In her discussion of genre fiction, Joyce Saricks writes: “Fantasy may be the most ubiquitous of the genres, as there are fantasy elements in most fiction, almost regardless of how realistic the story is. It is also an ancient form, the genre of myth and legend, as well as of the fairy tales and stories of our childhood. This is the world of faerie, and magic, sorcery, and enchantment all live on in Fantasy.

Like Westerns and Historical Fiction, Fantasy novels create specific landscapes. These are world-building books, and it is important that readers be able to see, hear, and feel the worlds in which the authors place them. Fantasy novels tell a wide range of stories, but the success of each is dependent upon the author’s skill in creating a believable, albeit magical, world populated by characters to whom readers relate.” (p.265)

I’m not given the impression that Saricks is a fan, but she defines Fantasy thus:

“Like Science Fiction, with which it is most frequently linked, Fantasy is not easily defined in a single phrase or two. If Science Fiction emphasizes ideas, then Fantasy delves more into relationships. The stories it tells appeal more to the emotions than to the intellect. As does Science Fiction, Fantasy deals with otherness of time or place; settings may be contemporary or historical but something is out of kilter…. Fantasy exists in a world that most people believe never could be, while Science Fiction worlds are those we accept as possible, even if improbable. Science Fiction generally offers something radically new and different, but Fantasy frequently takes a familiar story, legend, or myth and adds a twist, a new way of looking at things that brings it to life again. The key to Fantasy, [-p.266] however, is the presence of magic. If there is no magic, the story may fit in the Horror, Science Fiction, Romance, Historical Fiction, or Adventure genres. When magic is integral to the story, it must be Fantasy.” (pp.265-266)

“Both Fantasy and Horror draw on everyday fears and feature realms and creatures that are larger than life and often not of this world. However, while Horror creates a nightmare situation in which characters strive to survive and temporarily defeat the evil, Fantasy is more affirming, giving protagonists a chance to win the battle against the dark and permanently end the reign of evil. Like Fantasy, Science Fiction presents a challenging unknown, but, unlike Fantasy, it offers technical explanations and ways to ‘know,’ to discover through science and empirical tests. One finds alternate realities in both Fantasy and Science Fiction, but in Fantasy these alternate universes and histories depend on magic, while in Science Fiction the roots are logical, not magical. Horror and Fantasy share an intuitive approach to the world, in contrast to the rational outlook of Science Fiction. Like Romance, Fantasy may have a romantic tone, and some stories certainly project the same emotional appeal, but magic supplants the romantic interest as the most important element. Adventure abounds in many types of Fantasy, but again it is secondary to the magical nature of the story.” (p.266)

“Fantasy is a genre that inspires lifelong fans. …These are often elegantly written stories with a haunting quality. We sense that there is something just behind the story, something bigger than the story itself which hints at a larger meaning. These are the stories of legends come to life, and the popularity of the genre attests to the continuing importance of this kind of story in our lives.” (p.287)

Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy, Saricks writes, “tends to be darker, despite the fact that it is sometimes characterized as elves on motorcycles! The emphasis is on societal issues, power or its absence, and general urban blight contributes to the bleaker nature of these stories. [-p.269] The classic Urban Fantasy author is Charles de Lint. Try Memory and Dream, part of his Newford series, as an introduction to this landscape. A young artist’s paintings release ancient spirits into the modern world with unpleasant results. Other well-regarded authors of Urban Fantasy include China Miéville (the New Crobuzon series – Perdido Street Station is the first) and Emma Bull, whose award-winning War for the Oaks recounts a war among fairies in modern-day Minneapolis. Consider also Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, beginning with Storm Front. Harry Dresden is a professional wizard and supernatural investigator who operates in an alternate Chicago in these dark though witty stories. Urban Fantasy produces haunting stories that can be appreicated on many levels.” (pp.268-269)

Characteristics of Fantasy

“1. Detailed settings depict another world, often Earth, but out-of-time or invisible to most people. Magic frames the story.

2. Story lines feature Good versus Evil, as protagonists battle and ultimately conquer the malevolent forces – although victory does not come easily or cheaply. Titles are frequently part of a series with a continuing story told over several books.

3. Mood ranges from humourous to dark, but it is ultimately optimistic. Despite this, a melancholy tone pervades much of the genre even when victory is achieved.

4. Characters, clearly defined as good or bad, often attain special magical gifts, and the story lines explore ways to discover one’s own potential, magical or otherwise. Even good characters will find themselves challenged, both physically and ethically. Characters may include mythical creatures – dragons, unicorns, elves, wizards – as well as more familiar ones.

5. In general, books start slowly as the author sets the scene, presents the challenge, and introduces the cast – frequently involving a group of diverse characters who are brought together solely to fight a new or resurging evil in an unfamiliar world. Pacing increases later as more adventure elements appear.

6. From the stylized language of High Fantasy to the jargon of Urban Fantasy, language and style run the gamut. Language creates verbal pictures of characters and landscape, and illustrations sometimes enhance both adult and children’s Fantasy.” (p.267)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago


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