So, most everyone knows what high fantasy is, I would assume. Tolkien and Dragonlance and Shannara and The Wheel of Time. Huge world that isn’t earth, lots of magic everywhere, and normally massively important consequences (though not always). I don’t even feel like I need to go into it too much. It’s pretty much what comes to most people’s minds when they hear about fantasy fiction.
It’s also not what I write. I’ve tried my hand at a traditional high fantasy once or twice (or more that I’m just not remembering), and it never turns out well. I love reading them, when they’re done well, but mine are never really done well (although I still have aspirations of one day writing my high-fantasy epic… just haven’t found the time for it between everything else). What I do write (when I’m not doing urban fantasy or sci-fi) is something I never had a name for. I described it as ‘high fantasy, but without the magic.’ Or with very little magic, or magic that just wasn’t overt. So, as I was scrolling through lists, trying to decide which subgenre to do this week, I ran across ‘low fantasy.’ I was intrigued because they had ‘urban fantasy’ as a separate entry on that list, and I’d always been told that urban and contemporary fantasy was low fantasy. So of course I clicked.
Turns out, I’ve been writing low fantasy for years, at least by that definition. It’s one of those that people can’t seem to decide on. Some people still say that urban fantasy is low fantasy. To me, that just seems redundant, so I’m sticking with this. Low fantasy is an alternate world, just like high fantasy, but you don’t have wizards running about throwing fireballs at dragons to save the Holy Chalice of House McGuffin from Larinth the Dreameater. Magic is rare in low fantasy, when it’s present at all. If there’s magic, it’s often gone missing or isn’t widely accessible. It may exist only in artifact form, or require the will of the gods, or belong to a single nearly-dead bloodline. Whatever the case, it’s not normally a viable problem-solving option in low fantasy.
Now, I’ve never read A Song of Ice and Fire (it’s on my to-read list, I promise), but I’ve talked to people who have. From what they describe, at the beginning, those books are low fantasy. Magic is uncommon and the major conflict to start with is this battle over the throne (all what I’ve heard, so I may be wrong. If so, I apologize). As magic comes more and more into play, it becomes sort of high fantasy, but it’s the most popular example I could think of.
(There’s also apparently a lot of crossover with sword and sorcery, when it comes to the great wintery world of Westeros. There’s also a lot of crossover between low fantasy and sword and sorcery. I’ll get into that particular subgenre next week.)
There are a handful of other things that set low fantasy apart from high fantasy and, at least for me, make it more enjoyable to read. It hits a lot of the things I like to see in my fiction. It’s a much smaller plot, which I prefer. Instead of saving the world, you’re trying to save your sister or your house or maybe your village.
It also hits one of the big character things I love: gray morality. In high fantasy, you often have a very cut and dry, black and white morality, including villains and heroes that get color-coded for your convenience (The evil forces all wear black armor, and the good forces are shiny and sparkly). In low fantasy, while it’s not ubiquitous (there’s very little in any genre or subgenre that would be considered ubiquitous), the characters often have gray morality. You don’t often get into anything as light as white and gray morality (a clearly good side, and a sort of ambiguous side, or evil that is sort of kind and really just needs a hug), but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. You’re much more likely to see both sides with gray morality (neither side is necessarily all that evil, but they’re not going to bring you cookies and milk, either). Their conflict isn’t necessarily based around one side being bad and the other being good, but just around them being opposed. And then, at the dark end of our morality scale, you have black and gray morality. Basically, neither character is wonderful, but one of them is just downright evil, so a lesser evil has to be brought in to solve it (like summoning a demon to fight the Devil).
Now, as I said, none of these things have to happen to make it low fantasy. Take Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard books. There’s very clearly some real magic going on, but it doesn’t factor into the plot, and it’s not something the characters can turn to in order to solve their problems. At least not reliably. They have to go with cleverness and quick-thinking and more mundane skills.
On the movie and TV side of things, you norm
ally don’t come close to low fantasy. When they go for it in a medium like that, they normally really go for it. The closest would be something like Conan the Barbarian, but that’s sword and sorcery to the core (again, next week, I promise).
Unfortunately (at least for me), low fantasy has never really taken off on its own. It can be used to describe a lot of different genres and subgenres, but very few people produce it. So, if you know any really good low fantasy that I should be reading, let me know. I’m on the lookout for these kinds of books, and now I know what to look for.
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