If you are a long-time reader, you’d already have a good idea of what the fantasy genre is. However, if you’ve just started reading books and read a few novels that fall under the fantasy genre, you might be curious to know more about it. That’s what this article is all about. Here, we will discuss not only the definition of the fantasy genre but also the many popular fantasy subgenres you should be aware of!
The fantasy genre is a unique and fascinating literary genre, one of the most popular genres out there, that has captivated readers for centuries. It is a genre that allows authors to create worlds that are entirely different from our own and populate them with characters that are fantastical and magical.
Fantasy literature is often characterized by its use of magic, mythical creatures, and supernatural elements that are not found in the real world.
The fantasy genre has a rich history that dates back to ancient times when myths and legends were used to explain natural phenomena and the origins of the world. Since then, the genre has evolved and expanded, encompassing various sub-genres and styles. From high fantasy, which features epic battles between good and evil, to urban fantasy, which takes place in modern-day cities and blends fantasy with elements of crime and mystery, there is a fantasy sub-genre for every reader.
Despite its fantastical elements, fantasy literature often explores universal and relatable themes. Many fantasy stories deal with issues such as power, morality, and the human condition. By exploring these themes in a unique and imaginative way, fantasy literature allows readers to escape from their everyday lives and explore new worlds and possibilities.
In this article, we’ll talk about the origins of the fantasy genre and its characteristics and briefly discuss all the famous fantasy subgenres. So, let’s not waste any more time and get right to it!
What is Fantasy Genre?
The fantasy genre is a type of speculative fiction that features magical and supernatural elements. It is often set in a fictional universe, and its roots can be traced back to oral traditions, which then evolved into fantasy literature and drama.
Fantasy stories are characterized by their imaginative and creative settings, magical creatures, and otherworldly themes.
Although some authors take up a real-world situation or event and add fantasy elements to create an alternate story, it still counts as fantasy. However, most fantasy writings are based on entirely unique worlds with their own set of logic and physical laws that are often completely different from our own world.
Origins of the Fantasy Genre
The origins of the fantasy genre can be traced back to ancient myths and legends, which were passed down orally from generation to generation. These stories often featured gods, goddesses, and other supernatural beings and were used to explain natural phenomena or to teach moral lessons.
As time progressed, these stories were written down and evolved into the fantasy genre we know today. One of the earliest examples of fantasy literature is the epic poem “Beowulf,” which features dragons, giants, and other mythical creatures.
Other notable works of fantasy literature include “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis, and “Harry Potter” by J.K. Rowling.
Characteristics of the Fantasy Genre
Fantasy stories often occur in a fictional world that is different from ours. These worlds can be high fantasy, which is characterized by its epic scope and grandiose settings, or low fantasy, which is more grounded and realistic.
Magic and supernatural elements are also common in fantasy stories and are often used to drive the plot forward.
One of the key characteristics of the fantasy genre is the presence of magical creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, and elves. These creatures often play essential roles in the story and are used to create a sense of wonder and awe.
Another key characteristic of the fantasy genre is the use of archetypes, such as the hero, the villain, and the mentor. These archetypes are used to create compelling characters that readers can relate to and root for.
In conclusion, the fantasy genre is a popular and enduring genre of literature that has captivated readers for centuries. Its imaginative settings, magical creatures, and otherworldly themes have made it a staple of the book industry and continue to inspire new generations of readers and writers alike.
30 Most Popular Fantasy Subgenres in 2023:
Unlike most book genres, the fantasy genre consists of several sub-genres. If you start looking for books in this genre, you will come across multiple settings and stories that are completely different from each other, but they are classified as fantasy books.
These multiple fantasy subgenres are the reason why the fantasy genre as a whole is popular all over the world. No matter what kind of stories you like, there is a subgenre for you, meaning you will find a fantasy book based on your preferences.
Below, I will list some of the most popular fantasy subgenres, talk about them briefly, and give you a book recommendation in that genre that you can start reading!
1. High Fantasy / Epic Fantasy:
“High Fantasy” and “Epic Fantasy” are often used as synonymous, but there are some minor differences. For one, high fantasy takes place in a completely different world with magical elements, and they mostly focus on the characters, like some special individuals or the “chosen one.”
