The Many Faces of Fantasy Fiction

What is Fantasy Fiction?

The fantasy fiction definition, as well as descriptions and examples from the long list of subgenres!

by June Williams
© Buzzy Multimedia

“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible. “Rod Serling creator of the Twighlight Zone
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”-Arthur C. Clarke’s third law
“Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”-Larry Niven

Fantasy Fiction Definition:

Fantasy in fiction is hard to define because the boundaries keep blurring. When you see the words Fantasy Fiction many people conjure up imagery of faraway kingdoms. Something that looks 8th century, perhaps an even earlier period like the Bronze Age. Lands filled with castles, dragons, unicorns and all manner of wondrous mythical beasties.

Realms populated with nobles and not-so-nobles, wizards, witches (not Wiccans), some dressed in silks, lace, furs and jewels others in tatters. Domains where mighty capped sword wielding warriors stand ready with loins girded to save damsels in distress or embark on quests at once noble and dangerous.

fantasy fiction definition, the decameron, giovanni boccaccio

Enchanted garden from The Decameron, written in 1351 by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Myths and legends have always entertained and instructed. Fantasy stretches back to the dawn of civilization. We humans find parallels from fables of magic to help understand people and the cosmos even in the modern world.

The Odyssey & The Iliad, Gilgamesh, The Decameron, A Thousand and One Nights, Beowulf, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Le Morte d’Arthur. The Once and Future King are all examples of this type of literature.

Elements of these may sometimes still be found in some measure and degree in the most modern and urbane of 21st century fantasies. Magic and the supernatural will always be part of Fantasy, but fantasy has come a long way.

The following are some of the sub-genres found in Fantasy today. They sometimes crossover and often that enriches the work, still; this should give you an idea of what they are all about.

High/Epic Fantasy Fiction Definition:

epic fantasy fiction

High/Epic Fantasy Fiction is primarily set in magical worlds filled with dragons, dwarves, elves, fae (fairies), magicians, sorcerers, trolls and the like.

This type of fantasy transports you into a fantastic and magical realm. Whether set in an alternate reality or a time shrouded distant past, these settings also contain otherworldly beings such as dragons, dwarves, elves, fae (fairies), magicians, sorcerers, trolls and the like. Both good and evil forces have some of these beings on their side but in the end it is the character of the protagonist that will determine the outcome of the final battle. In such fantasies the protagonist has a destiny. Often this destiny only becomes apparent when circumstance puts them in a position where they are pitted against vast and evil supernatural forces. They fight not just for the lives and fortune of family, friends and themselves but for the whole world.

This is the granddaddy of them all in popularity if not in age. A few notable examples of Epic Fantasy are:
Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn
J.R.R Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth such as Lord of the Rings
Robert Jordan – The Wheel of Time series
C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia

Sword & Sorcery Fantasy:

sword and sorcery, sword fighting fiction

Sword & Sorcery heroes and heroines spend more time doing and less time contemplating. Their battles are more personal.

You’ll find much of the same trappings as that found in Epic or High Fantasy. Often the society seems to have a medieval structure. The emphasis here is on fast pace and lots of action. Sword & Sorcery heroes and heroines spend more time doing and less time contemplating why things are the way they are. More Dirty Harry than Bilbo Baggins. Their battles are more personal. In these lands that mighty protagonists roam the countryside fighting evil.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Michael Moorcock’s Elric are archetypical swashbuckling anti-heroes forever battling the darkness even in their own natures. In many ways they are responsible for a generation of gamers as they were the inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons, along with Dragonlance and a multitude of fantasy role playing games.

Even in the 21st century there are fewer female protagonists found in Sword and Sorcery than males, at least as the central character. Often when women do appear they use magical powers more than swordplay to win the fight. Fans of Xena: Warrior Princess, Red Sonja by Robert Howard or Frost by Robin Wayne Bailey will surely disagree. They could all point out that these women can handle a sword, battle axe and other weapons as well as any male champion. After six years of Lucy Lawless as Xena on television I think they have a point well taken.

