How to Define Fantasy

Whilst writing reviews I often ask myself how on earth  I define fantasy. Why do I ask myself this? Mostly because I enjoy making my life difficult, but also because Fantasy has those delightful little sub-genres called “Epic” and “High”. And if you’re really picky there are a million other sub-genres, but these ones bother me the most. Today, I’m going to introduce to you the official Kirstie’s Manual to Categorising Your Books Correctly. In other words, I’m going to tell you how I think these divisions work if you’re like me and feel that the word “Fantasy” is not quite fulfilling enough.

Let’s all bear in mind that these are MY definitions, so feel free to throw tomatoes at me but my word is not the be all end all.

(Low) Fantasy

low fantasy begins and ends in the real world, the characters are aware of magical things as being somewhat of an anomaly

This is your bog-standard HP, magic-wielding, spell-casting fun. I do, however, refuse to actually call it “low” Fantasy. That feels like I’m getting too persnickety. The general consensus that I’ve found, both from my own pondering and various internet peoples, seems to be that this general Fantasy is a book set in the real world with fantastical elements, usually magic.

Fantasy is a very fun genre because it allows you to just go crazy with your imagination. It’s one of my favourites for this very reason. There are no rules and no don’ts – just do whatever you like in the real world but make it fun and improbable. The most glorious thing about Fantasy, though, is that whilst it requires certain levels of a suspension of disbelief, I always find myself imagining what I could do in these worlds and wishing they were true – they just don’t see too far from reality!

For example:

Harry Potter
by J. K. Rowling

This book is set in the real world with trips to a magical school where the characters learn magic. They are special because they can wield magic but there is a strict divide between the magical and real world. The characters are acutely aware of magic’s presence and what it involves.

Tiger’s Curse
by Colleen Houck

This book is set in the real world with a few trips into a mythological landscape. It follows a young girl who meets an ancient Indian prince who is cursed. There is a love story but a lot of fighting and the adventures she experiences are completely unique to her situation and unbeknown to other human characters.

High Fantasy

high fantasy takes place in many places and magic is accepted as being the norm – no-one bats an eyelid at its existence; there are often a lot of people going on a quest trying to save the world

This is one of my favourites. This type of fantasy is the real mind-boggling stuff. It’s the books that have entirely new worlds or medieval worlds, are set in whatever period with magic and dragons and sorcerers and have at least one desperately good looking knight in shining armour. Almost everything in these books is imagined and they usual focus around a OH GOD QUICK SAVE THE WHOLE BLIMMING WORLD plot.

I think a lot of people don’t realise that High Fantasy are not always the hunkers that intimidate you to death – they’re often YA books that just don’t take place in the real world. Although that being said sometimes they jump between worlds – say, Narnia and the Splintered series, for example. I love this genre though because you get completely immersed in the world and transported to somewhere so incredibly magical and crazy. I love it when authors create new creatures aside from your Elves, Ogres, and other Humanoid creations.

For example:

The Shadow Queen
by C. J. Redwine

This book is a retelling of Snow White where there is an evil queen and a lost princess. Both have magic that they use in various battles and the princess is teaming up with a race of dragon-shifters to save the world and reclaim her throne.

Wards of Faerie
by Terry Brooks

This book is set in a medieval world where elves, goblins, ogres, faeries and human alike an be found. The main character has many friends who help her on a quest to recover something lost. There’s a lot of magical fighting and magical ships.

Epic Fantasy

epic fantasy feels like historical fiction, taking place in medieval worlds with little to no focus on magic, it has character driven plots and centres around a good vs. evil balance

Now this one, this one causes many problems. For the most part, people ignore its existence. I refuse to do so. Epic fantasy books are those (*cough*GameOfThrones*cough*) books set almost always in medieval times and don’t necessarily contain magic (and all that jazz) but have about 928747 different characters. One definition I’ve seen come up again and again is that these are character driven plots. These are usually the hardest ones to get into, if you ask me. The setting of these books usually harks to medieval human times and they usually centre around a good vs evil plot.

I think people often just lump High and Epic Fantasy into the same genre (or don’t go beyond “Fantasy”) which is totally fine, fantasy is fantasy right? BUT THAT’S NOT WHY WE’RE HERE TODAY. No, sir! Today we’re being picky. So if you’re struggling to work out what Mr Epic is, if it’s not the real world but it sort of feels like it – maybe you’re thinking its medieval fantasy, it’s probably EPIC. If you think it might be High Fantasy, ask yourself if there is any magic (and by magic I mean real magic, no faux-witches like in medieval times)? Because if there is NOT – it is EPIC. Usually, if I can’t place a book into any other types of fantasy, it tends to fit this one.

