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"Fantasy isn't just a jolly escape: It's an escape, but into something far more extreme than reality, or normality. It's where things are more beautiful and more wondrous and more terrifying. You move into a world of conflicting extremes."
Fantasy: it's stuff with magic in it, not counting Psychic Powers, Magic From Technology, anything meant to frighten, classy literature, or anything strongly religious, unless the psychic powers coexist with other forms of magic, or are stretched to the point where they are some other form in all but name, or the technology behind the magic is Magitek or the story is dominated by fantasy tropes, or — and where did that clean-cut definition go?
In fact, while the core of the fantasy genre is clear enough, there is no succinct definition that encompasses it all. The boundary with Science Fiction is notoriously ambiguous, but the boundary with horror is often no less fuzzy. Religiously inspired works, like the Left Behind series, can have a basic good versus evil plotline that would fit well in High Fantasy, but few would place them there, and so on.
Within fantasy, there are a few subgenres, in alphabetical order to avoid favoritism, but easily divisible into genre (labelled as Fantasy) and outside of genre.
Often placed outside the Fantasy genre, or not marketed as such:
- Demythtification - real-world Mythology as semi-mundane history that "inspired the legend". Inverse of Magical Realism.
- Magical Realism, in which Fantasy elements intermingle with the realism of a contemporary novel.
- Mundane Fantastic, in which Fantasy elements (or Superhero or Science Fiction) mix with more naturalistic elements.
- Wuxia - Chinese High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy, with all the elements. usually marketed as Lit Fic outside China.
- Xenofiction - Fantasy from a nonhuman (alien or wild animal) perspective.
Almost always marketed as Fantasy:
- Dark Fantasy, which is fantasy Darker and Edgier.
- Gaslamp Fantasy, fantasy with an Alternate History 19th-century setting (or reasonable approximation thereof).
- Heroic Fantasy, (also called Sword and Sorcery): Trope Codifier is the Conan stories.
- Thud and Blunder is a subgenre.
- High Fantasy, (also called Epic Fantasy): Trope Codifier is The Lord of the Rings (but there were many precursors).
- Mythopoeia is also an established variant.
- Historical Fantasy - a version of the history of our world, but with significant fantasy elements added.
- Low Fantasy - anything not set in our world which isn't one of the others.
- Magical Land - virtually a sub-genre in itself, and common in works for children. This overlaps with Modern Fantasy.
- Science Fantasy, which overlaps with other sub-genres, as well as Science Fiction
- Urban Fantasy - confusingly, has two meanings:
- a) a story which takes place in our world, or a recognizable Alternate History version of it
- b) or else in a major city in a secondary world.
Common features of genre fantasy include:
A secondary world: A world whose connection with our present day world ranges from nominal to non-existent. It could be the remote past or future, or simply a-historical. The inhabitants can be anything from human only, through the standard elves, dwarves and orcs, to a complete Fantasy Kitchen Sink. See Standard Fantasy Setting for the, er, standard fantasy setting.
Appeal to a pastoral ideal: Much genre fantasy, of all genres, appeals to the pastoral ideal, one reason for the pseudo-medieval settings. Even urban fantasies will quite often depict cities as blots on the landscape, whose denizens are blinded to what really matters by material ephemera. There are some fantasies, however, which either deliberately take the opposite stance or present a more balanced worldview.
Magic and Powers: Functional Magic is almost always present, though its role in the world can vary widely. It might be either respected, feared, persecuted, or simply not believed in. It's frequency varies from the stuff of legend, through to rare but available to the well connected, up to a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Magitek usually lies at the extreme end of this scale. It may be taught through a master and apprentice system, or in a magical university, when it can be taught at all. When wizards are immortal, they don't need to train successors, and may not be able to.
However, even magic itself isn't a required element, as novels such as Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, K.J. Parker's Devices & Desires or Ricardo Pinto's The Stone Dance of the Chameleon which feature no magic whatsoever but take place in an alternate, pseudo-historical world, are still classified as fantasy. This is due in part to their widespread use of other tropes associated with fantasy, particularly Low Fantasy. (Swordspoint is an interesting case, because while it contains no supernatural elements in itself, one of its sequels, The Fall of the Kings, is largely concerned with The Magic Comes Back.)
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