17 Common Fantasy Sub-Genres

The fantasy genre is rich with a myriad of sub-genres, and each has its own conventions and trends. With the different terms floating around out there it can be easy to confuse or overlook key sub-genres. Finding a succinct list of the most notable ones – particularly a list with definitions and examples – is not always straightforward. So I thought I’d put my reading and researching to use and assemble one.

You can click on the links in the menu below if you’d like to skip down to a particular sub-genre:


Fantasy Sub-Genres

Some of the below sub-genres overlap significantly, and the books given as examples may fit into multiple sub-genres, even if they are not listed in more than one. The “typical elements” I list are ones commonly found in books of that sub-genre, but they are not always present. If you would like a definition of the fantasy genre as a whole, see: What is Fantasy Fiction?

High Fantasy / Epic Fantasy

Book Cover: Lord of the RingsPerhaps the most traditional sub-genre, high fantasy or epic fantasy takes place in an entirely fictional fantasy world. The stories are often lengthy and epic, involving multiple characters and large-scale quests where the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of the heroes. Some people use the term epic fantasy to specifically refer to more lengthy or large-scale high fantasies, however many (myself included) use the terms epic and high interchangeably.

Typical Elements: lengthy journeys, dragons, magicians, assassins, legendary swords, royalty, medieval societies, battles, a hero or heroine of humble origins, exotic names, a map on the inside cover.

Examples: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Hobbit, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Final Empire, Assassin’s ApprenticeThe Lies of Locke LamoraThe Ill-Made Mute, The Name of the Wind, A Game of Thrones, The Tower of Ravens, The Emperor’s BladesSix of Crows

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Low Fantasy

Book Cover: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneA fantasy that takes place in the real world, or something very like the real world, and includes magical or supernatural elements (“low” does not mean this is a lesser or poorer form of fantasy!). Characters often discover secret magical forces or supernatural creatures within their supposedly normal surrounds.

Typical Elements: supernatural creatures, hidden magical spaces, real-world mythological influences, characters discovering the existence of supernatural forces.

Examples: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s StoneNeverwhereShiverStorm FrontArtemis FowlWar for the Oaks, City of BonesTwilightAngelfall, Vampire Academy

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Portal Fantasy

Book Cover: The Chronicles of NarniaA fantasy where characters travel from the real world into a fictional fantasy world, often through a portal or gateway. They are usually swept up in the problems and politics of the fantasy world and become important to the course of history there, then return to the real world greatly changed by their experience.

Typical Elements: Magical portals, magical objects, evil kings or queens, problematic family relationships in the real world, time discrepancy between the two worlds.

Examples: The Chronicles of Narnia, Stardust, Peter Pan, Alice in WonderlandThe Subtle Knife, The Neverending Story, Mythago WoodDaughter of Smoke and Bone, The Autumn Castle, The Book of Lost Things

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Urban Fantasy

Book Cover: Neverwherelow fantasy set in primarily in an urban environment, i.e. a city. It has strong ties with paranormal romance and contemporary fantasy, and the three terms are sometimes used interchangeably, though urban fantasy ultimately denotes a fantasy with an urban setting.

Typical Elements: large city, secret supernatural underworld, hidden passageways, modern weaponry, interference from human institutions (e.g. police, lawyers).

Examples: NeverwhereWar for the OaksDaughter of Smoke and Bone, City of BonesStorm Front

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Contemporary Fantasy

Book Cover: Storm FrontA low fantasy set in the present day real world or something very similar to it. Many paranormal romances and urban fantasies are also contemporary fantasies.

Typical Elements: contemporary slang, colloquial language, modern weaponry, pop culture references, interference from human institutions (e.g. police, lawyers).

Examples: Storm Front, War for the OaksCity of BonesTwilightShiver, Angelfall, FallenVampire Academy

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Paranormal / Paranormal Romance

Book Cover: TwilightA paranormal novel or film is a low fantasy in which supernatural creatures or talents exist and are a key focus of the story. This is often seen as a blend of the fantasy and Gothic/Horror genres.

A paranormal romance is a paranormal novel or film where romance is a key focus of the plot. It is usually, but not always, a romance between a supernatural being and a human.

Typical Elements: vampires, fairies, werewolves, angels, demons, witches, zombies, ghosts, psychics, love triangles, supernatural love interest, sex, female protagonist. 

