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Literary Fantasy

What is Literary Fantasy?

Judging something to be Literary Fantasy is a bit like defining pornography: you know it when you see it. The “Literary” label seems snobbish to some, unnecessary to others (“it's a book, of course it's literary!”), but entirely appropriate when you consider that these are works that will stick with you long past the first time you read them.

A lot of that has to do with the characters, who are unique, interesting, convincing. They are complex, and this allows the plot to develop in a more complex, yet intuitive way. The themes of the books and their development are compelling, and could be called uplifting, seeming to carry meaning beyond the story itself. Good literature does that, and that's why we value it. One good test of whether something can be classified as Literary Fantasy is if a person who does not like “fantasy” in general enjoys the book, it's probably safe to say it's literary.

There are a number of examples of fantasy that fall into another category, but are also “literary”, but that's mostly because they have a heavier component of the magical or fantasy aspect. Good examples are “The Once and Future King” or “The Chronicles of Narnia”--nobody would dispute that these stories remain with us for a lifetime, yet they are considered Epic High/Quest category. Literary fantasy is more prone to mute the magical elements, treating them as a normal part of life.

These days, literary fantasy has incorporated the New Weird subgenre. This fiction is hard to pin down to a specific genre, but the normal rules of fantasy are usually broken with the settings, people, and landscapes often bizarre, the language flowery and poetic (or at least very stylistic). Others like China Mieville and Jeff Vandermeer are two of the more popular of such authors who write this new kind of literary fantasy.

View the publicaly ranked list of literary fantasy books below or take a look at our best liteary fantasy books list.


Literary Fantasy Characteristics

  • Level of Magic

    Depictions of magic are subtle and treated as not exceptional.
    limited and subtle. When depicted, magic is often treated as part of normal reality.

  • Level of Characterization

    Depictions of magic are subtle and treated as not exceptional but rather limited and subtle. When depicted, magic is often treated as part of normal reality.

  • Level of Plot Complexity

    Ironically, a complex plot handled skillfully can seem less busy than in other types. Also, the fact that these stories take place in a more real “real world” means there is less strangeness to absorb and keep track of.

  • Level of Violence


Related Fantasy Subgenres



Literary Fantasy Isn’t For You If...

You don't like bizzair landscapes, strange peoples, complicated English, stories that are "more" than just stories (there is subtext to the text) or intelligent plotting. Or you're tired of literary fiction and want something completely different.

Best Literary Fantasy Books in the Genre