Posts tagged ‘fantasy fiction’

Monday Masterclass: the length of fantasy stories

Fantasy novels are renowned for being massive tomes – this week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the reasons why.

There are two different but closely related phenomena under examination here. One is the size of individual books, and one is multi-volume series – especially ones telling a single story. Other genres have their fair share of not-so-slim volumes; they also have plenty of multi-book series featuring the same character or characters. Fantasy, more than any other genre, however, puts both together in the service of a single narrative.

Tom Clancy may have written several fat Jack Ryan stories, but they are standalone tales that don’t need to be read in numerical order to be appreciated. Fantasy series do.


Although published as a trilogy, and generally thought of that way, J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was written as and intended to be read as a single novel – a thousand page novel.

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a fourteen book series (the last three books being completed by Brandon Sanderson since the author’s death), with a word count of over four million words.

Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen consists of ten volumes of between 700 and 1200 pages each, with additional related short stories by the author and novels by Ian Cameron Esslemont.

Publishing Reasons

So why do fantasy authors put out such big volumes? One could argue that the size of a novel is simply part of the fantasy idiom, that contemporary fantasists write according to the model established by The Lord of the Rings. This is not a great answer, though.

Perhaps the best answer is simply financial: big books – big series of big books – sell. There is clearly a demand for doorstop novels – not just in fantasy, but in crime, mystery, thriller, horror, science fiction and historical novels. People enjoy reading substantial volumes – especially people who read quickly, and who read lots of books. And people who read lots of books often buy lots of books.

There is also the fact that nothing succeeds like success. Both Robert Jordan and George R R Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire – five books so far written of a projected seven, including one so long it had to be published in two parts) originally conceived their most famous works as trilogies. The commercial success of their work gave them and their publishers the green light to expand their stories beyond three books, knowing that avid fans would buy all successive volumes.

Another factor that leads on from this is that success breeds bloat. The more successful an author is, the more power they have in the author-publisher relationship. So much so that editors of the most successful authors may be afraid to edit their work as ruthlessly as they would a début novelist. The first of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (called The Sorcerer’s Stone in America as Americans are clearly afraid of philosophers) was little more than 200 pages longs; the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was more like 800 pages long.

Writing Reasons

There is another set of reasons fantasy novels are so big, and these revolve around the technical aspects of writing fantasy, the ways in which fantasy differs from other genres.

The first and foremost of these reasons is worldbuilding. A novel set in the real world and containing no magical or supernatural elements doesn’t require as much effort to establish and explain the world as a fantasy novel does. A fantasy writer will create continents, cities, races, creatures, systems of magic, politics, society etc, etc, all of which may need to be dwelt on to some degree in order for the reader to understand fully what is going on.

Much writing advice warns against long expository sections of writing – ‘infodump’ – but I think many genre readers – whether fantasy or science fiction or thriller or what have you – actually enjoy such passages (within reason). This leads on to another reason for fantasy obesity: part of the attraction of this genre is the sense of immersiveness some stories achieve. Reading a fantasy novel can involve more than simply appreciating the interplay of characters and plot, but can be a kind of holiday to exotic lands, a lesson in hypothetical biology, physics or sociology. Skilfully done, an extended word count contributes to this.

Fantasy stories tend towards the epic – and epic pretty much means long. Epic stories have huge casts of characters – The Wheel of Time has thousands – they take place over a long period of time and occupy a large amount of space. The characters in fantasy books often have to travel long distances from nation to nation and land to land. They often fight in battles, in wars, and interact with hierarchies of soldiers, nobles, mages and so on. They also need to change drastically from their original personality – often growing wiser and darker; such character changes need time and space to portray realistically.

Reader Reasons

One reason publishers put out long series is that fans want to read them. Readers of fantasy novels get attached to the stories, characters and events they read, and eagerly await the release of the next volume. In a sense, long fantasy series are a kind of literary soap opera.

I’ve been reading The Wheel of Time since shortly after the publication of the first volume back in the early 90s, and my interest in the series has survived the decline in quality, the train wreck of a book that was Crossroads of Twilight, the death of the author and the mediocrity of the new author’s continuation. I will still read the final volume when it comes out, even though I fear I may not enjoy it that much. Why? Out of a sense of loyalty and a desire for closure.

