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A (Small) Fantasy Primer

Back in the day, there used to be a pretty basic definition of fantasy. Basically, think Lord of the Rings, and you pretty much get the idea. A hero on a quest in a medieval-type landscape, aided or opposed by all sorts of human and other-worldly creatures such as elves, dwarves, Wizards, and the like. And often the story took place on some Earth-like setting, but not necessarily Earth itself.

Those elements made up the standard fantasy story for many years after Tolkien’s masterpiece, which pretty much defined the genre for many years.   As time went on, however, the whole genre of fantasy began to broaden to encompass many new sub-genres, and that broadening is still continuing today. In fact, in order to move readers away from viewing fantasy with LOTR-influenced glasses, a new term, “speculative fiction”, is now used to encompass both science fiction and fantasy.

To which I say, yay! That means more books, which can’t be a bad thing. There are a lot of these new sub-genres of fantasy, and while I have growing pretty familiar with them in the course of my reading and writing life, I realize that perhaps some of my readers might not be aware of all the categories. As a writer, it’s good to know what genre your book falls under, so as to make it clear to agents, editors, and publishers exactly upon what shelf to file your book, so to speak. And as readers, it’s fun to see the incredible diversity that is going on in publishing today, when it comes to speculative fiction.

So, in no particular order, here’s a little primer of the fantasy side of speculative fiction, which covers a fair bit, but is not exhaustive, there’s just too many! If you are interested in finding out more, have a look at this website. Maybe you will discover something that tweaks your fancy!

Word of warning – these categories are not set in stone. And many books fit in more than one category!

1) HIgh Fantasy – a sweeping epic, lots of characters, well-drawn magic systems, detailed world-building…these are all characteristics of high fantasy. Often includes a quest, or a coming of age theme.  So this is where LOTR will fit, but also lots of books by Brandon Sanderson (eg the Mistborn books), Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and even books like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen R. Donaldson. This is a pretty broad category, and some books in other categories could also be placed in this one.

2) Low Fantasy – similar to the above, but often the magic system or elements of the story are downplayed, and the story is often grittier, with an anti-hero protagonist, and plenty of moral ambiguity. Martin’s The Game of Thrones is a perfect example of this genre, and it’s popularity has spawned a number of books in this genre. Again, a broad category which could encompass other sub-genres as well.

3) Historical fantasy – set (usually) in a real historical period on Earth, but mixes in some fantasy elements. A good example of this would be the stories of King Arthur which include the magic of Merlin and a dragon or two. It also would include an up-and-coming title, Wilding, Book One of the Traveller’s Path trilogy, by (cough), me. Books by Guy Gavriel Kay (a great Canadian writer) such as The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy are a good example of historical fantasy books that aren’t set on Earth, although the setting does mirror a real historical time period (such as Renaissance Italy). If these fantastical elements bring about a change in history as we know it, this morphs into the related category of Alternative History. The popular Steampunk genre (Victorian age setting, steam-powered technology) falls under historical fantasy.


This marvellous series is a wonderful example of Alternate History. The Napoleonic Wars with dragons!! What could be better?


4) Dark Fantasy

– books that combine fantasy elements with horror. The granddaddy of these would probably be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and many contemporary vampire books would be filed here, such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series. Books with other creatures such as werewolves or mummies (could stray into the historical fantasy genre, though) or ghosts (could stray into strictly horror) could fall under dark fantasy except sometimes those fall under the related category of…

5) Paranormal Fantasy – (usually) modern-day adventure tales, sometimes including elements of detective fiction and/or romance which include fantastical creatures and the presence of magic of some form. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer,  Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, or one of my personal favourites, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files ( the books, not the TV series). This is a hugely popular category right now, especially in the Paranormal Romance sub-genre.



Ah, Harry Dresden, how I love you. If ever you are in Chicago and an ancient soul-sucking demon interrupts a perfectly good dinner party, give this bad-boy wizard a call. He’s in the book.


