Blog – Posted on Tuesday, Jan 07
50 Fantasy Subgenres and Their Must-Reads
Fantasy is one of the most popular genres in speculative fiction — so it's no surprise that its niches range far and wide. And while you may already have a sense of what kind of fantasy books you like to read — or listen to! — you may not know exactly how to categorize them or which books fall under the same category.
That’s where subgenres come in. If you’re a reader, subgenres are your friends because they act in the same way as Netflix recommendations. Loved American Gods? Well, that’s urban fantasy, which means that you’ll likely enjoy other urban fantasy novels such as Borderland and Storm Front.
This covers all the most popular subgenres in fantasy that you need to know. No matter what kind of fantasy you’ve read before, you should be a veritable expert by the time you finish our crash course on 50 different fantasy subgenres, as well as must-reads from each. We’ve divided them into two categories, content and tone, under which they’re all listed alphabetically.
Fantasy subgenres by content
These subgenres all have to do with what the story is about in one way or another. If you like your fantasy with certain types of characters and plotlines, usually set in a specific time period, it’s definitely worth discovering your preferred subgenre here!
Alternate history 🤔
What it says on the tin — stories in this subgenre take place in an alternate version of history. Perhaps it’s a timeline in which something important was never invented, or a certain historical figure never existed. Alternate history can range from fairly realistic changes to a completely different, fantastical world, as in Lord of the Rings (which is theoretically supposed to be an alternate early history of Great Britain).
Must-read: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Anthropomorphic fantasy 🦊
This subgenre involves animals taking on human qualities. Whether that means standing upright and speaking to other humans, or simply acting “human” among themselves (i.e. the residents of Zootopia), there needs to be something to set them apart from typical animals. Many types of fantasy have anthropomorphic elements even if they themselves would not be classified as “anthropomorphic” overall — just think about all the different books with talking animals in them!
Must-read: Redwall by Brian Jacques
Arcanepunk fantasy ✨🔬
The “arcanepunk” world is one in which magic and science exist side-by-side, though not always harmoniously. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite: they are often opposing forces of roughly equal power, because the magic in these worlds is typically imperfect and difficult to actually control. Arcanepunk tends to be a bit darker in tone (some would describe it as “noir”), similar to steampunk (see below) and often overlapping with urban fantasy.
Must-read: Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
Arthurian fantasy 👑
As you’d expect, Arthurian fantasy are stories inspired by the legends of King Arthur. From Excalibur to the Holy Grail, and the battle against Lancelot for Lady Guinevere’s affections, the stories of King Arthur are well-known and provide a solid homebase for many fantasy stories.
Must-read: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Assassin fantasy 🔪
Again, you can pretty much figure out the contents of this subgenre from the name. There’s usually some kind of political struggle and an assassin (or a whole band of assassins) hired to do someone’s dirty work — but of course, it’s never quite so simple as shooting a poison dart at the target’s throat and disappearing into the night. Not least because the assassin is often a complex, morally gray individual who occasionally struggles with their assignments.
Must-read: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Christian fantasy ✝️
We’re not necessarily talking about super-sanitized, church-friendly fantasy here, but rather stories that explore traditional Christian themes and ideas. One of the most famous examples of Christian fantasy is of course C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, in which Aslan is a Jesus-like figure and Narnia itself represents heaven.
Must-read: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Coming-of-age fantasy 👦➡️👨
Ah, the bildungsroman: where would fantasy be without it? Again, though few tales are classified exclusively as coming-of-age, many have such elements about them. The main character typically starts out young, naïve, and yearning for adventure — which he or she gets. By the end of that adventure (or series of adventures), our protagonist has matured into an adult and become much wiser through their experiences.
Must-read: Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
Crossworlds fantasy 🔄 🌎
This subgenre involves characters being transported from their own world into another one that’s full of strange and/or magical phenomena. Again, Chronicles of Narnia is an eminent example of this, as is Alice in Wonderland. Both of these works can also be classified as portal fantasies (see below). However, not every crossworlds fantasy is a portal fantasy, because characters do not always use a portal to travel to another world. For instance, in Lord Foul’s Bane, Thomas Covenant wakes up in “the Land” after being hit by a police car.
