I am a big ol’ subgenre slut. That’s pretty much why I do this column or series or feature or whatever you want to call it. I enjoy looking into the different subgenres of speculative fiction, especially the weird ones and the obscure ones. Which is what we have this week.
Now, military science fiction is actually pretty popular with a lot of SF readers. I’ll get into it more next week. This week is to the sister that kind of sits in the corner waiting to be noticed – military fantasy. It doesn’t happen that often, I don’t know for sure why. I do, however, have a theory (When do I not?). I think the issue comes in with the fact that it is fantasy. It seems simple on the surface, but putting in that magical element can really throw a wrench into the works for a lot of authors when it comes to military strategy and inner-workings and such. It’s just such a foreign thing to work with. Depending on how powerful the magic is that’s available, you could be looking at two sides of a conflict bringing nukes onto the battlefield. I think it’s daunting to have the threat in the war amped up so high, and it subconsciously turns people away from it.
The fact that it’s uncommon is part of what makes me want to read it. Military fantasy has to fill in some very strange gaps, and it can be very well-done. Or it can fail pretty spectacularly.
There are some pretty big names playing in the military fantasy pool, too. Jim Butcher with the Codex Alera series is possibly one of the most popular, right along with Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives (The Way of Kings).
But to me, the most interesting is sort of a subgenre that falls underneath this subgenre, and it’s small enough that I won’t be doing a separate post on it: gunpowder fantasy. Magic and wizards and elves… and rifles and railroads and lots of warfare. It’s a genre that’s pretty much dominated entirely by two authors: Django Wexler (The Shadow Campaigns) and Brian McClellan (The Powder Mage), with a smattering of others in their for good measure (Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge books come to mind). I put gunpowder fantasy under here because, for the most part, it deals with war, and is set in worlds that, if not Earth in the past, is fairly recognizable as equating to the 17th-19th century, which was an incredibly war-torn era to be on our big blue marble.
When it comes to other media, military fantasy tends to be either totally nonexistent or, if you’re an optimist, just skirted around. If things had gone differently in Hellboy II, we would have had military fantasy. War is a part of a lot of fantasy books and movies (and movies based on books), but it’s not the focus, which keeps it from being the focus.
If you find yourself longing for military fantasy and can’t find it, just know that you’re not alone. The struggle is real, and there are a lot of people who wish they could find something more. Alas, publishing is a business, which makes it harder to make a sale of something with a fringe audience. So if any of you know any military fantasy that you feel should absolutely be on this list that I’ve forgotten, let me know in the comments. And as always, if you want more Subgenre Saturdays, make sure to subscribe.