Based on the Collins English Dictionary, a subgenre is "a category that is a subdivision of a larger genre." (Source) In the case of Fantasy, we have several subgenres that are quite commonplace. They range in setting from distant past, distant future, to alternate present reality and most commonly deal with a coming-of-age scenario for our protagonist. Here are some of the most popular selections:
- Epic fantasy- Sword fights between good and evil set in a magical land..sound familiar? This is the kind of book most people think of when they hear the word "fantasy." It encompasses the likes of Tamora Pierce, J.R.R. Tolkien, and my personal favorite Kristin Cashore. This kind of writing lends itself to many different types of readers whether they prefer group adventures or solo expeditions and magic or braun. Whether you want a long series or a simple read through, this subgenre has something for everyone.
- Faerie- While I believe this one to be self-explanatory, some folks often times confuse faeries with fairy tales. The latter is dealt with in connection with myths and legends so as not to confuse readers. Faerie books deal with the creatures themselves, sprites, nymphs, elves, gnomes, etc. These creatures are all different species of magical beings that can work their charms on, oftentimes to the detriment of, humans. Holly Black, Eoin Colfer, and Melissa Marr are very popular faeries writers in YA. They offer a nice balance between real world and alternate realm settings allowing for diversity in faerie rules.
- Mythic reality- Much like the "urban fantasy" subgenre of paranormal books, mythic reality takes place in the real world. Fantastical creatures and events take place in an otherwise mundane setting allowing the reader to believe in magic all around them. These books oftentimes lend themselves very well to a movie crossover as witnessed by Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series & Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's Beautiful Creatures.
- Myths, legends, and fairy tales- Personally, these are the kinds of books I think of when I hear "fantasy." My go-to thoughts are of Arthurian legends and the original Grimm's fairy tales. I'm not the biggest fan of epic fantasies or the popular faerie books. I prefer my magic ensconced in these realms. Retellings of popular stories are "in" right now, but there is also a long history of complete reworkings. Some great examples are Jackson Pearce's retellings and Stacey Jay's reworkings. In general though you can find plenty of variety from the likes of Gerald Morris, Francesca Lia Block, and Donna Jo Napoli.
I truly adore getting into writer's heads when it comes to building these worlds. There are so many options and details to think about that I get overwhelmed just contemplating it. Kristin Cashore did an amazing job in an interview with Amazon a few years back detailing how she built the seven kingdom's world. I was kind of shocked at what I perceived to be the backward nature of this process, but in fact it makes tons of sense.
Amazon.com: At what point did the world of the seven kingdoms emerge, and how did it evolve and affect the arc of the story?
KC: I went back to my book plan for this question, too, and was kind of amused to discover that the seven kingdoms emerged very specifically from the opening scene I wanted to use for the book. I wanted the book to begin with Katsa sneaking at midnight through the court of a kingdom other than her own, rescuing a stranger who’d been kidnapped from a strange land. This gave me at least three kingdoms just to start with: Katsa’s, the stranger’s strange land, and the kingdom of the kidnappers. So, from the beginning, I had a sense of a big world, and as I hammered out the plot, that world kept growing. I realized that it worked for there to be a number of kingdoms, most of which were badly run—it fit in with Katsa’s desire to sneak around from kingdom to kingdom doling out undercover justice. It also made the mystery I was building more mysterious—if there are seven kings, it takes longer for your protagonist to figure out who’s responsible for mysterious goings on.
I fleshed out the details of my world as I went along, and that includes its dramatic landscapes and weather, which turned out to be really fun tools for making my characters miserable
I hope this was informative. Fantasy is such a broad subject that it really helped me find my reading niche when I starting exploring the subgenres. That doesn't mean I don't try things anyway, but it's always good to know what you like from the start. Which one(s) do you prefer? What influential writers am I missing from those very abbreviated lists? Be sure to check back next week for my review of an old fantasy book Briar Rose by Jane Yolen.