The Many Subgenres of Fantasy

Fantasy is comprised of a number of different subgenres, from paranormal to urban to steampunk to epic. Some subgenres are more popular than others and some subgenre categories are not well known, such as Wuxia. I will discuss some of my favorite subgenres of fantasy in this post. I will also try to define some of the lesser known subgenres. Below is a table of most of the current subgenres of fantasy. I will briefly discuss the subgenres in bold. More information can be found on the Best Fantasy Books website.


Alternate History
Alternate history fantasy is like the real world, but changed in some way, such as one event in history. For example, it can be set in a parallel world where the United States was still under British rule. Some of my favorites in this subgenre include Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series and Orson Scott Card’s The Tales of Alvin Maker series.

Anthropomorphic fantasy involves animals behaving like humans in some way. I used to be a primate zookeeper, so this type of fantasy is particularly interesting to me. Some of my favorites include Richard Adams’ Watership Down, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.

Cross Over
Cross over fantasy is sometimes known as cross worlds fantasy and has normal people from Earth, that cross into a new world or realm, often through a portal of some sort. Again, C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia falls into this category, as well as Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Beginning Place.

Court Intrigue
Court intrigue fantasy often involves castles and royal successions full of intrigue. Some of my favorites in this subgenre include Dawn Cook’s The Decoy Princess, Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin series, and Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy.

Epic or High
Epic or high fantasy usually involves a quest to save the world from bad guys. Magic is also involved. Best Fantasy Books has a nice description of the differences between epic and high fantasy, although many people use these interchangeably. This category includes J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Low fantasy is usually discussed opposite of high fantasy. It usually does not focus on heroism and focuses less on magic. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian series, and Stephen King’s The Green Mile.

Paranormal involves vampires, werewolves, and other paranormal creatures. It is often included in urban fantasy and has been quite popular recently. This is one of my favorite subgenres. This category includes Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Other popular paranormal series include Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series, Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones series, and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series.

Quest fantasy involves a journey, often towards a place or goal. This is one of the most classic subgenres of fantasy and includes Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, and David Edding’s The Belgariad series. This category reminds me of going on quests in the World of Warcraft- my favorite part of the MMORPG. I would also include Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series in this category, and one of my favorites.

Romantic fantasies have traditional romance in them. Paranormal fantasy often incorporates elements of romantic fantasy. Romantic relationships are important in this category, but tend to be sweet and gentle relationships as opposed to paranormal fantasy’s grittier relationships. Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince trilogy, Mercedes Lackey’s The Secret World Chronicle series, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsdawn, and Robin Hobb’s The Liveship Traders series are some of my favorites in this subgenre.

Steampunk and Gaslamp
Steampunk fantasy has steam technology and often incorporates the aesthetic appeal of Victorian fashions, clockwork, goggles, dirigibles, and more. Steampunk is often a combination of fantasy and science fiction, as well as other subgenres. My favorite is Gail Carriger’s Soulless series, followed by Jay Lake’s Mainspring and Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist. Gaslamp books are also called gaslight and has strong gothic ties. Gaslamp fantasy is set in England, during the Regency, Edwardian, or Victorian eras. Steampunk and gaslamp are very similar, which is why I combined them in this post, but steampunk usually has more science fiction elements and does not have to take place during a specific time period. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series and Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series are some of my favorite gaslamp fantasies.

Young Adult
Young adult fantasy is written for teens. YA fantasy usually involves strong emotions and complex plots. Many of my favorites also fall under other subgenres, such as C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Other favorite YA fantasies include J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea.

Wuxia fantasy is the subgenre I am most unfamiliar with, so I wanted to define it for everyone. Wuxia fantasy originated in China and is a combination of action, adventure, and fantasy. This category involves martial arts with heroes or chivalry. Wuxia includes books and films similar to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Urban or Contemporary
Lastly, I want to briefly discuss urban or contemporary fantasy. These fantasies take place in an urban setting, on Earth. They are gritty, like crime fiction, but are a hybrid of fantasy, mystery, romance, and horror. This is another popular subgenre of fantasy. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are all examples of urban fantasy.

These are just some of the subgenres within fantasy and many books and films fall into multiple subgenres. In future posts, I will discuss some of these subgenres in more detail.


  1. K.G. McAbee says:

    An awesome beginning! I’m going to be reading this blog for a long, long, LONG time…..

  2. […] Fantasy is the genre that explores our imaginations and takes us on glorious adventures. In a similar vein, horror flirts with the darker nature of humanity and gives rise to those things that go bump in the night. Science fiction, though, is meant to answer the question “What if?” What if science gave us the ability to create the spark of life (Frankenstein)? What if beings from the canals of Mars came to Earth intent on wiping out humanity (The War of the Worlds)? What if our government decided that books possessed dangerous ideas and should all be destroyed (Fahrenheit 451)? What if we developed artificial intelligence? Or faster than light travel? Or nanotechnology? The genre of science fictions is driven by the desire to push these questions and how they may change human culture. […]

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