Subgenres: What the hell are they? We don’t know, but that doesn’t stop us from talking about them.
Hosts: Jenia, Hiu, Tam, Travis, Kop
What We’re Reading:
Jenia: City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Hiu: The Sleeping Dragon by Jonny Nexus,
The Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White
Tam: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Travis: Someone Like Me by M.R. Carey
Kop: The Spec Set by Taya Okerlund
Other Books Mentioned
- Temeraire by Naomi Novik (Book 1: His Majesty’s Dragon)
- Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky
- Burning Bright by Melissa McShane
- The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
- Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
- How to Date Your Dragon by Molly Harper
- The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
- Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
- “In Search of Doors” by V.E. Schwab
- “There’s Room For All Of Us At The Fantasy Inn” by Krista D. Ball
- Intro: “The Legend of Iya” courtesy of https://philter.no
- Outro: “A Quest Unfolds” courtesy of https://philter.no
Intro: You’re listening to The Fantasy Inn podcast, where we share our love for all things fantasy and discuss the broader speculative fiction industry. Welcome to the Fantasy Inn.
Jenia: Hey everyone and welcome to the first episode of the Fantasy Inn podcast. We are not sure what we’re doing, but we’re gonna be doing it, so bear with us I guess. So my name is Jenia and I am… well I’m one of the podcasters, I guess. One of the bloggers. And now on to my friend, Hiu.
Hiu: Well, I’m Hiu. I am best known for being a cabbage on the internet, and yeah that’s pretty much it. I’m just a cabbage on internet and that is the entirety of my biography. Uh, moving on.
Tam: I’m Tam. Yeah, that’s it really.
Travis: I’m Travis.
Kop: And I’m Kop.
Jenia: Before we start, we want to thank everyone for the Stabby that we won two months ago.
Future Travis: Hey everyone, Future Travis here. Unfortunately, two months miiiiight have been a little optimistic. It’s been closer to nine.
Kop: Yay. [laughter]
Jenia: Okay. Okay, I wasn’t expecting people to laugh, but okay. Yes. Thank you very much. We’re very happy about that.
Jenia: Yes, thank you. We’re happy about that.
Hiu: It sounds so like not genuine, though, doesn’t it? That we’d thank them.
Jenia: It was a month and half ago! We’re very slow.
Future Travis: Yeeeeeeeeah. Very slow.
Jenia: That episode was meant to be like a thank you for the for the Stabby and a special treat, but then it took us a very long time to do. So today we’ll be talking about subgenres because there’s this kind of misconception that fantasy is just Epic Fantasy. And so we wanted to talk about other things we like other ones we don’t like which ones exists, which ones get shat on in general, and so on. But before we get to that, we want to talk about the books that we’re reading right now.
Tam: So what are you reading right now?
Jenia: I am not reading anything right now. I just finished reading City of Brass and it was really awesome. I finished it last night at 2 a.m., and it’s based on the Quran I think. It’s based on Djinn and things like that, so Middle Eastern mythology in general, and it’s really good. And it’s actually epic fantasy which is a sub genre I don’t like. But I did really like this book. So yeah, that’s me.
Travis: Who’s the author for that, Jen?
Jenia: Shannon Chakraborty? I really hope I’m pronouncing that right.
Kop: Wait, S.A… S.A. Chakraborty?
Jenia: Yeah. What about you, Hiu, you’re next on the list.
Hiu: Oh shit yeah I made the list and I’m already ignoring it. I’m reading The Sleeping Dragon by Jonny Nexus and I’m also listening to The Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe by Alex White. Sleeping Dragons is a kind of weird one. I say weird in a good way though. It’s a kind of comic fantasy but there’s epic fantasy still, wizards, etc. And there’s the big prophecy that in 500 years the world’s going to end and our band of heroes basically decides: Well that’s not really a problem is it? That’s 500 years from now’s problem. And so it like jumps 500 years in the future it’s like that’s modern version of a magical society and these like chosen heroes are all kind of thrown together and they’re like “what the fuck is going on.” Then there’s also orc lapdancing which earns any book an extra star in my book.
Jenia: So is it is it out right now or is it an ARC (Advance Review Copy)?
Hiu: It’s an ARC. I think it comes out on the 24th of February. It’s a self published one I think. Tam?