With epic fantasy, you still have a story set in a different world with supernatural elements and characteristics, but the focus is on the story at large and not particularly on the characters. In most epic fantasy stories, there is some huge event going on that threatens to destroy the world, requiring characters to go on some epic adventure to try to prevent this cataclysm.
2. Low Fantasy
Low fantasy is a fantasy genre set in our world, the real world. Unlike high fantasy, which is set in a fictional world, low fantasy takes place in a world we would recognize.
However, unlike our world, there is some element of magic or supernatural tied into the world. The characters might be aware of magic, or they may not be aware it exists at all.
Example: “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman
3. Dark Fantasy
Dark Fantasy is one of the most popular fantasy subgenres that probably sounds self-explanatory on the surface, and even if you dig deep, it’s pretty obvious.
In this genre, there are a lot of dark and gritty elements. It isn’t quite the horror genre, but it does straddle that line. The goal is not to scare but to draw the reader in with these gloomy characteristics.
Example: “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman might be considered a children’s book, but the dark, almost disturbing plotlines in this book make it a great example of dark fantasy.
4. Science Fiction Fantasy
Science fiction fantasy can be considered a subgenre of fantasy that is the best of both worlds. You have fantasy characteristics like magic and supernatural elements combined with sci-fi elements. This combination gives writers many options to explore, as the possibilities to create unique stories are endless.
This genre isn’t so scientific that it would be considered straight science fiction, but it also isn’t fantastical enough to call it fantasy, either.
Example: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams is a series with a perfect mix of sci-fi and fantasy.
5. Magical Realism
In the fantasy subgenre called “magical realism,” there is magic in the world, but the difference is that it’s set in the real world.
Magic is infused into the real world in some way, and this isn’t considered to be odd. It’s just a matter of fact, and everyone accepts it as it is. If the story features magical elements and is set in our world, it is magical realism.
Example: “Practical Magic Series” by Alice Hoffman
6. Dystopian Fantasy:
In a utopia, everything seems objectively perfect, nothing seems wrong, and the world is good. But this couldn’t be further from the truth in a dystopian setting.
Human life has been destroyed or hurt in some manner following an epic event that encompassed the entire world. This event can come in the form of war, an environmental event, or oppression, to name a few examples.
Example: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
7. Urban Fantasy:
In layman’s terms, “urban” usually refers to tier-1 cities like New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Seoul, where the population density is very high.
With Urban Fantasy, there are magical elements tied into an urban environment, and the events are primarily set in the real world in the present day. It is very similar to low fantasy because of its ties to the real world.
Example: “The Mortal Instruments Series” by Cassandra Clare
8. Hard Fantasy
Hard Fantasy is something that, ironically, goes pretty hard into the fantasy elements. For example, there will be more than just magic in books within this subgenre. You’ll have magic systems that will remain consistent throughout the entirety of the book.
There is still fantasy, so it’s not going to have a real-world explanation, but in the context of the book, it makes sense.
Example: “Mistborn Series” by Brandon Sanderson
9. Sword and Sorcery
In the “sword and sorcery” subgenre, you’ll find magic and the supernatural, and swords, too. What makes this a unique subgenre is that you’ll have several skilled swordsmen and swordswomen in the world. The same goes for having capable sorcerers running about.
There also might or might not be an evil event or world-ending crisis in motion that the main characters have to defeat. So, any fantasy book that heavily features swords and magic can be classified under this subgenre!
Example: “Kings of the Wyld” by Nicholas Eames
10. Alternate History
Alternate history is exactly as it sounds. It features an alternate version of an actual historical event with added fantastical elements.
For example, a very light version of alternate history would be one president being selected over the other and exploring that fact. This genre is a great way of discovering the what-ifs and seeing what could have happened if things had gone a bit differently.
Example: “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick explores the idea that the Axis Powers had won World War II.
11. Comic Fantasy
The meaning of comic fantasy is pretty self-explanatory if you understand that another term for it is fantasy comedy.
In comic fantasy, the book features a lot of funny and almost ridiculous themes. You’ll see some parodies of popular fantasy tropes being poked fun at. It won’t take itself seriously, even if there are some serious moments.
Example: “Discworld Series” by Terry Pratchett
12. Steampunk Fantasy
Steampunk fantasy takes some aspects from the industrial era (such as the style), and while it is a time that happened, it’s not tied to reality. The futuristic technology showcased in the stories sets it apart from reality. You’ll often see airships, and automatons that rely on steam, hence the word steam in steampunk.