Also, I suspect the average age of a fantasy reader is younger than for pretty much any other genre. Children, teenagers, young adults have more free time to read these massive stories. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have children to look after. Time itself seems to pass more slowly for younger people. A story that can be happily read for hours and days on end has great appeal if you have the time to dedicate to it.


There are many reasons why fantasy books and stories are so big – and many of these reasons are closely interdependent – supply and demand fuel each other. A long book can be a double-edged sword: if you love the book, you don’t want it to end; if it’s rubbish, on the other hand, finishing it can be a punishing slog.

Ultimately, I think fantasy writers enjoy having a large palette upon which to paint the world they’ve created and all the characters and the epic stuggle that constitutes the plot. And fantasy readers appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating a living, breathing secondary world. And publishers, of course, like selling book after book of the same story, knowing there is a ready-made audience for each new one.

What are your thoughts on the length of fantasy stories? And what are your favourite fantasy doorstoppers? Share your brains with the world.

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Monday Masterclass: Barbarians in Fantasy

Contemporary fantasy aside, most works of fantasy depict a world with a much lower level of technology than our own world. Fantasy secondary worlds are often quasi-Medieval, or depict worlds similar to the Renaissance or to the civilisations of Ancient Greece or Rome. The plot will generally be set in or centred around the most advanced part of the world, but will incorporate a common fantasy trope: the barbarian.



The word barbarian today means an uncivilised person with strong connotations of savagery and cruelty, but its original definition – it come from the Greek barbaros – was simply ‘foreign, non-Greek’. The word was an onomatopeic representation of how foreigners spoke (either their own language or Greek).

The name of the Berbers of north Africa comes from the same root, as does ‘Barbary Coast’ (ie, coastal north Africa). Even the female name ‘Barbara’ is related – probably because of the many female foreign slaves in Ancient Greece.

Example in Fantasy

The most famous fantasy barbarian of all is, of course, Conan – who was created by Robert E Howard in the early twentieth century and has been the hero of many stories by subsequent authors, including Robert Jordan, Lin Carter and L Sprague de Camp. Conan is a native of the northern land of Cimmeria, and his people are based on ancient Indo-Europeans and Celts; the Cimmerians are also descendants of the Atlanteans, although they have no memory of this heritage. Their land is gloomy and mountainous and the Cimmerians are an extremely hardy people. While they are a primitive, tribal race, they also have a strong sense of justice – which, in the tales of Conan’s exploits, is contrasted with the decadence and corruption of more civilised lands.

Fafhrd in Fritz Leiber’s stories such as ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ is another prominent barbarian northman. Terry Pratchett satirises the trope with his Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly warrior who laments the passing of a heroic age. Cnaiür urs Skiötha in R Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing series is a Scylvendi barbarian whose homeland is between the largely unpopulated northern regions from where the preternaturally insightful Anasûrimbor Kellhus hails and the civilised lands around the Three Seas.

In A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, the Dothraki are barbarian horsemen of the eastern continent who are led initially by the Khal Drogo, a man who whose extremely long braid signifies that he has never been beaten in battle. A khal is the leader of a band called a khalasar (Drogo is, coincidentally (maybe), the name of Frodo Baggins’s father). The Dothraki are nomads and skilled riders who who literally and figuratively live on their horses and who complement their lifestyles by raiding.

The Aiel of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time are a barbarian (or barbarian-like) people who live in a desert to the east of the main setting of the story. Although to most of the westerners they are barbarians, their civilisation is actually quite advanced. They live by a strict code of honour and women can become warriors – in fact only women can own property, but only men can become clan leaders. They are highly skilled warriors, but never use any weapon that is solely used for combat (ie, swords).


Fantasy barbarians are part of the literary tradition of the noble savage. The noble savage (originally, the word savage didn’t have the negative connotations of cruelty and brutality, but indicated ‘wildness’ in the sense of belonging to nature) is an individual from a less technologically advanced culture who yet has an advanced moral sense. It is both a romanticisation of the primitive and a critique of a morally bankrupt western culture. Primitive peoples have been viewed in two opposing ways. There is ‘hard’ primitivism, which posits a tough, brutal life in which people are continually fighting against each other, other tribes, the environment; and there is ‘soft’ primitivism, in which people live simple, pastoral lives and are innocent of the vices of civilisation. The key element to the debate is whether humans are innately moral and good, or whether they require the civilising influence of education, law and religion to make them such.