Heroic Fantasy/Sages & Swords:

harry-potter-heroic-fantasy

The protagonist typically possesses an unusual gift such a sorcery, like Harry Potter

Often the protagonist is found as a youth. He or she may be orphaned at a young age and unaware of having a unique heritage and gifts which will thrust them into a perilous quest. Noble or commoner, wizard or sorcerer, he or she must fulfill their duty. The following all have elements of Heroic Fantasy:

Orson Scott Card – Seventh Son (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 1)
Ursula LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea
J.K.Rowling – The Harry Potter Books
Elizabeth Moon’s – Paksenarrion Trilogy

 

Historical Fantasy /Alternate History:

steven-barnes-zulu-heart-historical-fantasy

Past events, periods and people are imbued with magical or at least otherworldly elements.

History can be a dry subject. Fantasy writers take historical figures and events and stir new life and perspectives into them. Some create alternate time or a parallel universe where history diverged at some point in the past, often due to magic that changed one or more events.

They take statistics and bland accounts and give us a fantastic voyage into history. Past events, periods and people are imbued with magical or at least otherworldly elements. These novels provide a sense of wonder to history, telling stories of strong characters and different cultures ranging from ancient civilizations to the most recent times.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (Arthurian age) as well as her novel The Firebrand (Troy) are perfect examples of what a gifted author can do in this medium. Harry Turtledove is known as the master of alternative history and has had a seemingly endless and entertaining series of novels set in places of time as far flung as Sumeria, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, to the days of The American Civil War, all the way to Third Reich and beyond. Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is set in Siberia during the Paleolithic era. Shards of Empire and Cross and Crescent by Susan Schwartz (Byzantium) are at once well researched and well drawn. A little less well known but not to be missed is Steven Barnes, Zulu Heart which deals with an America colonized by Africa set in the 19th century…fascinating.

Urban/Modern/Paranormal Fantasy:

urban fantasy fiction, the dresden files, harry dresden

Urban Fantasy’s emphasis is on seeing the present day world and society from a unique vantage point. Reality filtered through a different lens.

This relatively recent arrival on the stage of fantastic fiction brings you into a society in which magical elements coexist with our “normal” workaday world. Werewolves may be found shopping at Walmart, vampires may have trouble doing their taxes. Police have challenges that the CSI television writers could never imagine. Regular humans may or may not be aware of the supernatural beings that live among them.

Often people are exposed to Urban fantasy and don’t realize that what they are reading, listening to or watching is actually part of this genre. The Curious Case of Benjamin of Benjamin Button and The Lake House are perfect examples of fantastic tales being told in a modern setting and because there are no ghosts, wizards, fairies and the like in view audiences seem to be unaware that what they are seeing is Modern Fantasy.

Settings can vary wildly. There are very urban ones such as The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher that takes place in Chicago, although we are never sure if it is exactly present day. Just as likely it could be suburbia, small towns or even a totally country location. The emphasis is on seeing the present day world and society from a unique vantage point. Reality filtered through a different lens. This is at once entertaining and edifying although in the best books you won’t so much see the instructive part as much as enjoy the ride. Some Urban Fantasy titles that should be noted are:

Patricia BriggsThe Mercy Thompson series (filled with werewolves and other shape shifters in the Tri City region of Washington State)
Charlaine Harris – The Southern Vampire Series
Neil Gaiman – American Gods where the Old Ones battle for their place in the modern world
Charles DeLint – The Little Country, blends music and magic
Maryjanice Davidson – Undead and Unwed has the feel of Legally Blond and is as comfortable a setting as your neighborhood mall.

Dark Fantasy:

horror-fantasy-fiction-definition

Here is the realm of aliens and satanic creatures, Vampires and demons.

Here is where horror meets fantasy. Here is the realm of aliens and satanic creatures, Vampires and demons and a multitude of frightful and ghastly fates await…sometimes. Buckets of blood and gore aren’t necessary requirements for this kind of story but in most a sense of foreboding and the influences of unnatural forces are at work.

No wonder authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker are often at their best while writing Dark Fantasy. The works of H.P. Lovecraft combine Science Fiction, Horror and Fables of ancient lurking evils that combine to create fiction that likely was the first of Dark Fantasy in the modern sense of the term.

A Dark Fantasy protagonist is often mysterious and people presume of evil character. His decency and integrity are not easily seen by those around him except of course by we the readers and perhaps a small circle of characters.