Examples: TwilightThe Scorpio RacesVampire Academy, Shiver, Angelfall, FallenWarm BodiesHalfway to the Grave

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Fantasy Romance / High Fantasy Romance

Book Cover: Gracelinghigh fantasy in which romance is a core element. Some people use the term to refer to any fantasy story with a strong romantic element. However, because low fantasy romance is usually dubbed paranormal romance, the term fantasy romance tends to be reserved for high fantasy romances. I often call it high fantasy romance or epic fantasy romance to make it clear what I’m referring to.

Typical Elements: medieval societies, royalty, politics, warrior-like female characters, romance, sex, magic, betrayal, cruelty.

Examples: Graceling, Fire, Kushiel’s Dart, Lord of the Fading Lands, Daughter of the BloodThrone of GlassBound, A Girl of Fire and ThornsShadow and Bone, Daughter of the Forest, A Poison Study

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Young Adult Fantasy (YA Fantasy)

Book Cover: Vampire AcademyA fantasy that is primarily aimed at a young adult (teenage) readership, usually with young adult protagonists.

Typical Elements: orphans, young adult characters discovering hidden powers/skills, coming of age dilemmas, first romances, high school or school-like settings, adult mentors. 

Examples: Vampire AcademyDaughter of Smoke and BoneThe Scorpio RacesObernewtynSabriel, Angelfall, FallenTwilightGracelingHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s StoneThe Northern Lights, Throne of Glass

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Children’s Fantasy

Book Cover: Neverending StoryA children’s fantasy (sometimes also called juvenile fantasy) is one primarily aimed at children, usually with child protagonists. Sometimes novels are considered to be both YA fantasies and children’s fantasies, particularly if they appeal to an age group that bridges late childhood and the early teenage years. Interestingly, portal fantasies are also often juvenile fantasies (something I learned through putting together this list!).

Typical Elements: orphans, unhappy children, cruel or absent parents, princes, princesses, monsters (both friendly and unfriendly), fairy-tale influences, secret portals, tests. 

Examples: The Neverending StoryAlice in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Peter PanThe BFG, MatildaThe Chronicles of NarniaGhost Letters, Redwall, Coraline, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s StoneThe Northern LightsArtemis Fowl

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Sword and Sorcery / Heroic Fantasy

Book Cover: Conan the BarbarianHeroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery are terms used to refer to high fantasy novels that focus primarily on “swashbuckling heroes”, swordplay, exciting battles and violent conflicts. I confess to not having read a lot of it as it is not my favourite sub-genre.

Typical Elements: mighty heroes, battles, magic, swordplay, medieval societies, romance, moral ambiguity, action, conflict.

Examples: Conan the BarbarianElric of Melniboné, The Blade ItselfThe Lord of the Rings Trilogy > for more see this BestFantasyBooks.com article

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Medieval Fantasy / Arthurian Fantasy

Book Cover: The Mists of AvalonA medieval fantasy is one with a setting strongly inspired by medieval society, or set during the medieval period. These stories often draw heavily on myths and legends from this period of history.

Arthurian fantasy is a subset of medieval fantasy that focusses on the legend of King Arthur or its elements, involving characters like Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere, Uther, Mordred etc.

Typical Elements: Royalty, arranged marriages, patriarchal societies, battles, dragons, wizards, quests, knights, legendary swords.

Examples: The Mists of Avalon, The Once and Future KingA Game of ThronesAssassin’s Apprentice

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Historical Fantasy

Book Cover: Daughter of the ForestA fantasy set in a historical period of the real world. These stories often offer an alternative version of history where magic and/or supernatural creatures exist and place a strong emphasis on historical accuracy (with regards to the elements that aren’t supernatural). They essentially blend the historical fiction and fantasy genres.

Typical Elements: Dragons, magicians, mythological influences, key battles/events in history, time travel.

Examples: Daughter of the ForestJonathan Strange & Mr NorrellOutlander, His Majesty’s Dragon, The Mists of Avalon, The Golem and the Djinni

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Comic Fantasy

Book Cover: The Colour of MagicA blend of fantasy and comedy, where the prime purpose of the fantasy is to amuse the reader and the tone is humorous. Typical fantasy elements and conventions are often satirised or subverted.

Typical Elements: Ridiculous or pathetic characters, quirky settings, absurd magical rules and creatures, subverted fantasy clichés, witty writing. 

Examples: The Colour of Magic [and all the Discworld Novels], The 13½ Lives of Captain BluebearWarm Bodies, Dark Lord of Derkholm

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Science Fantasy

Book Cover: The Knife of Never Letting GoA blend of science fiction and fantasy, where advanced technology and the supernatural both come into play, or tropes from both genres are used. Often fantastical and impossible things occur under a thin guise of scientific credibility.