Must-read: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
Dragon fantasy 🐉
Here there be dragons. Whether they’re friends, enemies, or vital forms of transport, dragons play a major role in all works of this subgenre.
Must-read: Temeraire by Naomi Novik
Dying earth fantasy 🌎😵
Dying earth fantasy consists of a world so dystopian (or post-apocalyptic) that the earth itself is on the way out. Laws of nature will have changed; often, the sun has been blocked out or is fading away, all living things are dying, and there’s very little hope for humanity (or whatever species features in the story). Dying earth attempts to make readers about our world and how fragile it truly is. Jack Vance pioneered it with his series, which was literally called Dying Earth, but there have been some very innovative additions to the subgenre in recent years.
Must-read: Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin
Erotic fantasy 💏
Another one that tells it like it is. Erotic fantasy is predicated on explicit sexual scenarios, and tend to include quite a few sex scenes. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it eschews plot — only that you might want to prepare yourself for some pretty graphic interludes.
Must-read: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
Fable/fairytale fantasy 🧚
This subgenre is the stuff of picture books and Disney movies: fables and fairytales that many of us already know, but presented in a fresh new way. Nevertheless, they usually contain similar morals and lessons to the original tales, especially if they’re targeted toward a younger audience.
Must-read: The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
Fantasy of manners 🍽
What do you get when you cross Edith Wharton with Tolkien? Why, a fantasy of manners, of course! This sort of story doesn’t revolve around saving the world or defeating overwhelming evil. Instead, it’s all about what happens to the characters on a day-to-day basis — more personal drama than life and death. That said, fantastical elements are still part of the story, but they typically take a backseat to the "manners" on show.
Must-read: Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
Flintlock fantasy 🔫
For those who don’t know what a flintlock gun is, it’s the old-fashioned kind (and we mean really old-fashioned) that used flint to ignite its gunpowder in order to fire. The flintlock subgenre specifically refers to fantasy that incorporates such guns, often taking place in an alternate history version of the 17th or 18th centuries when such weapons were popular.
Must-read: The Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler
Futuristic fantasy 🔮
Okay, so it doesn’t involve crystal balls, but futuristic fantasy does try to give us a glimpse into how we might be living in a few (or few hundred) years’ time. Unrealistic magic conjurings aside, this subgenre typically includes advanced technology in its stories. Naturally it overlaps quite a bit with science fiction, and has resulted in some of the most interesting works in either genre.
Must-read: Shannara by Terry Brooks
Gaslamp fantasy 🔥
Like flintlock fantasy, this subgenre is all about alternate versions the Victorian period, though the signature invention of this particular era (gas lamps) doesn’t actually have to appear. Still, gaslamp fantasy heralds a brightly lit world emerging from darkness… though the characters in it are often still shrouded in their own.
Must-read: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Gunpowder fantasy 💣
Again similar to flintlock, this type of fantasy is predicated on the presence of gunpowder in the story. As a result, it more or less encompasses flintlock fantasy, in addition to more modern guns and gunpowder-related weapons. If you’re a firearm aficionado, this is the one for you.
Must-read: Powder Mage by Brian McClellan
Heroic fantasy 👨🏻🛡
Prior to the 21st century, heroic fantasy typically involved a courageous hero going on a quest to win some kind of battle for good against evil. Nowadays, heroic fantasy has expanded to include reluctant and morally grey heroes as well as anti-heroes. The mainstay of the subgenre is that it focuses on a hero going on some kind of hero’s journey in a supernatural setting.
Must-read: First Law by Joe Abercrombie
Historical fantasy 📖
This subgenre takes place in a real historical period. Factual, known elements of that time period are emphasized, but also blended with alternative, supernatural elements. In other words, a historical fantasy might have someone saying, “Let those goblins eat cake!”