Examples of the classic Dark Fantasy:
Stephen King’s – The Dark Tower series
Clive Barker’s – The Hellbound Heart
Neil Gaiman’s – The Graveyard Book (boy can that guy write)
Sherrilyn Kenyon – Fantasy Lover (Dark Hunter, Book 1) is the introduction to her well loved Dark Hunter series
Tim Power’s – The Stress of Her Regard

Science Fiction Fantasy:

interlopers, alan dean foster, science fiction audiobooksScience fiction and fantasy merge and mingle together in these books. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a superb tale and will always be for me one of the best, if not THE best, Science Fantasy novels ever written. Pilgrimage: The Book of The People and short stories by Zenna Henderson were some of the most cherished books of my youth and hold up well nearly a half century after they were written. Interlopers by Alan Dean Foster will get the blood pumping as Cody Westcott reaches far past his field of archeology to save the day. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is a beloved story that began many a fans entrance into the worlds of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Humorous Fantasy

humorous fantasy fiction

Humorous fantasy doesn’t need violence or dark foreboding to transport us to another place filled with wondrous and magical things.

Humor and Fantasy should be able to co-exist quite nicely but it is a rare author that can blend the two and not make a mockery of the very tale they are telling. There are a blessed few that do this very well, that don’t need violence or dark foreboding to transport us to another place filled with wondrous and magical things.

Here are some of those that I love best:
Myth Adventures Volume 1 by Robert Aspriner as well as all of his Myth novels. How wonderful to follow the wacky adventures of Skeeve and Aahz. I also adore his Phul’s Company series but while also humorous they are also definitely Sci-Fi not Fantasy.
The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. Anyone who has been blessed to enjoy his Discworld series can not wonder if there will ever be another to equal his clever wit and humor in the field of Fantasy.
A Spell for Chameleon (Xanth, Book 1) by Piers Anthony. How can anyone not enjoy this man’s unabashed gift for puns? His Xanth series is among the best of the crop.
Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore offers a lighthearted romp with Travis O’Hearn and Catch a green demon with a nasty habit of eating most of the people he meets. Enjoy your visit to Pine Cove California.

There are many worlds of imagination that Fantasy affords opens minds and hearts. We are fortunate in having a treasure trove of magnificent work of fantasy fiction. Fortunately the field is growing every day and I must recommend some of my newest reads that had me reading through the night and yearning for more. Patricia Briggs Hurog series that currently are made up of Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood.

By June Williams
© Buzzy Multimedia

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June Williams
June, also known affectionately as Buzzy Lady #2, has been with the company since it began. She was born in Manhattan, raised in the Bronx (the first 12 years in the heart of the south Bronx) and spent most of her adult life living in Westchester County N.Y.

Always a Science Fiction fan and dabbler in writing she had thought herself too practical to pursue a career in the field. Before coming to Buzzy she spent over 30 years in the travel industry, then one day decided it was time to spread her wings and plunge into publishing. Everyone she knew thought she had gone slightly daft but as this was not the first time they had expressed that opinion she took the red pill anyway and now spends all of her time putting together projects that make each day a pleasure.
  • SMD

    It’s interesting to see a post like this primarily because, as you mentioned, the subgenres are largely blended. Things like epic, heroic, sword & sorcery, etc. are all pretty much the same thing with minor distinctions that most people (such as the folks that read them) won’t even notice. It’s when you start getting into the urban fantasy and science fantasy arenas that things start to become a little more defined. Granted, the same things present in epic fantasy find themselves equally a part of the urban fantasy subgenre, but at least you can still pinpoint the urban part.
    Thanks for this though.

    On a side note, I will be subscribing to this blog because it’s interesting!

  • June

    Thanks for subscribing to the blog. We hope to make it fresh and interesting and want to bring you a number of different ways of looking at “life,the universe and everything”.

    Many people turned off of fantasy because of long held prejudices. My hope is that showing how diverse the field is,some people may be able to see past the preconceptions regarding fantasy that they received via pop culture and sometimes from academia.

  • One of the neat things about fantasy is that it can crossover into other genres. I have been reading a lot of fantasy x mystery fiction lately (Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlene Harris to name a few). Fantasy can be interjected into serious literary fiction as well, as in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, and Franz Kafka.