Tam: Right, um. So I’ve been reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Lady Astronauts series. Oh well, listening to it in audiobook form. I finished book one, The Calculating Stars, earlier today and am now halfway through book two, The Fated Sky, if I’m getting the name correct. It’s a really good series. So, it’s set in the 1950s alternate history sort of style and follows Elma York, who flew as a pilot in World War Two. She’s a mathematician, and a couple of other things, and a meteorite has just struck off the coast of the US off the eastern seaboard, causing cataclysmic damage, climate change, and a whole lot of other things. And she is working for the International Space Agency, which is not quite what it’s called. I can’t remember the name. And it follows her as a woman working in a scientific field, and there’s a lot of interesting topics touched on there. Being the 1950s, there’s a fair bit of racism, a fair bit of sexism. And there’s also talk about mental health of some of the characters. So really interesting, covers a very diverse range of topics.
Travis: I’m reading Someone Like Me by M.R. Carey. The only other book I read by him was The Girl with all the Gifts, and that was a zombie apocalypse story. This was something totally different. It was basically diving into how horrible domestic violence situations can be, and sort of exploring the cycle of abuse that goes along with that. With, since this is a fantasy book, a speculative twist to it. There might be a little bit of interdimensional hopping and multiverse shenanigans going on. It was really good, really dark, and I can’t say I enjoyed it so much as I really, really appreciated it.
Kop: I am currently reading The Spec Set by Taya Okerlund. It’s about this group of people, neurodivergent characters who go to a science camp. And they discover that these uh chemicals have been stolen, that uh can make a bomb. And so they are trying to get to the bottom of it, and basically save the world. So far, it’s okay. But [laughs] it’s a lot of it is convenient. And there’s a lot of not really world building. Uh, it’s more just like, “Oh, this is we can’t tell you how this thing went about. because it’s classified.” So it’s, it’s okay. It’s not the best but it’s not a DNF.
Jenia: As we can see, we’re all reading a big range of subgenres. That’s a good way to continue on to the topic, right?
Kop: Uh huh.
Jenia: So do you guys have a favorite subgenre? Or do you read everything? Do you have anything you particularly hate? We all know I have something I particularly hate. [laughs] Well, what about you guys?
Travis: Well I guess, first off, what kind of subgenres are out there in fantasy?
Hiu: I think there’s almost too many to count when you look at it. Like just looking at my bookcase here, there’s like, historical fantasy, comedic fantasy, steampunk fantasy, dystopian fantasy, young adult fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, science fantasy, comic fantasy, there’s just so many.
Kop: There’s a website.
Travis: Yeah, at least where I have been before is bestfantasybooks.com and it has a list of all kinds of different subgenres. You can click on them, you can get explanations for what they are, and some recommendations for books that fit in each category. But like Hiu said, it’s a huge list. It looks like there’s over 100 on here. And I can pretty much guarantee that’s not comprehensive, there’s a lot more that are probably left off. And there’s some on there that people would argue are not actual subgenres in the first place.
Hiu: One of the things I think are really amusing is the arguments over subgenre definitions, like what is and isn’t grimdark. Or what is and isn’t comic. People get really invested in this.
Travis: Yeah, and especially with grimdark, something… My little personal pet peeve is Grimdark versus Dark. Grimdark, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is kind of this pushback against classic heroic fantasy where good and evil are clearly defined, sort of the “good guys win in the end and overcome the big bad, dark lord.” Grimdark turns that on its head, very gray morality. People do some questionable things. Sometimes major characters die for what seems like no reason. Dark, on the other hand is fantasy with elements of the horror genre. So maybe there’s vampires. Maybe there’s zombies. Maybe there’s some kind of evil necromancer and it feels almost like a horror book rather than fantasy.
Jenia: I never knew those were different. People define everything so differently, like, for example, low fantasy, whether that’s defined as being set in the real world, or whether that’s defined as just having few magical elements of any kind. So everybody defines it in a different way. And when you ask for recommendations for something like, I don’t know Fantasy of Manners, you might get something like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series which, although it does have those elements of courtly manners, and so on, it’s really a military fantasy book. But because it’s set in the 19th century, people just recommend it to you. And so I think, I think in a way, subgenres, they’re useful, but they’re also not useful because they’re so badly defined.
Kop: Yeah, for me, I go by a few… I forget what it’s called, I think it’s game theory by Wittgenstein or basically, it’s: What is a game? You try to define it, and you really can’t, because you get things like basketball, and then Mario Party. Solitaire, you know, all these different things [laughs], all these different things where you can’t really define what a game is, but you can take different things and you know that they are a game. For me it’s the same with subgenres. It’s hard to define exactly what is Grimdark, but you can take different Grimdark books that might have different elements to them, but they are all Grimdark, for example.
Jenia: That’s a good way of looking at it. Yeah.
