In Search of a Sub-Genre (or two)

It’s looking like this will be another month without a short story, so in lieu of this week’s Mystery Post of Mystery, I am giving you a Bonus Post of…Bonus.

I’m looking for a genre. Well, a sub-genre. Possibly a sub-sub-genre.

I like to divide YA Fantasy into three sub-genres. They all incorporate similar elements, but there are a few differences and depending on my mood I go back and forth between which is my favourite.

First, there’s Epic Fantasy. These stories take place on other worlds, and there are pretty much no limitations. These are worlds like Tamora Pierce’s Tortall and characters like Kristin Cashore’s Katsa. This is my comfort food. This is the genre I grew up loving, and even though it’s not terrifically popular at the moment (Dear Kristin Cashore, THANK YOU SO MUCH. Love, me), the books that get published are usually gems.

Next there is what I like to call Inserted World, but what is probably more commonly known as Magical Realism. This is your Harry Potter, your Clary Fray and your Silla Kennicott. These are stories set on our own Earth, but where magic is a secret. I prefer the to use “Insert World” because it lets me lump most paranormal romance into the sub genre, at least those paranormal romances where vampires/faeries/etc are secret, and also books like Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red which don’t involve magic, but are set on our own Earth.

The third sub-genre is the one I am the most interested in right now. I call it Practical Magic, and it is our Earth again, but this time magic is commonplace. It’s not universal in practice, which is to say that not everyone can perform it, but everyone knows that magic exists . The key is the alternate history. For completion’s sake, something like True Blood would qualify here, as even though it is a paranormal romance, vampires are not a secret.

So far, I have two (published) examples of this genre. The first is Chris Moriarty’s The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, which I recced last Friday. The second is Holly Black’s White Cat series.

(Sidebar: Technically, Erin Bow’s Plain Kate probably qualifies, except is it just old and ethereal enough to blur the line between straight up Fantasy and Historical Fantasy, which is a murky line to begin with, and I arbitrarily view Historical Fantasy as its own genre most of the time, which is why it’s not on my list of sub-genres here.)

It could be argued that Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races qualifies as Practical Magic, except for the tiny detail that there aren’t actually magical elements. Because of the lack of magic and inclusion of creatures, I call that sub(-sub?)-genre Zoological Unrealism, because I think it sounds funnier. Whatever you call it, Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Every Other Day qualifies as well.

The point of this whole post is twofold:

1. What do you all think of “Practical Magic” and “Zoological Unrealism” as genres?, and

2. Have you got any recommendations for me? (The only real qualifications are that the world has to exist near as is, but with MAGIC or CREATURES that are not secret. And not science fiction. By which I probably mean “not dystopian”.)



9 responses to “In Search of a Sub-Genre (or two)

  1. The term Practical Magic makes me think of Sandra Bullock, but beside that it’s one of my favorite sub-genres ever. Here are my recs:

    SUNSHINE by Robin McKinley, the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card*, Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker Trilogy, Patricia Wrede’s THIRTEENTH CHILD and sequel.

    The latter three are *historical* Practical Magic, and the Spiritwalker veers more into epic because the changes to the world are so immense. But still, technically, I’d call it PM.

    *with reservations.

  2. Oh, and the Anita Blake series – the world-building in the first 4-5 books is really great. It’s like the True Blood pre-curser, but isn’t really PR until later in the series. At first it’s just world building, vampires, and raising the dead, basically.

  3. Ooh, I like your distinction between inserted world/secret magic and practical magic/alternate magical history. I don’t think the distinction would ever have occurred to me, personally, but I can see what you mean about there being an actual, practical difference in the way that each kind of fiction works, almost as large as between fantasy-in-our-world and epic fantasy.

    The only book I can think of off the top of my head to recommend (that hasn’t already been mentioned) is Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley. Are you only looking for YA? A not-really-YA series I can think of are the Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony, although I’m mentioning them with the HUGE caveat that I read and enjoyed them a lot as a teenager, but everything I’ve reread by Piers Anthony as an adult has made make this face – 0.o – a lot and quit halfway through. *g*

  4. I find myself quite fond of “Zoological Unrealism” as sub-sub-(sub?)-genre label. Hee!

    I tend to think of things in the same three sub-genres you do, but use different terms (high fantasy, closed-world fantasy, and open-world fantasy), where the latter two correspond to your categories of “Insert World” and “Practical Magic” categories.

    And my absolute FAVORITE open-world/practical magic book series is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews (starting with Magic Bites). πŸ™‚

    • It makes me giggle. πŸ™‚

      Your labels probably require less explanation! I like it because it lets me link books together without saying things “It’s like Supernatural, if Supernatural were girls” etc. It cuts down on comparisons, basically, which was handy when I worked at the Book Cabal.

      Thanks for the recs!

  5. How would you classify the ‘bridge’ stories with your system? i.e. we cross over from our world to a whole different one (Narnia, Neverending Story)

    Just curious. πŸ˜‰

    I suppose by this reckoning, the Basement would be Inserted World.

    And I have no answer for Owen so I am unhelpful.

    • Narnia and The Never Ending Story would both be a subgenre of Insert World. πŸ˜‰

      Owen would be Zoological Unrealism, because there’s not magic but it’s not a secret.

      It’s possible I have a flowchart.

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