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Fifteen Fantasy Subgenres You Should Know

When you are querying a fantasy novel, it's useful to understand your story's subgenre. Agents and publishers want to know where it might fit on the shelf, and understanding reader expectations can be helpful to meet or subvert them. You should also read books in your subgenre that have been published in the last five years; this helps with inspiration and to understand the types of stories that are being successfully marketed to your target readership.

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While there are many more than fifteen subgenres under the umbrella of fantasy fiction, these fifteen have been favoured in the last five years. The popularity of these categories come and go. For example, Sword & Sorcery is an older subgenre, coined in the 1960s, that publishers haven't used lately to tag their books, so I haven't included it on this list; it still exists as a genre, but publishers would currently categorize these books as "Action & Adventure" or "Epic Fantasy" instead.


Read on for fifteen popular subgenres in fantasy fiction.


1. Action & Adventure Fantasy


Action & Adventure books are generally about a journey, where characters are on a quest to find something or solve a problem. The protagonists tend to have strong moral codes, so these are good vs. evil tales. Action and fun are at the heart of these stories, so this is a popular subgenre in middle grade fantasy (note the whopping list of children’s books below).


May overlap with: epic & high fantasy, fairy tales, mythical fantasy


Typical elements: quests, puzzles, battles, survival, romance, chosen ones, magical artifacts, exploration, personal journeys, coming of age


Recent examples: The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by S.A. Chakraborty, Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim, The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton


2. Alternate History


While historical fantasy (which appears later on this list) tosses in magic or supernatural elements into a historical setting, alternate history is when a significant event in history is changed. For example, a story in which Germany won World War II would be alternate history. Of course, if Germany won World War II because they had dragons, then the two genres overlap.


May overlap with: historical fantasy


Typical elements: adventure, time travel, mysteries, fantasy creatures


Recent examples: When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill, The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant, The Destiny of Minou Moonshine by Gita Raleigh


3. Contemporary Fantasy


These are stories that take place in the modern world and are set in the present time. Magic exists, but it’s usually not common knowledge. This is a popular genre; the number of titles listed are only beat by epic fantasy and action & adventure.


May overlap with: urban fantasy, magical realism/fabulism, paranormal fantasy


Typical elements: local atmosphere, small towns, mysteries, romance, humour, superpowers, witches, family, mental health, magic schools


Recent Examples: Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs, Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses by Kristen O'Neal, The Alchemy of Letting Go by Amber Morrell


4. Dark Fantasy


Dark fantasy is disturbing, scary, or eerie. It differs slightly from horror in that the point of the story is not to constantly scare you. Often, it’s the atmosphere or setting that is dark, and the story relies on suspense rather than jump scares (though you can also have horror without jump scares, so the lines certainly blur).


May overlap with: paranormal, horror, gothic fantasy


Typical elements: mystery, survival, loners and outcasts, ghosts, demons, undead, monsters, curses, blood magic, necromancy, assassins, revenge


Recent examples:: Book of Night by Holly Black, A Door in the Dark by Scott Reintgen, The Grave Thief by Dee Hahn


5. Epic & High Fantasy


I’m convinced epic fantasy—stories that take place entirely in a fictional, fantasy world—will never die. It is growing more diverse, with many books moving away from the typical medieval setting and taking inspiration from other cultures and historical periods.


The term epic fantasy is most often attached to adult titles, suggesting stories with intricate magic systems, multiple protagonists, and gritty wars. High fantasy is used more often for young adult and middle grade books; however, these novels are often simply categorized as “YA fantasy” and “middle grade fantasy,” and are more adventure-focused.


May overlap with: action & adventure fantasy; fairy tales & retellings; myths, legends, and folklore; romantasy


Typical elements: journeys, quests, dragons, mages, magical artifacts, medieval societies, war, romance, empires, mythical races and creatures, politics, gods, royalty, adventure


Recent examples: A Day of Fallen Night by Samantha Shannon, To Shape a Dragon's Breath by Moniquill Blackgoose, The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark


6. Fairy Tales & Retellings


Many readers enjoy books that are surprising twists on familiar stories. Fantasy novels inspired by fairy tales or other well-known stories are going strong. Dark and gothic retellings have been particularly popular in the last five years.


May overlap with: epic & high fantasy; myths, legends, and folklore; dark fantasy; gothic fantasy


Typical elements: curses, witches, forests, royalty, monsters, romance


Recent examples: Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher, The Bone Spindle by Leslie Vedder, Daughter of the Deep by Rick Riordan


7. Gothic Fantasy


This genre has so many similarities to dark fantasy that I almost didn’t include it, but the word gothic does evoke a specific aesthetic, so it's worth including. Gothic fantasy is closely associated with an eerie, haunted atmosphere and a mystery. It’s often set in the Victorian era.


May overlap with: dark fantasy, paranormal, horror, historical


Typical elements: ghosts, monsters, castles, mansions, murder, curses, witches, mysteries


Recent examples: The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller, Belladonna by Adalyn Grace, The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny

 

If you'd like to see more examples of novels under each category, I've made a database of fantasy books published in the last five years. You may find it helpful if you want to read recent books in your subgenre or are searching for comps for your query letter.

