It should surprise no one, given where I’m writing this from, that I am a fan of fantasy. But while it’s my favorite genre, it’s not my only love.
I’m fascinated by the very concept of genres. Every genre, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, horror, western, romance, mystery, or others, has some level of pre-determined tropes and topics. It’s up to the writer to find which ones they want to fulfill, which ones they want to subvert, and which should be ignored.
Arguing about the specifics of any genre will undoubtedly find gray areas and stories that fit into more than one category. I’m going to discuss the merging of fantasy with other genres, and how some of them work together.
Science fiction is often placed under the blanket term speculative fiction along with fantasy, and is often in the same part of the bookstore. Plenty of authors, from Bradbury to Bear, have been able to go back and forth between them. But managing to put them into the same book is difficult. The scientific, rationalist worldview that science fiction generally espouses will likely hit a wall when faced with the impossibilities of fantasy.
There are two main options in this case. If the primary genre seems to be fantasy, we can often see magic being viewed in a scientific, analytical way. This can include allomancy in Sanderson’s Mistborn novels, or the scientific studies done at either Grossman’s Brakebills, or Rothfuss’s University.
If the primary genre seems to be science fiction, it’s likely that the novel will be closer to the space opera of Star Wars.
Possible reads: Heroes Die by Matthew Stover, Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Horror and fantasy can work well together, but there are some problems with their cohesion. Heroic fantasy, in particular, means that the characters are not helpless. The best horror often involves a complete inability to fight back—the best options are running away (The Shining) or unraveling the mystery (Heart Shaped Box).
Fantasy has plenty of horror concepts as villains—the necromancer who raises an army of the dead is a far more common villain in fantasy than horror. But for all the trappings of horror—fighting through a crypt of living dead—since fantasy characters are usually capable of action it lacks the palpable sense of fear that horror demands.
Possible reads: Throne of Bones by Brian McNaughton or Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin
The image of the western, with its ghost towns and deserts, actually works quite well with fantasy. Both westerns and fantasies have similar tropes. The ranger archetype is similar to the gunslinger, with their survivalist tendencies and rugged individualism streak. Westerns have the arrival of the cavalry; Tolkien has the Riders of Rohirrim. Hell on Wheels begins with the murder of the protagonist’s family and a search for revenge; so does The Name of the Wind.
Possible reads: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
Romance is in a lot of stories across all genres. Love is one of the most important things to a lot of people, after all. But books with romance as one of the defining features, rather than an afterthought, are much rarer. Any romance worth its name needs to have characters who would be interesting even if they’d never met, and even if there was no plot. For romance, characterization is vital.
Possible reads: The Princess Bride by William Goldman, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
The mysteries one reads in a typical crime novel are quite different from the ones in fantasy. Mystery can be the domain of Holmes-like detectives, or crime procedurals, or noir. Fantasy also has mystery, but its mystery is more likely to involve palace intrigue and cabals.
Of course, mystery can be an incredibly important part of a fantasy. Stolen MacGuffins and regicide might not be investigated with the same ratiocination as they would be in mysteries, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fascinating. That said, I’d love to see more fantasy that involves the quick deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe.
Possible reads: Athyra by Steven Brust or Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
Can you think of any other genres I’ve missed or books that blend the two well? Leave them in the comments!