Get Your Subgenre Right

13 Jul

Now I’ll be the first one to point out that fantasy is an incredibly inclusive genre. Not only can stories with magic realism mean that yes, literature can include fantasy, other genres such as romance or western novels often contain supernatural elements, and if you’re honest about what you’re selling, often times you can find mass appeal to different demographics.

Know what bugs me? Someone rejecting, reviewing, or marketing a novel incorrectly on the basis of getting its classification wrong. I’m not talking about how literature tends to look down on genre. If I get rejection letter that’s personalized and call my book a ‘high fantasy’ when I said ‘sword and sorcery’ I assume they didn’t read the submission. When someone gives me feedback and says “You clearly don’t know much about medieval culture” and I’m not writing about a medieval culture, I wanna ask them when and where they think this book is situated. When I’m going through goodreads and getting a few takes on what other people said about a book I’m interested in, if everyone’s calling a title a “YA Urban fantasy Romance” I’m going to be super suspicious about the reviewer calling it an “Adventure novel with a splash of romance”.

Why does it matter? The same reason that Star Wars and Star Trek aren’t the same genre because they feature space ships with faster-than-light travel. I’m not saying those who prefer one wouldn’t like the other – often, there’s plenty of overlap. But, if you’re in the mood for true crime or realistic detective stories, it may feel like a cop out if you’re suddenly dealing with the supernatural. Or, if you’re in the mood for something spicy in the romance section, you may be disappointed if the title is a ‘sweet romance’, no matter how good it is.

But L.T.! Surely you know that not everything fits into boxes! Absolutely I do – and it can be a beautiful thing when genres mix. I’ll talk fantasy here, then I’ll talk about science fiction subgenres in part 2.

Let’s start with the difference in ‘flavor’ between the two fantasy heavyweights: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Notwithstanding that there’s very different publishing demands to this day, Tolkien is the hallmark for high fantasy. That means the ‘regular folk’ are interacting with extremely magical denizens regularly, at least within the context of the story. The fantastical elements are front and center in the story. Now, with ASoIaF, Martin based his story heavily on The War of the Roses. It’s a fantasy world and elements, but a good chunk of the story is grounded in something more realistic; with the exception of some fantastic architecture a lot of it could take place in our world. I wouldn’t quite put it in the category of ‘low fantasy’ but GRRM has said in his fantasy world, magic is much less common.


High Fantasy: Magic is either common or the elements are at the forefront. This doesn’t mean it’s all wonder and magic, it can be gritty. I haven’t read the series yet, but I’d put The Witcher here – the main character is a supernatural monster hunter, and he interacts with both mundane and powerful witches, wizards, elves, gnomes on a somewhat regular basis.

Low Fantasy: Magic exists, but it’s almost always in something mysterious or unknown, may only exist in curses, anyway it could be very powerful magic but it’s not as common as the above.  I stick most sword and sorcery in this category, so I’d put Conan The Barbarian here, but not all Wuxia or stories like it would apply.

There’s some blurry lines here, because you can expand or deconstruct also based on some stories that are chosen to be told. For instance, in the Original Star Wars trilogy, The Force is seen as much more mysterious and harder to use as opposed to both the prequel and subsequent sequel trilogies. The former could be explained because we have more jedi with training; the sequels, well, they’re divisive so I’ll shut up. Notice how I haven’t said anything about setting yet? The stereotype is some sort of medievalish castle with dragons and knights. Once again, fantasy stories heavily involve tropes like kings because most of human history had kings, but they weren’t necessarily medieval kings. This isn’t the case moving forward in literature, especially case in point with Star Wars being a futuristic, space adventure setting, but I’ll stop relying on Star Wars for everything and refer to other material for the rest of this post.

Urban Fantasy: Fantasy tropes set in the here and now. Not the ‘I went to a strange land’ like Neverland, Oz or Narnia, though there may be overlap when the white rabbit appears. Perhaps elves walk down the street, or visit here from their parallel dimension. Perhaps you’re off to a secret school to control your powers, known or unknown to the rest of us normies. Harry Potter, Shadowhunters, Harry Dresden fits under here.  It doesn’t mean that the ‘magical’ world is as up to date as the rest of us, or that we normies even know what’s going on in the realm of the fantastic.

