Friday, 9 December 2011

Subgenres | A Five Minute Introduction

A common question for newcomers to SFF is essentially: 'what is this subgenre business anyway?' They're fairly ill-defined, frequently used as defining labels, and aren't always applicable (at all!). Still, there's one thing in their favour: they are useful. So, without further ado, here is Jacob's Five Minute Guide to Subgenre:

Urban Fantasy
Fantasy set on Earth - usually in the modern world, or an alternate version of it. This includes, yes, sparkly vampires (shudder), but there are other things: not least fantasy crime such as Jim Butcher's Dresden Files and Carey's Felix Castor series. Basically, this is everything set on Earth.

Epic Fantasy 
This is fantasy epic in scope and scale - the term doesn't say anything about quality! If anybody here says 'epic fail', there will be another body in my hole. Ahem. Anyway, although what constitutes an epic is rather subjective and is becoming more blurred, it generally involves large dilemnas - the fate of a nation, religion, way of life or more stereotypically, the world. Typically, there are large changes - social or political - and a larger cast, although these aren't strictly required. Epic fantasies poipular right now include The Malazan Book of the Fallen and A Song of Ice and Fire - among many others!
Heroic Fantasy
Fantasy typically focussing on - guess what - heroes. Now, that wasn't too hard, was it? Sarcasm aside, while heroic fantasy frequently overlaps with epic, the difference is scale. Protagonists could be out for anything from a little cash on the side to fame and fortune, so there's less at stake and the cast is frequently smaller. There's frequently less of a focus on good and evil as well: heroic fantasy is about murderers as well as martyrs. A recent example is Sam Sykes' The Aeons' Gate sequence.

Comic Fantasy
This is another easy one: comic fantasy, simply enough, is fantasy written primarily for humour. It might be parody, satire, or just absurdity, but the laughs are important - although this can mix with other tones. Terry Pratchett's Diskworld series is probably the best-known work of this subgenre, but its themes have become increasingly serious over the course of the novels. Recently reviewed examples? Johannes Cabal - the Fear Institute, as well as my large collection of Tom Holt novels.

Gah, I was liking those easy ones. Steampunk is generally a form of alternate history: postulating advances in Victorian technology with the same mindset or aesthetic. For example, The Difference Engine, in which Babbage succeeded in creating the titular computer. The aesthetic involves cogs, brass, and of course, steam - so clunky clockwork gadgetry abounds! Of course, steampunk doesn't have to take place on Earth - any fantasy with this aesthetic/period with changes will likely count. Just look at the goggles on that cover!

Historical Fantasy
Both a form of urban fantasy and alternate history, this is fantasy set - as the name suggests - in history or even prehistory. Normally, the period is taken either adapted, or whole with some changes: for the most part, the addition of magic. As you can imagine, the degree to which this changes things varies widely, so historical fantasy can vary from almost unrecognisable time period to an almost pistinely historical setting. My personal favourite in this subgenre is Guy Gavriel Kay, who has written novels such as Tigana and Under Heaven. If you haven't already, check them out.

So, we come to the end of our brief guide - which might have taken me slightly more than five minutes to write if I was honest, which I won't be. As always, there are a lot of blurred boundaries around here - this is merely a rough and ready guide. ;)


  1. Nice work. We were just having a discussion on twitter about the difference between epic and high fantasy. I still don't have a clue what's what. :)

  2. Thanks - and I knew there was something I'd forgotten. Might do a Part 2 sometime with that. :P I think epic is about scope and scale, but high fantasy is epic or heroic with a more traditional/romantic bent: moral absolutes, knights, heroes, and less grit. But that's just my thought, I'll need to have a look about that one.

  3. I like it. Don't worry, I excused it since it was only the five minute intro. :D

  4. I am forgiven! (I'll start my quest for redemption with a Part 2 :D )