Fantasy subgenres

April is proving to be a Month of Random Reading. Which is good, I think. Especially as May will be a month of fantasy reads under the Wyrd & Wonder banner.

There are eight fantasy subgenres offered for consideration, and in this anticipatory post I shall be looking at them in a little more detail, seeing what I’ve already read that falls in each category (links are to my reviews or discussions) and ruminating on what I might choose to read in the merry month of May. Though I may change my mind at the last moment.

It’s possible I shall read one example of each subgenre in the space of four weeks, perfectly achievable at the rate of two a week, but I’m making no promises!

Epic or High Fantasy

The epitome of epic fantasy has been Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings: a vast canvas spread over a secondary world where magic is a given and heroes and villains and fabulous creatures are potentially around every corner. Some, like me, prefer the term ‘high fantasy’ to ‘epic’ as the latter might imply a scale (battles, disasters, the fate of a world etc) that some works simply may not aspire to.

As well as his Middle-Earth epics Tolkien tried his hand at recasting North European sagas, such as The Story of Kullervo and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, but it’s for The Hobbit and LOTR that he’s best known, the latter a work that I hope to revisit for the umpteenth time soon, this time actually settling down to a review or more.

I’ve enjoyed quite a few of these secondary worlds. Obviously Tolkien’s The Hobbit, in its original form or even as a graphic novel, but also Ursula Le Guin‘s Earthsea series, and Patricia McKillop‘s trilogy The Riddle-Master’s Game, both written soon after Middle Earth was first making its impact. Diana Wynne Jones, who attended some of Tolkien’s lectures (also those of C S Lewis) paid her own serious tribute in her Dalemark Quartet; and Australian authors Alison Croggon (the Books of Pellinor) and Garth Nix (the Old Kingdom sequence) have achieved equal success in creating consistent and credible secondary worlds.

The hobbit creator didn’t of course work in isolation: E R Eddison‘s sequence, which began with The Worm Ouroboros, was among those works which were known to Tolkien. But I think I’ve made the point about fantastic secondary worlds — Middle Earth, Earthsea, Dalemark, Pellinor, Old Kingdom and so on — certainly enough to make it hard to decide where to go next on my virtual journey. Perhaps the Old Kingdom, as there’s this one Garth Nix collection which includes a novella set there …

Low Fantasy

When it comes to so-called Low Fantasy the point is that there is some kind of freedom of movement across the borders of our mundane planet (the primary world) and a world of magic. As always, genre boundaries are also very fluid, so looking at a list provided by Wikipedia I see some very different bedfellows.

Susan Cooper‘s The Dark Is Rising has the worlds of the Dark and the Old Ones intruding on 1970s Britain, for example, while in E Nesbit‘s Five Children and It we note that a psammead or sand fairy has turned up on the Kent coast in the early years of the 20th century.

Skip to the closing decade of that century and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett has beings from Old and New Testament mythology interfering in human affairs — again. And in The Dark Lord of Derkholm Diana Wynne Jones cunningly has the reverse journey to the secondary world as the featured itinerary, with package holiday tourists travelling to a parallel world of magic in order to indulge in real-life (as opposed to virtual) role play. However, death happens to be an option, whichever world you are in.

I don’t want to create the impression that just Britain is blessed (or cursed) with these visitations from secondary worlds. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, for example, has magic intruding into a North American landscape (perhaps the Ohio countryside that Babbitt would have known as a child) in the form of a fount of everlasting life. Though the spring’s origin is never explained, its numinous as well as magical quality suggests it’s not of this world.

What will I read for this category? Perhaps, as it’s been a good many years since I first began the series, I shall start my reread of J K Rowling‘s well-known novel sequence of the Chosen One with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I know some might find this naff, but where else better to enjoy the intrusion of a magical world into our own?

Corner of children’s section, Book-ish, Crickhowell

Grimdark

It’s grim, and it’s dark; it’s Might Is Right and it’s violent. Not my kind of thing, but as Grimdark seems to cover a realm of sins, I’m going to go for Michael Moorcock. Maybe an Elric story (I have The Dreamthief’s Daughter begging for a reread) or The War Hound and the World’s Pain which features Ulrich von Bek, perhaps an avatar or alter ego of the previously mentioned Elric. I don’t know if either of these counts as grimdark, but I’m going for one of them.