Example: “Parasol Protectorate Series” by Gail Carriger
13. Grimdark Fantasy
You would be correct if you think that the grimdark fantasy genre is very distressing. It has some elements of the dystopian genre but also combines possibly violent elements with amoral behavior from the world and characters in a piece of literature.
Don’t expect to see “good” always winning out in these stories because the world is dark, and the characters aren’t always moral and good-hearted, and Grimdark wants you to understand that in every way possible.
Example: “The First Law Trilogy” by Joe Abercrombie
14. Children’s Fantasy
With the children’s fantasy genre, you have a story with the typical elements you see in fantasy novels, but instead of being targeted toward adults, the target is children.
This isn’t to say that people other than children can’t read children’s fantasy books. Many books considered children’s fantasy, such as The Wizard of Oz, are very popular among adults, teenagers, and the like.
Example: “Ella Enchanted” by Gail Carson Levine
15. Fantasy of Manners
If there was ever a fantasy subgenre you may have never heard of before, it might be the “fantasy of manners.”
The best way to explain the fantasy of manners subgenre is that it has fantasy elements but also is combined with a social or hierarchical structure. Think of the Victorian era with all its strict class rules and places where it expects people to be, and then add magical elements to it to create a fantasy story.
Example: “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke show the fantasy of the manners genre and what it is at its core.
16. Young Adult Fantasy
Fantasy isn’t just for adults, as we showed when we discussed the children’s fantasy genre. It’s for all age groups. The YA Fantasy, aka the Young Adult fantasy subgenre, is specifically targeted toward young adults.
Usually, the characters in YA books will also be considered ‘young adults,’ often falling between the ages of 13 to 18. However, just because young adult fantasy is targeted toward this specific age group doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy it, either.
Example: “Shadow and Bone Series” by Leigh Bardugo
17. Supernatural Horror
The “supernatural horror” subgenre within the fantasy genre combines three genres and makes for a pretty unique subgenre. For a book to fall into this subgenre, it has to have some supernatural themes (such as magical creatures), feature horror scenes designed to scare the reader and have fantasy elements.
A story is considered a fantasy if it has magical or supernatural elements, so if it has supernatural and horror elements, it becomes a supernatural horror fantasy story.
Example: “It” by Stephen King is an excellent book combining all these elements, resulting in a terrifyingly stunning story.
18. Paranormal Fantasy / Paranormal Romance Fantasy
For a story to fall under the paranormal fantasy subgenre, it must have some element of the paranormal. For example, it can have ghosts, aliens, demons, and psychics. The paranormal falls under supernatural, which makes it fantasy.
The paranormal romance fantasy subgenre is the same, with the only difference being that romance also plays a significant role in the story. Other than that, the genres are practically identical.
19. Superhero Fantasy
In a superhero fantasy story, there must be characters who identify as superheroes fighting villains or battling evil in general. Usually, the superheroes wear some kind of costume.
When you think of superheroes, you think of comic books, but several novels also fall under the superhero fantasy subgenre.
Example: “The Reckoners Series” by Brandon Sanderson
20. Futuristic Fantasy
Another popular fantasy subgenre is the “futuristic fantasy” subgenre, which can contain other elements of fantasy subgenres, such as science fiction, but there is a difference.
The main difference is that futuristic fantasy focuses on a future that wouldn’t be considered possible in our reality. Instead, the future has heavy fantasy elements with no link to our contemporary; sometimes, there are no magical or supernatural elements in this subgenre, making it different from the other fantasy subgenres.
Example: “The Illuminae Files” by Jay Kristoff & Amie Kaufman
21. Medieval Fantasy / Arthurian Fantasy
The medieval times were an actual period, and medieval fantasy borrows heavily on its themes with a big caveat. This caveat, of course, is the addition of fantasy elements tied into the medieval setting.
Arthurian fantasy is similar in that it uses a medieval setting, but it also borrows heavily from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
22. Fairy Tale Fantasy
For a story to be considered a “fairy tale fantasy,” it needs to use familiar themes you will see in fairy tales and folk tales. It relies heavily on these plots, motifs, etc. Some common ones include princesses, true love, and just world-building that is obviously inspired by a specific fairy tale or just the genre as a whole.