In terms of fantasy, barbarians are, in a way, doubly appealing. Part of the attraction of fantasy, for many, is that the quasi-medieval settings often portrayed represent a return to a simpler age when life hadn’t been corrupted by technology and good and evil were absolutes that had real meaning. The barbarian represents this desire for a simpler life in its most basic form. The barbarian is a natural man – an animal being with the advantages of sentience, but none of the disadvantages of civilisation. In Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, for instance, the only likeable viewpoint characters – the only ones without moral flaws – are the northmen Logen and the Dogman.

On the other hand, barbarians in fantasy fiction could be seen as representing the Other in the worst way. Most fantasy is Eurocentric; barbarians are from far off lands – usually from the north or the east – which the light of civilisation has yet to illuminate. In The Lord of the Rings – work generally regarded as being the epitome of world-building – swarthy men from the east – Easterlings – fight for Sauron … and that’s pretty much all we know about them.


Ultimately, I think the barbarian is popular because of his (and he usually is a he) status as an outsider who is uncorrupted by the vices of civilisation. He is a strong, fearsome warrior, he is misunderstood, he is quick to anger; he may be selfish, but he possesses a strong moral code that always chooses right in the end. For fans of fantasy – who, as a general rule, are not the bravest, burliest bunch – he is the ideal vessel of escapism.

What other fictional barbarians do you know? What does the barbarian mean to you? I’d love to know what you think.

Monday Masterclass: fantasy sub-genres

This week I will outline the main sub-categories of fantasy. This is not as easy a task as it might appear as many sub-genres overlap, many are more properly sub-sub-genres and others a synonyms of other sub-genres; in further cases, the definition of a sub-genre might be difficult to pin down. The list below is presented in alphabetical order, each entry containing a description, important sub-categories within the sub-genre and examples of stories and authors.

Arthurian Fantasy

Technically, we could put Arthurian fantasy under the heading of historical fantasy, but it’s such an important sub-genre that I think it deserves its own listing. As you would expect, Arthurian fantasy deals with King Arthur and the Matter of Britain.

Arguably, any tale of Arthur and his knights could be classified as Arthurian fantasy – there is no consensus on whether he was a real king of Dark Age Britain, or even a real anything. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae popularised Arthur’s legend back in the 12th century and contained many fantastical elements. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period and Victorian era, the story of King Arthur exercised a great hold on many literary figures from Thomas Mallory (author of Le Morte d’Arthur) to Alfred Lord Tennyson (who wrote Idylls of the King) and Mark Twain (who gave us the satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

In terms of contemporary fantasy there are such works as The Once and Future King by T H White, The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, Haydn Middleton’s Mordred series – and many others. Still other works of fantasy have Arthurian elements to them without being overt re-tellings of the Matter of Britain; these include The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and its sequels.

Comic Fantasy

Comic fantasy is that with the primary goal of making the reading laugh. It combines all the elements of non-fantasy humour – slapstick, wordplay, irony, comedy of errors, surrealism etc – but also very often contains a large dose of satire: specifically satire of the fantasy genre, but also satire of real-world topics.

Comic fantasists often write long-running series of stories involving the same world or characters. They include T H White (The Once and Future King), L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (the Harold Shea stories), Piers Anthony (the Xanth books), Robert Asprin (the MythAdventures books), Terry Pratchett (the Discworld series) and Tom Holt (various books).

Contemporary Fantasy

While some sub-genres of fantasy are very specific, this one is very broad and may contain various sub-categories. Contemporary fantasy is any story set in the present day of something closely resembling our own reality – it’s not actually our own reality because of the presence of some aspect of the fantastic. Contemporary fantasy often overlaps with low fantasy, but the two are not quite the same – contemporary fantasy is tied to our own time and world, where low fantasy is not. Urban fantasy is perhaps the most popular sub-category of this sub-genre.

Contemporary fantasies include J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Neverwhere and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Dark Fantasy

Dark fantasy is a sub-genre containing elements of fantasy and horror. Where characters in a typical fantasy novel might be inspired to awe and wonder by the magical beings and events they witness, dark fantasy protagonists are afflicted with terror. The term dark fantasy has been used as a synonym for horror, but with the proviso that the horror elements are supernatural in nature.

H P Lovecraft’s tales of the Cthulhu Mythos are dark fantasy, as are Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories, Michael Moorcock’s stories of the demonic sword-wielding Elric, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, and many, many horror stories.

Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy is what I think most people would think of as fantasy per se. An epic fantasy story is one set in a secondary world concerning an epochal conflict between good and evil and often involving a quest on the part of the main protagonist. Epic fantasy is high fantasy because magic is an acknowledged part of the mechanics of the secondary world (as opposed to low fantasy, where it’s largely secret); high fantasy is not epic fantasy, however, because epic fantasy refers to a type of story, where high fantasy refers to a type of world. Epic fantasy is also broad in scale, dealing with a number of protagonists in various locations, and usually requires a minimum of three volumes to relate the narrative.

Epic fantasies are among the most famous examples of fantasy literature and include The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R Donaldson etc.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are usually short narratives that involve traditional magical beings such as witches and wizards, elves, trolls, goblins, fairies and so on. They are set in (or taken to be set in) the real world, although the specific location is often vague and unimportant. Some fairy tales have happy endings, some are rather darker; many involve a lesson about morality. Older fairy tales are traditional, but modern writers have either written fairy tales or used fairy tale elements in their fiction.

Madame d’Aulnoy wrote many fairy tales, as did Hans Christian Andersen (the Brothers Grimm, by contrast, collected them). Fairy tale fantasies include Phantastes by George MacDonald, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Re-tellings of fairy tales include The Bloody Chamber (various stories retold from a female point of view) by Angela Carter, Beastly (‘The Beauty and the Beast’) by Alex Flinn and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’) by Terry Pratchett.

Heroic Fantasy

Heroic fantasy is very similar to swords and sorcery – but with less sorcery. It’s a difficult sub-genre to define and distinguish from other types of fantasy – after all, all stories have their heroes, one way or another. It is very similar to epic fantasy, in that it is often a story of the titanic struggle between good and evil – but with special emphasis on the personal struggles of a, usually, larger than life hero or band of heroes.

David Gemmell (the Drenai series) was a practitioner of heroic fantasy, as are writers such as James Barclay (The Chronicles of the Raven trilogy) and Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy).

High Fantasy

High fantasy is another broad category that can encompass many other sub-genres. In a high fantasy story, magic is a widely known and widely present part of the world. The amount of magic shown in the story may be high or low, but it is not a secret nor a surprise that magic should exist; indeed, magic is essential to the world as it is known by its inhabitants. The ‘high’ in high fantasy does not refer to quality in the same way that high art is seen as better or more intellectual, more challenging than low art.

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien is high fantasy, as are The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson and The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a mixture of both high and low fantasy: in the world-within-a-world that is Hogwarts, magic is commonplace; beyond, in the world of the Muggles, wizardry is a secret.

Historical Fantasy

Again, another broad categorisation that contains many other sub-genres such as Arthurian fantasy, mythic fantasy, gaslamp fantasy (Victorian era fantasy; similar to steampunk but with less emphasis on science and technology), Celtic fantasy, Wuxia (Asian fantasy with an emphasis on martial arts), Medieval fantasy and prehistoric fantasy.

Examples include David Gemmell’s Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince, Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books, Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Last Light of the Sun and Jean M Auel’s Earth’s Children series.

Low Fantasy

In a low fantasy story, magic is a part of the world, but it is either largely a secret, known only to a few individuals with special training or ancestry, or it is simply not an integral part of most people’s lives; in other words, a low fantasy setting is largely a mundane one, but with some magical elements. Low fantasies are often set in the real world, but they don’t have to be; if they are set in a secondary world, that world must be largely mundane, operating on non-magical principles. Low fantasy also tends to be more morally ambiguous than high fantasy. Again, ‘low’ is not an indication of the quality of the literature.

Low fantasies include most, maybe all dark fantasy and supernatural horror stories, a lot of children’s fiction with magical aspects, such as The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and aspects of the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling.

Magic Realism

Magic realism, while it contains fantasy elements, is perhaps not properly thought of as a sub-genre of fantasy as it comes from a different tradition and has different aims. It is the most literary of the sub-categories listed here, and, as is often the case with the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction, its focus is more on the interior life and development of the protagonist, on the quality of language, and on political critique. Another difference is authorial reticence: in a fantasy novel, with that genre’s emphasis on world-building, all the magical aspects of the world will be explained to some degree or other; magic realism will often just let strange events, being etc stand on their own without explication.

