Last week we talked about knowing your genre so you and the marketing department can properly place your book, and we started looking into what defines each genre beginning with high fantasy. This week we’ll talk about low fantasy, and some of the subgenres of high and low.
I don’t especially like the term “low fantasy”, because it sounds like it’s somehow less worthy. Generally the experts, who’ve spent time duking this out with each other, think that low means one of two things. The first is that your book features less magic. Instead of a forest full of unicorns, and mages having spell battles, there might be only one character with any sort of magic ability. Other experts insist that low fantasy is such because it’s in a real world setting. That definition is becoming less common all the time, because of the number of books that are set in alternative versions of the real world. Regardless of which definition you embrace, there are plenty of books in this genre and plenty of opportunities for new writers to break in to the market writing this style. These days the term low fantasy is being replaced by the more specific “contemporary”, indicating that the story takes place in the here and now with magic added. Some excellent examples of low fantasy novels include Tim Powers’ Expiration Date, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart (which is long enough to be called epic low fantasy!) and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself.
The fantasy genres are further broken down into their own subgenres. For the sake of speed, I’m going to list a few of the most common ones, with a brief description and an example. Ready? Here we go!
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” In my opinion, this is the toughest subgenre to be really successful in. It had a huge swell in popularity during the 80’s, but has eased back in recent years. Sometimes a comic fantasy was a parody of a more serious novel, one of the most well-known being Bored of the Rings. One of the very best comic fantasy writers still working today is the mighty, mighty Sir Terry Pratchett, whose Ankh-Morpork novels are almost guaranteed to leave you laughing before you finish the first chapter.
Dark fantasy rides the line between fantasy and horror. Rather more violent than your standard fantasy, and often featuring demons, devils or other sorts of magical creatures that live on the bloody edge of supernatural society, these tales are usually gritty and rarely have anything like a happy ending. This genre seems to be on an upswing, and I, for one, would love to see more novels like Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, Kate Griffin’s Resurrection of Matthew Swift and Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know.
These novels are set in the real world, but in the past. They often revolve around an historical figure or event, and sometimes the protagonist is the historical figure himself. This is still popular, and selling well to agents all over. You’ll need to do plenty of research unless you’re already an historian. I take that back – even if you’re an historian, you’d better have your facts down solidly. Harry Turtledove has made a career out of reimagining history, and Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard, David B Coe’s Thieftaker and Emma Bull’s Territory are some other worthy books in the subgenre.
These novels are based on the myths and legends of a particular culture. The setting can be real world or make-believe, but the characters and creatures will all come from ancient stories. This subgenre includes the Arthurian stories, those based on the tales of King Arthur and his knights. Often these novels are retellings of classic fairy tales or myths, but often the creatures of myth have found their way into the real world, causing chaos where they go. Writers working in this genre need to be well read in the mythology they plan to explore, because readers usually know the stories very intimately. I can recommend Cathrynn Valente’s Habitation of the Blessed and Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule series.
Sword and Sorcery
These tales resemble high fantasy, except that instead of the mighty battle between good and evil, the conflict is between the main character and his own personal battles. There isn’t so much magic in sword and sorcery tales, but there is plenty of swashbuckling adventure to be had. While the majority of sword and sorcery had its heyday in past decades, there are indications of a resurgence lately, so if this is your choice, you have a good chance of selling. Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and Robert E Howard’s Conan stories are some of the finest sword and sorcery around.
In the beginning, this moniker referred solely to fantasy that took place in an urban, or city, setting. In the last few years, it’s become rather nuanced, and now suggests that vampires or werewolves (among other supernatural humanoids) are romantic figures for the (generally) female protagonist. These days urban fantasy’s popularity has grown so much that it’s almost its own genre, and I’ll be devoting a post entirely to UF later on. If somehow you’ve gotten this far without experiencing any urban fantasy, you can try Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series, Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan books and Kalayna Price’s Alex Craft books.
Next week, I’ll take on the ‘punks. In the meantime, if you have any questions, drop them in the comments.