I Know It When I See It

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”  Similarly, I know a fantasy novel when I see one.  And yet, how broad a range does “fantasy” cover?

My first published novel, The Glasswrights’ Apprentice, was set in an imaginary world that vaguely corresponded to medieval Europe (minus the Christianity, plus a religion based on a thousand gods).  Feudalism was strong, buttressed by a caste system where people were born into one of five castes (and could, occasionally, move between lower castes if they had enough money).  Guilds were the primary institutions for training artisans, and guild members were responsible for the majority of luxury goods.

Just to be clear, there wasn’t any magic in the books.  No imaginary creatures, either.  No talismen of power, no epic quests, no struggle to save all of humanity from a supernatural evil force.

And yet no one ever questioned whether the Glasswrights Series was fantasy.  It was published by Roc.  It was shelved in “Science Fiction and Fantasy” in major bookstores.

At the end of this month, I’ll see my most recent novel hit bookstores.  Darkbeast (published under the pen name Morgan Keyes) has talking animals, bonded magical creatures that are able to absorb the negative emotions and actions of their humans.  As in my earlier novels, there’s a religious system that bears no relation to the real world (this one is based on a blend of Greco-Roman deities and Celtic gods).  There’s a social structure that inhibits easy transformation from one life (in a rural village) to another (in a major city).  Oh, and there’s a traveling acting troupe.

So, what is it that makes fantasy fantasy?  What broad definitions bring D.B. Jackson’s and Marie Brennan’s historical fantasies under the same umbrella as Jim Hines’s contemporary fantasy?  How about S.C. Butler’s Stoneways Trilogy, with its wizards, shapeshifting animals, and dwarves?  How are all of those related to my Glasswrights novels, and to Darkbeast?

Chime in, folks!  What are the minimal elements necessary to declare a book a fantasy?


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  1. 1. carmen webster buxton

    How about, if it contains elements (plot or setting or both) that cannot be real and yet there is no attempt to explain them with science or technology then it is a fantasy?

    An interesting example, Martha Wells’ THE CLOUD ROADS has alien beings (not elves or other creatures from folk tales) on an alien world but they can do magic, making it both science fiction and fantasy.

  2. 2. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    Given low-magic fantasy, just setting it in an imaginary world seems to be enough for a lot of fantasy.

  3. 3. Mary

    Ellen Kushner said the question of whether Swordspoint was fantasy was an interesting topic for a SF convention panel — but she’d rather be in the audience.

  4. 4. Mindy Klasky

    Carmen – That example of Martha’s work is interesting. Another SFNovelist, Jenn Reese has a similar construct in her middle grade novel, ABOVE WORLD — there are mermaids and centaurs and other “fantasy” creatures, but there are also SF elements (which would be spoilers, if I told you what they were!)

    Paul – I think that’s it — a lot of “imaginary world” stuff is automatically considered fantasy. But there’s some “imaginary world” writing that isn’t — I’m thinking of literary fiction offerings like Italo Calvino’s IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT or a lot of Umberto Eco’s work…

    Mary – Now you’ve made me interested in SF con panels that haven’t been :-)

  5. 5. Jessica Meats

    Where does the Dark Tower series fit? It’s got a lot of fantasy, some sci-fi and a fair amount of horror.

    I would define SF&F as containing things which aren’t (or weren’t, in the case of alternate history) physically possible. I then split it as follows:
    Sci-fi – contains things that aren’t real (aliens, future technology, etc.) but which are explained or described in terms of science.
    Fantasy – contains things that aren’t real (dragons, other worlds, curses) which aren’t explained using science.

    There are plenty of things that don’t fit this neat categorisation (the various Pern books look like fantasy but are really sci-fi) but it’s a good rule of thumb.

  6. 6. Mary

    I’ve heard Jessica’s definition expressed more geekily: SF is the branch of literature that attempts the suspension of disbelief by appeal to the authority of science.

  7. 7. Mindy Klasky

    Jessica – Things like the DARK TOWER series are exactly why I prefer the term “speculative fiction” — I don’t have to figure out exactly what’s what and how it all fits together.

    Mary – that sounds almost like what I would have written, back when I was an English major! :-) But it makes me wonder where things like Jules Verne and modern steampunk fit in – and whether science that has never existed in reality can be an authority!

  8. 8. cathy

    I work in a bookstore and occasionally get customers who complain that science fiction and fantasy are shelved together. I’m a bit puzzled that there are people who think it’s always easy or possible to tell the two apart, as well as being willing to split up authors who write either. Plus, an author like Kelly Armstrong has been classified as horror while Charlaine Harris is in fantasy. Giving the computer a third shelving choice makes me shudder. :)

  9. 9. Mary

    Of course steampunk fits in. It has Rivets. We all know that Rivets mean Science.

    It may also have dragons and elves, but still — it has Rivets.

    It occurs to me that you may not have read Debra Doyle’s classic definition of genre:

    If it has horses and swords in it, it’s a fantasy, unless it also has a rocketship in it, in which case it becomes science fiction. The only thing that’ll turn a story with a rocketship in it back into fantasy is the Holy Grail.

  10. 10. Mindy Klasky

    Cathy – I used to work in a bookstore in the 1980s, and I spent a lot of time explaining why “horror” was shelved with “fantasy and sf”. Of course, with the fading of the horror genre, that problem has dissipated… I find it interesting that many of my favorite books merge genres, rather than falling, crystal-clear, in one or another.

    Mary – I hadn’t heard Debra’s definition, but I like it!

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    I think your title says it all. Let the individual readers (and marketing departments!) decide.

    Personally I’m willing to slot books into as many different genres as possible. That way they can appeal to as many different readers as possible.


  1. In Other Words… | Mindy Klasky, Author

Author Information

Mindy Klasky

Mindy Klasky is the author of eleven novels, including WHEN GOOD WISHES GO BAD and HOW NOT TO MAKE A WISH in the As You Wish Series. She also wrote GIRL'S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT, SORCERY AND THE SINGLE GIRL, and MAGIC AND THE MODERN GIRL, about a librarian who finds out she's a witch. Mindy also wrote the award-winning, best-selling Glasswrights series and the stand-alone fantasy novel, SEASON OF SACRIFICE. Visit site.



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