What kinds of Fantasy are There?
Although it is fairly easy to define fantasy as a genre that examines what if myths and legends were true, that definition does not capture the scope or variety of the genre. From the halls of kings to underground realms, to the dankest gutters; from alternate realities, to the shadowed corners of our own minds, fantasy goes everywhere. Many stories will fit multiple categories on the following list, and it may not be all inclusive, but it does give some idea of the scope of the genre.
From Lord of The Rings Middle Earth, to Magic Kingdom for Sale/Sold's Landover, to the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons and Dragons, to hundreds of other worlds. Fantasy authors love to set their stories in a place not our own. Their can be a number of reasons for this. Sometimes the alternate world is an integral part of a story. Often because the story features travel between worlds. This might serve to give the audience a viewpoint character who is culturally familiar. It might also provide a fish out of water situation if a character from a parallel world visits ours. Setting fantasy in another world also permits the author to play with the implications of different cosmologies as Terry Pratchett does in his “Discworld” series. In many cases the otherworldly setting helps preserve the suspension of disbelief. It's far easier to believe in dragons and magic in some other world than in our own.
Many works of fantasy, regardless of the world in which they are set, focus on characters who if they aren't demigods or royalty, are at least the close confidants of the ruling class. This probably has some basis in the history that the fantasy works parallel. Historically swords, armor and, most importantly, the training to use them wasn't cheap. Only the ruling class could afford to spend a great deal of their time becoming proficient warriors. Then again it was through their martial prowess that the ruling class stayed in power. Not that every soldier was of the nobility (although some regimes did forbid swords to peasants) in fact the nobleman was often supported by spear-men and archers from among the commoners. Noble soldiers were generally better equipped and trained though and a sword swinging knight usually has more romance than a poor pike-man. The nobles also had the freedom to leave home to deal with monsters and quests while the peasants had to keep their farms running. Additionally when wars broke out or other threats arose it was the responsibility of the nobles to deal with it.
Common monster slayer
For every noble there were hundreds of peasants. Hundreds of gutters for every palace. Some writers focus on protagonists at the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The Thieves World anthology series is perhaps an archetypical example of this kind of fantasy. These stories often focus on smaller scale problems than high fantasy. A sell-sword struggling to keep his armor maintained isn't likely to save the world after all. Sometimes though, these stories feature a characters rise from humble beginnings to seize the throne, as Robert E. Howard's Conan did (although Hollywood later changed the characters background).
Magic meets the modern world
Though most fantasy is set in a quasi historical world some gets set in modern times. One thing these stories have in common, whether they be adventure or supernatural romance, is a secret. Urban fantasy only works if somehow the supernatural elements of the world are kept secret from the majority of the population. Whether the method is a deliberate conspiracy of concealment as in Harry Potter or the absurdity of the mundane population ignoring the truth in “Bewitched” magic in the modern world must be hidden to maintain the suspension of disbelief. These stories often start with introducing a viewpoint character who was unaware of the reality of the supernatural to the truth. Though a few stories like Magic Incorporated have addressed the idea of openly introducing magic into the world most confine the revelation to the main characters.
Not always swordplay
While urban fantasy examines the idea of the supernatural in the modern world this sub-genre puts it in the renaissance or technologically equivalent period. Some works like the Pirates of the Caribbean film series put their fantasy in a world with the same nations and geography. Others like the Tales of Alvin Maker novels keep the geography but portray history as having taken a different course.
Inspired by the myths of the far east this sub-genre includes both translations of stories from China, Japan or their neighbors and western stories inspired by the tales and storytelling styles of the region. Many of the stories that make it in the west feature martial arts heavily. The movie the Forbidden Kingdom is just one example. In some cases myths about the chi powers of martial artists serve as the magic of the setting. In others more blatant sorcery exists next to chi powers. The animated series “Avatar: the Last Airbender” actually used real world martial arts katas to inspire movements of the different “bending” magics of it's characters.
From the East
From out of the Game
If not deliberately written as marketing tie in's for role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons this group is at least inspired by them. While other sub genre seem to pick and chose elements of different mythologies to use, these tend to have an everything and the kitchen sink approach. Sometimes this “gamer fiction” is treated seriously as in the Dragonlance series. In other cases like the web-comic “Order of the Stick” both the game rules and fantasy genre conventions are freely and frequently mocked.
Tongue in cheek
With all the world saving and dragon slaying that goes on fantasy sometimes takes itself too seriously in some peoples opinion. Fortunately for those who'd like to see the genre in lighter tones there are things like the Xanth series, the Myth Adventures and the Chicks in Chain-mail anthologies. Generally these consider no genre convention too sacred to lampoon.
Mix and Match
Most fantasy works fit into several sub categories and may even switch during the story. Harry Potter beginning with a student could be seen as a Low Urban Fantasy mix. By the end of the series though the title character interacts with the “Minister of Magic” and saves the world moving the series into High Urban Fantasy territory. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which category a tale belongs in. Does the fact that characters in the Landover series go back and forth to Earth move those novels into Urban Fantasy territory? Hopefully this list introduces fans of the genre to a few new stories. One thing they all have in common is adding some much needed wonder to our world.