This post began as a spin-off in my thinking from two things. One was the review I wrote last week for Hope and the Clever Man by Mike Reeves-McMillan. I had to think about how to place that book in terms of genre. It could be classified as either alternate-world fantasy or divergent steampunk. It’s a fantasy because it has two fantasy elements, magic and quasi-humans. The magic even behaves like magic usually does part of the time: a mage can cast a curse on someone, for example, or perform a healing spell. But it can also be used to create “gates” that serve as permanent energy sources, pulling heat in from another universe. This energy source can then drive machinery that obeys the normal laws of physics. This machinery can be used by anyone, not just mages, and its existence gives the story a steampunk feel. Yet steampunk normally doesn’t rely on magic as a power source for its fictional technology, so Mike’s tale departs from the genre template for both alternate-world fantasy and steampunk. Which is it? Both — and, strictly speaking, neither.
The other thing involves my own writing, which is mostly fantasy, with an occasional foray into science fiction (or, as in The Order Master, blending the two), but none of it adheres to a genre template. I’ve got four contemporary fantasy novels, none of them with a single vampire or werewolf. I’ve got two alternate-world fantasies, but neither of them involves a Medieval society. (One of the “Two Worlds” in the Tale of Two Worlds is roughly 18th-century and the other is so magical it’s hard to categorize, but certainly it bears little resemblance to any society in our own history.)
Genre fiction walks a fine line between being difficult to recognize as part of the genre and being overly formulaic. A reader who has enjoyed a story of a certain type will often respond well to similar themes and story elements in another story, but also becomes bored with the same thing replayed over and over. With respect to fantasy, here are some formula descriptions of the common subgenres.
Alternate world fantasy (AWF). This story is set in an alternate world with a low level of technology and social, political, and religious structures reminiscent of the ancient world or the Middle Ages. War is conducted on foot or horseback, wielding edged weapons and bows. Government consists of monarchies, hereditary nobility, and official priesthoods. Magic is an art wielded by the talented either in secret or in orders or schools, which may or may not be affiliated with a temple.
Epic Fantasy. (This is a sub-genre of alternate world fantasy.) The world is threatened by dark forces of one kind or another and the protagonists must deal with this either directly or indirectly. Typically, the protagonist is the hero of an ages-old prophecy that promises the demise of the dark forces at the hand of an ordinary commoner of extraordinary talents, or else is a True King in exile who must defeat the dark forces in order to regain his throne. Adhering to the AWF template, epic fantasy features a vast, world-spanning conflict with immense stakes and a battle against ultimate evil.
Contemporary fantasy. The story is set in our own world, with fantasy elements added. Quasi-humans out of horror fiction (such as werewolves and vampires) exist in secret in our world, sometimes accompanied by secret practitioners of the magical arts (who may or may not be human) and non-horror quasi-humans such as elves, pixies, etc. In most cases, these fantasy elements operate in secrecy, unknown to most people. In a few cases, the world has been transformed by some event and the fantasy elements operate openly.
Urban fantasy. This sub-genre of contemporary fantasy has many of the same elements, but also has a gritty, noir feel to it. The fantasy elements in urban fantasy is usually very dark, and the protagonist is either a hard-boiled person who is accustomed to dealing with that darkness but now faces an unusually difficult challenge, or a less-experienced person plunged into a strange milieu and having to deal.
Paranormal romance. Another sub-genre of contemporary fantasy, this is, as the name implies, a romance story in a fantasy setting. Archetypically, it involves a romance between a fantasy/horror quasi-human (such as a vampire) and a normal human being.
Now, strictly speaking and by definition, the above descriptions include many non-mandatory features. A contemporary fantasy, for example, by strict definition, is simply a story set in our own modern world that includes fantasy elements — any fantasy elements. It doesn’t have to have vampires or werewolves to be called a “contemporary fantasy.” And yet, because contemporary fantasy stories with vampires and werewolves were among the first such tales to achieve popularity, the template has imprinted and when readers browsing through books see the designation “contemporary fantasy” (or urban fantasy or paranormal romance), vampires and werewolves are the first things that usually pop into their minds. This may, of course, mislead.
Similarly, an alternate world fantasy doesn’t have to happen in a low-technology setting. Strictly speaking, an alternate world fantasy is simply a story set on a world other than our own, in which fantasy elements exist. The alternate world could conceivably be another planet with a science-fiction technological base. Or it could be anything in between that and the low-tech world that is the AWF template. Again, however, the first expectation that pops into people’s heads on seeing a designation such as “epic fantasy” is something similar to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Fantasy has such enormous potential to depart from the templates and achieve real creativity in world-building (as well as character-creation and storytelling) that it seems a shame to me to try to pigeonhole it into strict subgenres with exact descriptions of the type of story elements that are expected. And yet that happens — more for commercial reasons than any other, I think — and boundaries are placed on the imagination in the process.
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