What Makes a Fantasy?


Hello and welcome to another discussion! As is my habit this year, I’ll be linking this post to the Discussion Challenge linky, where you can find many interesting discussions about books (and sometimes other things as well).

Today, I want to talk about fantasy. Specifically, I want to know what makes a fantasy. I’ve been sitting on the idea for this post ever since I read Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy (see my reviews of parts 1, 2, and 3) and have now decided to finally write it as I had an interesting conversation with Mogsy when I reviewed And I Darken by Kiersten White.

In the Shattered Sea trilogy (and I warn you for minor spoilers here), the events take place in a ravaged land with a Viking-like society of very brutal people (Hello, it’s Abercrombie. Of course it’s brutal.), but it wasn’t clear to me for a while that it might not be an actual fantasy land but a postapocalyptic society that lives in the area of the Baltic Sea. And that all the fiery weapons the characters think are magic are actually guns, relics from a society that they call Elves because they knew how to build tall buildings made of glass and iron.

See, I felt cheated by this revelation that there were actually no elves in that world. And that “magic” consisted of gunpowder. I thought the author had imagined a fantastic new world where instead he used the relics of our disintegrating one to build a society that is just as “backward” and human as ours. *sigh*

Then I talked to my husband about it – he’s a huge Abercrombie fan – and he remembered this quote by Arthur C. Clarke, who allegedly said (or wrote?): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And I think this is what Abercrombie played with in his books. He used our (readers’) expectations and put us in the mind of people who’d never seen electricity or guns or anything similar. I don’t have to like it but there it is.


And then I read And I Darken, which is an alternative history retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler, where the main character of the story is a girl, Lada, an unpleasant and cruel kid. I didn’t really think much of it, I just read the book as if it was any old historical YA and left it at that. And then Mogsy said that she considered every alternative history book to be fantasy/sci-fi, too – especially if it was written for adults because apparently such books are always classified as speculative fiction.

Now, I haven’t read enough alternative history novels to be really familiar with the subgenre, but my response was something like: “But, but, but there are no dragons! No magic! How can it be fantasy?” 

And yeah, I still hold to that. I’m aware it’s a personal preference but I only classify books as fantasy if there’s something magical about them. If they take place in a world that does not exist in our consensual reality, if the characters have supernatural abilities, if there are magical creatures like dragons and the Fae. I remember reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” (I think this is a full article!) and I agree with a lot of what they said. It’s pretty old school but still.

So did I go back and correct my classification with Abercrombie’s trilogy? No. But I kind of want to. Because although it’s alternative history and written as if it’s a fantasy, it’s really not – not by my rules. And I probably wouldn’t go all “my way or the highway” if I was writing an article for publication, for example, but I can certainly do it here. :)


So, how do YOU classify fantasy? 

Do you need dragons and magic or is the author’s/publisher’s word enough for you?

I’d love to hear from you! :)

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  • Greg Hill

    This is interesting. I tend to not like the technology as magic trope, where it’s not really magic it’s just tech that no one remembers- but that’s just me. Not that I can’t ever like it, but generally I don’t. I guess I either want fantasy or scifi, not necessarily both? So I guess my short answer is yeah, I need dragons or something. :)

    I don’t think I’d be impressed to find that fire weapons were just guns either. And I also have a hard time sometimes considering an alt history to be fantasy or SF- depends on the book. Some clearly isF/SF if there are dragons (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire for example) but some is not- some is just alt history with no magical elements (like The school for Unusual Girls books which I’ve just read). So some might consider that spec fic just because it’s alt history, but I don’t. Just me tho.

    • Yeah, that’s a good point – the division between sci-fi and fantasy is an important one for me, too. I don’t read that much sci-fi as it is, so I tend to like my fantasy pure and magical. :)

      I talked some more with my husband on this issue with guns and he asked me what I’d do if the magic system of Wheel of Time, or ASOIAF turned out to be like that. Would it make the reading experience any worse? Less magical? And I said that I would basically BURN the books if that happened after thousands and thousands of pages because I’d feel totally betrayed by it. :) But that’s just me.

