Fantasy is a favorite genre for many readers, but some of us fantasy lovers are surprisingly specific when it comes to what we enjoy more than others. Enter the sub-genres of high fantasy vs. low fantasy. Readers and publishing pros throw around buzzwords like “grounded” and “accessible” when discussing fantasy preferences these days, which seems to assume that the default fantasy stories are stories that are not grounded and not accessible. So, what is the default fantasy sub-genre then? What is high fantasy vs. low fantasy? The key is the setting.
The basic defining tenet of high fantasy is that a fantasy story is set in an alternative fictional world, typically with magical elements. High fantasy is sometimes called epic fantasy, and some of the hallmarks of this subset of the fantasy genre include a high page count, lots of characters, usually a quest, and, most importantly, an alternative or secondary world as opposed to the real or primary world. With high fantasy, there are usual global stakes involved—you know, good versus evil, saving the world, and all that.
Books to Check Out
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
Nahri accidentally summons a mysterious djinn warrior who tells her of the legendary city of brass Daevabad. Nahri is whisked into this magical world, and her arrival threatens to ignite a war between the djinn. This is one of the most beautiful book series that we’ve read with immersive world-building and a truly epic story.
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
For the YA crowd, this is a can’t-miss epic fantasy that gives off Tomi Adeyemi meets Sabaa Tahir vibes. Tarisai was raised in isolation by a mysterious figure known as The Lady. When she is sent to the capital to compete with other children to be chosen as part of the prince’s Council, her life is completely turned upside down. Tarisai finally feels like she might be starting to belong somewhere…only to have The Lady instruct her to kill the prince.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Inspired by Chinese folklore, this middle grade high fantasy completely swept us away. Minli lives with her parents in a rickety hut, and every night her father tells her the stories of the Jade Dragon and the Old Man in the Moon who knows the answers to every question. Minli sets off to find the Old Man in the Moon to ask how she can reverse her family’s fortune, and along the way, she meets magical characters and mysterious creatures including a dragon.
Check out other high fantasy books here!
Low fantasy is another subgenre of fantasy. As opposed to high fantasy, low fantasy is set in an otherwise normal world. Some readers refer to low fantasy as intrusion fantasy since magical and fantastical elements intrude into the real world. Low fantasy is related to urban fantasy or contemporary fantasy, dark fantasy, magical realism, and paranormal genres. You’ll notice in these next books that all take place in the real world.
Low Fantasy Books to Check Out
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
In 1988 Mexico City, Meche is an awkward teenager who discovers how to cast spells using music. She and her two friends try to fix their broken families, up their social standing, and even find love. Fast forward to 2009, after the friends have long left Mexico City. Meche returns for her father’s funeral and reunites with her childhood and magic that she thought she had buried long ago.
The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman
After her sister dies, 17-year-old Violet moves to the enigmatic town of Four Paths, New York, where danger lurks in the depths of the town’s woods—the mysterious Gray. When Violet accidentally unleashes the monster, she must unearth the dark secrets in her family’s past before the Gray devours them all.
Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
Set in the American Southwest, 7th grader Nizhoni can detect monsters, including her dad’s new boss at work, Mr. Charles. Mr. Charles takes a peculiar interest in Nizhoni and her brother Mac, their Navajo heritage, and the legend of the Hero Twins. When Nizhoni and Mac’s dad disappears, leaving behind a single message that says “Run,” they go on a rescue mission to save her dad and defeat the ancient monsters Mr. Charles has unleashed.
Understanding the differences between high fantasy vs. low fantasy can help you figure out what kind of books you love reading. What are your favorite fantasy books?