Wyrd and Wonder: Embracing the Nuances of the Fantasy Genre

“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

First line in The Binding by Bridget Collins

Hi, guys. Welcome to this little discussion post about something I’ve noticed when listening to/reading general debates about fantasy (by “general” I mean not a specific sub-genre). That is that there’s a tendency to reduce the genre to something simplistic and thereby forgetting all the many types of fantasy books that exist.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m also guilty of doing this. We all are, because that’s how we discuss concepts as human beings. We simplify and generalize aspects of a topic or a group to make it easier to talk about. That’s how we talk about concepts and discuss them.

Now what I’ve noticed is that fantasy is often reduced to the same things. For example, I’ve often heard a sentence like this: “This fantasy book is like *insert famous contemporary/historical fiction novel* but with dragons!”. Dragons seem to be the most talked about when it comes to fantastical creatures and are often used as examples. I know fantasy creatures might not be the most groundbreaking topic but I’m just trying to prove my point with it. Because you see, by always mentioning the dragons, we exclude the unicorns, the trolls, the goblins and all the other creatures that are specific to certain books. Again, nothing wrong with dragons but we could get an entirely different discussion by talking about unicorns. This is getting a little abstract but it’s really just to say that I sometimes miss diversity in fantasy debates.

Another nuance I really want to discuss is the fact that not all fantasy falls under the category of epic fantasy. I think there’s a tendency to talk about fantasy in the way of how epic it is. Epic battles, epic quests, epic worldbuilding and magic systems. That’s all good. We all love that but a book doesn’t need a crazy and detailed magic system to be considered fantasy. It doesn’t even have to include a single battle (I know, shocking!). However, these topics are some of the most common when discussing fantasy in general. In these discussions, I believe we’re for one excluding the more atmospheric, slow paced, character driven books. They make up a large part of the market but are often forgotten and maybe not thought of as actual fantasy. Some examples of these kinds of books are The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Circe by Madeline Miller and The Binding by Bridget Collins (not going to talk about the fact that these are written by women because that’s a discussion I’m actually afraid of).

By forgetting these nuances, we reduce the fantasy genre to less than what it actually is and forget what it can do. I’m also sure that this has an effect on how non-fantasy readers think about the genre. That fantasy books are all 10-book series with lots of information and too many dragons. That could scare anyone from dipping their toes into the genre, and that’s a shame when there are so many different types of fantasy books.

All of this of course begs the question: is it even possible to discuss fantasy without specifying a certain sub-genre? I’m not sure I have an answer for that but I would love to know what you guys think.

I understand how easy it is to fall into the epic and high fantasy category when talking fantasy books, and maybe it’s because they don’t really blend in elements from other genres (at least not to a very great extent). They might even be considered the “true fantasy books” (in lack of a better term) and therefore more relevant in a fantasy debate. When a fantasy book also has elements from historical fiction, contemporaries or romance novels, everything just gets a little bit more muddied and harder to talk about in generalized terms.

Here at the end I just want to clarify that I’m not hating on anyone or accusing people of talking about fantasy “wrong”. I just think it’s an important discussion to remember all the nuances in the fantasy genre. But hey, chat with me in the comments. Let me know if you’ve noticed some of the same trends or if I’m just listening to/reading the wrong discussions. Happy reading, guys!

8 thoughts on “Wyrd and Wonder: Embracing the Nuances of the Fantasy Genre

  1. Spot on.

    I sometimes use ‘trad fantasy’ as a shorthand for all those forms of fantasy that fulfil the stereotypes – dragons, battles, magic, quests, swords, and so on – so I can differentiate it from fantasy, the whole wide genre of everything that has some element of the impossible and wants to belong. But then, sometimes I forget as well. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to sometimes have conversations where we just say fantasy when talking about that particular subset (and certainly its possible, as so many others will do the same that understanding is there) as long as we also make the point from time to time that there’s more to it than just that. It’d probably be better to use ‘trad fantasy’ more often.

    Although even that feels wrong. It’s not like the genre doesn’t contain many old classics that sidestep a lot of what we consider to be the conventions. Just I can’t think of a better name; sometimes I think one can only accept that all genre labels fail a little in the practical and we have to be careful about overuse.

    Re The atmospheric character-driven books – I think you could have used Gaiman, or even maybe Pratchett and Kay, and a few others to boot, if you’d wanted. That said, yes, there is a decided commonality to its authors and I don’t blame you for not wanting a conversation there and shan’t go further myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like ‘trad fantasy’ as a term for it as I think most people would have roughly the same idea of what traditional fantasy is. Even though, as you say, classics can’t all be classified as ‘traditional’. And of course, we can still call it fantasy. It doesn’t need to be that complicated all the time. It’s only the overuse I see as a possible problem.

      The atmospheric books – Yes that’s also why I didn’t want to go further into it. I haven’t read the authors you mention expect for a little bit of Gaiman. It just so happens that the books I’ve read that could be categorized like that are written by women but that could be a total coincidence. Glad you mentioned those authors anyway to get another perspective šŸ™‚


  2. This is a really interesting discussion! I think what I love most about what you said is how the tendency to talk about those epic, 73-book fantasy series when we talk about fantasy can put people off the genre. I think it can work both ways, though; books like Circe and The Night Circus are also considered literary fiction by many readers, and some of those readers don’t like to acknowledge that they’re actually reading a subgenre of fantasy because there is still an SFF stigma within book snob circles.

    I think it is really important for us to talk more about fantasy’s subgenres when we have discussions, though, rather than making a sweeping statement about all of fantasy. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t thought about it but I definitely think you have a point about the literary fiction readers. That some readers deliberately “forget” that those books are fantasy because god forbid that a book is both SFF and literary fiction. Great take on this discussion!

      I also think talking more about specific subgenres is part of the solution, and I will definitely make an effort to do that myself šŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Like you said its kind of hard,d as humans, not to simplify and generalize things, but I think its a shame that when most people think of fantasy they think of Epic fantasy because Epics can be daunting and I think it scares a lot of people away from the genre as a whole, even though fantasy is incredibly vast and has has something for everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

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