Must-read: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
Legend fantasy 📜
Similar to fairytale fantasy, this subgenre retells legends of old in new and exciting ways. And while it’s definitely a challenge measuring up to the literally “legendary” originals, the works that get published tend to do them justice. Definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of local folklore and/or epic Greek poems.
Must-read: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
Magical realism ✨
If you like your fantasy, well, realistic: magical realism is for you. It involves magic being carefully integrated into modern society, and it’s great because there are no get-out-of-jail-free cards — all magic has to follow certain rules, and there’s no deus ex machina (deus ex magica?) to conveniently swoop heroes out of trouble. The protagonists can use magic, yes, but they also have to use their heads in order to win the day.
Must-read: The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Medieval fantasy 🏰
A particularly popular brand of historical fantasy, medieval fantasy means castles, knights, and damsels in distress — though with the caveat that those damsels are often guarded by dragons, and sorcerers are present to help out the heroes. As one of the most prominent and accessible niches in fantasy, it’s a great starter subgenre for readers new to the genre. In fact, you’ve likely consumed some form of medieval fantasy without even knowing it; if you’ve ever seen Monty Python or Shrek, you’re already well-acquainted with it.
Must-read: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams
Military fantasy 🎖️
Do you like military fantasy? Sir yes sir! This subgenre is all about soldiers, usually mercenaries, who live out their lives through violent battles. Some fight for a political cause, some for power, some for money, and some for all three. Whatever the reason, the characters in military fantasy tend to get pretty bloodied up — so steer clear if you’re not a fan of gore. This subgenre also tends to coincide with flintlock and/or gunpowder fantasy, as you might expect (unless it takes place before guns were actually invented).
Must-read: The Black Company by Glen Cook
Mythic fantasy 🔱
Mythic fantasy puts a new spin on mythological stories — think Percy Jackson and the Olympians. In other words, it’s very similar to legend fantasy. The main difference here is that legends tend to have more factual basis than their mythic counterparts (though there’s a good bit of overlap when it comes to ancient myths).
Must-read: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
New weird fantasy 👽
This one’s a bit difficult to describe concretely, but here goes: new weird fantasy (also called slipstream) is, well, weird. The only hard-and-fast rule is that it has to do something unique and unprecedented with the fantasy genre, though of course what that unprecedented thing is can only be defined by the author. China Miévelle’s stylized prose and eccentric, often shocking stories are emblematic of the new weird subgenre.
Must-read: Perdido Street Station by China Miévelle
Paranormal fantasy 🧛
Typically set in a modern, real world where vampires, werewolves, and other mythical beasts exist. It often overlaps with urban fantasy. Another popular offshoot of this subgenre is paranormal romance, which is the same as all of the above, except that it revolves around a love story — usually between a human and a supernatural being.
Must-read: Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
Political fantasy 🐴🐘
Alas, this one doesn’t involve your favorite politician in a compromising position. What it does involve, however, is some serious political intrigue, often with schisms between different sides. The worldbuilding in this subgenre tends to be particularly strong, since you need a fully fleshed-out political system for the political clashes to seem real. These stories also often include allusions and commentary on real-life issues — so chances are, if you’re politically active yourself, you’ll very much enjoy political fantasy.
Must-read: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
Portal fantasy 🕳
Just like Alice with her rabbit hole and Lucy with her wardrobe, portal fantasy involves a magic world connected to the real world via a portal. As such, characters from the primary world typically stumble open the portal and wind up in the fantasy world by accident. They become entwined in some sort of conflict taking place in the magical realm, and eventually return to their home in the real world, profoundly changed by the experience.
Must-read: Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Quest fantasy 🏹
We don’t mean a quest like in a video game (though Ready Player One might fall under that umbrella). Rather, quest fantasy — another prominent subgenre that defines fantasy as a whole — consists of a hero, or group of heroes, embarking upon a quest to save or obtain something important. Along the way, they encounter plenty of obstacles, threats, and enemies they must defeat in order to reach their fateful destination… which usually also means reaching a new version of themselves.
