Genres, Part Two


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.


21 comments to Genres, Part Two

  • Misty’s been doing research! This is *great!*
    I never thought about some of these in quite this way, perhaps because I seldom read in the subgenres. For instance, I was asked about where to place a book recently and it fit with swords and sorcery. But I was totally blank. Next time, I’ll send people here. I like to see people break them down more, mix some up. It’s a great way to sell an agent on a book.

  • Thanks for the primer, Misty. So many kinds of fantasy, so little time. It’s enough to make a writer’s head explode.

  • One of my favorite sub-genre descriptions comes from Kate Elliott regarding her new Spiritwalker series:

    She described COLD MAGIC as:

    “An Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons.”

    And her forthcoming COLD FIRE as:

    “More Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk with sharks, fire mages, the peculiar legal interests and perilous eating habits of feathered dinosaurs, and a Caribbean that wasn’t “discovered” by Columbus.”

    Here’s a link to her livejournal post with the above:

    Based upon those descriptions I absolutely must read them.

    My own writing would fit into the Epic High Fantasy genre.

  • I’m intrigued by this break-out of sub-genres. While I *absolutely* agree that we need to be conversant in terminology to describe our work (to editors, agents, readers, etc.), I get frustrated with trying to fit some stories into boxes. Maybe that’s lingering trauma from my Glasswrights series, which had a secondary world but nearly no magic (what magic there was might have just been religion-in-action 🙂 )

    Thanks, Misty, for making me think! (And I can’t wait to see you take on the ‘punks – I’m picturing you in a dark alley, weapon glinting in the shadows…)

  • One thing that I believe is common – though I’m not sure if its required – in Sword & Sorcery is that magic is typically portrayed as the domain of the villain. Might makes right and Magic is tragic, to coin an extension of the phrase.

  • Also, two other thoughts: Some stories fit very comfortably into more than one box. George R. R. Martin’s ASoIaF, for example, appears to be both Dark Fantasy and Low Fantasy – for the definition of “Low” that means “Low Magic”, which is probably the more useful definition since “Contemporary” and “Historical” fantasies, among other such genres, cover fantasy in the real-world (I believe there are other fantasy-in-the-real-world genres as well).

    Finally, a friend, (as-yet-unpublished) writer and blogger by name of T.S. Bazelli has over the past year offered some definitions of various genres and sub-genres of SF&F on her blog, here:

  • I eat urban fantasy like it was a double scoop peppermint sundae with chocolate fudge sauce and peanuts, and I’m finding that I rather enjoy genre when it gets a bit o’ traditional Mythology thrown in.

    Just read Black Blade Blues (J.A.Pitts) which had a touch of the Norse, and I rather liked it. Native American mythology is also kinda cool for me. Anyone know any good UF based on the Pacific Northwest mythology? Or am I gonna have to write one. (ponders the Quillayute myth of the Thunderbird, which is very dragonlike.)

    Even with the traditional UF mythos of vampires and werewolves, I do like it when they’re tied back to an ancient mythology. My WIP ties back to the Mesopotamian deity Lilith, and her many demon children who eventually became the races of vampires, witches and such (yah, everyone does that, but I have a thing for Akkadian mythology, sue me.)

    I’d still put those stories solidly in the UF genre, as for me, it’s UF if the main characters have access to the magic of the mythology in some way, and aren’t just beat up by it.

  • Mindy said I’m picturing you in a dark alley, weapon glinting in the shadows…

    Yep, that’s me. No, really y’all, stop laughing. I’m very scary! 😀

    Stephen, thanks for the link. I’ll go take a look.

    Roxanne, I think you need to write one. Go, get busy. I’ll have the ice cream waiting for us when you’re done (how did you know that’s my favorite kind of sundae??)

  • Lately, I’ve heard the term “Contemporary Fantasy”, specifically to refer to Fantasy set in our day and age, but also specifically distancing itself from the typical meaning of Urban Fantasy (vampires, werewolves, etc).

  • Hmm. Based on these descriptions of fantasy sub-genres, I think I’m guilty of multiple counts of low , a mythic or two, a comic, and an urban.
    And I’m still swinging on tinterhooks (what are those, exactly?) about the punks.
    I’m not laughing, Misty. I think you’re Very Scary (to a bowl of ice cream). 🙂

  • Dang straight, girl. The ice cream weeps when it sees me coming.

    Except the strawberry. It taunts all the other flavors in the freezer, because it knows it’s safe from me. And it’s mean. 😀

  • Razziecat

    Hmmm….I love mythological/religious themes; I have something on the back burner that’s inspired by Nabatean gods with a little Greek & Egyptian thrown in, and my main WIP has a few Biblical themes underlying the main premise. There’s a lot of magic in both, though, so I might fall in between sword & sorcery & mythic.

    Cedunkley…I’ve read COLD MAGIC and loved it!

  • Have no fear, Misty. I’ll tackle that mean ol’ strawberry ice cream. I’m not skeered o’ no pink scream!

  • Jeremy Beltran

    Being that everyone here is more in the “know” than I am. I was wondering if there is a male UF MC other than Harry Dresden?

  • unionjane

    I am enjoying the educational value of this article, but I’m really missing hearing about the tropes! Specifically irony or use of myth. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right area, fully realizing that it’s hard to pidgeonhole universal writing techniques to specific genres. On the other hand…One of the ways readers distinguish between different fantasy subclassifications is by the writing techniques themselves…

  • Jeremy, there aren’t a lot of male UF protagonists, no. But that’s changing – offhand I can think of J F Lewis’ Eric from the Void City series. He’s got three books out, and as far as I know, they’re doing well. If the UF books with male leads keep selling, I’m sure we’ll see more as time goes by.

    UnionJane, I’m by no means finished with the series. There’s a lot to say about genres, and I’m only just starting. Keep watching here; I’ll talk about the tropes in more depth along the way.

  • And that reminds me…if you have specific areas about genre and subgenre you’d like me to cover in a future post, PLEASE tell me in comments. I’m happy to talk about what you readers want to see!

  • Authors besides Jim Butcher who write male characters in urban fantasy– PN Elrod, Simon R. Green and Anton Strout,

    Suburban fantasy: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a soccer mom. I can think of several series like this.

    The terms low and high go all the way back to Aristotle’s POETICS, and low isn’t meant to be derogative in any sense. Low comedy or fantasy are more human and real with the hero being one of us. The hero in a high comedy or fantasy tends to be better than us physically, his father may be a god, and he may have magical powers.

    Low fantasy tends toward a natural voice while high fantasy has a more stilted voice. Most fantasy today tends toward the natural voice with a close POV. LORD OF THE RINGS is a good example of the stilted voice with less emphasis on the characters and more on the epic spread of the story.

  • I’m looking forward to your description of the “punks.” I still have no clue as to what that might mean.

    As for Swords and Sorcery, I certainly hope Stephen is not correct about magic being strictly the domain of evil.

    Your description of Swords and Sorcery describes my book exactly, but magic is used by both the white robes and black (and is at the center of the main story conflict, in fact).

  • I am definitely looking forward to your discussion of urban fantasy. The differences between urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy and paranormal have my brain trickling out of my ears.

  • [cite]Being that everyone here is more in the “know” than I am. I was wondering if there is a male UF MC other than Harry Dresden?[/cite]

    I know of a few British ones, since I am on a quest to learn about the UK market for urban fantasy at the moment:

    A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin (first in series)
    The Devil you Know by Mike Carey (first in series)
    Kraken by China Mieville (although this one also gets called contemporary fantasy and new weird).