Travis: And I guess something about subgenres in general is: Do they do more good than they do harm? I know some people say even if they’re defined differently, they do a lot of good because they help people find books that they’re looking for, that they might enjoy based on a set of tropes or qualities about the broader genre that they know specifically they like. Or, does it kind of needlessly put books into these neat little boxes where they don’t really fit into just one, they might fit into multiple different subgenres. Yeah, I prefer to think of them as adjectives almost. So it’s not like you can see a book as grimdark or a bit grimdark or you know, it has a historical element to it, but it’s not like for me the subgenres of fluid it’s not about putting them into a box it’s about like giving a descriptor of what the, you know, the content of the book has.
Jenia: I think it’s difficult, especially because some subgenres are kind of looked down on. For example, if you get things like Romance Fantasy, a lot of books have a very important romance, but the specific title of Romance Fantasy will make people dislike a book even if it might have just about as much as any other book. That’s the bad part of having boxes, I guess.
Kop: I was gonna say, I think subgenres can be helpful, in the sense of that, for example, if you know you like romance, and you want to go into a book knowing that there will be romance, then, you can pick up a book that’s marketed as a Romance Fantasy or fantasy romance and you know what you’re getting into. Other than that it’s just picking up a random book and hoping that there’s stuff you like in it.
Travis: Romance is actually an interesting, and I guess, somewhat controversial subgenre of fantasy. And maybe just in broader literature in general, because I know a lot of female writers end up getting labeled as romance or romance fantasy, even if, say, one of their male counterparts would not be while writing the exact same thing
Jenia: I mean, it’s the same with YA (Young Adult), right, where women are kind of put into that that box. Again, I’m not saying that subgenres are bad. I know if somebody describes a book as epic fantasy then that’s probably not a book for me, because there’s just these expectations for the genre. But I think specifically with things like Romance Fantasy… I know that in Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn there is probably more of an emphasis on romance in the story then there is in, um, what’s it called… oh shit, sorry, well there goes my whole point because I can’t remember the book’s name. Burning Bright… Burning Bright by… someone. I will look that up (Melissa McShane). And that’s the thing, it’s about a girl running away blah blah blah she has to go fight pirates. But because it’s written by a woman, it also has this very romancey kind of cover where it’s a girl looking into the distance, while Guns of the Dawn gets a very, I think there’s like some crossed pistols and so on. But if I think about which book is more romantic then Guns of the Dawn was way more romantic in my opinion. So it’s a little, I don’t know, it’s a little hard.
Kop: So you said you don’t like epic fantasy? What would you say your top two favorite subgenres are?
Jenia: I really like Fantasy of Manners. And I really like, you know, what’s it called, like, mythological retelling? Yeah. Or like fairy tale and myth retellings.
Kop: What about you, Tam?
Kop: What are your top two?
Tam: Oh, I have no idea actually. That isn’t very helpful. I don’t know. I read everything.
Jenia: Anything you don’t like?
Tam: Eh, not really. No.
Hiu: You know, it’s one of those ones where you don’t think you have a favorite subgenre. But thinking about it, most of my favorite books are epic fantasies. So probably going to have to pick epic fantasy. And I don’t know, maybe grimdark? I like a lot of grimdark books, but though, grimdark’s one of those subgenres that can go too far. And I think there is a push, or there was a push, to make things realistic to the point of parody. So my interest in grimdark’s kind of waning. I don’t think there’s any subgenres I don’t like, to be honest.
Jenia: I bet you wouldn’t like Fantasy of Manners. It’s all about, like, royalty people.
Hiu: Yeah but Senlin Ascends is sort of Fantasy of Manners.
Jenia: I guess. Yeah.
Hiu: And that’s fantastic. Ha.
Kop: What about you, Travis?
Travis: So, I don’t dislike any subgenres in particular. There’s some that I’ve sort of just not happened to read much of. One of those happens to be Romantic Fantasy or Paranormal Romance. And I’ve actually been trying to dip my toes into that category recently. I just read a book called How to Date Your Dragon by Molly Harper. And it was pretty enjoyable. I had a good time. It was fun, uh, kind of comedic. Yeah, I had a good time with that one. And then in terms of subgenres that I really enjoy, honestly, recently, it’s been anything that takes elements from multiple subgenres and blends it together. So Senlin Ascends is a good example of that, where it’s Fantasy of Manners and Steampunk and literary and kind of weird and just everything stirred together.
Hiu: I have to know… this, uh, dating your dragon book, is there a sex scene?
Travis: There are multiple sex scenes.
Jenia: …the dragon?
Travis: Well, it’s with a dragon who’s shapeshifted into human form.
Jenia: Oh okay, boring.
Hiu: Yeah. [laughs] Well, I want to know more about the dragon smut.
