / Lovecraftian fantasy, and Weird Fiction. Gothic fantasy and its related genres draw upon the legacy of such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and Charlotte Brontë.
Often used to discuss themes of oppression. Prominent contemporary writers include Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Cherie Priest, Victor LaValle, Anne Rice, and Stephen Graham Jones.
Weird Fiction / Cosmic Horror / Lovecraftian Fantasy
These overlapping genres are fertile enough to get their own sections, but difficult to separate. Lovecraftian fantasy draws upon the Lovecraft mythos. Much of it now uses the mythos in order to wrestle with Lovecraft’s racism and sexism. Thus, writers like Ruthanna Emrys, Cherie Priest, and Victor LaValle have retold Lovecraft stories, or just borrowed elements, to write anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic works.
Any writer of this genre must deal with the reality that Lovecraft was simultaneously influential and hateful. Cosmic horror is adjacent, characterized by depicting humanity as small in the face of a vast uncaring universe. Weird fiction (or the New Weird) is typified by a combination of awe and horror using untraditional monsters or creatures.
The British fantasist China Miéville says that it is defined by a search for the “numinous.” Its poster image is the tentacle. These interlocking genres tend to be image-driven, often with baroque or lyrical language. Important contemporary writers include China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, Kathe Koja, Victor LaValle, Sofia Samatar, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Hand, and Helen Oyeyemi.
Mythic Fantasy / Mythic Fiction
Mythic fantasy derives from the stories, creatures, and characters from mythology. Mythic fantasy can involve retellings, or mythology remixed to create a new magical world. Mythic fantasy connects to specific mythological systems explicitly. Seeing how a myth remains the same, or is changed for the new tale, is one of its pleasures. Feminist retellings like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, or Madeline Miller’s Circe are prominent. Retellings based upon Greek and Roman mythology have been especially common. Some stories mix myths to create large-scale fantasy universes, like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Rick Riordan’s YA novels. These books are sometimes published as fantasy, and sometimes as mainstream fiction. Writers like Louise Erdrich and Elizabeth Hand publish under mainstream presses. Myths beyond the Western canon have thankfully begun to gain greater prominence, like Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The term is generally attributed to Charles de Lint and Terri Windling.
Fairy Tale / Folkloric Fantasy
There is much debate about which stories belong in this category, and which in mythic fantasy. This ambiguity derives from the messy boundary between myths and fairy tales. For example, Ovid’s Cupid and Psyche is also the first known Beauty and the Beast story. Generally, fairy tale fantasy retells fairy tales from traditions around the world in new ways, often as feminist retellings, or to draw attention to other issues.
Like mythic fantasy, part of the pleasure of this genre is the frisson of the familiar and the strange. Fairy tale and folkloric fantasy novels cross genre and mainstream literary publishing and predate the modern publishing system. Folkloric fantasy is connected to fairy tale fantasy, although a story can be folkloric fantasy without being a fairy tale retelling. Fairy tale and folkloric fantasy elements also show up in other genres. Important writers include Ellen Kushner, Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, Charles de Lint, Terri Windling, Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Juliet Mariller, Gregory Maguire, Kate Bernheimer, Helen Oyeyemi, Ken Liu, Sequoia Nagamatsu, Rebecca Roanhorse, Naomi Novik, Nalo Hopkinson, Salman Rushdie, and Alice Hoffman.