      And I know, some alt history books are very much magical, it’s not that they don’t exist, but some (like And I Darken) feature no magical (or sci-fi) elements whatsoever! So this is confusing for me…

      • Greg Hill

        Yeah if ASoIaF in particular turned out to be technology driven, or a spaceship crashed years ago and brought “magic” (really tech), I would NOT be happy lol. I want my fantasy! Although I do like the idea of a ship crashing and leaving tech- that’s fine- but I don’t want it mixed in with epic fantasy or something like Martins’s stuff. You know? Separate things. :)

        I’m actually not a huge fan of alt history where it’s our world but magic just appeared, like the Napoleonic wars but with dragons now or something. I’d rather read an original world with airships or dragons or whatever, not dragons in WWII or the fae helped win the war etc. That’s not my thing for some reason. I like urban fantasy that’s subtle about it, like hidden vampirs or fae, but I have trouble with alt history sometimes. Going off on a tangent I guess… :)

        • YES that’s it exactly. Sci-fi is great but should stay separated from fantasy. :) Ugh, we’re the writers’ nightmares, such exacting readers. :)

          I haven’t read the Temeraire series yet (it’s SO LONG) but I’m kind of curious – mostly because I like the era of the Napoleonic wars (they even spilled over to our part of the world!). But yeah, I don’t read a lot of historical fantasy set in the “real” world, I prefer completely separate words where the author really has to show me some serious worldbuilding skills.

  • I agree with you. I only classify something as fantasy if there’s something magical or supernatural or paranormal about it. Although I do get confused by that whole “alternative universe” thing because what genre is that if there’s no actual fantasy or sci-fi in it? I guess you answered my question when you mentioned alternative history being speculative fiction, but I’ve never actually used that term in my life. I feel like maybe I should, but it seems so uncommon that the idea of actually listing that as a genre on my blog or something makes me uncomfortable. I’d be afraid to use it incorrectly or something.

    Anyway, yeah, I need the dragons and the vampires and the magic lol.

    • Haha, it’s great to hear I’m not alone in this. ;)

      And yeah, alternative history books are deeply confusing because the name applies both to those that actually HAVE magical elements and to those that don’t. Eh. I didn’t put “alternative history” in my review of And I Darken, I just classified it as “historical YA”. Whatever, it’s my blog, right? :D

  • In general, I think I’m pretty liberal in the application of the “SFF” term. Maybe too liberal, lol. I like your definition though, especially the first part: “If they take place in a world that does not exist in our consensual reality”. That to me would include alternate history. Applying that to And I Darken, the real Vlad wasn’t a woman, something that didn’t “happen” in our reality, so I felt pretty safe calling these “what if” stories and other “imagine this scenario” types of books Fantasy.

    To confuse things even more though, what if there’s only a hint of a speculative element in a otherwise full-on historical novel, or mystery, or thriller, etc? Like, what if you had a pure historical fiction novel that takes place on a world with two moons? Or a horror novel that only teases the idea of possible paranormal activity making you wonder maybe-or-maybe-not? It’s the books in the nebulous “grey area” that I find hardest to categorize!

    • I know, I know – this is SO COMPLICATED! :D I just found out that “contemporary fantasy” was a thing as well, and I always thought the two terms were mutually exclusive, so it sounded like a total oxymoron.

      And I get why you’d call alt history stories fantasy, they’re imaginative and change stuff – but at the same time I can’t help but wonder if ALL fiction then falls into this category, because even “realistic” and “mimetic” fiction functions on the what if criteria: What if Mr Darcy fell in love with Elizabeth, who is of a lower social standing? What if Madame Bovary spent all her money on pretty dresses and books? You know? ALL fiction is fictional (in the sense that it never REALLY happened) – but not necessarily fantastic. GAH I’m twisting myself into some really weird definitions here.

