The Types of Fantasy I Write (and Read)

I write and read several types of fantasy, and while I’m not overly attached to labels, it’s sometimes interesting or useful to use them.

So here are three ways of describing the fantasy I read and write: the books themselves, the sorts of story, and the subgenres.

The Darkling Odyssey by Ned MarcusThe Darkling Odyssey is a portal-quest, where the heroes travel from the familiar—a dark underground prison—to a magical inner world.

A Short History of My Fantasy Reading

I’ve never read to be cool, and I doubt this list is. It’s just a few of the books I’ve loved.

I’ve read many types of fantasy, or stories with elements of the fantastic, from the earliest time in my life. I began with fairy tales, of course, but quickly moved to adventures, with or without fantasy. After I learnt to read, one of the first books I read was Wind in the Willows. I was young then, but the combination of the fantastic with nature still appeals.

I read whenever I could—even when I wasn’t supposed to be reading.

I really fell in love with fantasy when I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s a classic portal-quest fantasy, and I reread the series many times as a child.

I wanted escape and excitement. The mystery and adventure of fantasy gave me that. It’s the escape, excitement, adventure, mystery, and imagination of fantasy that still attracts me today. 

I read widely (far wider than fantasy) but I always returned to fantasy or literature with elements of the fantastic. I explored ancient, old, and modern types of fantasy. I read the Odyssey; William Blake’s long poems, such as The Four Zoas, still excite me; and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which reads like a fantasy—even if it was never conceived of in that way. Some of the characters in The Darkling Odyssey take their names from one in this poem.

As a teenager; I read JRR Tolkien; Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series; followed by the Shannara series by Terry Brooks; Magician, and the Empire Trilogy, by Raymond E. Feist (and Janny Wurts); and a lot more.

I also love adventures in space. Anything where the story and characters were more important than the technology. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series was one of my favourites—probably even more than her fantasy, because I liked the characters so much.

I liked to mix classics with genre fiction, and much of this still moves me—I’ve missed out a lot. The full reading list of fantasy alone would fill a small book.

Types of Fantasy—the Sorts of Stories

I almost taught a course on fantasy literature at a university here in Taiwan. The course never went ahead, but as I prepared for it, I read several academic books on fantasy, which gave me another perspective on fantasy books. One of these books divided types of fantasy in an interesting way. 

In her book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn suggests four types of fantasy: portal-quest, intrusive, immersive, and liminal.

Academic, but for some reason, fascinating too.

Portal Fantasy

One of my favourite type of fantasy to read and write. I enjoy being taken from the familiar into exotic and magical worlds. I enjoy riding along with the heroes and experiencing the adventure with them. 

Some portal fantasies are obvious. You step through a door into a new world. Some, like The Lord of the Rings, you begin in a familiar place, and then travel into a magical world. 

Alien planet stories can also be portal fantasies. 

Blue Prometheus is a portal-quest fantasy, starting in the normal world of London, and then transporting you to a distant planet.

Intrusive Fantasy

I also like intrusion fantasies—fantasies where something forces or finds its way from another world into our familiar, everyday world. 

Immersive & Liminal Fantasy

Immersive and liminal fantasies are not something I do. For me, immersive fantasy takes out the mystery, which is the intention—although I sometimes read liminal fantasy, usually in the form of short stories. 

In Farah Mendlesohn’s words: “In the liminal fantasy, the magic hovers in the corner of our eye; while in the immersive fantasy we are allowed no escape.”

Finally, a third way of looking at types of fantasy.

Types of Fantasy—Subgenres

Another way of looking at fantasy stories is through the subgenre. 

Although I’ll try most things, I keep returning to the following subgenres:

  • Epic fantasy
  • Contemporary fantasy
  • Science fantasy: planetary romance, or sword and planet. 

For those of you not familiar, epic fantasy deals with large scale mythical tales, often with intricate world building; contemporary fantasy, is fantasy set in the modern world; and science fantasy, which includes some science fiction elements (there is another type of science fantasy—which I do not write—that attempts to explain magic scientifically). 

Planetary romance, or sword and planet, are stories that involve travel to, and adventures upon, alien planets.

My first series mixes many of these genres. With the second series (still in the same overall cycle of stories), the type of fantasy will be more focussed. 

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