Fantasy is an umbrella term. It’s a tableau of subgenres (and sometimes sub-subgenres) that interweave, co-mingle, and cross-pollinate.
It can be difficult for even a seasoned fantasy reader to pin down the subgenre of a specific book. Want to learn what subgenre you're reading, or discover a new favorite kind of fantasy? We've outlined 20 essential fantasy subgenres below.
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Often towing the line between sci-fi and fantasy, alternate history combines elements of both genres to posit timelines that are both similar and vastly different from our own. Notable examples of alternate history include The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick; Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; or His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik.
Portal fantasy is among the most beloved subgenres, and for many people represents their first foray into the fantasy genre as young readers.
Portal fantasy is characterized by a protagonists making their way through a portal into a fantastical world. Notable examples include: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis; and Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire.
Magical Realism is built on the concept that fantastical elements and abilities are a normal, everyday part of an otherwise mundane or realistic world. Essentially, everything is as it is in our world, save for a specific fantastic element. Notable examples include: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Hard fantasy, like its not so distant cousin hard sci-fi, puts a strong emphasis on details and worldbuilding. In the realms of hard fantasy, internal logic and reason rule the day. Magic systems are explained in granular detail, rich histories are presented for various societies, and geography is often laid out with painstaking accuracy.
Hard fantasy may be the genre where readers see the most overlap with other subgenres – everything from alternate history, to epic fantasy or grimdark can also be hard fantasy. It's all in the presentation. Notable examples include: The Mistborn novels by Brandon Sanderson; The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.
Epic fantasy – also often called high fantasy – is arguably what the average reader thinks of when they hear the word 'fantasy.'
This fantasy subgenre takes both its name and form from the long tradition of epic storytelling (think Beowulf, Gilgamesh, or The Odyssey) and traditionally sees a large cast of characters questing to end some world-afflicting evil.
Epic fantasy is large both in scale of conflict and the page count. Notable examples include: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan; The Lord of Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; and the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Generally referred to simply as grimdark, this subgenre is defined by a pessimistic, violent, often nihilistic view of its fantasy worlds.
The subgenre's name comes from the tagline of Warhammer 40,000: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”
Protagonists are painted in shades of grey, the world has a sheen of grit, and the good guys – such as they are – don’t necessarily prevail.
At its best, grimdark is a reminder that good doesn’t necessarily triumph over evil. Notable examples include: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (although this is more proto-grimdark); Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence.
Sword and Sorcery
Can you picture a paperback cover with a hulking dude in a loincloth hoisting a sword? That, in a nutshell, is classic sword and sorcery. The iconic adventures of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian provide the popular template.
In sword and sorcery, the stakes are generally less world-ending, and more personal. The heroes are reluctant, restless wanderers. There are elements of battle (sword) and magic (sorcery) that are intermingled with romance, swashbuckling, and high adventure. Notable examples include: The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard; The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly.
Young Adult Fantasy
Of all the subgenres listed here, young adult fantasy may be the most broad. Realistically, young adult fantasy can dovetail with any other fantasy subgenre.
So, while you can read young adult urban fantasy or young adult steampunk, there are a few hallmarks that separate YA fantasy from the pack.
In YA fantasy versus adult fantasy, there is more of a reliance on interpersonal conflict; worldbuilding is generally confined to only what is needed to move the story forward; there is often a coming-of-age throughline; and the characters themselves tend to be young adults. Notable examples include: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi; Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.
Fantasy romance is precisely what it sounds like: fantasy novels/series that transplant the traditional tropes of romance genre to a fantastical setting. The focus here is often on relationships, interpersonal drama, and characters discovering love and romance in the midst of a conventional fantasy conflict. Notable examples include: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.
In urban fantasy, modern urban environments butt up against an often secret underworld of magic and fantasy – whether that’s the forgotten existence of magic in the modern world, or an underground community of supernatural creatures hiding in plain sight.
The conflicts typically revolve around attempts to keep the supernatural or fantastical elements secret from the wider world. Notable examples include: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher; October Daye by Seanan McGuire.
Fairy tale fantasy is a subgenre that incorporates the motifs, conventions, and sometimes plots of classic fairytales and folklore.
This can range from fantasy stories that incorporate traditional fairytale themes, to revisionist examinations, to modern retellings of beloved fairytales, and everything in between. Notable examples include: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden; Fables by Bill Willingham.
Dark fantasy is a branch of the genre that combines fantasy elements with a darker, often horror-tinged tone. In the broad strokes, it can seem difficult to differentiate dark fantasy from grimdark, but once again the key is tone.
Dark fantasy is intentionally ominous and foreboding. It is meant to convey a sense of dread, and typically shares a lot of common ground with horror fiction. Notable examples include: The Dark Tower series by Stephen King; The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Similar to its close cousin the superhero comic, superhero fiction is a genre of speculative fantasy/sci-fi that charts the adventures, lives, and inner workings of superheroes.
While novelizations of iconic comic book superheroes (Superman, Spiderman, etc.) are part of the genre, it has also become a haven for original superhero stories that delve more deeply into the inner lives and turmoil of super-powered beings. Notable examples include: Dreadnought by April Daniels; Wild Cards by George R.R. Martin/The Wild Cards Trust.
Steampunk generally falls somewhere on the spectrum between sci-fi and fantasy. Its hallmark is outlandish technology powered with Victorian/Industrial Age mechanics inspired by the imaginings of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Steampunk is often set in an alternate history that either posits modern technologies powered by steam in a 19th-century world (usually the American West or Victorian England), or a future where steam power remained a dominant energy source. Notable examples include: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville; Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
While it may be easily confused with steampunk, steampunk and gaslamp can be thought of as two sides of a Victorian/Edwardian era coin: the former tech-based, and the latter magic-based. Gaslamp leans more heavily into supernatural and magical elements than a 19th century setting. Notable examples include: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; Stardust by Neil Gaiman.
Arthurian fantasy is fantasy that in some way incorporates aspects of Arthurian legend. It can be modern retellings of classic Arthurian tales, or reinventions of King Arthur and his many companions. The legends of King Arthur and his knights have been fertile fantasy ground for centuries. Notable examples include: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley; The Crystal Cave by Mary Stuart.
Mythic fantasy is a subgenre that specifically draws its inspiration from myth and legend, often incorporating elements and themes that are identifiable with a particular subset of myth from a given culture.
A common trope in mythic fantasy is the idea that modern world is either in peril, or on the verge of breakdown. The protagonists look to ancient mythology and find themselves either working with or against gods and supernatural beings.
Notable examples include: American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
Low fantasy deals with the intrusion of some fantastical/supernatural/magical occurrence into an otherwise mundane world. Imagine walking down the street and seeing a gnome dart into view – this is low fantasy.
Low fantasy can be tricky to distinguish from similar subgenres, such as magical realism. A good rule of thumb is that in low fantasy, the fantastic event breaks – or intrudes on – the worldview of the protagonist. Whereas in a subgenre like magical realism, the fantastic event is an accepted and understood part of the worldview of the protagonist.
Notable examples include: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas.
In dragon fantasy, everyone’s favorite fantastical creature is front and center to the narrative – whether that be dragons as a key plot point, dragons as main characters, or anything in between. The key here is that the story revolve around dragons! Notable examples include: Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey; Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.
Vampire fantasy is a subgenre that puts the focus squarely on the nocturnal literary descendants of Dracula.
Vampire fantasy has evolved over the last few decades to present these once-nefarious creations as more akin to tragic heroes/anti-heroes. It also tends to lean heavily on gothic tropes, paranormal romance, and sexuality. Notable examples include: The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris; basically anything by Anne Rice.