  • John Helgeson

    Ever since I was able to read (and learned to enjoy it) Fantasy has always been my favorite. From that time when I fell in love with Fantasy I’ve been through all of these sub-categories of Fiction, and oddly enough, I love them all. In 6th grade I read through the Trilogy Lord of the Rings, Troy, a few from Steven King, and I believe Harry Potter.
    This past year I started, and finished, the entire series of Dresden Files, Jim Butchers other series Codex Alera, and I’ve started reading other series to fill in the gaps of waiting time for new books to come out with books from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet.
    Even though I’ve read through all of these types of Fantasy, it wasn’t until now that I realized that there were sub-categories.
    Now to end this rambling, I’m glad I was fortunate enough to be linked to this blog. It’s going straight to my favorites.

  • The one greatest thing I have always immensely like about Fantasy in it’s many forms is that when you find a really great author, you can seemingly be transported away from your everyday world into a world of all kinds of situations. I have been loathed after sitting for hours on end with a fantastic book to have to return to physical reality. There are so many fantastic authors publishing that a reader can have their fill of whatever type of fantasy is out there at any one moment in time. I am so thankful every day I had people that taught me it was good to be able to read and actually enjoy what I was reading. I am also thankful that I have picked up a love of books in all forms and I have passed it onto the next generation with my nephews.

  • Mark Derleth

    Thank you for listing many authors and series that I was not aware of. I now have a whole new reading list to attend to. I am no neophyte to fantasy I started reading Conan at age 12 with my Mom. She had odd tastes for a housewife in the 70’s. Barker, Butcher and Niven are some of my favorites. It feels good to know that others appreciate them as well. With everyone at work reading about love lorn vampires, I look forward to reading about some nice blood thirsty ones. I hope “Southern Vampire” prove to be meaty. I will surely check in again. Mark

  • June K.Williams

    Deb-

    You are so correct about Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, and Franz Kafka. There are so many more that are rarely considered as writers of Fantasy yet what else would you call Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or his Tempest?

  • June K.Williams

    John-

    Thanks for stopping by and participating. My own introduction to SF started at the tender age of 9. It was George Orwell’s Animal Farm which is more correctly a political allegory than a straight forward fantasy and having the parents that I did I understood it on both levels. My dad was a voracious reader of both Sci Fi and Fantasy while my mother was somewhat disdainful of fiction and spent her free moments reading history, biographies, poli-sci, philosophies and most any NON-fiction she could get her hands on.

  • June K.Williams

    Roger-

    I am so happy to hear that you are passing the torch to a new generation. It is wonderful to be able to share that with your nephews and one of your rewards will be having some common interests to talk about with them as they grow up.

  • June K.Williams

    Mark-

    If you love Harry then you will love Sookie. In fact while as a publisher I can’t officialy approve of fan fiction there is a part of me that would love to read a novella of ” When Harry Met Sookie”….

  • therhoda

    Okay i read all of these and i have to say after you get off the High fantasy section, most of the rest of the categories are subjective. I did find some of you author choices interesting though. I love the Briggs books, I am still pissed that the next Ward book has been set aside till after Mercy plays out.

    You might also mention the up and coming Fantasy’s that are YA. You put Rowlings and LeGuin in here but there are so many more. They bring in the imagination of many kids to a section where thats what you need to keep it going.

  • Rachael M. Sevigny

    Another two fantasy authors I didn’t see mentioned here that I personally really enjoy are Mercedes Lackey and Tamora Pierce. Mercedes Lackey and her tales of the Heralds of Valdemar would fit right into several of these categories, and her tales of elves, magic, and fast cars would seem to be the very definition of the Urban/Modern/Paranormal Fantasy section. Her urban fantasy have a slightly different style of writing than her other books but in my opinion are just as good. Tamora Pierce’s books are somewhat similar to the Harry Potter series, but instead of one Protagonist it has four and each of the Four books she writes per “series” (One series is the “sequel” to the other on occasion) is written from a different characters point of view. Each character also differs quite of bit from their counterparts (one was a thief and part of a gang, another was a foreigner, the next an orphan none of the family wanted to care for, and last but not least a noble).

