Fantasy subgenres fascinate me. There’s just so damn many of them, and it is my firm belief that there is a fantasy subgenre out there for everyone. And there are so many combinations of subgenres that you can smush together and create a brand new fantasy book out of.
So I am taking the jump and attempting to explain a few of the most popular subgenres in fantasy, though there are honestly so many and a girl only has so much time to read books, so I’ve certainly missed most of them. But I can get to some of my favourites.
High fantasy is what most people think of when they hear the word “fantasy.” Kingdoms. Castles. Magic. Elaborate worldbuilding. High fantasy is also probably the most common subgenre of fantasy out there.
High fantasy takes place in a secondary, entirely made-up world. Even though many people hear “high fantasy” and hear “European-inspired fantasy,” this isn’t the case. The only stipulation for high fantasy is that it takes place in a world that is not ours. A lot of high fantasy has heroic ideals: though no one may be entirely good or evil, there are usually defined sides and morality.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, and We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal are all examples of young adult high fantasy taking place in non-Western worlds.
Some people will define high and epic fantasy in the same manner, but there’s definitely a case for epic fantasy to be set apart from high fantasy in terms of its complexity and scope. Epic fantasy is normally a form of high fantasy; however, it’s that kind of fantasy with a huge, sprawling scope. Everything is heightened in epic fantasy. There are more characters, a larger world, and complex lore and worldbuilding; stakes are higher than in high fantasy.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu and The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon are two examples of epic fantasy I’ve heard a lot about.
Low fantasy is also one of those subgenres that no one really knows how to define. It’s the “opposite” of high fantasy — whatever that means. I’ve seen it defined as fantasy set in our world, but I’ve always thought of themes as one of those things that really define genre when nothing else can. So I offer up the definition of low fantasy as more realistic fantasy that can either incorporate magic or not. If low fantasy does incorporate magic, it’s usually not as essential to the world as it is in high fantasy.
One example is The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, which is set in a secondary world–making it inherently fantasy–but there’s no magic. Another book I’d consider low fantasy is Six of Crows, despite The Grisha Trilogy being firmly high fantasy for me. Even though it takes place in the same world, Six of Crows is just six idiots breaking into a prison for cold, hard, cash–decidedly not heroic ideals–and magic plays a much different role in the story.
Historical fantasy is fantasy that takes place somewhere in the history of our world, and everything is game. Note that historical fantasy does not change the timeline (which would then make it alternate history). Instead, the action takes place in and around history but does not change the course of it. Historical fantasy more or less necessitates some kind of magic, or it would simply be historical fiction.
City of Brass is a really good example of historical fantasy that takes place in the eighteenth-century Middle East. The Gilded Wolves is another, set in the world of Paris in the 1800s.
Alternate history can venture into the more science fiction side of speculative fiction, but alternate history can also be fantasy. Unlike historical fantasy, alternate history books change historical events in a significant way. In alternate history, there’s a “point of divergence” where the world changes drastically from ours. One of the most popular ones is “What if the Axis Powers won WWII?” which, frankly, gets boring. One I like is Justina Ireland’s question of “What if the American Civil War happened, but zombies?” in Dread Nation.
This is another fantasy genre that doesn’t necessarily need magic to be fantasy, though a lot of alternate history does include magical elements, which may or may not influence the point of divergence.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is one of my favourite alternate histories, asking what would happen if zombies in history cropped up. And I Darken by Kiersten White, which posits what would happen if Vlad the Impaler was a woman is another example.
Urban fantasy can be any fantasy set in a city, really, but the most conventional categorization is that urban fantasy that takes place in our modern world, in cities like New York and London. Urban fantasy is a subgenre that can blend easily with a lot of others, so urban fantasy books can take on a lot of different aspects.
Here are two somewhat unconventional urban fantasies, in that they don’t take place in today’s modern world: Jade City by Fonda Lee is a rare secondary world modern urban fantasy. Meanwhile, Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse is a dystopian urban fantasy.
Dark fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy where the characters are morally grey and the world is bleak. There may not be a lot of hope or optimism in dark fantasy, though the world usually isn’t completely devoid of it–there are still pockets of light shining through. There are still people with heroic values. Dark fantasy can take place in either a secondary world or our world. Dark fantasy often has gothic elements or elements of horror.
The Young Elites by Marie Lu is a great example of dark fantasy in young adult. On the other hand, Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo is adult dark urban fantasy.
Grimdark is dark fantasy, but darker. Grimdark fantasy instills harsh “realism” (often under debate to whether the darkness is actually realistic or not, as some consider it over-the-top), morally grey to flat-out evil characters, and the world is very bleak.
There’s also usually a lot of blood, violence, and gore; grimdark doesn’t skimp on the details of all the terrible things that happen to pretty much everyone. Hope? Practically nonexistent. Everyone is woefully pessimistic, even nihilistic. Things are Bad, they have always been Bad, and they will never get better.
Grimdark fantasy is very subjective, and the categorization of grimdark really depends on who’s reading it. However, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang is usually categorized as grimdark.
Science fantasy blends elements of science fiction and fantasy together, blurring the lines between these two elements of speculative fiction. Sci-fi has subgenres as well, but we’ll focus on two here: hard sci-fi, which is science fiction that relies on modern scientific principles; and soft sci-fi, which uses science as a base for more fantastical elements.
The Fever King by Victoria Lee is on the harder side of sci-fi, using physics and science to explain the magic within the book. The line between science and fantasy in the book’s magic system is practically nonexistent. For an example of softer sci-fi, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir is more of a fantasy space opera, starring lesbian necromancers in space.
Magical realism is a subgenre that was pioneered by Latinx authors, most notably Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. However, elements of magical realism are becoming more common across literature. Magical realism makes the realistic magical and the magical real, and a lot of the time it’s used to make a political statement: to bring light to marginalization and injustice through magical elements in our world.
Two essential young adult magical realism novels are When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore and The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, which incorporate magical elements into coming-of-age stories that will leave you aching.
For further reading, check out this list of 50(!) Fantasy Subgenres with some great recommendations on Reedsy.com, which is a more comprehensive list than I could ever put together! Now if you’ll excuse me I have to actually go read half of these books. Because I haven’t yet. Whoops!
what’s your favourite fantasy subgenre?? alternatively, what’s a super niche subgenre you like??