Exploring Speculative Fiction Sub-Genres: Fantasy

SERIES INTRO: As a speculative fiction writer, you need to know your genres. Why? Knowing your genres makes it easier to find your readers. Even if you’re not excited by the thought of marketing your book, knowing your readers helps you make the right creative choices. And, let’s face it, you save a lot of time if you can make those choices earlier rather than later.

The idea behind this series is to give you a tour of the sub-genres you’ll most often find within the different spec-fic genres. It’s a whistle-stop trip, so buckle up and enjoy the ride. Here’s the first in the series, but you can also now read about science fiction and horror, too.

High Fantasy/Epic Fantasy

In my earlier blog post ‘What is Speculative Fiction?’, I talk about fantasy as being the purest form of spec-fic. Now I’ll go even further: I believe high fantasy is the purest of the fantasy sub-genres. It’s the most speculative sub-genre, and may even be the common ancestor from which all others evolved.

So what is it? Well, high fantasy is set in a world unlike our own. This world runs by very different rules, but they are rules that make sense and can be relied on. The epic comes into play because supernatural beings tend to be a normal part of everyday life in high fantasy.

Of course, the granddaddy of high fantasy is JRR Tolkien, especially his Lord of the Rings trilogy. But it’s worth turning to Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea series for an equally epic but less well-known read.

Soft Fantasy

Soft fantasy is best explained by looking at its opposite, hard fantasy. Hard fantasy makes fantasy events part of a clear, logical system, where soft fantasy is less rigorous. In soft fantasy, there usually aren’t hard and fast rules behind the fantastical happenings.

Think A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, where magic isn’t the main element driving the plot and solving problems. Or even the Harry Potter series, where nobody really understands up front what consequences their magic will have.

Urban Fantasy

In one sense, urban fantasy is the flip side of high fantasy. It’s set in our very own world, not necessarily in the present day, and supernatural goings-on happen in the midst of everyday city life.

An urban fantasy series I always enjoy is Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, where geeky police constable Peter Grant joins the supernatural crime squad. I’d also argue that Jon Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire novel Let the Right One In counts as urban fantasy. After all, it’s set in Blackeberg, a vast public housing estate outside Stockholm.

Dark or Gothic Fantasy

This is the place where fantasy meets horror. But unlike horror, dark fantasy doesn’t set out to deliberately terrify or disgust the reader. Instead, it explores any dark, macabre and paranormal themes that come up as part of the main story.

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a book of short stories inspired by fairy tales, comes under the heading of gothic fantasy. So does the famous Vampire Chronicles series by Anne Rice, which apparently inspired Carter to develop her talent for darkness.

Modern or Contemporary Fantasy

Modern fantasy is defined by being set in the real world, in the present. I often see works of urban fantasy sold as contemporary fantasy, and it’s true that there’s crossover between the two. But while many works of urban fantasy are set in the present day (or what was the present at the time of writing), they’re defined by being set in the city. Contemporary fantasy is all about the era.

Because of the crossover factor, you’ll often find Rivers of London under the contemporary fantasy banner. But I think a much better example is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Even though the book time-hops, Bulgakov was writing about his own times: Soviet era Russia.

Historic Fantasy

Another category defined by era is historic fantasy. This sub-genre unites fantasy elements with stories set in our own world’s past. Browse under this heading in any bookshop and you’ll also find works of alternate history, in which history is rewritten in various ways.

I’m not a history buff, but I do love historic fantasy. One of my favourite examples is Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave series, following the life and times of the legendary wizard Merlin. On the alternate history side, there’s Jasper Fforde’s entertaining Thursday Next novels. They’re set in a reality where the dodo never died out and the Crimean War has carried on for over a hundred years.


Fancy winning one of the books mentioned in this blog post? All you have to do is:

When commenting, don’t forget to fill out the email field so I can get in touch with you if you win. Open to international entries. Winner will be selected randomly and receive a hardcopy book (not an ebook).

Closes: Wednesday 27th July 2016.

Good luck!

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By | 2017-09-05T13:42:47+00:00 July 20th, 2016|Novel Writing|10 Comments

About the Author:

Lynn is a main contributor to the Liminal Pages blog. She studied science while writing fiction and poetry in her spare time. She's carried out research into trees, grasses, lichens and the effects of prehistoric climate change, all of which turned out to be far weirder than anything she could possibly invent. She has an MA in creative writing, and worked as a writing mentor at a large London university. These days, she runs her own content writing business, Lexis Writing.


  1. Stuart Aken July 22, 2016 at 8:06 am - Reply

    An interesting piece. I’ve written in both Epic and Gothic Fantasy sub genres, but your definitions and examples make the boundaries very clear for both readers and writers. I’d be interested to read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, as this is an area I’ve toyed with. Many thanks for this opportunity.

    • Sophie Playle July 22, 2016 at 9:36 am - Reply

      Great choice! One of my all-time favourite books (and authors).

    • Sophie Playle July 27, 2016 at 1:45 pm - Reply

      Congrats, Stuart – you’ve won the giveaway! I’ll be in touch.

  2. Lynn Reynolds July 22, 2016 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Stuart, glad you enjoyed the piece!

    Yes, do go ahead and read The Bloody Chamber. Come back and let us know your thoughts.

  3. Sam July 25, 2016 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    I’m itching to explore Speculative fiction in my own work. Catching these articles has given me a lot to think about with regards to themes and story. Thanks for tickling my pen hand! So tough to pick a title. Rivers of London has caught my eye in the shops a few times so I’ll give it a bash. And as if I’ll never slowly absorb the entire selection in the article anyway…

  4. Denise Cowle July 25, 2016 at 7:34 pm - Reply

    Hi Sophie, This was really interesting – having read the definitions I now know I’ve read a lot more speculative fiction then I realise! Let the Right One In is one of my favourite books, and I adored Anne Rice’s books, not just the Vampire Chronicles, but the Mayfair Witches books, too. I think I would enjoy reading Rivers of London.

    • Sophie Playle July 26, 2016 at 9:51 am - Reply

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Denise! I was a massive fan of The Vampire Chronicles as a teenager. I keep meaning to re-read them. I haven’t read Let the Right One In, but I thought the film was very creepy.

  5. Ben Repton July 26, 2016 at 1:50 am - Reply

    What no Neverwhere?
    I’m a little surprised to see a lack of Neil Gaiman in this selection. I’ve only read the first of Ben Aranovitch’s novels but they just didn’t have the same grab that Neverwhere had (have you read the short “How the Marquis got his coat back”?).
    A mention to China Mielville for the Bas-Lag series would also be right at home in this list.
    I’d be interested in reading The Bloody Chamber though so if you do fancy sending me a copy. Nudge nudge wink wink.

    • Sophie Playle July 26, 2016 at 9:53 am - Reply

      Good point! Neil Gaiman is one of the masters of fantasy speculative fiction …! I must admit, China Mielville sounds right up my street, but I tried reading Kraken and had to stop half way through. I just couldn’t get into it!

  6. Sophie Playle July 27, 2016 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    Thanks to everyone who entered. Since there were only four of you (!) I wrote 1-4 on bits of paper, folded them up and picked one. Number one (first commenter Stuart) won the book this time. I’ll likely run another giveaway in the future though.

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