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Fantasy Subgenres

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Sword and Sorcery

What is Sword and Sorcery?

Is a canonical sub-genre of Fantasy—it spawns the action side of Fantasy. It is a sub-genre that has it all—magic, supernatural elements, action, romance, excitement, and escapism.

The atmosphere in is darker. Good and evil still exist, but there is more moral ambiguity and fewer absolutes. There are many battles that are focused more of the might of the hero than on the battle's morality. As the sub-genre has evolved it has become more gritty and increasingly morally ambiguous.


 MORE THAN A GAME

Broadly, Robert E. Howard is considered the founder of the sub-genre, writing in the late 1920s. However, the term was coined in the 1960s by Fritz Leiber. The name comes from the sub-genre's protagonists, sword swinging heroes, and its antagonists, wand wielding villains.

Fantasy does not present complex stories and worlds because they are meant to be fun, entertaining reads. The world is fantastical, often medieval in structure, and incorporates working magic and very real gods and demons. These action-focused stories tend to feature masculine characters and worlds—brave heroes fight many battles against evil villains with brawn and wit. In fact, female characters are notoriously underdeveloped and typically model the damsel in distress trope.

On the science fiction front, sword and sorcery is highly related to the sword and planet science fiction genre, which is essentially sword and sorcery on an alien planet, with the magic replaced by futuristic technology.

Make sure you check our our dedicated "Best Sword and Sorcery Books list"

 

Sword and Sorcery Characteristics

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  • Level of Magic

    Moderate. Magic is definitely a part of the Sword and Sorcery world, but its use is generally restricted to the villains.

  • Level of Grand Ideas and Social Implications

    Low-None. Sword and Sorcery Fantasy rarely has a message and rarely engages in social commentary, instead it focuses on fun, well-paced stories. The sub-genre tends to be escapist literature.

  • Level of Characterization

    Moderate. Plots of Sword and Sorcery can be intricate, but they are are always action-packed excitement.

  • Level of Plot Complexity

    Moderate. Plots of Sword and Sorcery can be intricate, but they are are always action-packed excitement.

  • Level of Violence

    High. Barbarians at the gate! Fight! Win! Conflicts in the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre are violent and feature swashbuckling heroes.

Related Fantasy Subgenres

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  • High Fantasy. These two sub-genres share similar characteristics, the main difference is that Sword and Sorcery stories are focused more on personal gain (love, wealth), rather the grand and epic battles of High Fantasy. 

  • Heroic Fantasy. Both Sword and Sorcery and Heroic Fantasy are action and adventure stories in fantastic worlds; differentiating between the two can be murky. 

  • Series Fantasy. Another adventure is always possible in Sword and Sorcery and so many stories turn into series.

Sword and Sorcery Fantasy Isn’t For You If...

If you want stories with lots of depth and meaning. If you want altruistic heroes.

Popular Weird West Fantasy Books
  • 1 Conan the Barbarian


    By Robert E. Howard. Arguably, the Conan stories are the foundation of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre. 2. Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. One of the father's of Sword and Sorcery, Leiber's works are often imitated. This series is an example of how writers of this sub-genre infuse details from mythology and old tales.

  • 2 Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser


    By Fritz Leiber. One of the father's of Sword and Sorcery, Leiber's works are often imitated. This series is an example of how writers of this sub-genre infuse details from mythology and old tales.

  • 3 Elric of Melniboné


    By Michael Moorcock. The first of the Elric Saga, this novel is signficant because the protagonist is a magic user and a bit frail—not quite the typical Sword and Sorcery hero.

  • 4 Imaro


    By Charles R. Saunders. A classic example of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre, features a hero who fights humans, beasts, and demons. A noteworthy example that mixes somewhat familiar histories with legend.

  • 5 Legend


    By David Gemmell. The first of the Drenai Saga introduces readers to Druss, a legendary hero who awaits death and can kick your cushy behind.

  • 6 Swords and Sorcery


    By Sprague de Camp. The first anthology of Sword and Sorcery stories—this sub-genre has a strong presence in short fiction.

  • 7 Darkness Weaves


    By Karl Edward Wagner. The first novel in the Kane series, Wagner is often credited with reenergizing the sub-genre.

  • 8 The Blade Itself


    By Joe Abercrombie. The first novel of the The First Law series, this book is an example of the morally ambiguous and gritty evolution of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre.

  • 9 Sword and Sorceress by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This anthology series is important to the evolution of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre because it encourages female writers as well as the creation of swordswomen and sorceresses as strong characters.
  • 10 Jirel of Joiryby C.L. Moore. Jirel is a reaction to Sword and Sorcery's masculine heavy characters. She is the first female protagonist in the sub-genre and her stories are written by a pioneering female writer.

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