Steampunk sometimes falls into this category, though it is generally regarded as a sub-genre of science fiction.

Typical Elements: fantastical planets and alien races, magical technology, grand divine or supernatural forces at work, victorian era influences.

Examples: The Knife of Never Letting Go, BlightbornPerdido Street Station, Shadows of the Self, Clockwork Angel, Cinder

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Grimdark Fantasy

Book Cover: The Lies of Locke Lamorahigh fantasy with a gritty or grim setting, often focussing on characters with less-than-impeccable morals, anti-heroes, or on criminal underworlds within fantasy societies. This sub-genre provides a contrast to more traditional fantasy worlds and their moral heroes, quaint medieval villages and resplendent cities.

Typical Elements: thieves, assassins, torturers, organised crime, filthy cities, torture, murder, rape, violence, corrupt rulers.

Examples: Prince of ThornsThe Lies of Locke Lamora, The Blade ItselfA Game of ThronesDaughter of the BloodPerdido Street Station, The Black Company

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Gothic Fantasy / Dark Fantasy

Book Cover: SabrielGothic fantasy is a blend of the fantasy and horror/the Gothic, where elements of the latter (such as ghosts, the undead, haunted castles and monsters) form a key focus of the story or set its tone. It aims is to unsettle or spook the reader.

Gothic fantasy is sometimes referred to as dark fantasy, however the term dark fantasy is a little ambiguous as it is also occasionally used to refer to grimdark fantasy.

Typical Elements: Ghosts, graveyards, crypts, tombs, zombies, monsters, ruins, haunted castles, abandoned buildings.

Examples: Sabriel, Grimoire, The Graveyard BookCoralinePerdido Street Station

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The New Weird

Book Cover: Perdido Street StationThe new weird is a genre defined in Ann and Jeff Vandemeer’s anthology of the same name: “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.”

It has strong ties with Gothic and horror genres, as well as science fantasy, and is seen as a revival of classic weird fiction like that of H.P. Lovecraft.

Typical Elements: gritty realistic fictional settings, squalid cities, science fiction and fantasy tropes, non-typical story structure, horror and Gothic elements, morally ambiguous characters, dystopias.

Examples: Perdido Street Station, Annihilation

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Related Genres

There are also some genres that are generally not considered part of the fantasy genre, but are closely related:

Speculative Fiction

This is a supra-genre, rather than a sub-genre. It’s a term generally used to encompass the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, superhero fiction and dystopian fiction. As the name suggests, these stories centre around speculative elements – characters, places or things that do not currently exist in our present-day world, but can be invented or imagined by humans. It’s a useful supra-genre as the genres it encompasses are very inter-related.

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Horror / The Gothic

Book Cover: DraculaA Gothic novel is dark in tone, and aimed at giving the reader a sense of menace or “the uncanny” (unsettling them), and typically refers to novels written during the 18th and 19th Centuries when this style came into fashion. Southern Gothic is a more contemporary sub-genre, referring to Gothic novels that take place in the American South.

Typical Elements: endangered heroines, haunted castles, sinister past events, ruins, tombs, graveyards, ghosts, monsters, wild and intimidating landscapes.

Examples: DraculaThe Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein

Book Cover: CarrieHorror is generally seen as the contemporary descendant of the Gothic genre, and describes a story with a dark tone whose primary purpose is to scare, horrify or spook the reader.

Typical Elements: haunted houses, ruins, tombs, graveyards, ghosts, monsters, gore, demons, murderers, psychopaths, witches, zombies.

Examples: Carrie, The ShiningDracula, World War Z, The Passage, Let the Right One In, The Exorcist, Interview with the Vampire

Plenty of horror novels are also considered to be fantasy novels, and could technically be deemed so by most definitions of fantasy (due to the supernatural content). However, because the horror genre is so large, so rife with its own specific conventions, and so specifically aimed at scaring the audience, it is generally considered to be separate. Additionally, the horror genre, with its roots in the Gothic, developed fairly separately from fantasy novels and traditions historically.

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Fairy Tales / Fairy Stories

Book Cover: The Original Folk & Fairy Tales - Brothers GrimmFairy tales are generally considered to be precursors to or influences on the fantasy genre, rather than part of the genre, though some people would disagree with me on this point.

