The late Lin Carter once said of fantasy that any genre so broad as to include both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Dracula needed to be redefined. My writing mentor suggested that instead of attempting to divide my attention and skills between romance, westerns, SF, and fantasy, that I choose one genre and concentrate on that. Since Dean Koontz said the same thing in Writing Popular Fiction, it seemed sensible to listen to her. (No sense getting expert help if you ignore it.) When I told her that I preferred fantasy, she then instructed me to choose one sub-genre of fantasy. So I sat down and considered what the sub-genres of fantasy were. The borders between the various sub-genres are usually fluid.
Epic Fantasy The prime example of this would be J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings. The story is epic in scope and length. The fate of kingdoms, possibly the world, rests on the shoulders of the mighty heroes. There is a large cast of supporting characters, each with their own sub-plots. Magic is an integral part of the universe.
Sword & Sorcery When one thinks of Sword & Sorcery, one thinks of Robert E. Howard and Conan. Husky barbarians wielding swords too large for other men to lift, fighting for treasure, vengeance, or a fair damsel (who as the late Marion Zimmer Bradley put it, would at the end of the story be awarded to him as a “bad conduct prize”), or clever thieves or mages using their brains to solve a problem. Sword and Sorcery is shorter than Epic Fantasy, and is just as likely to be a short story or a novella as a novel. The setting is one “where magic works and the gods are real.”
High Fantasy This is “defined as fantasy set in an alternative, fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than “the real”, or “primary” world.” Dragons, elves, and other magical beings are at least in the background, and often part of the main story. In modern publishing High Fantasy is nearly always written in series form, generally a trilogy. Examples would include Robert Jordan‘s Wheel of Time series and David Eddings‘ The Belgariad.
Low Fantasy Brian Stapleford defined Low Fantasy as “nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.” Low Fantasy stories are generally (but not always) set in the real world: Lynne Reid Banks‘ The Indian in the Cupboard, Mary Norton‘s The Borrowers, the TV shows Supernatural, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, etc.
Heroic Fantasy This falls somewhere in between Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, and Sword & Sorcery. As I said, the borders are fluid. Protagonists are strong, brave, and clever, often of royal or noble birth. L. Sprague de Camp said “‘Heroic Fantasy‘ is the name I have given to a subgenre of fiction … a story of action and adventure laid in a more or less imaginary world, where magic works and where modern science and technology have not yet been discovered …Such a story combines the color and dash of the historical costume romance with the atavistic supernatural thrills of the weird, occult, or ghost story… It is escape fiction wherein one escapes clear out of the real world into one where all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple, and nobody even mentions the income tax or the dropout problem or socialized medicine.” Mercedes Lackey‘s Valdemar books and her Obsidian trilogy collaborations with James Mallory would fall into this category, as would Christopher Paolini‘s Inheritance series.
Urban Fantasy Technically, Urban Fantasy is any fantasy story that takes place in an urban environment, be it ancient Rome, medieval Paris, modern Chicago, or Osgiliath in Gondor. For practical purposes, most people think of Urban Fantasy as fantasy set in contemporary times in a modern city, such as Emma Bull‘s War for the Oaks (Minneapolis), Mercedes Lackey and Ellen Guon‘s Summoned to Tourney (San Francisco), and Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill‘s Beyond World’s End (New York City).
Dark Fantasy Combine horror and fantasy, and you’ve got Dark Fantasy. Beyond that criteria, few readers or authors agree on the definition. Charles L. Grant says it’s “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding.” Dark Fantasy has a gloomy atmosphere, a sense of dread, and may often approach the plot from the monster’s point of view, allowing for a more sympathetic portrayal of werewolves or vampires. Examples would include Mercedes Lackey‘s Jinx High, Karl Edward Wagner‘s Bloodstone, Anne Rice‘s The Vampire Lestat, and Dean Koontz‘s Odd Thomas and Darkfall.
Portal Fantasy If characters from our world fall down a rabbit hole, step through a mirror, or walk through a wardrobe to get to a magical realm where they have adventures, it’s Portal Fantasy. Examples include Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Andre Norton‘s Witch World, C. S. Lewis‘ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Neil Gaiman‘s Coraline. The heroes may return to our world in time for tea, before anyone knows they’re missing (as in the PBS show Dragon Tales) or stay in the new world for the rest of their lives, with sequels written about their descendants.
Fantasy of Manners A Fantasy of Manners book is heir to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, P. G. Wodehouse, Walter Scott, and Anthony Hope as much (or more) as J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. Magic and magical creatures have a smaller role. The story takes place in society, often High Society, where duels of wits with a boorish baron are more likely than a fight to the death with an axe-wielding dwarf or hungry dragon. Events are small in scale: if the protagonist fails, it may be a tragedy to her personally, but the world will not end. It may not even change enough for anyone else to notice (or it may mean the wrong rump sits upon the throne). It is always witty, and set in a low-tech, hierarchical society. Examples of Fantasy of Manners include Lois McMaster Bujold‘s The Curse of Chalion, Ellen Kushner‘s Swordspoint, Kage Baker‘s The Anvil of the World, and Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer‘s Sorcery and Cecilia.
There are, of course, more sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, and many books fit into more than one genre. Ask three readers to define different types of fantasy genres, and you’re likely to get five answers. YMMV, as they say.