Urban Fantasy isn’t the first genre to sort of overlap with fantasy tropes. I think I’ve read one Harry Dresdon book, and he’s a detective. The Dark Tower series by Steven King, to keep it simple, Roland’s world is like a dystopian western with Low Fantasy elements – immensely powerful magic exists, but only for a select few, the gunslingers most seem to be at its mercy. Romance can easily overlap in novels such as The Kushiel’s Legacy Trilogy by Jaqueline Carey. My Beta Reader, R.J. Hore, describes his Dark Lady and Queen’s Pawn trilogies as medieval fantasies and it’s the very familiar tropes: Knights, queens, princesses and dragons.  I would describe the medieval as the setting, and both subsequent trilogies having low fantasy power elements, with the Dark Lady being more character focused and darker in tone than The Queen’s Pawn being more of a fantasy-romance adventure, which is also considerably lighter in tone.

Historical Fantasy: I’ve argued about whether or not this is alternative history; my argument is that it’s like Harry Potter and the magic is so well hidden or ‘goes away’ without record, history would dismiss the fantastic sights of mermaids as delusional sailors. I’ll talk more about Alternative History in the Science Fiction Segment of this post. You’re in merry old England, set in the era of King Arthur, and you’ve got a realistic twist on the familiar elements, at least for the most part. In this version of the story, Merlin’s got actual magic powers, and isn’t just a druid using herbs and psychology, and The Lady of the Lake is a supernatural entity in some capacity. Tower of Obsidian fits into this category, and the story suggests fantasy elements were something of a bygone era, and by novel’s end, at least part of that magical element has left our world. High Fantasy? Low Fantasy? When we’re in the fantasy part of the novel, high fantasy elements all the way – princess in a tower, elf-like beings who should have shoved off centuries ago, and besides all the dragons and immortality, Aaron talks to dead spirits who are stuck there and gets a magic sword. When we’re back in Ireland, everything is relatively historically accurate.

Science Fantasy: Science fiction and fantasy merge! The easiest one to talk about here is Star Wars – and I said I wouldn’t. A comic I read growing up called The Warlord was basically set in Pellucidar, (it was called Skartarish) and was about a fantasy-esque world with unicorns, dinosaurs, and a man from our world discovering lost Atlantean tech along the way. Google it, it’ll say it’s a sword and sorcery series. I have only my dad’s really old comics to go with, so I have no idea how it ends.

Paranormal: Now we’re launching into horror! Werewolves, vampires, things that go bump in the night. Once again, can be based in different eras; whether we’re contemporary having werewolves in school or a historical vampire novel, or set way into the future; if you want vampires in space, check out R.J. Hore’s Housetrap Novella series, his main character fights them regularly. Why is this ‘launching into horror’? Because horror novels don’t need to have fantastical elements. The classic film Psycho is an example of absolutely nothing supernatural happening, and it’s considered a horror classic. While we’re on the subject of film, The Thing is considered to be a perfect movie by many. It’s a brilliant combination of science fiction and horror, and I’ll chat more about it in the second part of this post.

Slipstream/Magic Realism/Those Literary Genres: I’m being a bit of a turd, but this is typically where the ‘real’ authors play. To be fair, if I want to read a sword-swinging adventure, it’s probably not the same as someone who wants to read something that plays around with a person’s mind or explore how one’s culture and beliefs is reflective in how they perceive the world today. I’ll grant them that they’re playing in the big category of ‘fantasy’ but a specialized niche. They play between realistic elements and typically introduce fantastical elements to explore a theme. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger would be an example.


Those are the big categories. Clearly, there’s overlap and I for one welcome it, but when you’re reviewing, especially if you’re told in big letters in say, the back blurb or whatever, try to get it right.

But L.T.! You haven’t mentioned things like fairy tales or mythology!

               Absolutely you’re right.

You can take a mythology and update it, like in The Percy Jackson books. You can take a fairy tale and put it in a science fiction setting, like Cinder, or perhaps this famous Tex Avery Cartoon.

The point I’m trying to make is, that it’s okay if you lead with Cinder as a fairy tale or an updated science fiction take on the beloved story of Cinderella. Both of those are right. What is wrong is saying it’s a high fantasy story set in space.

Respect your audience, and your author. Show them you know what you’re talking about. I’ll talk science fiction in part 2.

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