      Oh and yeah, paranormal and horror complicate matters even further. :D I know fiction isn’t written to be put into neat little drawers but my mind just functions this way so I’m always a bit irritated when a book doesn’t fall into one of the categories! :D (But that’s my problem, not the author’s, of course.)

      • I’ve seen “contemporary fantasy” applied to urban fantasy sometimes, and very commonly books with “magical realism” which is another head scratching grey area, lol.

        Usually I just let the author’s intent make the decision for me. A reimagining of a historical event but couldn’t have taken place on our world (either because it changes history too much, or changes the names of geography, set in a different reality, etc.) I would probably categorize as fantasy. On the other hand, a book that uses mostly real figures from history, accurate dates, etc. but tries to tell an interesting story by postulating or filling in the gaps, I’d probably label historical fiction. In general, fiction, if it’s about something which theoretically COULD take place in our world/is in the realm of possibility, I probably wouldn’t consider “fantasy” even though you’re right in that it’s all technically a figment of the author’s imagination. :D

        Sometimes the differences can be so small! It’s probably why “genre-bending” is such a hot word these days :) On Goodreads I usually use multiple shelves to categorize a book because usually one label isn’t enough.

        And oof, retellings of classics and such are another whole can of worms! :D

        • GAH, don’t even mention magical realism. That’s… confusing as hell, especially when people start putting it together with fantasy. I always thought of magical realism as a more “literary” cousin of speculative fiction but hey, I guess everyone has their own different classifications. :)

          Yes, I agree with the author’s (and the publisher’s) intent being a good guide MOST OF THE TIME. But you’ve read Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea series – what would you say was his intention? I mean, we have this fantasy world for 2 books and then BAM we’re told it’s really not what it seems. I felt like he played a joke on me as a reader and I didn’t appreciate it!

          I don’t even know why I’m so stuck on Abercrombie apart from the fact that he made me like the first two books A LOT and then I kind of hated the ending – not just for the setting, the whole plot.

          And yeah, I put my books on different Goodreads shelves, too. I never use just one label.

          AND NO we’re not starting the retellings debate right now, lol :D Enough confusion as it is!

  • I’m with you^^ there needs to be some kind of fantastical element in the story for me to view it as fantasy. I get that alternate histories can be seen as fantasy because they don’t actually exist…but I’d just call them alternate history. To me, fantasy needs magic, dragons, or SOMETHING like that!

    • It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels that way! :) Dragons are always a bonus, right?

      And yep, I wouldn’t classify alt history books as fantasy either, I just don’t feel like they deserve the rank. ;)

  • I have actually begun, just this week, to try and hone my classifications of the books I review (which are also some sort of SFF). I also decided to define fantasy as “having magic.” I’m not sure what I would do if my classification constituted a spoiler.

    My Most Recent Discussion: My Library is Calling Me a Liar

    • Yeah, fortunately, it’s not often that the classification is a spoiler – at least I only read a couple of books that would have this problem. The formatting of my review posts also don’t put great emphasis on the genre tag so I think most people just skim down to the review – at least that’s what I do when reading other people’s reviews! :)

  • It’s hard for me to say exactly what is fantasy for me. I think fantasy does tend to have an element of magic or supernatural elements to it but then I can see the fantasy classification for alternative histories as being fantasy I really see them as a whole separate genre in itself when you think about it. I mean, The Man In The High Castle is an alternate history but I would never classify it as fantasy but a book that takes a similar concept of Germany winning the war such as Wolf by Wolf would be a fantasy due to the shapeshifting element to the story. I think it all depends of the story within the alternate history as well. If it involves magic and such then I would say it’s fantasy.

    I don’t know, I suppose I take an old school view on fantasy as well. I’ve done some googling and speculative fiction is all fiction which is imaginary and not taken from reality but then there are genres within that and I would say alternate history and fantasy are distinct genres within speculative fiction.

    It’s interesting, though, because you can only categorise a book from what you know so if the reveal is at the end showing it’s not all as it seems then I would say stick with the genre you put a book in based on the book summary not the ending because the publisher and author wanted it put in that category. Does that make sense?