Examples of magic realism include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ by Jorge Luis Borges and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

Science Fantasy

Science fantasy is yet another sub-genre that is hard to put an exact definition to. It essentially a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, but the way in which those two elements are combined. There may simply be high-technology and magic present side by side in the world; or the technology could be powered by magic; or the science fictional elements could be presented in a fantasy idiom, or vice versa. The similarity and potential interchangeability of science fiction and fantasy are highlighted by Arthur C Clark’s famous maxim, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

There are a couple of related sub-genres that can be mentioned under this heading. Arcanepunk is a genre in which technology and magic are intimately interconnected, the latter often powering the former; this is a sub-genre often represented in roleplaying and computer games. Hard fantasy (which name is based upon hard science fiction) is a sub-genre in which the magical element of the world is treated in as realistic and rigorous a way as possible – as if it were a physical law alongside gravity and electromagnetism.

Examples of science fantasy include The Book of the New Sun (an example of the dying Earth sub-sub-genre) by Gene Wolfe, The Space Trilogy by C S Lewis, the Barsoom books (also characterised as sword and planet) of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Anne McCaffrey’s dragon-filled, science fictional Pern series.

Superhero Fiction

Another sub-genre that may not belong here, superhero stories are, in some ways, more part of the science fiction genre, but they also have a great deal of fantasy within them. Thor, Hellboy and Spawn are examples of the more fantastical superhero characters.

Sword and Sorcery

As noted above, sword and sorcery is very similar to heroic fantasy. In some ways, sword and sorcery is to fantasy what sci-fi is to science fiction – a somewhat debased, low-brow interpretation of the genre with the emphasis on action, adventure and excitement. Sword and sorcery is high fantasy. It differs from epic fantasy in that S&S stories have a much smaller scale narrative, focusing on the struggle of a single character or small group of characters against some relatively local foe (usually a sorcerer or magical beast); there is no global contest between good and evil; the heroes tend to be motivated by personal gain.

The archetypal sword and sorcery hero is Conan, created by Robert E Howard, but inspiration for the sub-genre goes back to such works as Homer’s Odyssey, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott and the Arabian Nights. Other sword and sorcery tales include Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Hyperborean stories, C L Moore Jirel of Joiry stories and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-category of contemporary fantasy that is specifically set in cities – although it could take place in the past, present or future. Vampires and similar folkloric beings are often protagonists or antagonists in urban fantasy; the heroes are often detectives of one kind or another. The urban fantasy genre often overlaps with that of paranormal romance.

Among the many urban fantasy titles are Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and The City & the City by China Miéville.

Weird Fiction/the New Weird

The original weird fiction was that produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by writers such as H P Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and M R James and is a mixture of fantasy, horror and science fiction. The term came about largely because those three genres hadn’t yet acquired those names let alone any fixity of definition. Early in this century, this blurring of genre lines has enjoyed a resurgence and writers have started describing their work as the New Weird. Sub-genres such as slipstream – that which combines or falls between sf and fantasy – and bizarro fiction – that which employs surrealism, satire and the grotesque – are closely related.

Weird stories include Books of Blood by Clive Barker, King Rat by China Miéville, City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer and Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk.


Like any genre worth its salt, fantasy is a broad church, as I hope the above list of definitions and examples illustrates. It’s also one that has undergone a lot of change. While the fantastic is, arguably the oldest of all literature (think of the Old Testament or the epic of Gilgamesh), it has only existed as an identifiable genre for maybe 150 years (going back to George MacDonald) – or 60 years as a marketing genre. In its recent history, the boundaries of fantasy have evolved from the amorphousness of weird fiction to the rigidity of high versus low fantasy to a new permeability with slipstream and the New Weird. The inclusion of magic realism and superheroes, of elements of horror, science fiction and even romance show that fantasy can be all things to all men (and women, of course).

What are your favourite sub-genres of fantasy? What sub-genres have I neglected to mention? Are genres and sub-genres even relevant to today’s authors and readers? Speak your brains by posting a comment below.

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Being a mash-up of recently read web-based writings.

  • Damien G Walter writes about fantasy with literary leanings for The Guardian.
  • This SF Signal article discusses the division between realism and fantasy in literature.
  • C J Cherryh gives advice to writers at The Night Bazaar.
  • Mark Charan Newton talks about creating a transgender character on his blog.
  • Another Guardian article, this one by Sam Leith, lists ten alternative realities.
  • And further SF Signal piece looks at fantastika’s sense of wonder.
What did you think of these links? What interesting fantasy-related articles or posts have you read recently? Post below for the edification of all.