Fantasy Books Genre Guide

What is Fantasy Literature?

Embarking on a quest through the realm of fantasy books can feel a bit like being handed a map in a language you don’t speak—with so many paths to choose from, it’s easy to get lost in the woods (and not the enchanted kind). But fear not, this genre guide to fantasy books is your Rosetta Stone, decoding the mystical runes fantasy books. Whether you’re looking to duel with dragons or sip tea with trolls, we’ve got you covered. Buckle up your imaginary sword belt and adjust your wizard’s hat —because, let’s be honest, the only thing worse than a dragon with bad breath is a boring book.

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Definition of fantasy books

The main characteristic of a fantasy novel is that the setting is completely fictionalized. If you look this up in Wikipedia, you will see the phrase “speculative fiction” bandied about; in other words the author makes it up. They create a world often imbued with magic and the paranormal and then plonk their characters in it. Often the characters will also have some magical aspect to them as well normally being either a separate race to humans, such as the classic elves or dwarves, or they are mages, magicians or sorcerers.

What are the different sub-genres of fantasy?

One question that always pops up is what is the difference between the different fantasy worlds or types and how to classify books accordingly? High fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy and more. These terms are loosely thrown around and sometimes even misapplied. So here’s a list to help guide you in how to categorize your book when you’re not sure where it fits. And remembers, sometimes they can cross over and be a mix of genres or sub-genres.

  • High Fantasy: Set in entirely fictional worlds with their own rules and physics, high fantasy is where you’ll find epic tales of heroism, magic, and conflict between good and evil. Classics like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” exemplify this genre, offering richly detailed universes and complex lore.
  • Low Fantasy: This genre grounds its magic and supernatural elements in the real world. It often involves ordinary characters encountering the extraordinary within our familiar Earthly setting. Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” is a fantastic example, blending the mundane with the magical in unexpected ways.
  • Urban Fantasy: A subgenre of low fantasy, urban fantasy takes place in contemporary, urban settings where magical creatures and supernatural phenomena coexist with the modern world. Series like “The Mortal Instruments” by Cassandra Clare showcase a hidden world of magic lurking in modern cities.
  • Epic Fantasy: Characterized by grand scales and stakes, epic fantasy involves complex narratives spanning vast worlds, large casts of characters, and overarching battles between good and evil. George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series is a prime example, with its intricate plot lines and deep world-building.
  • Sword and Sorcery: Focused more on action and adventure, this subgenre emphasizes magical and martial conflicts. Robert E. Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” stories are iconic, featuring rugged heroes, dark magic, and thrilling escapades.
  • Dark Fantasy: Here, fantasy meets horror. Dark fantasy incorporates darker themes, often blending the allure of fantasy worlds with elements of horror or grimdark storytelling. “The Witcher” series by Andrzej Sapkowski, with its morally ambiguous characters and bleak settings, fits well into this category.
  • Historical Fantasy: This genre melds fantasy with historical fiction, embedding magic or mythical elements into real historical settings. Naomi Novik’s “Temeraire” series, reimagining the Napoleonic Wars with dragons, is a captivating example.
  • Romantasy: A blend of romance and fantasy, romantasy focuses on the romantic relationships against a backdrop of magical or fantastical elements. The stories prioritize the emotional development and romantic entanglements of their characters, weaving love stories through worlds where magic, mythical creatures, or otherworldly powers play a central role. From star-crossed lovers to magical bonds, romantasy explores the heart’s desires with a magical twist, making it ideal for readers who crave a passionate adventure in their fantasy reads.
  • Paranormal Romance: A blend of romance and fantasy, this subgenre focuses on relationships involving humans and supernatural beings, set against a backdrop of magical or mystical elements. “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer is a well-known example, exploring the romance between a vampire and a human.
  • Magical Realism: Though not strictly fantasy, magical realism incorporates magical elements into otherwise realistic settings and narratives, often to highlight real-world issues or themes. Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is a seminal work, beautifully intertwining the magical with the mundane.
  • Cozy Fantasy: Set in inviting, often small-scale settings, cozy fantasy focuses on warmth, community, and personal growth rather than epic battles or dark themes. Magic here serves to enchant the ordinary, with stories often revolving around solving local mysteries, personal adventures, or the simple joys of life in a world where the fantastical and the mundane intertwine. It’s the literary equivalent of a warm blanket and a hot cup of tea, offering a comforting escape with a touch of magic.
  • Steampunk Fantasy: Merging the technological innovations of steam power with elements of fantasy, steampunk fantasy novels are set in worlds where steam technology reigns supreme, often in alternative versions of Victorian England or other historical settings. Gears, goggles, and airships abound in these imaginative narratives.
  • Gaslamp Fantasy: Similar to steampunk but focusing more on magical elements than on technology, gaslamp fantasy is set in a Victorian or Edwardian period. These stories often blend historical elements with magic, supernatural occurrences, and a touch of romance.
  • Grimdark Fantasy: Characterized by its dark, gritty, and morally complex tone, grimdark fantasy portrays a world where the line between good and evil is often blurred. The focus is on the realism of the harshness of life and the darker side of human nature.
  • Portal Fantasy: This sub-genre involves characters being transported from the real world to a fantastical realm through a magical portal. It explores themes of discovery and adventure as the characters navigate their way through unknown lands.
  • Fairy Tale Retellings: These stories take classic fairy tales and retell them with new twists, perspectives, or settings. Imagine Cinderella with a knack for necromancy, or a Sleeping Beauty who’s actually a skilled warrior in disguise.
  • Mythic Fantasy: Draws directly from ancient myths, legends, and folklore, reimagining them in new and often modern contexts. This sub-genre focuses on gods, mythical creatures, and legendary heroes, weaving these ancient tales into the fabric of its narratives.
  • Superhero Fantasy: This sub-genre combines elements of traditional fantasy with the world of superheroes, focusing on characters with superhuman abilities or powers, often set against a backdrop of contemporary or futuristic settings.
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How do I recognize a fantasy book?

