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In The Mix: Fantasy and Other Genres

Bookwyrm by ChromamancerFantasy is a genre that assimilates elements of other genres, whilst still remaining, for the most part, a genre not often thought of as having a great number of “crossovers” and hybrids. Strictly speaking, this is changing with the natural evolution of the genre. SFF as a whole is growing more diverse and this results in varied narratives and settings, and, naturally, the borrowing of other elements and themes and sometimes even tropes.

Arguably, many will jump to the suggestion that romance is part of fantasy more than other themes such as horror or crime. But that’s not necessarily the case, if you look at the genre at the moment. Romance is present is almost every single type of media we consume: it’s in love songs and it’s there in little paired Christmas decorations, and in movies and TV and even with those little Japanese characters that appear on merchandise and stationery you don’t need (Pucca and her beau, and Hello Kitty has a boyfriend, too – and even in a game about growing bamboo and feeding a panda to impress the Japanese emperor, there is a lady panda and panda babies in the expansion). It is quite literally everywhere.

Love Never Dies by Michael-C-HayesHorror: it’s there. Crime: it’s there –and not just as part of the crime (crimes of passion, etc.), but even the team in Criminal Minds and CSI have those in whom they are interested. Comedy, whether romantic or slapstick. Mr Bean has a prospective Mrs Bean! Yet because of the rise of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, many sneer at the supposedly new and rampant inclusion of romance (especially in YA) – those darn love triangles, eh? – whilst simultaneously wondering who Leesha Paper will end up with, out of four men who display interest at one time or another. They read about romance and relationships and love and decide it doesn’t count. Well it does. And romance is likely the most prevalent of other genres within SFF.

Arguably, it is followed by horror. We can suggest – validly, as we’ll cover later – that crime might have taken this top spot instead. But given the rise of darker fantasy and themes that shock and alarm, with aesthetics that are undeniably and deliberately gritty, horror feels more natural to top the list beneath romance.

One thing to begin with, regarding horror (within SFF and without), is that it can be an aesthetic as well as a theme. Many SFF worlds boast quite the horror aesthetic, especially if we talk about the darker offerings of grimdark. However, even offerings such as A Court of Thorns and Roses and Daughter of Smoke and Bone include horror within their aesthetics, at least, and as part of their themes if you remain open to the suggestion. From butchered corpses (and the subsequently horrific revenge-killings), through body-hopping demons and mind control, the loss of free will, to a devourer of worlds made flesh, there is plenty of the horrific blended with the fantastic. Of course horror is more visible in the consuming of hearts (human or animal), and in the descriptions of giant spiders, and in the inclusion of monsters plucked from the grimmer elements of world folklore, but even setting and mood can be a nod towards horror playing a large part of the scene or even the book.

My Precioussss by JakeMurrayHorror, really, is a theme as well as a literary aesthetic. It’s a genre in and of itself, but elements of horror are found quite literally everywhere, in the same way that elements of romance, drama, and comedy are. The thing about horror is that it is effective and compelling, and therefore both blends seamlessly into a larger story, going largely unnoticed on the whole, at the same time as being present far more frequently than other themes that cross over. Monsters in our fantasy, elements of the supernatural designed to frighten and/heighten tension, psychological horror elements of people or places or plots – these things saturate fantasy and science fiction.

Even science fiction. Think of the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey and the fate of Julie Mao. Think of the incident on Eros and of the very physical nature and effects of the Protomolecule itself. That’s horror. Characters intended as psychopaths or sociopaths, whose narratives we see played out in full, who do kill and act on their psycho- or sociopathic tendencies – all elements of horror.

Mourning by Karla OrtizFantasy is essentially, when you take away the magic and the fantastic, usually a story about a group of people in a world together, doing something. You could say that about most stories, but the unique thing about fantasy and science fiction is that, whether through the creation of an alternative version of our own world, the implication of a similar one, or a new one altogether, a world needs to be written and it is in this world that the characters then run free. Therefore, once you have the world, it is filled entirely with the stories of peoples’ lives. Which is why we find so many additional themes such as horror and romance and even crime in fantasy and science fiction. That’s why these elements present bigger and louder than in other genres, such as crime fiction, because there’s arguably much more space to fill.

Of course there’s already such a thing as sci-fi horror (Alien, Predator, Resident Evil, for example) but more often than not, fantasy is described as a whole, in its entirety, instead of also by its supporting themes or crossover genres. Fantasy is viewed as a single idea, and it’s usually pseudo-Medieval and nothing else. This is mostly true of TV, movies and video games, of course, where the branches of fantasy aren’t as well described when they fall outside the norm. Even TV shows like Lost Girl and Sleepy Hollow are usually categorised as either fantasy (which brings about the medieval and mainstream notion of fantasy) or often more bizarrely “fantasy/sci-fi”, when in fact they are urban fantasy or in the very least, supernatural fantasy. In this latter case, the fantasy part is often substituted for “thriller” or “drama”, depending on what the show/movie involves.

