Fantasy is an exciting and tedious genre to explore.
Most times fantasy is stereotyped as a story that has evil troll-like creatures, elves that hold nature near and dear to their hearts, a hero who is flawless, magical interventions, and most likely if humans are involved they are destroying something. While some of the common stereotypes hold true, the genre of fantasy is so much more. Where do you start? Which type of fantasy is best for you? Let’s dive in.
Wikipedia defines fantasy as:
a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore.
Whereas the dictionary definition is more on the nose:
fan·ta·sy, noun 1. the faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable. “his research had moved into the realm of fantasy”
There are two main types of fantasy:
- High Fantasy
- Low Fantasy
Think of these as two types of fantasy as ends of a spectrum. High and low fantasy have a lot of similarities, like magic, non-human races, and quest/prophecies. You will find many books and series have elements of both high and low fantasy but ultimately lean toward one side more than the other. I am are not comparing high/low magic just the elements of fantasy as a whole, which will mean slightly touching on magical systems.
How do you know if a story is high fantasy? You cannot visit this place, it is 100% made up and magic is largely used, so much so it may not even be explained.
EX: Lord Of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, His Dark Materials, The Wheel of Time Series
Signs you are reading a high fantasy book:
- Extreme world building
- The story takes place in a world away from ours, EX: Middle Earth
- might parallel our world, but it is also very clearly not the “real world”
- Lore exclusive to the universe of the story
- Magical practice or events are a norm
- This does not surprise the characters
- Often seen as skills, traits, or prophecies
- No set magical system, magic just is
- Epic quest/prophecy must be completed
- Land/magic/something belongs to another race/beings
- Many gods or godlike beings
- Established religions
- Magical/evil/non-human beings: dragons, elves, sprites etc.
How do you know if a story is low fantasy? The story has elements of fantasy but it set in the “real world,” meaning in a place you can visit. Think of a story that seems almost normal with a dash or spice of fantastic elements.
EX: The Magicians, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Percy Jackson series, Spiderwick Chronicles
Signs your book is low fantasy:
- Magical practices and events are shocking/life changing to one or more characters
- Set in the real world or one very similar to our world
- Mostly human cast of characters
- Most “normal” people in the story cannot see the magical/fantastic elements that trait is unique to the main cast of characters
- Most likely a magical system that fits into our understanding of the world
- Magic is a secret or hidden from the public
- Magical beings, non-human beings are in hiding among humans
- Character(s) sent on a personal quest
- Normally a world within a world
- Two worlds overlap/intersect
The Subgenres of Fantasy
Beyond two main groups of high and low fantasy, there are other subgenres as well. They exist on a spectrum of high to low fantasy. I know, it is a lot to keep up with and the genre list seems to be ever growing. The deeper you dive the more overlap you will notice between the categories of fantasy.
To name a few:
- Historical Fantasy
- Fairytale Fantasy
- Urban Fantasy
But Wait. What about Horror and Science Fiction?
Science fiction and horror can technically be considered main branches of the fantasy tree. Today they are well established as their “own” genes but can be traced back to fantasy.
Science fiction is a world that involves “the future” or future technology. Think of replacing all of the magic of fantasy with technology and you have a rough idea of science fiction.
Technology/science/physics strongly influence the plot of the story. You cannot remove these elements without completely destroying the plot of the story, in a way this type of world building is almost more important than the characters. That being said characters can be changed to almost anything and the story would function. Science fiction has subgenres as well like, post-apocalyptic fiction.
Horror is more in line with low fantasy, but still well in its own category. Horror plots are typically based in supernatural lore and cultural superstitions. Horror authors are aiming not only to entertain you but scare you. The characters and their actions are very important to the story. Often a character or group of characters are victims of an evil force. However, the horror genre is interesting because the work it encompasses can lean toward science fiction (infection based outbreak) or fantasy (supernatural/magical twist). Horror is pretty straight forward compared to fantasy and science fiction if you can handle the spookiness.
Overall, fantasy serves as a genre that has a little something for everyone. I used examples of popular series that can be considered as “icons” of the genre, but there are so many more out there. It would be near impossible to list everything.
You can catch weekly fantasy recommendations with my Spells and Sprites post, they are scheduled every Wednesday and Sunday, and fantasy book reviews throughout the month of April.
Are you an avid reader of fantasy? What are some of your favorite fantasy books/series? Do you read more high or low fantasy?