Must-read: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Romantic fantasy 💘
Love might be hard to explain, but this subgenre is not! Here, elements of romance and fantasy intertwine, with a strong emphasis placed on both.
Must-read: A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet
Steampunk fantasy 🚂
Like the steam-powered locomotive, steampunk fantasy derives from the technology of the Industrial Revolution — combined, of course, with certain aspects of fantasy. This subgenre takes on robots and machinery in the same realm as creatures like angels and fairies. Indeed, the feeling of reading steampunk can be effectively summed up in the aesthetic of steampunk fashion: part mechanical, part magical, all marvelous hybrid that you really have to experience in order to understand.
Must-read: Soulless by Gail Carriger
Superhero fantasy 👊
Almost all superhero stories are superhero fantasy, in that they involve some strange, out-of-this-world (sometimes literally) phenomena occurring. Though we may not think of these narratives as “fantasy” per se, they definitely fit when you think about how fantastical they are.
Must-read: The Cloak Society by Jeramey Kraatz
Swashbuckling fantasy 🏴☠️
Though you probably associate the term “swashbuckling” with deadly pirates of the seven seas, this subgenre really ranges much wider: it’s all about adventure, whether that takes place at sea, on land, or in space. That’s exactly is what distinguishes swashbuckling fantasy: a sense of wildness and daring exploits, with classic hero-types always defeating their malevolent counterparts, usually in a creatively choreographed sword fight.
Must-read: The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Sword and planet ⚔🌎
Speaking of adventures taking place in space, that’s the whole premise of the sword and planet subgenre! If you ever saw Treasure Planet, you should already have a great idea of what this means; if not, there’s still plenty of time to go and watch it — or read some of the other iconic written works in this subgenre.
Must-read: The Morgaine Cycle by C. J. Cherryh
Sword and sorcery ⚔ 🧙
Often seen as the pioneer of fantasy, this famous subgenre centers around — you guessed it — sword-wielding heroes who go off on exciting and violent journeys to save the day. While this subgenre usually takes place in a secondary world, it is typically more character-driven and has a greater focus on the character arc. In this way, it has a lot in common with heroic fantasy.
Must-read: Sword of Shadows by J.V. Jones
Urban fantasy 🏙
In which the real, modern world and the supernatural collide. Vampires hang out in libraries, wizards join soccer clubs, werewolves infiltrate the local police — you get the idea. Typically, these books have a more gritty, noir feel to them.
Must-read: Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
Weird west fantasy 🤠
The only real requirement for this subgenre is that it unfolds in a Western setting. Cowboys might ride unicorns instead of noble steeds, and sheriffs might become sorcerers, but it’s basically a Clint Eastwood movie with magic.
Must-read: The Dark Tower by Stephen King
Wuxia fantasy 🥋
Based on classic Chinese literature, wuxia fantasy involves a protagonist who’s an expert in martial arts, and is usually spurred on by their strong sense of justice. Indeed, though it does involve magic and other classic fantasy elements, this heroic martial artist tends to conquer others mostly through sheer physical prowess. Wuxia fantasy naturally tends to take place in Asia, often invoking an alternate history of imperial China.
Must-read: Jade City by Fonda Lee
Fantasy subgenres by tone
Any of these subgenres can (and usually do) overlap with the subgenres above. They’re classified by overall tone/mood rather than content, meaning they tend to be a little bit broader. However, if you prefer to pick your fantasy by tone rather than content, this list should come in very handy!
Allegorical fantasy 💭
What if this whole list were a metaphor for something else completely? Well, that’s the modus operandi of allegorical fantasy — in which the surface-level story has a hidden meaning, usually having to do with something in real life. The most famous example is Plato’s cave: though the story he relates is about people looking at shadows on the cave wall, what he’s really referring to is how people IRL can never know the full truth of the universe. (It makes more sense when you read it. Well, kind of.) In any case, allegorical fantasy is a clever way of commenting on our own world. Often overlaps with political fantasy.