Harry Dresden by thegryphThis example paves the way for us to consider crime, which is far more present in fantasy than it first night seem. Everything from a dedicated detective character, such as Fulcrum, in Mark Charan Newton’s Legends of the Red Sun quartet and more recently his Drakenfeld series, to the more obvious elements of Who Dunnit in PI urban fantasies such as the Dresden Files (Jim Butcher), crime and mystery and even just the care essence of police/detective work is a very regular addition.

Whether crime, mystery and/or investigation feature as the main theme(s) (as mentioned with Drakenfeld and the Dresden Files) or as a passing theme (such as Celaena’s mission to discover information about the rebellion in Crown of Midnight) the idea of crime works well with fantasy, lending itself well to heighten the drama and tension. This is without counting themes build around the concept of spies and double-agents, which permeate fantasy just as much as crime, romance and horror. Furthermore, consider the very themes of thieves’ guilds, assassins’ guilds and all manner of underworld activity and illegal behaviour. To an extent, an entire branch of fantasy was built from an element—and in the very least, the aesthetic—of crime fiction.

Magic Lesson by iconeo81This inclusion of themes borrowed from other genres in their own right is part of what makes fantasy “epic”. Arguably, “epic” has often been coined as fantasy or science fiction that spans continents or worlds, wherein the balance of survival versus destruction plays out as a central theme. Rather than this fairly narrow definition, we can suggest that SFF with several main themes is by its own definition, epic in scope and therefore epic in nature. A story with horror and crime and romance that happens to give stage to a rebellion under the thumb of a wicked king and the restoration of a kingdom might be dismissed as not falling under the heading of “epic” in lieu of “YA”, when in fact, that formula sounds pretty epic when you put it all down on paper in a sentence. Most fantasy and even urban fantasy is, in fact, epic. If you take a series such as the Dresden Files, it’s easy to see how. Yet the definition of epic fantasy lingers from the golden-age of farm boys and chivalrous knights. When you compare most SFF to something absolutely neither befitting the tag of epic or fantasy—take Bridget Jones’ Diary as an example—you begin to see just why it’s a fair suggestion to label most SFF as epic, especially if the story presents us with a trilogy or an even longer series.

Locke and Jean by Lee TaoSFF gladly absorbs all manner of theme and trope, eager to play with them and discover what the finished product might be. That’s the wonderful thing about SFF: the only limits are those imposed by the author themselves. It is quite literally a genre of absorption, wherein everything that has ever been used in storytelling can be begged, borrowed and stolen in order to create the varied fantastic worlds on offer. This is especially true of modern fantasy and science fiction, where crossing genres has become more commonplace. From the weird to crime to horror, all these elements enrich SFF, making it bigger, better, louder. It’s like painting red stripes on each page of the book. Even comedy doesn’t detract from the fantasy or sci-fi elements of a book, else Pratchett’s work would be seen as just comedy, and that is far from the case. His work is as much fantasy as A Song of Ice and Fire is. Everything from a heist or con story (Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo; The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch), to elements of infiltration and spy fiction (A Thousand Pieces of You and Ten Thousand Skies Above You, Claudia Gray) to mystery (Ice Like Fire, Sara Raasch) and even military fiction (The Iron Elves trilogy, Chris Evans; the Shadow Ops series, Myke Cole)—it’s all there.

jungle 3 by artcobainSFF is essentially a vibrant mixing pot where elements from every other genre imaginable are thrown in and worked so seamlessly into the mix that it might at first be difficult to pinpoint that they’re even there at all, and not merely part of the scenery. With many fantasy worlds—even, arguably urban fantasy—requiring at least a partly original world, even if set within our own, it’s not difficult to see why so many different elements cam combine to make the finished world. A fantasy author is, in effect, creating an entire new world from the ground up. Yet these worlds are reflections, in one way or another, of our own (whether literally, or similar a reflection of the writers themselves) and so all the elements that create both our own real and imaginary worlds will naturally be the same that come together inside the worlds which fantasy authors create.

Ultimately, unlike other genres where perhaps one element of the world is different (if a political thriller, the President; if crime, a mafia organisation or fictional serial killer; if horror, a singular element of supernatural lore), in SFF most of the world has the potential to be made anew. This means these worlds will contain more. In fact, they will contain everything that makes up our own world and our own stories (mythologies, folklore, modern stories that have become part of the fabric of our world in their own way). Think of your favourite SFF books: write down the themes throughout the series, the aesthetics, the everything. If you’re doing it right, you’ll end up with quite a list.

Title image by Chromamancer.


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