For example:

Assassin’s Apparetice
by Robin Hobb

This book takes place in a medieval world and follows an orphan boy who grows up in a castle. He ends up getting involved in events that pit good against evil and involve many characters doing many things. The characters are more likely to poison each other than cast magical curses.

A Game of Thrones
by George R. R. Martin

This book is set in a medieval world and is about a huge cast of characters all vying for power. It is the ultimate good vs evil plot without a lot of good and is driven forward by an enormous amount of subplots related to individual characters. There are fantasy creatures but the focus is on the sword-wielding, blood thirsty, tyrants.

and . . . Sci-Fi

sci-fi can be set anywhere at any time and often involves space ships, time travel, robots and other scientific endeavours that have more of an explanation than “it was magic”

I feel I need to quickly clarify the difference with Sci-Fi, too. I cannot express how much it annoys me on Goodreads when I see a book in both the categories of Fantasy and Sci-Fi – my brain immediately starts screaming THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE. Of course, I’m sure there are some select cases? But let’s ignore them for convenience sake.

Sci-Fi is either hardcore sci-fi on such a level that you’re slightly scared, or it leans really close to being potentially fantasy that your brain short circuits. Sci-Fi is called science fiction for a reason though, there’s usually something scientific about it. Whether it is someone who’s been biologically altered, or a plot which has space ships in them, uses time/dimensional travel, is futuristic, looks at life on other planets (usually in relation to life on Earth as we know it) and of course, ALIENS. I also think sci-fi gets under-read, not badly, but I think it’s got a particular taste that you have to get used to before you love it.

Whilst in Fantasy you’ll often find warriors wielding swords, dragons, castles, magic – in Sci-Fi you’re looking for laser guns, spaceships, aliens, and time travel.

For example:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams

This book is about an odd crew on a spaceship that a human gets mixed up with. They travel the galaxy doing very strange things and meet many new lifeforms on many new planets. There is time travel and plenty of non-sensical elements. Lots of things go bleep and bloop.

A Thousand Pieces of You
by Claudia Grey

This book is set in the real world but a scientific device allows for dimensional travel between parallel universes. The characters are trying to solve a mystery and exact revenge by chasing each other through these parallel worlds whilst avoiding an overbearing scientific crackpot set to destroy the world with his inventions.

 Allow me to de-confuse you: 

Of course, there’s always a bit of overlap with these things but usually it’s pretty clear which is which. I’ve made you a checklist to show you what you can find in each genre, below.


 Which type of Fantasy do you love the most?

Share your thoughts below!

End Note

~~ Kirstie ~~

36 thoughts on “How to Define Fantasy

  1. I dunno… I’d love to read about an old, battle-scarred dwarf on Planet Xargar with Level 5 access and plenty of front-line tech break the dimension barriers, end up in merry ole’, uh, Norway, and expose the truth about the legend of the hospice care nurses in a quaint little home south of the country. But, then again, I’d probably pass that book along for something that follows your chart. Less headaches.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Baha wow, that’d be a book and a half. I dare you to try and write something like that. If you ever DID find a book like that then I want to know! I think it’d be like a battlefield in your head trying to work it all out 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This post was super informative, thank you Kirstie! My favourite type of fantasy would definitely be “low” although I do read high occasionally. That and epic intimidate me so much though because I always get so confused by the politics and even more so when there’s a heap of characters 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely love fantasy and science fiction, so I am the exact same as you when I see something labeled as both, haha. Although, I would be really interested to see if somebody could combine the two in a book — that would be pretty awesome.
    My favourite would have to be high fantasy. Epic fantasy really intimidates me, but once I really get into a book I fall deeply in love with it. Wonderful post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw thank you! And yes I’d love to see someone well and truly combine the genres just for fun!! Totally agree with you on the epic fantasy front, they’re so intimidating but absolutely amazing once you get into it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    This is a great discussion with a good infographic at the end to clarify the boundaries of different types of SF & F. I like reading all of it for the most part. Check this post out and leave your thoughts…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fantasy is pretty much the only thing I read (including sci-fi) so I have to say I love them all. I call (low) fantasy Urban Fantasy because it’s set in a urban setting or real world like place….BUT when the magical system is elaborate and complex (like Harry Potter), I tend to just chuck it into the straight up fantasy pile LOL! As for favorites, I adore every single one but it depends on my mood – sometimes I want a high fantasy for it’s longer page-count, and detailed world, but sometimes I just want something easier hehe! Great post^^ xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Woo! I love it when I go through periods of reading absolutely nothing but fantasy 💕 it’s like suddenly being allowed to JUST eat chocolate. Totally agree with you on the page count business, if I see a big book I’m like well, that’s a fantasy for sure! Thanks 😄


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