    • Yeah, I agree that it’s problematic to sort books based on their ending if it means you’re spoiling them! I would think long and hard before I did something like that.

      I’m still unsure about all of this, despite debating it with several people. :D I think genres are not set in stone, so we’re all allowed our own classifications, but I still think fantasy proper should have magic or magical creatures or happen in a world that is not our own. But not everyone agrees with me. I guess that’s the beauty of literature – you can’t really classify it and put it into little drawers. :)

      • This is so true, we all categorise books a little differently so really do what you want. You have your own idea of fantasy? Good for you then use it. I keep trying to think of non-magical fantasy books and I can’t and I am determined to think of one. I will get back to you and it will be awesome.

  • I’ve actually given up on classifying my books by genre. It’s way too confusing! There is a lot of overlap, and some books don’t fit anywhere. Now, on Goodreads, I have an “adult” shelf and a “YA/MG/Children’s” shelf. That’s how I classify all my books.

    • That’s one way of simplifying your life, congratulations! I just have this weird obsession with putting things into their proper drawers – as you probably gleaned from the fact that this post is basically me worrying over a rather silly topic. :)

  • Jolien @ The Fictional Reader

    This is such an interesting post! I’ve never really thought of what makes a fantasy book a ‘fantasy book’ to me. I do happen to adore stories with dwarves, elves, dragons, wizards, sorcerers and so on. I think that’s because I really started my fantasy journey with The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Eragon. Those stories tend to make me feel so happy and engulfed in the world. Maybe because I want to believe that imagination could be a reality?

    I think I prefer that over the technology as magic. Although of course, when written well, I’ll still enjoy that. It just doesn’t have that seem pull for me…

    Amazing post!

    • Thanks, Jolien! :) And yeah, I think that the first fantasy books I read formed my opinion of what fantasy is, too. I fell in love with fantasy because of LOTR and The Hobbit, so I will always have a soft spot for quest fantasy and high fantasy, I think.

      I sometimes have a hard time even considering paranormal romance as fantasy, for example, even if there are werewolves or vampires or something equally “fantastic”. :)

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  • This is really interesting. I know fantasy has a lot of sub-genre, but I only considered book as fantasy if it sets in another world, or set in our world but with alternate/pararel reality. Like HP, it sets in real world, but it has a wizarding world run pararel with it. I would consider alternate histoy as historical fiction, but I won’t consider it as fantasy :)

    • Yep, that’s how I would classify books as well. But as I wrote, apparently alternate history is also speculative fiction. Eh.

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s confused by the labels – and I guess not all fiction is meant to be put into neat little drawers, which is the beauty of it! :)

  • Michelle

    Heh, I’ve been thinking about this a decent amount lately. I started mulling it over with my re-read of Kushiel’s Dart about a month or so ago. It’s a speculative world, but there are honestly very FEW fantasy elements. And even those that ARE in there are challenged by the characters themselves as far as whether they were truly fantastical or not. Yet I’ve always most definitely considered the series to be comfortably part of the fantasy genre. It wasn’t until I went to check the genre box while drafting my review that it occurred to me that … well, maybe “fantasy” isn’t the best descriptor. Other “non-fantasy” books that I usually associate with the fantasy genre are assassin books. Really, if there’s a made-up world, I’ve always just put it there. But … I don’t know if I should be???

    I also can’t for the life of me seem to decide between Sci-Fi and Fantasy for several books. Rachel Caine’s Terminated trilogy, for example, READS like an urban fantasy, but it’s all centered around nanobot technology, so that makes it Sci-Fi, right?

    Gah! The genre distinction will always be a tricky one.

    Great topic for discussion!

    • Haha, yeah, we seem to be having the same problems when classifying books. I guess some books just aren’t made to be put into neat little drawers, which is the beauty of literature, no? :)

      I think that most people would go with the author’s or publisher’s classification, though it might sometimes be misleading. Some commenters mentioned the problem with spoilers – what if it SEEMS like, say, historical fiction, but it’s actually alternative history/speculative fiction? Anyway, there are loads of ways of looking at it. :)

      Thanks for stopping by, Michelle!

