What is Gritty Epic Fantasy?

Hello gentle reader,

When people ask me what genre my WIP The Last Queen is, I usually reply “Fantasy”. But if I wanted to be precise, I would say “Gritty Epic Fantasy”. Usually I’m not that precise, because then I would have to explain what Gritty Epic Fantasy is and I would end up talking for 15 minutes…

So today I thought I would explain what Gritty Epic Fantasy is, just this once.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

According to Wikipedia,

Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic is common.

Epic Fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds.

NB: Because they share so many similarities, Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy are often used as synonyms. In this post, I will not differentiate the two subgenres, although I do think there are some differences that distinguish them.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are seen as the founders of the Epic Fantasy subgenre. Both authors invented imaginary worlds where their characters go on a great adventure. Their books focus on a good-versus-evil story and they were published during the first half of the 20th Century.

These books are all about escapism and heroism. In The Hobbit, Bilbo is on a quest to find a treasure guarded by a dragon. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf comes back from the dead. In The Chronicles of Narnia, children protect the fictional realm from evil and restore the throne to its rightful line. In these first Epic Fantasy books, there are talking animals, mythical beasts, sword fights, magic at every turn and people rarely die.

As many other readers out there, I love those stories. But Fantasy literature is about being a metaphor for the world we live in. And this is 2012. Since the 1950s, society has changed. Readers have changed. They’ve grown up watching people getting killed live on TV, hearing about horrific cases of child abuse and reading about human trafficking in the paper. When they read Fantasy books, they want to read about characters who face similar challenges to the ones they do.

And that’s what Gritty Epic Fantasy, also known as Realistic Fantasy, has to offer.

The trend was started by Glen Cook’s Black Company series in the mid 1980s. Then George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series followed in the mid 1990s. And in the last ten years, this subgenre has grown exponentially, with authors such as Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, K. J. Parker, Mark Lawrence, Steven Erikson and Brent Weeks.

In these books, the setting is still imaginary worlds. But instead of relying on complicated magic systems and weird creatures, these stories show us a world in shades of grey, where the characters are as flawed as we are, with the same emotions and reactions. These books touch on concepts which echo in our real world. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire tackles politics and relationships, Week’s Night Angel trilogy mentions child abuse and moral ambiguity.

In Gritty Epic Fantasy, there is no old grey-bearded wizard in robes to save the day. No quest to find a hidden treasure. No talking lions and children more powerful than kings. No brave knights who defy death. No world in black and white.

“There’s no guarantee that justice will win out or that a noble sacrifice will make any difference. But when it does, there’s something that still swells my chest. There’s magic in that…. It tells me that’s the way things are supposed to be.”

Brent Weeks, Beyond the Shadows

So maybe Gritty Epic Fantasy is not for you. But I find that this Fantasy subgenre is the one that echoes the most in me and this is what I write.

Some reading recommendations:

Black Company series   (Glen Cook)
A Song of Ice and Fire series  (George R.R. Martin)
Malazan Book of the Fallen series  (Steven Erikson)
The Deed of Paksenarrion  (Elizabeth Moon)
Prince of Nothing series    (R. Scott Bakker)
Acacia  (David Anthony Durham)
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant  (Stephen R. Donaldson)
First Law series  (Joe Abercrombie)
The Lies of Locke Lamora  (Scott Lynch)

The Night Angel trilogy (Brent Weeks)

Prince of Thorns (Mark Lawrence)

 On the web:

Gritty fantasy


Painting With Grey: The Development and Popularity of “Gritty Fantasy”


Why the Turn Towards Gritty Realism In Epic Fantasy?


So what do you think? Do read or write Gritty Epic Fantasy? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

12 thoughts on “What is Gritty Epic Fantasy?

  1. Miss Cole says:

    This was really interesting! Thanks for sharing 😀 I enjoy fantasy but have found myself seeking the grittier end of the spectrum.

  2. Mike Paulson says:

    I’ve never heard the term “gritty fantasy” before, but that is probably because (a) I don’t believe that most books fall neatly into genres and (b) I haven’t gotten to the point of trying to publish a novel yet, so I haven’t had the need to clarify what fantasy subgenre my own novel fits into.

    I would imagine that my own novel would fall somewhere between the classical epic fantasy and the gritty epic fantasy of your own works. There is no clear good and evil for any of the characters, as each has their flaws and no one is really motivated strictly from a desire to do good, or otherwise.

    Thanks for your analysis of these fantasy subgenres. I will need to study these finer distinctions as I move forward, but I appreciate the depths you described these few subgenres in.

  3. EM Castellan says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! Knowing what genre and subgenre your writing falls into doesn’t have to be the first thing on your list but when it comes to getting published, it does help to have a novel that fits somewhere. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  4. I’ve never heard of the term gritty fantasy. I always thought it was dark fantasy. Its a genre I definitely love – I’ve read most of the books you’ve listed.

  5. EM Castellan says:

    To be honest, Dark Fantasy and Gritty Epic Fantasy are quite close. But if we want to differentiate them, Dark Fantasy combines elements of fantasy with horror. It includes demonic creatures, mummies, vampires, etc. Examples: Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles or Clive Barker. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Jeff Hargett says:

    Excellent article. Love the distinctions you drew and the books you recommended. There remain a few there that I’ve not yet read.

  7. John Holton says:

    I’m not much of a fantasy fan, but gritty fantasy sounds like it might be interesting. I’ll have to check some of these out.

  8. Scott says:

    I’m not sure where my writing falls on the gritty scale. Lots of good guys die but it may eventually end up with a happy-ish ever after when it finally ends. Of course, the line “not all life is victory, not all death is loss” might tip this one closer to gritty.

  9. EM Castellan says:

    Writing gritty epic fantasy doesn’t mean you have to forget about a somewhat happy ending. My WIP has a happy-ish ending 😉

  10. vozey says:

    I feel that this blog summaries my thoughts on the gritty genre.

    For me, I don’t believe in following either of the genres. I prefer to go my own way. If I’m easily classified into any subgenre, then I’ve done something wrong.

  11. jeff f says:

    i’ve read all of the series on your list except elizabeth moon who i’m about to look up, i hav to recomend mathew stovers ‘the acts of caine’ as the best and most original fantasy series i’ve found to date

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