A Reader’s Guide to the Fantasy Genre and Subgenres

When you need a break from your daily routine, there’s no escape quite like a fantasy novel. The strange worlds conjured up in the imaginations of fantasy writers can reel you in with exciting stories of magic, supernatural creatures, and extraordinary human abilities. From classic fairy tales to the Lord of the Rings, the diverse array of fantasy literature guarantees that there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

Overview of Fantasy Fiction

The fantasy genre, while being a wildly popular literary genre, is rather difficult to pin down and define. Dozens of fantasy subgenres are recognized today, and this list will continue to expand as new writers emerge and share their own one-of-a-kind fictional ideas. The one consistent theme amongst all fantasy novels is a magical setting, or a world that doesn’t necessarily need to abide by the scientific laws we’re accustomed to on Earth.

Fantasy can often overlap with other genres, such as romance, historical fiction, and even sci-fi. People who say they don’t enjoy fantasy probably have a very narrow view of what the genre entails! As this guide will point out, fantasy does not always include a happy ending, a medieval setting, or unrealistic magical abilities.

Fantasy Sub-Genres

If you want to get lost in a new fictional world, give one of these popular fantasy subgenres a try:

Alternate History

Have you ever looked back at major historical events and asked yourself “what if” something else had happened? Alternate history novels take this idea and run with it, daydreaming about the possible ramifications of a different timeline, where perhaps wars were avoided, leaders had secret magical powers, or fantasy beasts were threatening an ancient civilization. A few excellent books in this category include 11/22/63 by Stephen King and The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley.

Alternate World

In an alternate world fantasy novel, the story transports the reader to a completely different reality or a hidden world within our own. Some alternate world stories are called “portal fantasies” if the character travels from a realistic setting to somewhere magical, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

Arthurian Fantasy

Arthurian fantasies are a specific type of historical fiction that takes place in the realm of King Arthur. Readers can expect a medieval setting, often with adventurous knights, fire-breathing dragons, and other magical creatures. Arthurian legends have been inspiring fantasy authors for centuries, and it’s one of the most easily recognizable subgenres of fantasy. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley is one great example of Arthurian fantasy retold from a female’s perspective.

Christian Fantasy

Christian fantasy novels are books that creatively explore traditional Biblical values, Christian values, and religious ideas. Some, like C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, may not overtly discuss God or the concept of Heaven, but rather create characters or settings that represent religious topics. Other Christian fantasy books, like the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, delve into common questions that religious people might have about the Bible and its implications.

Dark Fantasy

H.P Lovecraft’s distinct style of uncanny horror could be considered a type of dark fantasy, or a story that mixes fantasy and horror elements to both entertain and frighten readers. Some dark fantasies can also include paranormal or supernatural figures, like vampires or werewolves, but it’s key to note that not every dark fantasy will have these elements. The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is one highly-revered example of this subgenre.

Beyond dark fantasy, there is grimdark fantasy, which is marked by violence, pessimism, and nihilism. This smaller segment of dark fantasy got its name from the tagline of Warhammer 40,000: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” Characters are often morally grey, jaded, and have questionable motivations, which can be a welcome change from the unrealistically perfect heroes seen in other fantasies.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales and folktales, which are generally intended for children, tend to be set in magical realms where creatures like trolls, witches, dragons, magicians, and other supernatural characters are common. These stories often begin with “Once upon a time…” and end with “…and they all lived happily ever after.” However, fairy tales aren’t always just for kids. One popular type of fairy tale is the modern reimagination or retelling of classic children’s stories for an adult audience. For example, the author of Wicked, Gregory Maguire, also wrote Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which ponders the question of what happened to the stepsisters after Cinderella was whisked away by Prince Charming.

Gaslamp Fantasy

Also known as “gaslight fantasy,” this type of literature genre blends historical fiction and fantasy elements to create a specific kind of mood and atmosphere. Gaslamp novels are generally set in a Victorian or Edwardian time period, borrowing common tropes from Gothic literature. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one popular example of a gaslamp fantasy since it relies on suspense to build horror and intrigue within readers.

High Fantasy

Also called “epic fantasy,” high fantasies are highly detailed imaginary worlds that have their own rules, geographical landmarks, and even languages. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most well-known epic fantasies of modern history, which centers around a grand story full of complex characters and the ongoing battle between good and evil. Epic fantasies are exciting in the sense that they’re completely based in a secondary world that’s the author’s very own creation. Everything, from the setting to the magical rules to the creatures, is all carefully determined and introduced with meticulousness to create a fantastic yet believable setting.

Historical Fantasy

As the name suggests, historical fantasy reimagines real historical events or periods blended with supernatural elements or magical characters. For instance, an author may reimagine a famous historical figure as a witch or sorcerer, or incorporate fantasy creatures into well-known historical events. Medieval fantasy is one common type of historical fantasy, but it can often overlap with Arthurian fantasy elements.

LGBT Fantasy

LGBT themes can occur in a wide variety of fantasy literature, but for those looking for a protagonist that doesn’t fit the heteronormative narrative or a storyline without a strictly heterosexual love interest, these kinds of fantasy novels are for you. Representation of all gender identities and sexual orientations can be thoroughly explored in fantasy literature, and these stories can be especially helpful for young adults who may be struggling with their own identity. For instance, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall is a whimsical LGBT fantasy novel that adults both young and old are sure to enjoy.

