Alanna, The First Adventure: Deep Dive
Between 2010 and 2018, combined sales of science fiction and fantasy doubled, according to an article by Forbes. Honestly, we can’t say that we’re surprised. Fantasy was listed as one of the four fastest-growing adult fiction book genres in the United States from 2020 to 2021. While the genre’s numbers have settled down in the last year, at least according to our library’s check out statistics, it remains an extremely popular choice in reading material.
Why fantasy, though? There is a larger cultural tendency for literary fiction to be elevated above genre fiction as somehow more valid and deserving of acclaim. There also seems to exist a hierarchy of perceived value among genres: mystery and thrillers, for example, are lifted above science fiction and fantasy. Some even elevate science fiction above fantasy, although often the two are rolled together into a singular, amorphous, speculative, fictional ball. Everyone seems to dunk on romance.
Let’s set aside the unjust vilification of genre in general for now and focus on the fantasy genre. Before we delve into what the critics of fantasy say, it’s worth recognizing that the genre is not a monolith. There are multiple subgenres of fantasy — too many to discuss here but below are a few of the most readily recognizable ones.
High/Epic Fantasy: These usually feature a unique, standalone setting, magic, and some sort of a grand struggle. And maps. There are often lovingly and obsessively detailed maps. The classic example of high fantasy are the many works of J.R.R. Tolkien, such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Low Fantasy: These are also called intrusion fantasy, urban or contemporary fantasy. Unlike high/epic fantasy, low fantasy is not a separate self-contained world. Instead, it takes place with a collision between our world and theirs. This type of fantasy is less clear-cut and it can blur together with other types of fantasy subgenres, with differing opinions about the subgenre classification. It is usually narrower in scope instead of painting pictures of multiple characters with broad, sweeping strokes. The Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch is an example of low fantasy.
Magical Realism: This is a genre not unlike low fantasy in that it blends elements of the real world with the fantastical but in this case the fantastical elements are not usually a surprise. The classic example of this is Gabriel García Márquez’s’ One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Sword & Sorcery: Pretty much what it says on the tin. These usually feature a protagonist who wields a sword. Magic is also a feature. The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly is an example of these.
The definitions of the subgenres and the categorizations of books into them is often a matter of opinion or debate. The lines between the genres can be very nebulous. As soon as a genre or subgenre is defined, there are authors who will delightfully subvert it.
In short, critics of fantasy often complain that the genre is unrealistic, escapist, or even immature. We couldn’t disagree more. We argue that fantasy is necessary. It cultivates wonder. It helps us deal with universal human experiences, especially the hardest ones — the ones that involve grief, loss, and other harsh realities because they are an inescapable part of the human condition. Sometimes we need to knock down the wall of the strict, literal reality that we exist in and imagine something different. If that is escapist, so be it. It’s okay to escape things sometimes.
You can be a fully grounded, mature person of any age and still open your mind and imagination to the fantastical. Fiction doesn’t have to exist on the ‘most closely resembles current events and conditions’ end of the spectrum to possess inherent value. We declare that everyone should read what they want to read with zero guilt.
Why fantasy, then? We say why the heck not fantasy? Read what brings you joy, sweet summer children.
This blog is created by Hannah and Ella in conjunction with the These Books Made Me podcast, a Prince George’s County Memorial Library System production. Check out the corresponding episode, Alanna: The First Adventure, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you normally listen to podcasts. Or you can simply click on the link to the episode to listen.