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Fantasy Subgenres


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Gods and Demons Fantasy / Shenmo Fiction

What is Gods and Demons Fiction / Shenmo Fiction?

Gods and Demons Fantasy, also called Shenmo, pulls together the wonder of the ancient Chinese world of the gods (and demons) with the mystical and the adventurous. The word shenmo xiaoshuo means fiction of gods and demons -- it was coined in the 20th century by writer and literary historian Lu Xun. Shenmo Fantasy is a sub-genre featuring the deities, immortals, and monsters of Chinese mythology. Shenmo stories are written in a vernacular style -- based on spoken Chinese rather than Classical Chinese -- which links well with its roots in folktales and legends.

This sub-genre is filled with the fantastical and the supernatural. Monsters, demons, deities, immortals, magic wielding-humans. It is a sub-genre that leans to fantasy's romantic side. Heroes and villains, good and evil, daring feats, adventure, and more are a part of the Shenmo story!

This sub-genre has been around the block (starting in the 14th century and drawing on myths even older) and reinvented itself and its classic works are still influencing creators today. It has evolved and satirized itself, it has died off, and it has seen a resurgence. The quintessential Shenmo book is Journey to the West, which was rewritten and astatized and is even an influence for the popular anime Dragon Ball. So, needless to say, this sub-genre of gods and demons has a rich and varied literary history.


Other Features of Gods and Demons Fiction / Shenmo Fiction

  • Level of Magic

    High. Magic is derived from Chinese mythology and religion (Taoism, Buddhism, etc.) and so it has a rich history. Magic is a strong element of the sub-genre and it permeates the story and the fantasy world. Magic is of the gods, of the demons, it is light and a dark, and sometimes the human hero can wield it. In later works there is a blurring between the human world and the mystical world, which affects how magic is realized in the story, but it is still an important building-block of the world.

  • Level of Grand Ideas/Social Implications

    Variable. Early works of this sub-genre weren't all that concerned with social implications, instead they reveled in the world of the fantastic, supernatural, and godlike. As the sub-genre has evolved so too have its themes -- now human centered themes are more common. The works also become more philosophical with time and some even have philosophical and political debates included. Sometimes, though, the debates are in the form of parody and have comedic value. Here fantasy, is being used for social commentary on the human world -- not the world of the gods. Questions about government, religion, and fate tend to be overarching themes in the sub-genre.

  • Level of Characterization

    Moderate-High. Shenmo recycles characters -- from history, from mythology -- which allows storytellers to create well-defined and knowable characters. There is a lot of history in this sub-genre and the character development draws on and uses this history to create exciting heroes and villains. Shenmo stories often have themes about good and evil and fate. Sometimes characters are used as tools in the service of these themes. This feature makes the themes richer, but the characterization can suffer a bit.

  • Level of Plot Complexity

    Moderate. There are accidents and other events that make a plot interesting and not so linear in Shenmo. But there is an overarching plotline that many stories follow in this sub-genre and that is the battle of good and evil. The stories tend to end with a reconciliation between these two opposing forces.

  • Level of Violence

    Moderate-High. There are plenty of magical battles in Shenmo. Battles between immortals, deities, and magic-wielding humans. The battles do fall under the category of fantasy violence, but these are frequently battles of good and evil. The villains, an embodiment of evil, definitely have a taste for the brutal and the vicious.

Related Fantasy Subgenres

  • Historical Fantasy. Some Shenmo uses historical events and figures. Mythic Fantasy. Shenmo weaves elements of traditional folklore and legend into its stories, making it a part of the Mythic sub-genre.

  • Legend Retelling Fantasy. Shenmo draws on the ancient legends and folklore of China and so it is very much a part of the Legend Retelling sub-genre.

  • Wuxia Fantasy. Both draw on oriental culture and populate their worlds with the magical and the wondrous -- though Wuxia has a strong emphasis on martial arts.

Gods and Demons Fiction / Shenmo Fiction isn't for you if...

This is not a sub-genre of easy-breezy reads. Shenmo requires the attention of readers -- it draws on a rich history and culture. These are exciting and fantastical stories, but if you want a quick and easy read, perhaps this is not the right sub-genre for you.

Popular Gods and Demons Fiction / Shenmo Fiction Books

  • Wu Cheng'en, Journey to the West. Also called Monkey, it one of the most well-known examples of the sub-genre, this novel was published in the 16th century. It is an account of a monk's legendary pilgrimage. The novel has religious elements as well as elements of folktales.
  • Xu Zhonglin, The Investiture of the Gods. Another well-known example of the sub-genre. It is a retelling of the overthrow of the last ruler of the Shang dynasty. Human heroes, immortals, mythological figures, deities, and spirits make up the cast of characters.
  • Luo Guanzhong (14th century) and Feng Menglong (16th century), The Sorcerer's Revolt. This novel blends comedy and the supernatural. It's about the legend of Wang Ze and his revolt -- it's a historical event embellished with mythology and fantasy.
  • Zhanggui zhuan, Romance of Devil Killing. A satire and a comedy that parallels the world of ghosts with our own.
  • Pinggui zhuan, Quelling the Demons. A blending of the human world and the supernatural world, this is a comic Shenmo story that parodies older works of the sub-genre.
  • Kylie Chan, White Tiger. The first in the Dark Heavens series is a modern example of Gods and Demons fantasy -- Emma is a nanny drawn into a world of gods and demons, and magic and dragons.
  • Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese. A graphic novel that includes one story based on a legendary folktale.
  • Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber. One of the great classic Chinese novels. It is an epic story with fantastical journeys, and a love story as poignant as Romeo and Juliet.
  • Li Ruzhen, Flowers in the Mirror. A scholar journeys overseas on some fantastical trips an. The novel champions feminism.