Example: “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman
23. Cross World Fantasy
Cross World fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that sees a character or characters traveling from one world to another. Usually, one world is a fantasy world while the other is similar to our reality. Sometimes, the characters just travel to a different time period.
The means of traveling between these two worlds can include time travel, portals (another genre we’ll touch on later), or something based on magic. Sometimes, the protagonist cannot return to their original world for a certain amount of time or for good.
Example: “The Once and Future Geek” by Mari Mancusi
24. Mythic Fantasy
Similar to fairy tale fantasy, which focuses on fairy tale plots, “mythic fantasy” can borrow from myths, folklore, legends, and fairy tales. Think Roman, Greek, or Chinese mythology featuring heavily in a story. It can base itself loosely on myths or take a good chunk of its plot from mythology.
Example: “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” by Rick Riordan is one of the best examples of Mythic Fantasy, with the series focusing on Greek mythology.
25. Assassin Fantasy
An assassin is someone who is paid to kill. Think of a ninja or hitman if you want to use a more modern term. In fantasy, assassins are quite deadly, often sneaking around and taking out their hit. Much training is needed to become an assassin, but they have some mad skills if they manage to become one.
Assassin fantasy is simply one of the many fantasy subgenres that focus heavily on assassins.
Example: “Night Angel Trilogy” by Brent Weeks
26. Dragon Fantasy
Dragons are large, winged reptile-like creatures that can sometimes breathe fire or use some type of magic. In Chinese mythology, dragons are sometimes wingless, but the main similarity is that they are very large and very dangerous.
These mythical creatures are almost always depicted as beings of immense power, so the scale of the events in the books featuring dragons is often large. Dragon fantasy features stores that focus on dragons or have dragons that are very essential for their plot.
Example: “Temeraire Series” by Naomi Novik
27. Military Fantasy
Many stories fall under the category of military fiction, which focuses on military life, war, battles, and anything to do with, well… the military.
Military fantasy has all of these characteristics, but the main difference is that it has fantasy elements mixed into the story. This means it has to have some magical or supernatural element entertained with the military aspect.
Example: “Powder Mage Trilogy” by Brian McClellan
28. Portal Fantasy
The “portal fantasy” subgenre is similar to the “cross-world fantasy” subgenre in that it involves characters traveling from what is usually a mundane world to some fictional world or realm where there is magic.
The only difference between these two subgenres is how the person travels between the two worlds. In portal fantasy, there has to be some type of portal (a door or window to another world) that can transport the character to the magical realm.
Example: “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis
29. Quest Fantasy
Many fantasy subgenres can crossover or borrow a few elements from the other. The “quest fantasy” subgenre is no different.
While it does have ties to high fantasy, epic fantasy, and even grimdark fantasy, it differs in one specific way. Quest fantasies have the characters going on some quest where they venture from their home and into the unknown to save the world probably. The story’s focus on this particular aspect makes it a quest fantasy.
Example: “Wheel of Time Series” by Robert Jordan
30. Wuxia Fantasy
Last but not least on our list is “wuxia fantasy,” a word that comes from the Mandarin or Chinese language. Wuxia means martial heroes. In this genre, the focus is on martial artists and their adventures throughout the world.
For a book to be considered Wuxia fantasy, you must have a piece of literature featuring a martial artist in some fantasy or supernatural setting.
Example: “A Hero Born” by Jin Yong
In conclusion, fantasy has been a popular literary genre for centuries. It can transport readers to new worlds, introduce them to magical creatures, and allow them to experience the impossible. The genre has evolved over time and now includes various sub-genres, each with unique characteristics.
Reading fantasy can be an essential escape for many readers, allowing them to temporarily forget about their daily struggles and immerse themselves in a world of magic and wonder. Fantasy can also provide a sense of hope and optimism, as many stories feature characters who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and triumph in the end.
Furthermore, the various sub-genres of fantasy – from epic fantasy to urban fantasy to fairy tale retellings – offer something for everyone. Readers can choose to immerse themselves in a complex, multi-book series or enjoy a standalone novel that explores a specific aspect of the genre.
The fantasy genre is a rich and diverse literary landscape that continues to captivate readers of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you are looking for an escape from reality, a sense of wonder and adventure, or simply a great story, the fantasy genre has something to offer.
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