Fantasy can be divided into subgenres based on theme, setting, plot elements, intended audience, or some combination of the above. (Reminder: these are how I use these terms, and you will find others who don’t agree.)
Yes, generally speaking, I will simply classify something as middle-grade fantasy or YA (young adult) fantasy without further granulation: is it intended for kids 8-12? It’s middle grade. Is it (primarily) meant for teens? It’s YA. I don’t subdivide those into epic, urban, or what-have-you — usually. (There are exceptions to everything, after all.)
- Someone is transported from our world to a world of magic (or vice versa): portal fantasy. Examples include The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland; and Gordon R. Dickson’s Dragon Knight series.
- The Hero’s Journey: most likely to be epic fantasy, I think, although I know some people use it as a foundation for pretty much any type of story.
- Humor: comedic fantasy. Examples range from Magic, Mensa & Mayhem and Asprin’s Myth books to the Xanth series.
- Hard-boiled detectives: most likely to be urban fantasy, although some traditional fantasy is also written well with this motif. Good examples are the Dresden Files (urban fantasy) and the Eddie LaCrosse series (traditional fantasy).
- Lots of swords, with adventure, magic generally suspect: sword and sorcery, of course. Think Conan, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
- Different world from Earth, with magic: secondary world fantasy, includes both sword and sorcery and epic fantasy, as well as portal fantasy.
- Good vs. evil: Could be any, but epic fantasy really excels here. Think Lord of the Rings.
- The world is a dark place, and magic exists: Dark fantasy. (Sub-subgenre of dark urban fantasy, also.)
- Modern world, big city: urban fantasy. (This one should be self-explanatory.)
- Modern world, elsewhere: contemporary fantasy or paranormal. For example, the Sookie Stackhouse stories are paranormal mystery.
- Earth, the past: historical fantasy. Example: Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle, coming out later this month.
- Alternate world that mimics Earth’s past but has no magic: also historical fantasy. A prime example would be Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner.
- Large world canvas or extended length of time (or both): epic fantasy.
So, if you have a world where you have a starving poor person who can use the metal-based magic of her world and she falls in with a group that wants to topple the evil dictator and has to fight against others who use magic along the way (Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn), you have epic fantasy. (Secondary world, abundant magic, good vs. evil)
Descendants of ancient magicians fighting each other and gods to prevent the end of the world, set in our modern world (Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles)? Middle-grade fantasy (targeted toward 8-12 age range).
A dark elf ranger who wanders the surface world with his companions, seeking to redeem himself for past misdeeds (Drizzt Do’Urden, part of the Forgotten Realms mythos)? I’m going to call that sword and sorcery because I think the focus is on the adventure, even though it has most of the elements that could label it as epic.
And for some of those exceptions I mentioned above? The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley and The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip I would refer to as epic, even though they were written for younger audiences. Sorry for the inconsistency; I imagine it comes from my own mind-set as I read them. They were written for someone like me, and they weren’t shelved in the children’s books in the Reno library. Never mind that I was in middle school or high school; they were simply fantasy books (in much the same way that I classified Heinlein as SF, even those that I now know were written as “juveniles”).
Comments, questions, quibbles, differences of opinion? Let me know in the comments!