If you’ve ever walked down the aisles of your local library, staring up at the colossal section labelled fantasy, unsure of where to begin, you’re not alone. Fantasy is expansive, containing a huge amount of subgenres within it. Someone looking for a vampire romance might not be interested in a heroic quest fighting dragons. Fantasy as a genre is as wide as the universe within it. Despite the vast differences, fantasy novels are bonded by uses of magic and escapism. Here is a guide to five of the most popular fantasy subgenres.
Contemporary is one of the most common fantasy subgenres. Also commonly known as urban fantasy or modern fantasy, these stories usually occur in the present-day world. These stories urge readers to consider the ramifications of magic or supernatural creatures in a relatable setting. Contemporary fantasy may later delve into different subgenres, such as magical realism. Though contemporary fantasy has magical elements, these stories still allow the readers to remember that the plot takes place in the real world rather than a new universe. Some examples are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan.
Fairy tale/Fairy tale Retellings
Fairy tale stories are easily identifiable by the world they exist in. These are the classic stories you may have heard growing up: typically, there is some aspect of royalty, an adventure, a magical forest, and perhaps a not-so-subtle moral at the end about the dangers of talking to strangers or eating strange fruits. Present stories currently take inspiration from classics like Grimm’s Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. This is where the fantastic novelizations of story retellings come into play. Retellings keep the original element of the story but introduce new ideas, new locations, unique characters, a darker twist, or anything else the author can imagine. Wicked by Gregory Maguire is generally considered a fairy tale retelling; though it’s based on The Wizard of Oz, it still includes the classic elements and magical world-building that traditional fairy tales have. Other examples of fairy tales/fairy tale retellings are Cinder by Marissa Meyer and Ash by Malinda Lo.
If you’ve ever been to comic-con or another major convention, you’ve probably seen at least one cosplayer wearing steampunk. Visually, steampunk tends to combine aspects of Victorian-age gear-based mechanics and futuristic fantasy. But the genre goes beyond outfits. In the literary world, steampunk is a genre that combines elements of sci-fi and magic in an alternative history setting. Steampunk is also highly influenced by Victorian-era society in terms of gender roles, fashion, art, and morals. But this genre differs because it imagines an alternative version of history: the industrial revolution combined with magic or intense science and technology. These seemingly opposite worldviews come together in steampunk. Some books in this genre include The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, The Aeronauts Windlass by Jim Butcher, and The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson.
High fantasy is usually what people consider when they think of a traditional fantasy novel. These novels often include substantial battle sequences, long quests, heroic themes, and intricate plots. These books often emphasize world-building, as they take place in a magical fantasy world and pay great attention to how people interact with different species of creatures. Generally, high fantasy novels follow the quest of a hero fighting an evil magical antagonist. The hero might be thrown into an epic quest, where they will travel through fantasy lands and interact with other magical beings. High fantasy also tends to reflect themes of good vs evil, sword vs sorcery, or slaves vs masters. Some popular high fantasy books include The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien, A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, and The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan.
Dark fantasy is a broad genre that can include aspects of horror and gore. Widely popular in the 10th century, these stories contain supernatural and/or magical elements while still keeping a grim or morally ambiguous undertone. Dark fantasy might be told from the point of view of a monster, vampire, or werewolf. These novels also tend to have a focus on social outcasts or humanity's misunderstandings. Characters could be anti-heroes or be perpetrators of violence themselves. However, dark fantasy is a spectrum: some may be more horrifying than others. Some horror/dark fantasy books include The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, or The Heads of Cerberus by Gertrude Bennet.
is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. When she isn't writing, she's reading and working on her bullet journal. You can read more of her work at ashaswann.com