In my last few book review posts, I’ve thrown out some terms like “portal fantasy” and “second world fantasy.” It occurs to me that these may be like “plot bunnies“: terms some readers and writers may not be totally familiar with. So let’s talk about the different flavors of fantasy; the subgenres which make up what is really a very diverse section of commercial fiction.
Portal fantasy is a type of story most of us were first introduced to as a child, through books like Alice in Wonderland, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Wizard of Oz. Portal fantasies are set both in the mundane world and a fantastical one, which can be accessed via some sort of “magical portal” (hence the name). If you never see or hear about the ordinary world, it’s not a portal fantasy.
More recent entries in the portal fantasy subgenre include The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Magicians, Stardust and The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.
Very often, portal fantasies will have a Quest Plot, but not always (Every Heart a Doorway was a murder mystery.) You could argue that Harry Potter was portal fantasy, but the borders between the magical and mundane worlds were much more fuzzy and permeable than is usually the case.
Second World (High Fantasy/Epic Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery)
Second world fantasy is a story which is set entirely in a different world. Sometimes, this world is based on our own, or some part of it. Middle Earth and Westeros (and let’s be honest, most of this subgenre) are based on medieval Europe. Ravka from Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy is based on tsarist Russia. Scott Lynch’s Camorr is modeled on late medieval Venice. Xia from Cindy Pon’s Serpentine is based on ancient China. City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett is based on 19th century Russia and India.
“Second world fantasy” is often used almost interchangeably with “high fantasy.” Although “high fantasy” gets a little muddled, because hardly anyone can agree with what “low fantasy” means, and also because it gets mixed up with “epic fantasy.”
Epic fantasy is a second world fantasy whose main conflict has global stakes. If the fate of the (second) world hangs in the balance for our heroes, it’s an epic fantasy. They often have a large number of characters whose point-of-view is featured, rather than sticking closely with just one protagonist’s perspective.
Sword and sorcery stories are second world fantasies with a smaller scope of the conflict than epic fantasy. The stakes are usually personal or local. Often, the heroes of these stories are the medieval equivalent of “guns for hire.” Examples include Conan the Barbarian, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress anthology series, and Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series (which is also a mashup of fantasy and hardboiled/noir detective genres).
Low Fantasy (Contemporary Fantasy, Historical Fantasy)
There is little consensus about what defines “low fantasy.” For some, “low fantasy” means “set in our world, except there’s magic.” Examples of this definition of “low fantasy” could include anything from Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (the Napoleonic Wars + dragons) to Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy (The Davinci Code + witches, vampires & demons) to Harry Potter. Other terms for this kind of low fantasy are contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, or fantasy of manners.
For others, “low fantasy” refers to the scope of the conflict, making it roughly analogous to “sword and sorcery.” And for a few others, “low fantasy” means “set in a low-magic fantasy world.” But this is a pretty uncommon usage. By this definition, A Game of Thrones would qualify, even though it’s a second world fantasy (high) with a global scope of conflict (epic).
Urban & Gaslamp Fantasy
I’m bundling these two because the main differentiation between them is the time period. They are both low fantasy by the “set in our world but with magic” definition. They both feature urban settings. Urban fantasy is set in a modern, contemporary period, and gaslamp fantasy is set (typically in London) during the Regency, Victorian or Edwardian period.
(Author’s Note: “gaslamp fantasy” is also a term for “steampunk for people who don’t have a stick up their butt about improbable technology and magic.”)
Examples of urban fantasy include Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (like the Eddie LaCrosse series, a mashup with detective noir), Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, and Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series.
Of course, I have really only skimmed the surface of all the different subgenres of fantasy. I haven’t even touched on Magical Realism, Slipstream, Fairytales and a whole host of other stuff which could feasibly fall under the broad heading of Fantasy. But this post is already really long, so I think we’ll wrap it up for now.
Have a question or opinion on all this? Drop me a comment and we’ll discuss it. 🙂