And so, ladies and gentlemen of the Madame's Company, the lovely and talented Ciara Ballintyne has graciously agreed to sit down with me and talk about High Fantasy.
Ready? Let's dive.
Ciara Ballintyne is a writer of high fantasy, lawyer, and dragon expert. Bent on world domination and born argumentative, Ciara invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her short story, A Magical Melody, is available as part of the Spells: Ten Tales of Magic ebook anthology.
A Magical Melody
High Fantasy: What Genre Is That?
When I started reading fantasy, the genre was SFF – science fiction and fantasy, and you wrote science fiction, or fantasy, or both.
Now there is a mind boggling array of sub-genres, with high fantasy only one of the fantasy sub-genres, and definitions varying wildly with overlap amongst many genres.
Epic fantasy and high fantasy are often used interchangeably, but I think they are slightly different.
Both are characterised by a plot set in a completely alternate world, featuring magic or archaic weaponry or both. Key to the definition, however, is that the plot will focus around some kind of confrontation between good and evil.
What distinguishes the two is that in epic fantasy, that confrontation is on an epic scale and has world-ending proportions (e.g. The Wheel of Time) and in high fantasy the confrontation is more personal and less epic. Many of David Gemmell’s books are examples of high fantasy, particularly the ones pertaining to Druss, where the battle between good and evil has personal consequences for the hero, and perhaps localised consequences for other people, but won’t destroy the world.
All epic fantasy is high fantasy, but not all high fantasy is epic. Contrary to recent opinions, the number or size of books in a series is not necessarily indicative of whether the fantasy is epic or not.
Other subgenres related to high and epic fantasy include heroic fantasy, historical fantasy, dark fantasy and sword and sorcery. Again, these may overlap. Urban fantasy is an entirely different beast, and not discussed here.
Heroic fantasy is based on the mythology of our world, and many of Gemmell’s books would be both high and heroic fantasy. Some are also epic. Historical fantasy involves some element of fantasy in a historical setting, which arguably includes Diana Gabaldon and Jacqueline Carey. Dark fantasy adds dark or gritty elements to the mix, but a dark fantasy will also usually be high, or heroic, or epic fantasy, or all the above. Other names for the same genres crop up, such as low fantasy or scoundrel fantasy.
All in all, I think it’s the rare fantasy book (outside the urban fantasy genre) that won’t involve some confrontation between good and evil, thus placing it firmly in the high fantasy category. Some dark fantasy won’t be high fantasy. Take Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy – it involves a confrontation between evil, and slightly less evil, and I’m not entirely sure who won. It certainly didn’t have the uplifting satisfaction most readers of high fantasy look for at the conclusion. I want the bad guys to have their arses handed to them, and handed to them well. Abercrombie does not meet this need.
On the other hand, The Penitent Assassin by Shawn Wickersheim is a dark fantasy that I believe qualifies as high fantasy. Though set in a very dark world, it is a confrontation between good and evil, and I’m happy with the end result.
Sword and sorcery is usually not high fantasy. Though some equate sword and sorcery with heroic fantasy, I do not consider them the same. While both sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy draw heavily from mythology and historical references, sword and sorcery is swashbuckling fantasy of the sort focusing on personal adventures, while heroic fantasy tends to be personal confrontations between good and evil – that is, the confrontation between, and the nature of good and evil, is still important to the tale of heroic fantasy, while sword and sorcery is more in the nature of a fantastical adventure, to which the issue of good and evil is less important, such as quests for treasure, or to right a personal wrong.
What genre do you think Game of Thrones is? While George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is obviously fantasy, it less readily slots into sub-genres. I would argue it is not epic fantasy because the confrontation between good and evil is not on a world-ending scale. I think it’s certainly high fantasy, though, because it does involve a confrontation between good and evil – if you choose to characterise the Starks versus Lannisters like that. It depends on your definition of evil, I suppose, but I have no problems picturing Joffrey, at least, in the running for Evil King of the Year. You could substitute moral vs immoral for good vs evil, and for the purposes of the sub-genre definition, I think that’s close enough. Certainly who wins the conflict will matter a great deal to a number of the aristocracy and probably the lower classes as well, based on the way Joffrey likes to run his little dictatorship.
High fantasy (and therefore epic fantasy) is where my heart lies. It’s the subgenre I come back to time and time again when I’ve read and enjoyed other books, but there’s a craving left unsatisfied. I was gratified when, in 2011, I pitched in person to an editor at HarperVoyager whose opinion about high fantasy was quite similar to mine. In fact, her description resonated with me so much, her words have remained with me.
What is high fantasy?
“High fantasy is the beating heart of the speculative fiction genre”.