  • Ooh, this is interesting. I would normally say fantasy includes some sort of magical or unreal element, but that leaves the door open for a lot of stuff I probably wouldn’t think of as “fantasy.” I’ve heard alternate histories described as speculative fiction before, and I think that fits…although I guess all fiction is speculative in a way. >.> Most of the alternate histories I’ve read have additional magical/fantasy/sci-fi elements, though. Same with most post-apocalyptic stuff.

    • So, basically, we’re all equally confused when it comes to classifying spec fic and fantasy and alternative histories, huh? :)

      And YES! This was my line of thinking, too: all fiction is FICTIONAL in the sense that it never REALLY happened that way, so even realistic/mimetic fiction is made up. Ugh. Such a mess!

  • I really only think of fantasy as having at least some sort of magical element to it, but I can think of a FEW books that didn’t fit this that still felt fantastical enough to work for me as fantasy. (Of course, I can’t think of anything right now, but … ) The Shattered Sea Trilogy sounds like something that might be grey enough to fit into my own personal fantasy scope – I guess sometimes you just go with fantasy because that’s as close as you can get – it doesn’t actually fit into any genre at all. Maybe I would call The Shattered Sea a dystopian? It can get very confusing!

    • Yeah, dystopian is another label that encompasses a very broad spectrum of books. And I think that labeling The Shattered Sea dystopian would be counted as a spoiler by some people! So there’s an issue to consider. :/

      I know, we all have our own personal definitions of what fantasy is and isn’t and it’s just helpful to know that we’re all confused! :D

  • You’re not alone in that definition :) I don’t consider a book fantasy if there isn’t magic or supernatural creatures or something.

    The nice thing is we’re not bound to library rules or bookstore categorizations. I have categories for alternate histories and magicless other worlds (where it’s not this world but the “fantasy” land doesn’t have magic or anything). My rules in the book world are my own ;)

    • Well, that’s good to know! :) I like magic and magical creatures, it’s really a pity when I see a “fantasy” that doesn’t have any of those. I’m like “you could really use some dragons here, you know”.

      And yeah, we all have our own definitions, it’s just a matter of whether or not you trust the author’s or publisher’s definition of whatever label they put on a book.

  • MissBookiverse

    I agree with your classification of fantasy even though I understand where the other opinions are coming from. Another complicated example that comes to mind is The Queen of the Tearling which reads like a political fantasy (it has queens and kings) with a touch of magic, YET it is set in the future, a backward developped society (how this happened is explored in the book as well), so technically I’d have to shelf this as dystopian/sci fi but it just has such a fantasy feel to it, I refuse to put in on any other shelf :P

    • Ugh, don’t even get me started on classifying sci-fi and dystopia. Who knows what will happen in the future? :)

      I think we all have the right to classify books according to our own criteria, it’s just weird when you see a publisher or an author claim a book is one thing and it so clearly seems to be something else according to what you perceive that genre to be. It’s confusing.

      • MissBookiverse

        I find the differentiation between sci-fi and dystopia a bit easier because I just put the books with newly developped societies and “evil regimes” into the dystopia category and anything futuristic/techy/alien-related goes to sci-fi xD There’s still some crossover though.

        • “evil regimes” is a good description for most of what’s happening in dystopias, yeah. Why can’t we have a future-placed book where everyone is happy and the world is blooming and there’s no polution and wars … right, that would be a utopia, no? (Honestly, I’m a bit fed up with dystopias, I’m glad they’re waning as a genre…)

          • MissBookiverse

            I guess there’s just no conflict in utopia (unless it turns out to be a dystopia on the inside ;). I’d also love to see dystopian books exploring the “after”, you know, what happens after the big revolution, how do you rebuild a society without making the same mistakes again and again.