Two weeks to go! The countdown to Wyrd & Wonder* 2022 continues. Wyrd & Wonder starts May 1, and I’m getting ready by posting some of my favorite Top 5s. This week, I’m sharing my Top 5 Fantasy Sub-Genre Reads
*Not sure what Wyrd & Wonder is? Check out this post first.
Fantasy is itself a subgenre that falls under the broad category of Speculative Fiction. Speculative Fiction is a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements and encompasses literature ranging from hard science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to horror to folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern myth-making and more.
So maybe in that sense, Spec Fiction is a super-genre and Fantasy is a genre with a ridiculous number of subgenres. There really is no one definition of Spec Fic just as there’s no one singular list of Fantasy sub-genres. Some put science fiction under fantasy, some have science fiction as adjacent to fantasy.
Regardless, Fantasy has a lot of bandwidth to cover a wide swath of literature. And I’ve picked out my Top 5 Reads from various subgenres. You may agree or disagree on the category and that’s okay. Because in the end, who cares as long as we’re reading.
Top 5 Fantasy Subgenre Reads
As mentioned previously: Throughout this countdown series of Top 5 lists, I’m not going to duplicate titles. Each list will have 5 new titles on it. I’ll probably have some of the same authors, but not the same titles from the previous Top 5 list.
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
Fantasy Subgenre: Magical Realism
Since my first Wyrd & Wonder post, I’ve been trying to include one of SAA’s books. Of her 6 current novels, Garden Spells is probably my favorite fave. Partly because it was the book that introduced me to the author. And mostly because I love the story.
Garden Spells is about the Waverly family with peculiar gifts and their garden that has a reputation for producing fruits and flowers imbued with special powers. Claire Waverly uses the garden and her special gifts to create delicious and useful dishes. Her elderly cousin Evanelle distributes unexpected gifts whose uses eventually become known. Her rebellious sister Sydney, who fled the town years ago, has suddenly returned home with a young daughter disrupting Claire’s quite life.
I found this story to be simply beautiful. SAA has created an amazing atmosphere, ripe with fragrances and mouth-watering dishes. The magic infused in the story feels like it could exist. And it perfectly embodies the Magical Realism sub-genre—a story with a real world setting that would be regular fiction but for the addition of a magical element (normally a character who has magic). These stories are typically written as if magical events are ordinary, everyday life.
As a side note for you SAA fans, after a 7 year hiatus, she finally has a new book, Other Birds, coming out in September!
The Shadow Revolution by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith
Fantasy Subgenre: Steampunk
The Shadow Revolution has it all—Victorian setting, action and adventure, werewolves, spell-casters (aka mages), alchemists, monster hunters, and enough mechanical weapons and gear-ific transportation to create a romping adventure. Roguish playboy Simon Archer and his mentor Nick Barker are mages investigating the murder of one of Simon’s old friends by what appears to be a werewolf. Their investigation indicates that some members of the nobility might be involved. The pair cross the path of the brave and capable alchemist Kate Anstruthe when it appears her sister might be the next intended victim.
This story is a fantastic ride! It sucked me in from the first page and it is action-packed. I enjoyed the characters, the world building, and the plot. There were one or two things I wished had been fleshed out a bit more, which might have happened had the characters had time. This story started, picked up speed, and didn’t stop until the last page. But that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this book.
The steampunk elements were not overdone and seamlessly merged into this world and I loved that the “gadget geek” is a woman. Steampunk is generally defined as a subgenre that incorporates retrofuturistic tech and aesthetics inspired by 19th century industrial steam-powered machinery. The world settings vary from 19th century England to futuristic earth to even other worlds.
Written in Red by Anne Bishop
Fantasy Subgrene: Paranormal
Anne Bishop’s The Courtyards of The Others series starts with Written in Red, where we’re introduced to Meg Corbyn, a cassandra sangue (blood prophet) who is kept enslaved by a Controller. Meg escapes and finds sanctuary at the Lakeside Courtyard, an area operated by the Others (terra indigene) who believe Meg to be another human. The Others allow Meg to become the new Human Liaison, the coordinator between the human communities and the Others. To everyone’s surprise, Meg is fantastic in this position. But she hides a secret: she isn’t human and she’s being hunted.
The world-building is incredible, complex, and rich and really makes this series. The story does have a bit of a slow build because there’s just much to unpack that you don’t realize it. All sorts of paranormal characters from shifters (werewolves, werebear), vampires, elementals, and more. The atmosphere is on the darker side, which totally works. In fact, if you go to Bishop’s website, she calls them “Novels of Dark Fantasy.”
For me, this series, while having elements of dark fantasy, fell more on the paranormal (i.e., having magical or otherwordly creatures) side. The great thing about subgenres is a book doesn’t just have to fit into one neat category. A book can, and often does, fall into several categories.
A trigger warning. I’d be remiss not to mention this trigger warning. As a blood prophet, Meg “sees” things by cutting herself. This can be triggering for some people, so please be aware.
Dracula by Bram Stoker | Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Fantasy Subgenres: Gothic and Classic
This is a twofer because how do you choose between them? Both Dracula and Frankenstein are classics for a reason. In fact, I thought about including them on the stand alone list but then didn’t because neither of these books needs my recommendation.
Dracula may be the ultimate vampire novel. It wasn’t the first but it certainly is the epitome of vampire novels. Dracula has spurred numerous adaptations and imitations. Dracula is referenced as an inspiration by so many authors. Everyone, EVERYONE knows who Dracula is. Even if they have never read the book. In fact, I bet there are some people who don’t even know that Dracula is a book but they still know of Dracula. A mysterious, solitary, monstrous, and even mythical figure, even the characters who come into contact with him do not fully know who this being is.
Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein when she was 18-years-old, invented the science fiction genre (thankyouverymuch). While gothic themes in novels had been around since the mid-eighteenth century, this groundbreaking novel was one of the first gothic explorations of artificial life. Shelley uses supernatural elements and rather mysterious circumstances for Dr. Frankenstein to raise the dead, all while questioning our views on life and death. The novel is simply brilliant. And like Dracula, everyone knows Frankenstein (although some mistakenly refer to the monster as Frankenstein).
It would be interesting to know which book has had more adaptations and imitations.
The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
Fantasy Subgenre: High Fantasy
Robin Hobb is another author I made sure to include on at least one of my countdown lists. Like Gaiman, I could fill an entire list with Hobb’s books. If Robin Hobb writes it, I will buy it and it will be awesome. That’s all you need to know.
But if you’re not familiar with Robin Hobb, I
insist suggest you start with The Farseer Trilogy: Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest. This is the story of Fitz, the bastard son of Prince Chivalry Farseer. This trilogy is the autobiography of Fitz, from his childhood abandonment by his royal family to his training and mastery of all things assassin. Hobb has crafted a wonderfully intricate fantasy world in all its gritty, mundane detail. Simply awesome. I can’t even explain how awesome it is.
As Book 1 starts with Fitz’s childhood, it’s understandable that it is a bit of a slow burn. But the world-building and character development are phenomenal. This trilogy truly epitomizes what High Fantasy should be: an alternative fictional world (typically) with magical elements, swords, horses, quests, and global stakes (Quest to Save the World!). A high fantasy book usually has a high page count and a goodly number of characters (we’re looking at you, George R.R. Martin). This trilogy doesn’t have Martin-level characters, but Fitz does meet quite a few people over the course of his life.
becoming addicted to reading The Farseer Trilogy, it’s a slippery slope to reading every book in the Realm of the Elderings. Consider yourself forewarned.
What are your favorite fantasy subgenres? Share your fantasy subgenre books in the comments.
A couple of notes on this post: