Friday 25 January 2013

High Fantasy: A Guest Post by Ciara Ballintyne

A little while ago (actually not that long but this sounds more interesting) I messaged a certain writer of high fantasy because frankly I had no idea what that genre was. I understand the basic concept of the fantasy genre in comparison to other genres but I mean there are so many different subgenres nowadays it's so hard to keep them straight (and I wanted to see how many times I could say 'genre' in a paragraph).

And so, ladies and gentlemen of the Madame's Company, the lovely and talented Ciara Ballintyne has graciously agreed to sit down with me and talk about High Fantasy.

Ready? Let's dive.

Ciara Ballintyne is a writer of high fantasy, lawyer, and dragon expert. Bent on world domination and born argumentative, Ciara invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her short story, A Magical Melody, is available as part of the Spells: Ten Tales of Magic ebook anthology.

High Fantasy: What Genre Is That?

When I started reading fantasy, the genre was SFF – science fiction and fantasy, and you wrote science fiction, or fantasy, or both.
Now there is a mind boggling array of sub-genres, with high fantasy only one of the fantasy sub-genres, and definitions varying wildly with overlap amongst many genres.
Epic fantasy and high fantasy are often used interchangeably, but I think they are slightly different.
Both are characterised by a plot set in a completely alternate world, featuring magic or archaic weaponry or both. Key to the definition, however, is that the plot will focus around some kind of confrontation between good and evil.
What distinguishes the two is that in epic fantasy, that confrontation is on an epic scale and has world-ending proportions (e.g. The Wheel of Time) and in high fantasy the confrontation is more personal and less epic. Many of David Gemmell’s books are examples of high fantasy, particularly the ones pertaining to Druss, where the battle between good and evil has personal consequences for the hero, and perhaps localised consequences for other people, but won’t destroy the world.
All epic fantasy is high fantasy, but not all high fantasy is epic. Contrary to recent opinions, the number or size of books in a series is not necessarily indicative of whether the fantasy is epic or not.
Other subgenres related to high and epic fantasy include heroic fantasy, historical fantasy, dark fantasy and sword and sorcery. Again, these may overlap. Urban fantasy is an entirely different beast, and not discussed here.
Heroic fantasy is based on the mythology of our world, and many of Gemmell’s books would be both high and heroic fantasy. Some are also epic. Historical fantasy involves some element of fantasy in a historical setting, which arguably includes Diana Gabaldon and Jacqueline Carey. Dark fantasy adds dark or gritty elements to the mix, but a dark fantasy will also usually be high, or heroic, or epic fantasy, or all the above. Other names for the same genres crop up, such as low fantasy or scoundrel fantasy.
All in all, I think it’s the rare fantasy book (outside the urban fantasy genre) that won’t involve some confrontation between good and evil, thus placing it firmly in the high fantasy category. Some dark fantasy won’t be high fantasy. Take Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy – it involves a confrontation between evil, and slightly less evil, and I’m not entirely sure who won. It certainly didn’t have the uplifting satisfaction most readers of high fantasy look for at the conclusion. I want the bad guys to have their arses handed to them, and handed to them well. Abercrombie does not meet this need.
On the other hand, The Penitent Assassin by Shawn Wickersheim is a dark fantasy that I believe qualifies as high fantasy.  Though set in a very dark world, it is a confrontation between good and evil, and I’m happy with the end result.
Sword and sorcery is usually not high fantasy. Though some equate sword and sorcery with heroic fantasy, I do not consider them the same. While both sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy draw heavily from mythology and historical references, sword and sorcery is swashbuckling fantasy of the sort focusing on personal adventures, while heroic fantasy tends to be personal confrontations between good and evil – that is, the confrontation between, and the nature of good and evil, is still important to the tale of heroic fantasy, while sword and sorcery is more in the nature of a fantastical adventure, to which the issue of good and evil is less important, such as quests for treasure, or to right a personal wrong.
What genre do you think Game of Thrones is? While George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is obviously fantasy, it less readily slots into sub-genres. I would argue it is not epic fantasy because the confrontation between good and evil is not on a world-ending scale. I think it’s certainly high fantasy, though, because it does involve a confrontation between good and evil – if you choose to characterise the Starks versus Lannisters like that. It depends on your definition of evil, I suppose, but I have no problems picturing Joffrey, at least, in the running for Evil King of the Year. You could substitute moral vs immoral for good vs evil, and for the purposes of the sub-genre definition, I think that’s close enough. Certainly who wins the conflict will matter a great deal to a number of the aristocracy and probably the lower classes as well, based on the way Joffrey likes to run his little dictatorship.
High fantasy (and therefore epic fantasy) is where my heart lies. It’s the subgenre I come back to time and time again when I’ve read and enjoyed other books, but there’s a craving left unsatisfied. I was gratified when, in 2011, I pitched in person to an editor at HarperVoyager whose opinion about high fantasy was quite similar to mine. In fact, her description resonated with me so much, her words have remained with me.
What is high fantasy?
“High fantasy is the beating heart of the speculative fiction genre”.


  1. Hi Ciara, what a wonderful exploration of an important topic, thanks. I should probably get off my cyber-duff and expound over on my own sites, but I'd like to respond today to your taxonomy and to the GRRM question.
    My view is simplified (simple minds!) and my examples are embarrassingly old (like me).
    To me, the genres are differentiated by STAKE and TONE.
    Epic Fantasy- in short, the stakes are as high as you can get: Save the World. If Frodo doesn't reach Mt Doom and destroy the damn ring, or ironically if Covenant can't get his head straightened out and USE the damn ring... well then, there's nothing more to be written about. Game over. As a consequence, the tone is usually quite serious (some jokes, but usually as brief as Batman's and as grim). Combat tends to be rarer (or at least less fully described); sides are absolute (no way Sauron's coming over, and Saruman made his choice).
    Heroic Fantasy for me is different than you've defined. The stakes are Save the Kingdom, and an example would be something like the Tales of King Arthur. There's a lot at risk, but the world continues even after Arthur dies. Combat and humor more frequent because the focus is on individual characters and there's more an issue of WHETHER they'll "Do the Right Thing"; the sides can be less clear than in epic.
    Somewhere below that I would say resides Sword and Sorcery, where the stakes are Save Your Skin; the example would be a tale like Conan's Tower of the Elephant. S&S can definitely be darker, humor and combat (and sex, and cursing, and drinking and all the tasty vices) more prevalent or even constant. The question of whether someone is good or bad matters the least here, and these tales can definitely be dark.

    I find myself frustrated with GRRM, Tad Williams and the other masters of the genre today. "Song of Ice and Fire" is heroic by my yardstick, except it lacks heroes and is overall very dark. Festival of dopes- who can be the most "realistic" character, as measured by gaping flaws and character vices, seems to be the goal. The Godfather in chain mail, oy. They can write circles around me and most others, but I cannot say I'm looking forward to the next book in either series. Honestly, who cares anymore?
    Just me getting fully into old-geezer mode, never mind! But thanks for the inspiration.

    1. When I started reading the genre (some 20+ years ago), I would absolutely have agreed with your definitions. The introduction of new sub-genres has muddied the waters and (arguably in my opinion) over-complicated things. Sometimes new labels are not required.

      I agree with you re: A Song of Ice and Fire. Most of the more likeable characters seem to have gotten the chop, and while I was dead keen to read book 5 when I finished book 4, now that it's actually available, I've not read it, even though it's been on my bookshelf a whole year. Tad Williams I have not read for a long time, but you may have just highlighted why not. It, also, doesn't quite meet my needs when it comes to fantasy. Thanks for the insight.

      Bizarrely, I had not noticed the irony of Covenant vs Lord of the Rings!

