SF/F Genre Glossary

What is Low Fantasy?

This is a continuation of the Science Fiction / Fantasy Genre Glossary Project posts. For the complete genre index click here.

Castle Urquhart Mood by Mike Pratt
Castle Urquhart by Mike Pratt

What is Low Fantasy?

Low fantasy is set in a familiar/rational world, where magical elements are included to a limited degree. Low refers to the level of fantasy or magic in the world. Common themes include mundane settings, cynicism, human struggles for power, and moral ambiguity.

Literary Examples:

  • Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin
  • Scavenger Trilogy by K.J. Parker
  • Shadow Of The Lion by Eric Flint, David Freer, and Mercedes Lackey

I can see this overlapping with historical fantasy, and magic realism. Anything else you want to add to this genre description? Other good examples?

9 Comments

  1. Naturally, Low Fantasy is Fantasy with half the calories. It tastes terrible.

    One pillar of Low Fantasy is Robert Howard’s Conan series. Half the magic is performed off-page, only referenced and held in intrigue, while the stories tend to take place in lands of men and a few beasts.

    Low Fantasy very easily overlaps with Dark Fantasy, as the less fantastic magic you have going on, the easier it is to pull off grit. George Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire prides itself on keeping absolute fantastic things to low amounts. The first book features possibly three ‘magic’ things in about eight hundred pages, and one is only in the final chapter.

    I don’t know if I’d call The Dark Tower “Low Fantasy.” The doors to other worlds? Flowers resurrecting kids? Vampire nurses? The crystal balls? There are scifi tropes like the slow mutants and the sentient monorail, but it’s a pretty out-there world. Especially if you’re defining it as “mundane settings,” Dark Tower is disqualified for largely taking place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

    1. Ahh, I haven’t read the Dark Tower books, though someone listed that example online. Song of Ice and Fire’s a good one too. I read that one ages ago and couldn’t remember the magic content. Dark fantasy, gritty, realistic, blood soaked – yes I can see how that tends to cross over. The emphasis isn’t on the magic of the world.

    1. Hehe, I’ve seen it done well and seen it done badly. I think it depends on the world. Sometimes the world is engaging and different enough that it can be excused – or perhaps I just really enjoy historical detail.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think it’s the closeness or relation to our world that characterizes a low fantasy, so much as the “magic/supernatural content”.

      You could characterize HP a half-dozen different ways – it fits within certain definitions of High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy, there’s a reference I’ve seen recently to “Door Fantasy” which is a story that takes place in a fantasy world that is entered into from our world, which arguably HP is, and I’m sure there are others. But I don’t think Low Fantasy is one of them.

      I’ll second GRRM’s Song of Fire & Ice. I’m only a third through the second book – it’s good, well-written, gritty, with very low magic (and even some characters, including one of the world’s equivalent to wizards claiming there’s no such thing as magic [what they practice isn’t magic, but primitive science]). It’s not entirely my cup of tea, but I can’t deny that it’s good.

  2. I’m fond of Low Fantasy myself. Weird, since I love dreaming up worlds and this seems to focus less on the world and more on plot and characters. I think it can easily veer into other categories and overlap easily (i.e. John’s comments above). Guy Gavriel Kay had several Low Fantasy Stories (Tigana, Song for Arbonne) before he started writing his more recent stories that are placed in near alternate histories (he uses a different place/world but borrows from history). These have more magic then GRRM’s Song of Fire & Ice. There is a priest ability to see the future/heal and in Tigana there are mages but they are fairly rare and mostly they hide their power since two invasive empires hunt down mages and kill them. Yet, the primary characters don’t have magic and struggle with mundane solutions to the plot.

    Hmm… China Meiville’s The City & The City might qualify. Interestingly, you could put it in Door Fantasy, Detective/Mystery as well 😉

    1. Ahh, Tigana is one of my all time favorites. You know, I never really thought of the magic aspect of the story until now. I didn’t feel anything was missing even though there was very little of it.

      Haven’t read City & the City yet, though I do plan to pick it up eventually 🙂

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