As I see it, fairy tales are short folk tales, often with a long oral history, that can involve magical or supernatural elements. They focus more on plot, have limited character development, and often involve repetition and a simple narrative structure.

By contrast, fantasies are novel-length or series-length stories with complex plots and multiple characters, and don’t usually follow traditional fairy tale structures.

However, sometimes the term “fairy tale” or “modern fairy tale” is used when a novel-length or film-length fantasy work draws heavily on the conventions of fairy tales. For example: Daughter of the Forest and Uprooted.

Typical Elements: curses that need to be broken, princes, princesses, damsels in distress, repetition, children, witches, evil step-mothers, monsters, wolves.

Examples: Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel.
Famous collectors/writers: The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Jacobs

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Dystopian Fiction

Book Cover: 1984A story with a dystopian or post-apocalyptic setting.

Dystopian fiction is generally regarded as a science fiction sub-genre, because the dystopias are usually presented as real possible futures without supernatural elements. However, some dystopian novels and films are also fantasies, if impossible happenings or magic are at play.

Typical Elements: Oppressive societies, secret rebellions, ruined cities, ostracised minorities, tyrannical governments, propaganda.

Examples of Dystopian Science Fiction: 1984The Hunger GamesDivergent, The Handmaid’s Tale, Ready Player One
Examples of Dystopian Fantasy / Dystopian Science Fantasy: ObernewtynAngelfallBlightbornWarm BodiesThe Knife of Never Letting Go

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Magical Realism

Book Cover: Big FishA magical realist story is one where the impossible or supernatural happenings are likely the delusions, fantasies, or imaginings of the character/s (though whether or not they are is often kept deliberately unclear), or where they appear as non-central elements of an otherwise highly realistic setting. This definition differs to many others out there, however I have personally found it to be the most useful way to differentiate magical realism from low fantasy.

Magical realist stories are generally not considered fantasies, as the fantasy elements are not presented as real, important or believable elements in the story. However, some would consider it a fantasy sub-genre, and in particular, a blend of literary fiction and fantasy.

Typical Elements: mental asylums, cruel authority figures, quirky imaginative characters, characters trying to escape the harsh realities of the world.

Examples: Big Fish, ChocolatPan’s Labyrinth [Film], Sucker Punch [Film]

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I’ve put together the above list from my own experience reading, researching and discussing fantasy novels, as well as from research into the genre terms themselves, and have done my best to cover all the important sub-genres. However, if you think I’ve misrepresented a sub-genre, or left out an important sub-genre, feel free to mention it in the comments.

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9 thoughts on “17 Common Fantasy Sub-Genres

  1. Pingback: Reflective Journal Week 4: Defining fantasy as a genre – Elisha K Habermann

  2. Nice list. I never imagined considering Portal Fantasy as its own subgenre. By the way, I think you missed the most important example–the originator of the genre I believe– Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I am reading that one now in preparation for someday writing my own portal story. It is…interesting. But I do like Twain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes you don’t see Portal Fantasy used as much as High and Low Fantasy but it does get the occasional mention. I think it’s a good way to describe those stories that connect real/modern worlds with imagined/past ones, as the stories do have their own particular flavour. And that’s very true about Connecticut Yankee, I didn’t think of it but it’s a classic! I’ve never read the book but plan to some day, I also like Twain.

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  3. Pingback: Les 10 raons definitives de per què llegir fantasia - Una història fantàstica

  4. Fantastic list! Especially the further subgenres of dystopian fiction and dystopian fantasy. New books to discover and read. Although i do think dystopian fiction like 1984, Brave New World, and the literary works the genre has inspired into film, including Children of Men, that have a sophisticated and complex sociopolitical commentary on the world are actually of a different breed from a further subgenre of young adult fantasy novels, of which the latest are the Divergent, Hunger Games series of heroic young characters in a dystopian setting.

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    • Thanks! That’s true, 1984 and Brave New World are very different books to The Hunger Games and Divergent, even though I’ve heard the term dystopia used for all of them. I suppose I’d probably differentiate by referring to ‘classic dystopias’ and ‘YA dystopias’. Though I do think YA dystopias can provide sociopolitical commentary very reminiscent of classic dystopias, if not always with the same level of realism or in the same style (for example, The Knife of Never Letting Go is quite bleak and explores complex sociopolitical ideas, albeit through the eyes of young adult characters). But yes, generally it feels a bit strange to put a book like Divergent in the same ‘basket’ as 1984!

      Like

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