6) Urban Fantasy

– I love this category, both to write and to read. It includes stories that are set in our modern-day environments, but with fantastical elements added in, often as a secret or undetected-to-most-people way. Charles de Lint (another great Canadian writer!) writes a lot of urban fantasy ( eg, Moonheart). The Harry Potter books could fit here, too. As could the afore-mentioned Dresden Files. See, I told you lots of books can fit in more than one place!

7) Magical Realism – this is a relatively new but growing sub-genre.  These stories assume that magic is a part of everyday life, presented in a realistic and often contemporary setting.  Often literary in nature, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Erin Morgenstern’s marvellous The Night Circus are good examples of this genre.



Duelling wizards and star-crossed lovers, in a circus that only ever comes at night. Marvellous! Fun fact – this bestselling novel was originally written for the NaNoWriMo competition, so just in case you have a dusty manuscript sitting in a drawer from that annual competition that you think will never go anywhere….

Now for a taste of some of the more obscure sub-genres:

9) Science Fantasy – science fiction and fantasy? Is that a thing? Well, yes, and the most iconic example of this would be Star Wars. Space ships and the Force. Although can we all agree that the insertion of the midi-chloria in the prequels was a TERRIBLE idea?

10) New Weird/Slipstream – genre-bending and literary in nature, these books can be a puzzle to read, and fans of this genre like it that way. Sometimes these books can be difficult to understand but other times the more mainstream of these give you some really great stories that will linger with you. I haven’t read a lot of this genre but one author who writes a lot in New Weird is China Mieville, and I truly loved his short story collection, Looking for Jake. Although some of those stores were a bit too creepy for me, others were simply mind-stretching and utterly unique.

11) Weird West – Westerns and fantasy? Yesssss……! These are fun. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read about a gunslinger encountering a vampire? I’m a Louis L’Amour fan from a long ways back, and this mash-up of genres is right up my alley. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is probably the best-known example of this genre, but there are a whole lot more out there that I need to get on my “To be read” list….

12) Bangsian Fantasy – this is one I have never heard of before! These are stories featuring the afterlife, often, but not always, with a genial tone. Because death is such a riot, I suppose. These are stories where ghosts could be stuck in the real world, living people stuck in a ghost world, or people who have died in a literal Heaven or Hell. So, although neither of these fit the “genial” definition, both Dante’s Inferno and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones would fit in this category. It’s called “Bangsian” after John Frederick Bangs, who wrote about the afterlife in a humourous way at the beginning of the twentieth-century in books such as A House-boat on the River Styx. 

I could go on and on, but I’d better stop here. At least you have a bit of a taste for all the many and varied types of fantasy books out there, and maybe this will inspire you to check out some new authors you may not have read. Or, if you are a writer, try your hand at a short story in one of these genres!

(And I know my featured image doesn’t really have anything to do with this list, but….hey. It’s funny.)


  1. sdorman says:

    thanks for the news-to-me note on Bangsian Fantasy. will have to take a sail on Styx! Er, the descriptor “genial” was the selling point.

    1. L.A. Smith says:

      Yes! It’s a different category, for sure. I have read some books featuring characters “post-mortem” so to speak, but I haven’t read too many genial ones. 🙂 In reading the description of Bangsian Fantasy it seems the original idea was to poke fun at (or at least shed light at the absurdities of) social mores and conventions by having dead people (some famous ones and other “ordinary” ones) interact together. Death as the level playing field, I suppose.

      1. sdorman says:

        i’ve been listening to the book. genial is not the word perhaps.

        1. L.A. Smith says:

          Hah! So I’m intrigued – what word would you use?

          1. sdorman says:

            ? maybe it’s the audiobook readers? i don’t know, but glib comes to mind. also flippant, light, sarcastic. my feeling for the characters as presented does not seem to ring true to the historical figures. not that this is what Bangs is trying to achieve? he may be more interested in having a go at the contemporary culture. also, my “reading” is somewhat glib. 🙂 maybe superficial.

  2. bookheathen says:

    I take a slightly different approach in my book ‘It’s a Fantasy World’.
    I must admit ‘Bangsian’ is a new one to me too.

    1. L.A. Smith says:

      Interesting! Looks like a good book – thanks for sharing the link. Another one for the list!

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