An Investigation of Fantasy: The Subgenres

When we first decided to do a fantasy themed month, one of our questions was: what kind of fantasy? After all, there are so many different kinds of fantasy. What should be focus on? (We decided that it didn’t matter and as long as it was some kind of fantasy, it’d be fine.) But these questions are what inspired this post. Let’s explore, in a fun way, the subgenres of fantasy (and question whether they can be called fantasy). First though, we need a definition for fantasy. Thankfully, Wikipedia has one for us:

Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.

That’s good enough, right? I think so.

Epic and High Fantasy: Are They the Same Things or Is There a Difference?

According to my source, though there is much overlapping, epic fantasy and high fantasy are two different subgenres of fantasy. They say:

Epic Fantasy – Set in medieval times, these books focus on a good-versus-evil story. Tolkien is the founder of this sub-genre.

High Fantasy – Extremely character-driven fantasy that often focuses on a greater good rather than the well-being of the characters.

Differences between the two
Some would classify Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy together. Others would say that they are separate sub-genres sharing both similarities and differences with each other. I would agree with the latter. After doing some research on books called Epic Fantasy and others called High Fantasy, I have found a few things that distinguish the two.

Epic Fantasy:
Takes place in medieval times, often uses good-versus-evil as the central story, usually involves a large cast of characters, relies on sub-plots to advance the story

High Fantasy:
takes place in medieval or modern times, involves magic, focuses on fewer characters and often relies heavily on character growth, sometimes presents situations in shades of gray, and lets the characters decide what is right


I am inclined to agree with the person. Though, I am not sure I would agree that Tolkien is the founder of the genre per se; I’m sure even he got his inspiration from somewhere but I’d have to do a lot of research to figure out what they were so let’s just leave it at that.

Some examples of YA high fantasy could be the Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore:

and an example of YA epic fantasy, in my humble opinion, could be, The Songs of Pellinor by Alison Croggon:

What is Fantastic Realism?

According to Alison Waller who wrote the laudable Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realismfantastic realism is one that combines reality with some element of the supernatural. (source) This differs from magical realism in that, as Waller goes on to elaborate, in fantastic realism, all players are aware that the supernatural element is out of the norm and not natural as is accepted in magical realism (which we will go on to talk about in the section following). An example of fantastic realism is Skellig by David Almond.


What About Magical Realism Then?

Magical realism, as mentioned above, is defined by Wikipedia, as books in which magic or magical and other supernatural elements exist but are accepted as natural. Everything else about the setting is mundane apart from the supernatural aspects of it. This is a much trickier subgenre to find an example for but if I were pushed, I would say Don’t You Forget About Me could be magical realism.


Urban Fantasy

This subgenre is pretty self-explanatory and perhaps the most popular in contemporary YA. Urban fantasy refers to fantasy where the narrative is set in an urban area. There are many examples of this one. They include The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, Tithe by Holly Black, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and many, many more.

I am certainly forgetting other subgenres but for a beginner in the Fantasy genre, I believe these will suffice. And sometimes, one fantasy novel will marry together many of the subgenres so separating them is not usually an easy task. As Janet once said, genres are usually arbitrary and should be used to make specific the kinds of books one of likes to read, not to limit the types of books one likes to read. If that didn’t make sense, I’m sorry.

For further reading, I recommend:

1. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones
2. Book of Imaginary Beings – Jorje Luis Borges
3. “Why Fantasy Matters Too Much” – Jack Zipes

As a parting picture, ogle Soah from The Bride of the Water God by Yun Mi Kyung, a manhwa (Korean equivalent of manga):