 

8. Historical Fantasy


Zombies during apartheid! World War I with necromancers! A dragon eats Shakespeare!


Historical fantasy is when magic and/or other supernatural elements are put into a historical setting. Except for the fantasy part, history is kept accurate (e.g. the Allies still win World War I, even though there are necromancers involved).


May overlap with: alternate history, gothic fantasy


Typical elements: time travel, magic, adventure, mystery


Recent Examples: Babel by R.F. Kuang, What the River Knows by Isabel Ibañez, The Patron Thief of Bread by Lindsay Eagar


9. Horror


Horror is having a moment right now—for all age categories! Its goal is to scare, and it often focuses on a lone character reacting to the unknown. There’s usually a mystery involved, and the reveal is terrifying. Horror also has many thriller elements, where the protagonist is constantly running from something and concerned for their safety. In YA and middle grade, horror tends to have fewer deaths but is still ultra spooky! Fantasy horror has a supernatural element, such as a creepy monster or another world seeping into ours.


May overlap with: paranormal, dark fantasy


Typical elements: mysteries, monsters, loners and outcasts, violence, strangeness


Recent examples: Sister, Maiden, Monster by Lucy A. Snyder, House of Ash and Bone by Joel A. Sutherland, Field of Screams by Wendy Parris


10. Magical Realism & Fabulism


Lately, the term magical realism gets slapped on anything supernatural, particularly contemporary fantasy, regardless of whether the book is truly magical realism or not.


Here’s the definition of magical realism: stories that are grounded in the contemporary, real world but include magic that is considered ordinary. So, instead of Bella going all starry-eyed after learning Edward can stop a truck with his hand, she would just go back to reading her book because vampires are perfectly normal, thank you very much. These stories are less concerned with, “Surprise! It’s magic!” and more concerned with character growth and the problems magic causes.


Magical realism also has Latinx roots, featuring stories about the oppression of marginalized and indigenous people. Though it is becoming a term that publishing uses generically, I recommend using fabulism if you are not a Latinx writer.


May overlap with: contemporary fantasy


Typical elements: mental health, romance, mysteries, immigration, socio-political themes, family


Recent examples: The Enchanted Hacienda by J.C. Cervantes, The Moth Girl by Heather Kamins, Turtles of the Midnight Moon by María José Fitzgerald


11. Myths, Legends, & Folklore


This genre has a lot of overlap with the fairy tales & retellings category, but it deserves to stand on its own. Greek and Arthurian mythology used to be the most popular choices for retellings, but these days, publishers are branching out into mythology from various areas, cultures, and time periods.


May overlap with: fairy tales & retellings; epic & high fantasy


Typical elements: adventure, quests, romance, animals, gods, mythological creatures


Recent examples: Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan, Blood Scion by Deborah Falaye, Lei and the Fire Goddess by Malia Maunakea


12. Paranormal


Paranormal and dark books in a contemporary setting seem to be as popular as ever; witches and supernatural monsters may never get old. This is technically a subgenre of a subgenre, as it falls under contemporary fantasy, but these books are so prolific they have their own category.


May overlap with: contemporary fantasy, horror, gothic fantasy, urban fantasy


Typical elements: witches, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, demons, small towns, mystery, detectives


Recent examples: The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean, Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis, Camp Sylvania by Julie Murphy


13. Romantasy


Fantasy romance, colloquially known as romantasy, is set in a fictional, high fantasy world. (Fantasy romance set in our world is generally referred to as paranormal romance, and the steamy variety is more popular in indie publishing than traditional.)


May overlap with: high & epic fantasy, fairy tales & retellings


Typical elements: medieval worlds, royalty, politics, magic, forbidden love, knights, fae


Recent examples: The Foxglove King by Hannah Whitten, Edgewood by Kristen Ciccarelli, Chaos & Flame by Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland


14. Science Fantasy


Science fantasy is set in a world where both magic and technology exist. It’s often categorized in bookstores as something else—high fantasy, adventure, science fiction, etc. But it can be a helpful descriptor when querying. In these stories, sometimes magic and technology are at odds with each other, various factions promoting one over the other. Sometimes, magic and science just co-exist.


May overlap with: high & epic fantasy; action & adventure fantasy; myths, legends, & folklore


Typical elements: science, magic, robots, mages, alchemy, gods, empires, adventure


Recent examples: The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko Candon, The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao, Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao


15. Urban Fantasy


Urban fantasy—contemporary fantasy set in a city, often featuring dark undertones and detective protagonists—had its heyday with authors like Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs. But there is still a place for it, and some literary agents are still asking for it.


May overlap with: contemporary fantasy, paranormal


Typical elements: mysteries, witches, demons, werewolves, monsters, detectives


Recent examples: The Hexologist by Josiah Bancroft, The Immortal Detective by D.B. Woodling, We Who Hunt the Hollow by Kate Murray

The book cover of Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels.

ABOUT

Allison Alexander is a writer and editor specializing in sci-fi, fantasy, and nerdy nonfiction. You can find her playing D&D, chasing otter penguins off the Normandy, or co-hosting The World-builder’s Tavern, a podcast for speculative fiction writers.

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