A fantasy can be defined as a story where the world it’s set in is completely fictional. Magic is normally present, however, it is not essential.

A fantasy can be defined as a story where the world it’s set in is completely fictional. Magic is normally present, however, it is not essential.

Here’s a basic checklist of all the elements that make an fantasy:

  • It set in a different world fabricated from the author imagination.
  • If it is set in this world then it is not a true fantasy and is likely an urban fantasy or paranormal romance or magical realism even.
  • If a book has the above characteristic then you have yourself a fantasy.

Some fantasy sub-genres have alternative names or are closely related to other sub-genres, often overlapping in themes and storytelling techniques.

High Fantasy is sometimes called Epic Fantasy due to the overlap in their use of expansive world-building, epic narratives, and high stakes. However, “high fantasy” emphasizes the entirely separate universe aspect, while “epic fantasy” focuses on the scale and scope of the story.

Paranormal Romance shares a lot of common ground with Urban Fantasy, especially when romantic elements are strong in urban fantasy narratives (like Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress and Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series). The key difference lies in the focus—paranormal romance emphasizes the romantic relationships, while urban fantasy focuses more on the urban setting and fantastical elements.

Romantasy is a specific term that has gained popularity but can be considered under the broader umbrella of Fantasy Romance. The term “fantasy romance” can apply to romantic stories across various fantasy settings, not just the romantic-focused narratives in fantastical settings that “romantasy” specifies.

The boundaries between these subgenres can sometimes blur, as authors blend elements from different categories to create rich, multifaceted worlds and stories.

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Fantasy Book Types

How does fantasy differ from science fiction?

Fantasy differs from science fiction primarily in its focus on elements of magic, mythology, and the supernatural, as opposed to the scientific and technological themes prevalent in science fiction. Fantasy typically relies on elements such as magic, mythical creatures, and epic quests set in fictional realms inspired by folklore and mythology. Science fiction tends to incorporate futuristic or speculative technologies, space exploration, and scientific principles to explore themes of humanity, society, and the impact of technology on the future.

However, it’s worth noting that there is a hybrid genre known as science fantasy, which blends the speculative elements of science fiction, such as advanced technology, space exploration, and futuristic societies, with the magical and mystical elements of fantasy, such as magic, mythical creatures, and supernatural powers.

Common characters and tropes in fantasy books

I started my reading career by delving into fantasy books, so I am going classic fantasy with this cast of characters!

THE Chosen One

Fantasy has a lot of prophecy. Which means that you can’t go far with out bumping into The Chosen One. This unlikely person, usually a young man or woman, has a big destiny ahead of them. Unfortunately for the poor Chosen One they normally don’t have a clue, they, along with the reader, have to learn about it as they go. Usually they need to find the important thing, unite the lands, lead a revolt against the tyrant…their to do list is longer than mine.

THE Feisty Princess

A book needs a feisty female character and a rebellious princess – or noblewoman – is a popular choice. Unhappy with a life full of rules and restrictions our princess longs for more than politics and court life. She could be a powerful magic user or have swordsman ship skills equal or better than any man. She feels undervalued and sidelined in her own life. The Feisty Princess and the Chosen One can often be the same person. Either way, as a companion or the main protagonist our princess has an exciting time ahead!

THE Wise Mentor

This character is typically an older, experienced individual who guides and trains the protagonist on their journey.

THE VILLAINOUS Overlord

A classic antagonist, the villainous overlord seeks power and control over the land, often employing dark magic or ruthless tactics to achieve their goals.

THE Rogue

A charming and often morally ambiguous character, the rogue is skilled in stealth, thievery, and deception. They may start as an adversary but often become an ally to the protagonist.

THE Noble Knight

Honorable, chivalrous, and skilled in combat, the noble knight fights for justice and righteousness. They uphold a strict code of honor and are often portrayed as the epitome of bravery.

THE TRickster

Clever, cunning, and mischievous, the trickster character delights in playing pranks and outsmarting their adversaries. They often provide comic relief while also serving as catalysts for change in the story.

THE Reluctant Hero

Unlike the chosen one who eagerly embraces their destiny, the reluctant hero initially resists the call to adventure but ultimately rises to the occasion when duty calls.

Forbidden Love

This trope involves a romantic relationship between characters from different backgrounds or opposing factions, often complicated by societal norms, familial expectations, or destiny itself.

The Quest

The quest is a common trope in fantasy that involves the protagonist embarking on a journey to obtain a magical artifact, defeat a great evil, or fulfill a prophecy. The quest serves as the central driving force of the story and often leads to personal growth and discovery for the characters involved.

THE Weary Adventurer

If you’re going on a quest your main protagonist – usually the Chosen One – needs some good companions. A companion you’ll see pop up again and again is the Weary Adventurer. He maybe a grizzled veteran, a cynical rogue or perhaps an old sorcerer, whoever he is he’s seen the world and will dispense his wisdom and expertise to our hero or heroine as they journey into danger together.

Why We Love Fantasy?

I love fantasy books, whether romance or more classical fantasy I adore it. The author has license to create a completely new world packed with magic, mayhem and adventure; it’s a perfect mix. It can give you uplifting stories of bravery and friendship, gritty and harsh battles as well as some epic romance. It has a little bit for everyone.

Fantasy Book Recommendations

Here are some great fantasy romances we recommend you give a try. If you fancy any straight up fantasy novels let me know in the comments and I will happily unleash a deluge of recommendations!

Fantasy Genre Guide Originally posted in 2017 and last updated February 6, 2024

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