Low Fantasy

Unlike high fantasies, a low fantasy story introduces the reader to a seemingly ordinary character, who is then surprised by some kind of fantasy element. Instead of building an entirely separate, distinct world, a low fantasy includes magical elements intruding upon a world similar to our own. The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare illustrates a low fantasy world perfectly, as ordinary characters are slowly faced with unexpected dark forces and strange, otherworldly creatures.

Magical Realism

If you want a fantasy story that’s a little more believable, magical realism is the subgenre for you. In these novels, magic exists in a world similar to our own, but it works according to specific laws and rules. Fantastical abilities and capabilities may be possible, but characters are still bound by laws of physics, for example. Check out One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabri

el Garcia Marquez for a top-tier realistic magical fantasy.

Military Fantasy

Follow a soldier or an army in a military fantasy novel as they battle supernatural creatures, wage war against other magical soldiers, or fight their way through treacherous dangers in an effort to save the day. These fantasies can be dark, gritty, and focused on the details of gory battlefield horror, perhaps made more extreme through use of magic or sorcery. The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie is an excellent introduction to military fantasy, full of sword-wielding warriors and heart pounding battle scenes.

Mythic Fantasy

The mythic fantasy or legend fantasy genre puts a new spin on classic mythological tales or well-known legends, such as the countless stories of the Greek gods and goddesses. Mythic fantasy can occur in a modern-day setting, such as Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, but they still incorporate elements of the particular legend’s original timeline or setting.

Paranormal Romance

Paranormal romance is like the strange, but delightful, lovechild of romantic fiction, horror, and fantasy literature. Stephenie Meyer is a notable writer in this genre due to her immensely popular story of a vampire falling in love with a human girl in the Twilight saga. Other paranormal romance books frequently involve intimate relationships between regular people and supernatural beings like ghosts, shapeshifters, werewolves, or other otherworldly monsters. In other novels, seemingly normal characters may end up displaying paranormal abilities, such as telepathy or telekinesis, which help them connect with their romantic interest.

Sci-fi Fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy share a lot of similar tropes, such as creating alternate worlds or imagining new types of creatures or characters, but sci-fi fantasy blends both genres into an expertly-crafted story where both technology and magic can flourish. Typically, sci-fi fantasy happens in a modern or futuristic society where technological advancements have significantly changed the way people live or interact with the world around them, but magical abilities are still prevalent as well. For example, The Force in the Star Wars series can be described as a fantastical or magical element.

Steampunk Fantasy

Steampunk is a pretty specific subgenre that combines elegant Victorian themes and technology reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution with elements of modern machinery or even robots. Steampunk is a thrilling combination of alternate history, science fantasy, and contemporary fantasy, all wrapped up into a quirky and truly unique adventure. Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker will whisk you back to the Civil War era, and then take a sharp turn to take you on a daring escape through hordes of zombies, pirates, and armed warriors.

Superhero Fantasy

Unlike sci-fi stories where a regular person gets magical superpowers after falling into a vat of toxic waste or getting bit by a radioactive spider, superheroes get their powers from supernatural, otherworldly means. Tales of superheroes like Wonder Woman or Superman can be thought of as superhero fantasy stories, or as they’re also commonly called, comic book fantasies. The superhero fantasy genre is usually set in a low fantasy world, with the protagonists specifically standing out amongst an otherwise mundane and unremarkable world.

Sword & Sorcery

Sword and sorcery tales are similar to high fantasy novels, but the stories themselves tend to be more down-to-earth and personal than life-or-death stakes. For example, Robert E. Howard’s stories of Conan the Barbarian feature plenty of adventure, swashbuckling sword fights, magic, and witchcraft, making them entertaining stories when you just want a fun escape from reality. This subgenre of fantasy might also include elements of romance as the protagonist restlessly wanders from town to town searching for their next quest.

Urban Fantasy

This genre draws inspiration and tropes from noir fiction, police procedurals, and other elements common in crime thrillers. Urban fantasies generally take place in modern times, but include protagonists or enemies who may be druids, demons, wizards, witches, or vampires with supernatural powers. Main characters tend to be strong-willed vigilantes or members of law enforcement who use their fantasy capabilities to bring criminals to justice. American Gods by Neil Gaiman is highly recommended for first-time urban fantasy readers.

Young Adult Fantasy

YA fantasy can fit into any of the other subgenres listed above, but there are a few specific tropes that make YA fiction stand out from adult fantasy. In YA fantasy novels, there is typically more interpersonal conflict throughout the book, and a coming-of-age narrative is quite common. Characters in this genre tend to be teenagers as well, making them more appealing to readers within that demographic. However, there’s no rule saying that older adults can’t enjoy these books, too!

Ready to dive into your next fantasy realm? Try the free books page at JustKindleBooks and click on the fantasy tile to view all the free books in this genre currently available in the Kindle store! Sort titles by genre or subgenre, or try something new to expand your horizons. This list updates frequently, so be sure to check back often!