Must-read: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Comic fantasy 😂
This is your answer to fantasy if you dislike (or are getting tired of) classic fantasy tropes that populate the pages of heroic, medieval, and epic fantasy. The reason? Because it pokes fun at them, of course! Whatever you think is trite about the genre, comic fantasy is sure to make it fresh again through silly scenarios and ironic heroes you can’t help but laugh at.
Must-read: Discworld by Terry Pratchett
Dark fantasy 🌒
When horror-esque themes are incorporated into a supernatural world, with elements that are also common to the fantasy genre. For instance, a serial killer clown is taken down by a sword-wielding elf protecting their medieval-era village. Or, you know, something like that.
Must-read: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Epic fantasy 🙌
Stories with scales and scopes of epic proportions. The settings of these stories typically stretch to far-flung places populated by so many different characters, you probably need a cheat sheet to remember them all. The plot generally revolves around some massive event or quest that needs undertaking, and often spans over a multi-book series.
Must-read: Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
Grimdark fantasy 😈
While dark fantasy incorporates elements of horror in order to inspire fear or dread in the reader, grimdark paints a picture of supernatural places or people that are morally grey. They often take place in the “underbelly” of a magical world, and contain themes of violence, cynicism, or bleakness. They are — ahem — grim and dark.
Must-read: The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
Hard fantasy 😰
Hard fantasy books are not for the faint of heart, but not necessarily because the action itself is so brutal. That’s because, in this case, “hard” doesn’t mean explicit and violent — it means hard to understand! Works in the hard fantasy subgenre take place in worlds so multi-layered and complex, with so many different characters, that they make Russian novels look like picture books. If you read Lord of the Rings and found yourself thinking, “Eh, not complicated enough,” this is your niche.
Must-read: Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
High fantasy ⬆️
Set in an alternative or “secondary” world, as opposed to the real or “primary” world. High fantasies feature very detailed and intricately plotted worlds with their own specific set of magical rules and laws. While it often goes hand-in-hand with epic fantasy, the distinction is that high fantasy tends to be more character-driven, as opposed to plot-driven.
Must-read: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Juvenile fantasy 👶
Not juvenile in terms of themes or quality of writing — just in terms of “kid-friendly.” This is the kind of fantasy you’d feel comfortable giving to your eight-your-old neighbor as a birthday present. It tends to feature younger characters as well.
Must-read: The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
Literary fantasy 📚
We’ll tread carefully here, because literary fantasy isn’t necessarily super-long or detailed (i.e. not always a complete overlap with hard fantasy). It does, however, have stylistic elements that set it apart from other types of fantasy — hence making people think of it as “highbrow.” If you can remember the classic works of literature you’ve read for English classes, that’s the kind of tone we’re talking about.
Must-read: The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Low/mundane fantasy ⬇️
Set in either the primary world, or a world very much like our own. While high fantasy revolves around how characters interact in their alternate and magical world, low fantasy focuses on how supernatural characters interact with the normal world around them.
Must-read: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Media tie-in fantasy 🎬
To be fair, this type of fantasy almost always comes before the media itself — but many franchises also feature cinematic accompaniments in the form of additional material. If you like your fantasy bright, bold, and with a visual aid to help you imagine it, look for media tie-ins.
Must-read: The new Captain Marvel comics
YA fantasy 👧🏽
The last subgenre on our list is another major cornerstone of fantasy as a whole — after all, arguably the three biggest fantasy series of all time (Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter) are all YA fantasy. So even if you’re no longer technically a young adult, don’t stress about getting caught reading YA fantasy: you’re only enjoying one of the most established and innovative types of fantasy there is.
Must-read: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Never want to be without a fantasy book on the go? Check out our list of the 100 best fantasy series of all time! Or experience the thrill of visual fantasy stories with our list of 100 best graphic novels!