Sometimes it seems like the myriad sub-divisions of the fantasy genre cause more confusion than clarity. Terms like Epic and High Fantasy are often used interchangeably, labels like Sword-and-Sorcery and Dark Fantasy are commonly applied indiscriminately, and books with seemingly nothing in common can be found right next to one another in the fantasy section. A novel set in modern times featuring a heroic, magic-wielding protagonist and one set in a medieval-flavored secondary world devoid of the supernatural and concerned with the selfish adventures of an amoral rogue are both works of fantasy – but if only one of those sounds like a book you’d want to read, it helps to be familiar with the broad categories of contemporary fantasy.
High Fantasy is a good place to start. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the quintessential High Fantasy novel (or trilogy – there are an awful lot of High Fantasy trilogies because of the success of LoTR). High Fantasy is a celebration of tradition, whether it’s the tradition of the great historical epics that Tolkien derived inspiration from or, indeed, the very elements he himself added to the mix that have become synonymous with the genre (such as just about everything to do with dwarves, elves, and orcs), High Fantasy tends to be the baseline to which the other sub-genres react and respond. Good versus evil, perilous quests, wise wizards and heroic princes, magic swords and dark lords; these are the things of High Fantasy.
Most High Fantasy is also Epic Fantasy, because that quality of “epicness” is one of those traditional elements upon which the modern genre is founded. But, increasingly so in recent years, not all Epic Fantasy is High Fantasy, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series being perhaps the best example of this. While Martin’s series contains much that is traditional within it, he has also taken pains to subvert tropes and play with expectations. This approach is often called Low Fantasy but, given that the sheer scale of Martin’s story has emerged as one of its chief defining features, “epic” certainly seems to be the best way to describe it.
Sword-and-Sorcery stands apart as a more well-defined and fleshed out category of fantasy than many of the others, and the term itself predates modern fantasy’s marketing labels by decades. An alloy of historical adventure, pulp action, and the supernatural “weird tale,” Sword-and-Sorcery was first beaten into shape by Robert E. Howard, father of Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and King Kull. Having its roots in the tradition of short fiction, such fantasy stories are told with a quicker pace and at a smaller scale, usually focusing on one or two protagonists on a single adventure or confronting a series of obstacles rather than an overarching or complex plot. That rarity, the Sword-and-Sorcery novel, maintains the pace of its shorter cousins and tends to have an episodic structure; its increased length is in the form of more adventure and plot, and not so much in the additional characterization or world building that would make it more of a High or Heroic Fantasy.
Heroic Fantasy is more of a fan distinction than a marketing tag, and it overlaps and rubs shoulders with everything mentioned already. Such stories are, as the name implies, hero-centric. They may come is all sorts of flavors, high or dark or even Grimdark, but the focus is squarely on the deeds of a single or few protagonists, like in Sword-and-Sorcery, however the emphasis is on ongoing characterization and development, and usually an overarching plot. Dark Fantasy, perhaps one of the broadest terms in use, refers to fantasy tales with horror elements or with a generally dark tone – the tales of Elric of Melniboné, doomed champion of chaos and wielder of a soul-sucking blade, are often called Dark Fantasy, but they are also Heroic Fantasy, and Sword-and-Sorcery.
Dark Fantasy is also often used when referring to Urban Fantasy, in case the overlap above wasn’t confusing enough. Now here is one of the sharpest distinctions between sub-categories of fantasy, because Urban Fantasy takes place in our world. It might literally be the world of the current year, or it could be an alternate version of 1950s Hoboken, but the main point is to show the interaction of the familiar setting with the wild elements of magic or the supernatural. Harry Potter is technically Urban Fantasy, but a more definitive example might be Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.
But for every counterintuitive genre label like Urban Fantasy (which doesn’t actually have to take place in a city!), there are fortunately many examples that are exactly what they say they are. Military Fantasy, Mythic Fantasy, or Historical Fantasy are easily parsed out from their names. And many newer labels are simply modifiers of the main distinctions above; stick “Gunpowder” in front of High Fantasy and you might have a world where magicians enchant cannon balls on the battlefield, use “Grimdark” (a genre inspired by the morally gray and aesthetically darker-than-dark world of Warhammer 40,000) instead, and now those same magicians are demon-possessed and writhing in agony as they mortify their own flesh in an attempt to contain the horror threatening to burst out, are themselves the weapons.
By no means are these the only distinctions within the fantasy genre, but these are the most commonly used labels and, in the case of terms like Urban Fantasy or Sword-and-Sorcery, some of the least obvious to the layman. Perhaps the most important thing to remember when looking at any of these categories, however, is that they are rarely mutually exclusive. Ultimately, the works of each individual author, perhaps each novel or series itself, comprises its own kind of sub-genre and, as helpful as these many distinctions may be in communicating the nature and tone of a particular story, they can also sometimes put up unnecessary barriers. But, as a wise man once said, even though you can’t judge a book by the label on the bookstore shelf, it’s still a pretty good way to find one.