Urban Fantasy

Examples of this genre include Ben Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London, Neil Gaiman‘s Neverwhere and Chris Westwood‘s Ministry of Pandemonium, and I’ve even seen the Harry Potter series included in this category (but then Harry Potter seems to fit many fantasy categories). I may go for a China Miéville novel, perhaps (Kraken, curiously, also features an underground London — is there no other metropolis for British writers?) but I’m also aware that Mieville’s specialist genre is urban weird.

Anyway, I reserve judgement here; perhaps I’ll just plump for Andrew Caldecott‘s Rotherweird, which is at least set in an urban landscape that isn’t London.

Portal Fantasy

Portal fantasies seem to me like a subcategory of Low Fantasy, in which the secondary world is accessed by, well, some kind of portal. It’s a wardrobe to start off with in C S LewisThe Chronicles of Narnia, a door in Neil Gaiman‘s Coraline, a fortress door in Diana Wynne JonesHowl’s Moving Castle, and a rupture in space to access other worlds in Northern Lights and the subsequent novels in Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Portals also abound in the Narnian-inspired trilogy by Lev Grossman, beginning with The Magicians. As I haven’t yet reviewed the last in that sequence, The Magician’s Land, now may be a good time for a reread.

Magical realism

Magic or Magical Realism is a broad church, popular even among writers of ‘serious literature’ who seem frightened to be tarred with the brush of fantasy. Gabriel García Márquez is well regarded as such a one, though to date I’ve only read Of Love and Other Demons. Neil Gaiman is sometimes credited as a magic realist writer though when titles like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane are cited I begin to wonder if subgenres mean anything at all. Katsuo Ishiguro‘s The Buried Giant perhaps fits this slot better, but I think it’s a novel that crosses boundaries.

I think I’ll dig out an Angela Carter novel.

Fairytales and Mythology

These two categories I’m going to discuss as one, before we all lose the will to live. I have no end of books on fairytales on my shelves so, having an eye on time, I shall dig out the shortest I can find. Maybe it’ll be a modernish literary fairytale or perhaps it’ll be a collection of tales that form part of the oral tradition. Who knows?

With mythology I had thought of Jason and the Argonauts but again, with laziness and time pressing, I may search out something shorter. Even The Epic of Gilgamesh, cobbled together over years from fragmentary texts, was more complex than I anticipated so I shall have my work cut out. It’s possible I have a child’s version, or even a literary retelling, of some ancient myth. But I’m already getting ahead of myself, plenty of time to decide . . .

And you? Are you planning to join in this event?

29 thoughts on “Fantasy subgenres

    1. Goodreads tells me that I’ve read 27 books so far this year, and I finished another last night, so I’m hoping that I can complete eight books in the four and a half weeks of May. But if not, there’s June… 😁

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    1. Eagerly anticipating your choice, Annabel! Although I was disappointed at the ending for Rivers of London readers have suggested that I was too hasty in dismissing the rest of the series, so it may be time to reinvestigate.

      I’m a bit daunted however by the fact that the sequence continues to be added to at a fair lick…

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      1. On the plus side, it is a series which keeps getting better – not least because it allows (indeed encourages) Peter to grow up. PC Grant is young and callow in book 1 (and oh god, his sense of humour); but the series reflects that years pass and experiences shape. I realise that’s doesn’t help reduce the intimidating number of books tho!

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  1. Lovely–I hadn’t consciously realised there were so many subgenres. The first Harry Potter remains my favourite because of the sheer ‘magic’ of the first introduction to the magical world, and reading the illustrated edition added several times to it.

    For May, I was planning to pick up some 2018 books, one fantasy among them is Children of Blood and Bone, so I shall have one at least!

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    1. I should search out Children of Blood and Bone, the response to it has been so positive. Interestingly, the author was said to have been inspired by Harry Potter for the magical side, though the Nigerian setting was apparently prompted by awful killings of Afro-Americans in the States. Anyway, I do hope you enjoy it, Mallika, and I look forward to your review! 🙂

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    1. The subgenres were suggested by Imyril on the Wyrd and Wonder homepage, so I can’t claim any credit for the selection, but the subgenres and even sub-subgenres proliferate even more than suggested here! A plague on (sub)genres — there are only good reads, bad reads, and everything in between!

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  2. elmediat

    Well done. Presently reading Ysabel by Guy Gavreil Kay. It is annoying me a bit, because I can not figure out the intended target audience. The language & tone, especially dialogue and character, shifts between young adult & a wider audience.