Hiu: Buckling back to like the covers thing we’re talking about earlier, I always think that Urban Fantasy in particular gets a rough end of the stack, like you look at Urban Fantasy covers and it’s almost always a model with some bloody smoke effect cover thing. And from what I hear from Urban Fantasy readers, like nine times out of ten, that doesn’t represent the contents of the book.
Kop: Yeah, really quick answering the other question, there’s not really a subgenre I dislike, more just ones that I haven’t read much of. So I can’t really make a judgment call on them. My favorite shockingly is New Weird, and then I also like I guess literary fantasy. Going off of literary fantasy, I would say there’s a book called The Wolf and the Whale by—I forget the author, I just read it—so it’s called The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky. And I think that’s a really good example of literary fantasy. Or even Haruki Murakami, if you want to go that route. Going off of what Hiu was saying about the Urban Fantasy covers, I think that would be good to talk about, the kind of stereotypes that each subgenre has with their covers. Because I know for me, usually you can pick out like, this book is marketed as Romance Fantasy, this book is marketed as Urban Fantasy, just by looking at the covers, and I think that’s pretty interesting.
Jenia: What are the stereotypes of epic fantasy covers? A figure or something?
Kop: A figure, a cloak, maybe a tree in the background, even though trees might not have anything to do with the book. And cloaks either.
Hiu: I always loved the covers where it’s just like a big sword with like, just a sword above the title of the book. And like, that’s all they will show you about the content is just a sword?
Kop: Yeah, I’m looking at you, Empire of Sand.
Hiu: To be fair, what would you categorize The Empire of Sand as? I know we just had the conversation about pigeonholing female authors into romance books, but that is a huge part of that book. Despite the other kind of aspects.
Kop: I wouldn’t really call it a romance book.
Jenia: Just epic fantasy, for me.
Kop: I’d say it’s epic fantasy. For me, the romance, even though it was a big part of the book, it wasn’t really the driving force of the book. Whereas her kind of self discovery and conquering the evils around her, for me, were more of the main focus.
Travis: Does anybody have any final thoughts about subgenres in fantasy?
Tam: Not really, no.
Jenia: I have a final thought, wait! Wait, wait. Okay. My final thought is, I don’t like it when people… you know, the whole thing about how there should be room enough for all of us in the Fantasy Inn? Krista D. Ball’s essay. I don’t like it when people say that you have to read certain books to be considered a fantasy fan. Because mostly those books are epic fantasy. Basically, I don’t like the idea that, you know, something like Lord of the Rings, which I actually do like, really love, actually. But something like Lord of the Rings is considered the founder of all modern fantasy. Then you look at something like literary fantasy, or magical realism, which comes from a different tradition. And I think that’s my problem with subgenres as a whole, that it seems like there’s these good ones, there’s these bad ones (as taken from the general people), there’s these ones, which are, oh, they’re not really fantasy. They’re just, you know, literary or whatever. And, yeah, okay. I don’t know where I’m going with this. But yeah.
Kop: I get you.
Hiu: Victoria Schwab gave a lecture about something similar, didn’t she, about like doors into fantasy, and how you don’t need to read to these classics. They aren’t these sort of staples of the genre, they’re not required reading, there is no required reading.
Kop: I think subgenres are cool. I think, like I said before, they can help you know what you’re getting into. So if something is marketed as an epic fantasy, I know to recommend it to Jenia, and she will love it.
Kop: But no, you know what you’re getting into. And I think… I know some people kind of, what’s the word I’m looking for, talk bad about, like marketing things as certain subgenres. They say it’s marketing in a bad way. But I think marketing is pretty important for a book. You know, even just for the general consumer. So for me, subgenres are cool, I’m fine with the labels. And then, like we talked about before, things are allowed to have multiple subgenres. So even if something’s marketed as a Romance Fantasy, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all romance 24/7, or, you know, it’s all epic fantasy 24/7. So that’s my final thoughts. What about you, Travis?
Travis: Yeah. I think in general, there’s a lot of disagreement on what exactly specific subgenres mean, or how they should be defined. But overall, they do more good than harm. They help people find books that they might enjoy, and I think that’s always a good thing. I might debate the specifics of what qualifies grimdark versus dark or magical realism versus literary, but in the end, if it helps people find good books, I think that’s the most important thing.
Kop: Take it away, Hiu!
[outro music starts]
Hiu: Oh wait, I thought I’d already answered, no?
Travis: Yeah I think you went first.
Jenia: Then I guess that about wraps up our discussion of subgenres. So, now I guess we turn the question to you guys. What do you think about subgenres? Do you have a favorite one? Do you have one you hate, like me? Do you think they’re a silly concept or a really useful one? Come and join the conversation by tweeting us at @thefantasyinn or I guess commenting on this post on WordPress? I’m not sure how we’re doing this yet.