  2. My definition is if it has people fighting with swords and using magic spells, it's swords and sorcery. Everything else is open to debate, although most stories tend to share elements from a bunch of sub-genres.

    Moody Writing

    1. The overlapping nature of all the sub-genres makes it very confusing these days. The genral definition you've given is more often the one ascribed to the genre fantasy, with all the sub-genres sitting below, of which sword and sorcery is one. Conan the Barbarian is considered classic sword and sorcery, but Lord of the Rings, for example, is not.

  3. I am curious whether or not you could have an epic scale fantasy set in a contemporary or urban fantasy setting, if the concern is with a struggle between good and evil and the consequences are potentially world ending. Would that not be epic fantasy that is not high? I saw a blog somewhere (may have been on Fantasy Faction, but I can't find it now) that raised the possibility that George RR Matin's SoIaF books are low fantasy but epic as well. Not trying to be contentious here, because I enjoyed your blog and it is much along the lines of what I've thought myself. But it seems like the question of what really is or isn't HF is almost guaranteed to stir up a hornet's nest on any fantasy writing or reading site.

    I've struggled with this, as I am writing a novel that I thought of as high fantasy initially, because it is set in a separate world, is pre industrial, has magic, swords and crossbows and deals with issues related to good and evil. But I've been told it's not really high fantasy for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the stakes being too personal/local, to all my characters being commoners and not lords or kings, to my magic system being pretty scientific and rooted in the natural world (though very important in the story), to the absence of stock in trade fantasy races, to my use of language and narrative technique being more modern (it's in limited third and I don't use that "high fantasy language" than no one seems to be able to define, except to say that no one should use the "f" word in a true high fantasy novel).

    I am left wondering what subgenre my novel is, if it isn't HF.

    1. Yes, the question of what high fantasy is versus epic fantasy is a contentious one, and there is the possibility they are precisely the same thing. However, no industry standard definition appears to exist, which leaves us all trying to make sense of it. I've offered my definitions based only on how far logic got me before my brain threatened to explode.

      I don't think epic fantasy can be a contemporary or urban fantasy setting because one thing all the definitions do seem to agree on is that it must be set in a fictional world with elements of magic.

      As for your story, it sounds high fantasy to me - the objections people have raised are not, in my opinion, central to the genre question. The stakes being too personal may exclude it from epic fantasy, but not high fantasy. A magic system being 'scientific' is, I think, a reference to whether the magic system is 'hard' or 'soft'. See the magic systems in Brent Weeks' and Brandon Sanderson's latest books for examples of 'hard' magic systems (i.e. well-defined rules and systems). A story with soft or hard magic systems can still be high or epic fantasy. Stock in trade fantasy races are cliched these days, and often frowned upon, and a more modern narrative tecnique is needed these days for moden audiences - I won't read Lord of the Rings anymore because of the narrative technique. See Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings for a modern, economical and efficient narrative style in high/epic fantasy. I've read fantasy novels that did use the 'f word', although I think it's more strictly corect to say this is regarded by the industry as lazy rather than incorrect - these days there is an expectation you invent your own slang and profanity as part of rigorous worldbuilding, rather than use our own slang and profanity (I've done a post on that, too, BTW). This doesn't affect what genre the story is, but rather how effective the worldbuilding is.

      Does this help? If not, feel free to contact me on twitter (@CiaraBallintyne), facebook ( or email me via the contact form on my website (

  4. That is a excellent explanation of the how the category that I (like you) grew up knowing as SFF became the nuanced, box of subcategories that it is. Too often I am confused when people ask me what kind of fantasy. To me urban and High/epic fantasy were the only break downs needed but then I don't make those rules.

    This is a great help for new writers and old geezers like me ;)

    1. I agree, most types of fantasy stories fall into urban or high/epic fantasy. I'm not really convinced further categorisation is needed, but then no one consulted me ;-)