    When I was an English Teacher, I ran into some preconceived notions of Fantasy Lit. & Speculative Fiction. Had to create a detailed list of types of Fantasy Literature, and a detailed definition of Speculative Fiction, in order to cut through student expectations.
    More on that here: https://darkpinesphoto.wordpress.com/fantasy-literature-science-fiction/

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    1. Thanks for the reminder of your post/page, Joseph, which I’ve clearly ‘liked’ at some time. These eight categories suggested by W&W I see as merely pegs on which to hang coats (hang-ups?) and not hard-and-fast pigeonholes. If you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor.

      Kay I’ve yet to sample, though it may well be Fionavar that I visit first. But not this month—I want to trawl my own bookshelves first.

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      1. elmediat

        The categories & sub-genres just provide for common terminology. The problem comes from Mass Media Marketing & the narrow range of TV & Cinema fantasy & science fiction. Then you have writers like Marget Atwood avoidance identifying her work as genre fiction, because “Literary” credentials.

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  3. What. A. FANTASTIC breakdown. These whet my fantasy appetite, and yet I have to agree these titles smack of different flavors. Which flavor do I want today? Damn, um…hmmm…got it! I NEED to reread Neverwhere so I can work on a worldbuilding post….yes, YEEEEEES! Insert Viking fist-shake in the air here!

    (sorry, I should stop reading blogs after wine)

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    1. Wine? Why not?! Better that than wine not! My next Gaiman I think will be the opening salvo of The Sandman graphic novels which I recently treated myself to, but Neverwhere is good, if a bit uneven if my memory serves me well. Worldbuilding is tough, I understand, as you have to steel yourself to use only a fraction of what intricacies you’ve invented for your world rather than dumping it all on your reader—so I wish you all the luck in whatever world you imagine! 🙂

      Thanks for your appreciation, Jean, though I have to admit that I took the categories from the Wyrd and Wonder home page and merely slotted in titles I’d previously read and reviewed to see where gaps showed themselves.

      Oh, and thanks again for all the retweets, I’m extremely grateful!

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      1. Oh pish. You used their categeories, sure, but look at all the titles you could pluck out of your head like flowers in a meadow! Wonderful. 🙂

        And worldbuilding IS tough. I know what you mean about Neverwhere–I felt that about Coraline. But what I love about Neverwhere is that it DOESN’T hold the reader’s hand. You just have to keep up with the plot.

        And Bash got up before the sun rose, the little turd….and one wonders why I need wine by the end of a day…sigh…

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  4. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

    Great post! Riddle-Master wasn’t really my kind of thing but I really liked _Alphabet of Thorn_ by the same author.

    I have The Worm Ouroboros on my list for someday, not sure when I will read it.

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    1. Thanks, Beth, I’m pleased you appreciated it, even though it’s mostly about mainstream fantasy — I’m not very adventurous when it comes to more independent publishers and self-published titles.

      Thanks too for the McKillip recommendation — I did enjoy the Riddle-Master sequence but it was a bit dark and irrefutably tragic, so maybe Alphabet of Thorn may be a bit brighter! As for The Worm Ouroboros I did like the world-building and power struggles but it was interminable at times and I found it hard to like many of the characters — not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s hard to invest in a story if feelings of empathy, even for the good individuals, isn’t strongly aroused. (I must reread my review to remind myself what my immediate reactions were!)

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  5. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

    Tragic is ok with me in principle (I loved The Silmarillion, for one thing) so I suspect something else put me off Riddle-master, but it has been so long that I don’t really remember much.

    I am curious about Eddison, but I might wait until I’ve read more of the medieval literature that inspired him. I have read Beowulf and two of the Icelandic sagas but not much else.

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    1. I bought a copy of The Silmarillion recently to remedy an inability to stick at it not long after it first came out in paperback, Beth, but I still find it rather daunting. ‘Sometime’, as I always say.

      I did rather trudge through the McKillip trilogy, though I thought it wonderful worldbuilding, and while pleased to have read it I don’t think I’d contemplate a reread (my review, I note now, was quite positive: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-riddles). I think I need a strong disposition to deal with tragic fantasy — I’m finding enough tragic reality in the world right now without willingly immersing myself in a fictional version.

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      1. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

        Well, I think The Silmarillion is worth it, but some people don’t like the tragic aspect (which is why Beren & Luthien tends to be the most popular story, I think). But I think even the tragic narratives have enough transcendent moments not to feel relentlessly depressing.

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