Let’s face it, there are so many sub-genres of fantasy, and so many varying opinions on what exactly make up the difference between each sub-genre, that it is extremely difficult to keep them all straight. Dark fantasy, high/epic fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy superhero fantasy, mythic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery. I could go on. But I’d like to focus on what I think of as two of the bigger sub-genres: high/epic fantasy and urban fantasy.
The most basic distinction made between high/epic and urban fantasy is that the former takes place in alternative or “secondary” worlds that are entirely fictional, while the latter takes place, more or less, in the real or “primary” world and in a contemporary time. After that, the definitions start to get a little messy.
In my head, I tend to equate high/epic fantasy with most sword-and-sorcery, but this isn’t strictly accurate. High/epic fantasy, while often set in medieval-ish landscapes and filled with sword-fighters and sorcerers, can just as easily take place in more modernized settings, as long as that setting is not our real world. For instance, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is generally considered high/epic fantasy despite the fact that the main setting is an alternate universe version of Victorian Oxford (with what might be considered steampunk influences).
Also, high/epic fantasy usually (maybe always, but I don’t like that word “always”…) contains suitably epic conflicts of good vs. evil that involve world-ending consequences. On the other hand, sword-and-sorcery (according to the Wikipedia page), is generally filled to the brim with medieval-ish or barbaric settings (think Conan the Barbarian, one of the staple examples) and sword-wielding heroes, but also generally involves “smaller” more localized plots with conflicts that involve one person’s fate rather than the fate of whole worlds.
Knowing all that, I still tend to picture knights in shining armor when I think of high/epic fantasy because so many of the best examples contain all the elements of sword-and-sorcery as well as the epic plots and grand-scale stakes. The ones that immediately come to mind are J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series, just to name a few of my personal favorites.
Another common overlap problem is between high/epic fantasy and historical fantasy. However, true historical fantasy should be set in actual real world historical settings such as ancient Rome or World War II, whereas high/epic fantasy should still be set in fictional worlds, though they made be inspired by historical settings. Take, again, the example of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The first book, The Golden Compass, takes place in Oxford, but its not any Oxford the real world ever saw, and the details of the world are fantastical and entirely made-up by Pullman.
Urban fantasy runs into similar problems. Everyone agrees that urban fantasy should be set not only in the real world but in a modern/contemporary time, but beyond that it gets confusing. Someone in a NaNoWriMo thread discussing the differences between high and urban fantasy commented (mostly joking) that urban fantasy always entails a bad-ass woman in leather and high-heeled boots who fights monsters of some kind. Someone else replied: no, that’s paranormal romance. Then the question pops up: what exactly is the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and someone else added in magical realism. All three take place more or less in the here and now, and all them contain some element of magic or the supernatural, but all three are still very different creatures.
First of all, magical realism, while it certainly takes elements from fantasy and could be argued as a sub-genre, is generally lumped in with the more literary/mainstream forms of fiction. Magical realism springs from a literary movement in Latin America, though it has become a wide-spread popular form around the world (especially in Japan). It is said to “draw upon cultural systems that are no less ‘real’ than those upon which traditional literary realism draws – often non-Western cultural systems that privilege mystery over empiricism, empathy over technology, tradition over innovation” (from Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community by Zamora and Faris). And magical realism tends to be critical, political, ideological, and postmodern. Magical realism aims for a message with more intent than most popular fantasy (which is generally focused more on story than on “meaning”).
With magical realism more or less out of the way, we turn our attention to urban fantasy and paranormal romance. My general stance (and one that seems to concur with Wikipedia – if that matters…) is that paranormal romance is a sub-genre of romance that takes elements from fantasy and gothic fiction but retains is emphasis on women who are swept up in a relationship with a dashing and/or dangerous man who probably has some supernatural characteristics. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, (while it can, like any genre, contain romantic subplots) remains focused on the fantastical characters and plots.
One person on the NaNoWriMo thread mentioned above commented that urban fantasy tends to be very gritty. While this is, of course, a generalization that won’t always hold up, I agree with the overall image. And unlike paranormal romance (and the comment about bad-ass women in leather and high-heels), urban fantasy does not always center on a female main character. Sure, there’s Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, but there’s also Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files (which is completely awesome, by the way). And just to complicate things further, there’s also Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York (also awesome).
For further thoughts on the differences on urban fantasy and paranormal romance I direct you to a blog that specializes in Urban Fantasy and their post “Urban Fantasy vs Paranormal Romance.” It’s an older post, but useful.
Here is also an interesting guide from The YA Fantasy Guide: “Identifying Your Fantasy Novel’s Subgenre.”
Finally, some wikipedia pages, ’cause really, who doesn’t love wikipedia:
And now, I really must go, before this post gets anymore ridiculously long than it already is. But I’d love to hear any other thoughts on sub-genres. Disagreements with my classifications, further suggestions on definitions and differences, etc?