  • Rachael M. Sevigny

    It’s nice seeing that other people enjoy the same books that I do, or at least find them worth mentioning. My favorite author at the moment is Jim Butcher and I’m anxiously waiting for his next book “Turncoat” to come out I’m not even going to wait for it to come out in paperback (and yes I know hardcover last longer but paperback are sooo much easier to carry around)

    Another two fantasy authors I didn’t see mentioned here that I personally really enjoy are Mercedes Lackey and Tamora Pierce. Mercedes Lackey and her tales of the Heralds of Valdemar would fit right into several of these categories, and her tales of elves, magic, and fast cars would seem to be the very definition of the section of Urban/Modern/Paranormal Fantasy section. Her urban fantasy have a slightly different style of writing than her other books but in my opinion are just as good. Tamora Pierce’s books are somewhat similar to the Harry Potter series, but instead of one Protagonist it has four and each of the Four books she writes per “series” (One series is the “sequel” to the other on occasion) is written from a different characters point of view. Each character also differs quite of bit from their counterparts (one was a thief and part of a gang, another was a foreigner, the next an orphan none of the family wanted to care for, and last but not least a noble).

  • Tracey c

    very informative. Thank you. Its so funny some of the looks I get when I say I read fantasy. It really is misunderstood. Lots of different types to choose from and you have listed them. Its all I read. If more people gave it a chance they would see how great it is.

  • Debra Guyette

    I did not know fantasty was dvided up into so many categories. Your breakdown was very informative. I have read many of hte different typoes nad now I hve found a few more to explore. thanks so much

  • June K. Williams

    Theroda-

    I understand that these categories are subjective. It is as hard to pin down as a mirage on the horizon in the Gobi on your 3rd day of trekking on foot. By the way even YA is subjective..at least to me. There were and are so many books published in that category that can be enjoyed by a not-so-very-Y-adult:) Many moons ago I was swept away by James Blish’s Cities in Flight series and the central character in the first book at least is a really young guy. If you can find them at all in a library ( out of print now ) they would be listed as YA but this is one adult who still loves them.

    Why did the next Mercy book have to come before the next Hurog/Ward one? Guess it has something to do with the publisher’s request which in turn is fueled by the number of people buying the books.
    The good news id that the more successful the Mercy books become the more likely people will want to see what other things Patricia Briggs has written and then WHAMO. She is a terrific writer and I’m so happy that more people are discovering that every day.

  • June K. Williams

    Rachel-

    Thank you for adding some more of my favorites. I was just using a few examples for the feel of a sub-genre but in no way did I mean that these were even a tiny fraction of the wonderful books that are out there to be discovered and devoured 🙂

  • Phil

    Fantasy comes in many flavors, technical and nontech. We travel to distant realms and alein planets or sometimes a step into another dimension. Some authors blend the groups, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series. It blends sci/fi and swords and sorcery or should it be swords and science? As long as we pass along the names of the authors and the books there will be windows of the mind opened and dreams of other worlds. Ohh lets not forget The Talisman –Peter Straub and Steven King Or Mercedes Lackey,I’ve gone to music stores to pick up the music she talks about in her books. LOL now that’s a good author

  • Sara R.

    I find it moderately gratifying that the boundaries between the subgenres are so fluid. In fact, I have seen multiple other ways of dividing fantasy into different groupings. Because there are so many ways to divide the genre, and each category tends to overlap the others to some extent, it makes movement between each natural. When I was a kid and all throughout high school, I would have firmly placed myself in the camp that supported high/sword and sorcery/heroic fantasy (especially Mercedes Lackey and Tamora Pierce as someone already mentioned). This predilection somehow morphed to the point where today I generally read urban and dark fantasy simply because I started to read other things by my favorite authors (Mercedes Lackey among others) and found that I enjoyed those types as well. I think the appeal of fantasy is reading about something that isn’t possible in real life, and, frankly, this appeal is present in all of the subgenres.

  • Alex

    I think you have one genre (though to be fair, it is a blending of two on your list) that, though recent in its prominence is worth considering as on unto itself: dark humorous. The idea of the noir comedy, something say JIm Butcher does beautifully, is well worth its own category.
    There are some folks who understand that not everything is a fantastic fairy tale, and that real life is harsh. Hence dark fantasy. Others want to continually poke fun (think comedians). But true life blends the two into something endurable. A valuable genre for fantasy indeed.

  • Thanks for the info, is there an RSS Feed?

  • Administrator

    Hi Katie,

    Welcome to The Buzzy Blog.

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  • Reesa

    Lots of beloved books on this list!