Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Why You Should Read | Low Fantasy

Low fantasy is a contrary subgenre to pin down. Is it high fantasy minus the knights and dragons? Or high fantasy where the knights are less shiny paragons of good than brutal monsters? Or something else entirely? The definition I'm going to be using is - for just that reason - going to be pretty subjective. For me, low fantasy can be two things. It can be fantasy on a smaller, muckier scale - maybe the objective is to save the family farm, rather than an empire. Or it could be epic fantasy minus the trappings of medieval romances: for that reason, a fair bit of A Song of Ice and Fire would count as low fantasy, because it's medieval fantasy where the world is far closer to mucky old reality - and the battles really aren't much fun for anyone. By contrast, authors like Guy Gavriel Kay are far as can be from low fantasy: because while distasteful events do occur, the portrayal is rather more poetic. So, to me, those are the two key traits of low fantasy. (Let me emphasize that 'to me' a minute. There. Duly emphasized!) But why should you read it?

Lucky you asked...

- Avoiding deus-ex-machina. It's possible to have one in any novel - whether it's a goddess or a convenient stranger with a gun who enters just as the hero's on the floor... But let's face it: the problem is most common in high magic fantasy, and especially those with active deities. (Forgive me a pointed look at the Belgariad here) And correspondingly, you'll find fewest in low fantasies. If you want your characters' action, not their magic to matter most - as in KJ Parker's Engineer trilogy, try low fantasy.
- Grit. While you'll find realism in most subgenres, low fantasy is particularly known for it - especially with authors such as Martin. If you want your fantasy to evade that particular limit; if you want your characters and protagonists to experience life in a real medieval period - rather than a romanticised lookaline - low fantasy is likely the genre for you. Take Martin as an example: battles in his novels are brutal, short and vicious - and they stink of blood, sweat, and everything else you'd expect. Compare that to the heroic charges of Rohan in LOTR, and you'll find more than a few differences.
- More personal conflicts. While I love epic fantasy, sometimes it sets the stakes too high - heroes fight for ideals, of the fate of the world, or the fall of an empire. What have they got in common? They're impersonal. If you want your fantasy to be truly character driven, for conflicts to be on the personal level, a lot of the time you'll be looking to low fantasy. This isn't necessarily true - the Kingkiller Chronicles, for example, are profoundly character driven and to my mind are by no means low fantasy.
- Mundane solutions. For this, I'm going to use KJ Parker once more to exemplify the point. In the Engineer trilogy, Vaatzes' victories are through manipulation, engineering (but you probably guessed that part) and genuine cleverness - something that's fun to read. By contrast, if he had done the same by blowing someone away with a magical firestorm from the Goddess Vjiuyuui'yfhm, would it have been as interesting? There is a balance to this, though: cleverly applied magic (see Matthew Swift in A Madness of Angels), or mundanity against magic can be just as interesting (it's the underdog complex again). Still, this is a big attraction of the subgenre.

So, despite an eerily vague definition - my liking for low fantasy explained! But feel free to add your own...


  1. Jacob, again, I just adore all these "why you should read" posts that you do!

    and Low Fantasy is a new favorite of mine.

    As a kid, I thought Lord of the Rings and DragonLance were the end-all be-all of fantasy. Yes, i know i couldn't have been more wrong, but i was a teen, and not a real smart one. the fantasy I attempted to read was high fantasy and always seemed populated by wealthy royals and noble knights and people introduced themselves by listing their lineages. and WOW WAS THAT BORING.

    thank goodness I discovered low fantasy. orphans. thieves. knights who were actually poor. princes and princesses who were jerks. people who finally acted like real life human beings instead of a character out of a terrible Richard Gere Lancelot movie.

    so yes, I heart low fantasy! all your low fantasy are belong to me!

    1. Great definition! I still get confused and unsure as to which is which...but 'low fantasy' is definitely a favourite of mine :)

    2. @ Little Red Reviewer:

      Thanks! Glad you're enjoying them - hopefully I can squeeze a few (well, a lot) more of these posts out! :P

      I was exactly the same way - even in more modern fantasies, I was still going 'well, why the hell is he doing this because he was 'born to do it'?'. Couldn't a protagonist do something vaguely interesting without a 3000-year-old prophecy spelling it out right before? :P So yeah, I totally agree - and it's one of the reasons I love Martin so much right now. Yes, it's lengthy, but he's got the hang of real-ish, nasty things happening because his characters -aren't- paragons. For me, it's part of a bigger motive - removing the limits. If you've got a metaphorical safety net for the characters in that 'he's noble because he's a knight, and this couldn't happen because the author loves this character so much', that's a limit - and at times, it can make things predictable. :(

      Though I love my other fantasies too. :D I'm omnivorous.

      And I surrender the low fantasy to your determination. *Raises white flag*

      @ FantasyBytes:

      Thanks! Yeah, it's kind of ambiguous, isn't it? I've just been using my personal definition for this post, but I bet if you googled it, you'd find many, many more definitions - all of which would be completely different. :P

      Have you read KJ Parker? I'd definitely recommend The Engineer trilogy if you haven't - an engineer designs a war for his own revenge, but it's far twistier than that.

    3. Hmm, I think I read a Parker YEARS back, something about lawyers and fencing? it's possible I'm making that up though...I will happily at The Engineer Trilogy to my ever growing list, thanks :)

    4. That does sound like Parker - I've only read the Engineer trilogy and one other novel (though anoth glares at me from the TBR pile) - but I think one of their other trilogies is called the Fencer? So sounds likely.

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