Urban Fantasy VS High Fantasy

This is not going to be a divisive post. Wow, I just had the hardest time spelling the word divisive. I hate the versus here because it sounds like I’m pitting urban fantasy against high fantasy when, really, I’m just talking about what I like about each, and why they’re such different subgenres of fantasy, but that would be too long of a title, so we’re stuck with the versus. I’m not even going to come out at the end of this saying I like one better than the other, either, despite the fact that I primarily write in one subgenre because I just love urban and high fantasy so much, and this post is really just a space for me to scream about why I love them.

But first, we have to answer the question of what the difference actually is between high and urban fantasy. I’ll drop some of my favorites of each throughout each section, but, really, what it boils down to is this:

  • High fantasy takes place in an alternate universe. This does not include space, which shifts the genre over to science fiction/scifi. We’re talking Middle-earth, Alagaësia, Krynn, Ravka, many more that I can’t remember.
  • Often, high fantasy will also have its own language. Whether that’s Elvish, an Ancient Language, Dothraki, again more that I can’t remember. This is definitely not an end all be all kind of thing, though I think it used to be some years ago, and so, a lot of the older high fantasy definitely plays at having its own language.
  • Urban fantasy takes place in the real world. A lot of the time, that means city-dwelling stories, but it can just as easily take place in a smaller town, as long as it’s set on Earth.
  • The cool thing is, really, you can take all the elements normal to high fantasy (dragons, elves, etc.), shove them into the real world, and call it urban fantasy!

Now, I will admit that a lot of this is my own understanding through reading these subgenres, which means they might not hold true across the board, but the above is what we’re going to be looking at today.

I know, I can’t believe I just matched LOTR with Shadowhunters, either, but they’re both such quintessential high and urban fantasy books that it had to be done.

High Fantasy

For the longest time, high fantasy was where my heart lived. My dad practically threw The Lord of the Rings at me when I was little, and, to this day, Middle-earth continues to be my favorite fictional world out there. There’s just something so satisfying about being able to fully peel yourself out of the real world and drop into something completely unrecognizable. I mean, what a gift! Sure, there are humans in Middle-earth, and there’s political issues happening, and, you know, a whole ass war, but everything else is brand new. When you’re coming from a city with people and noises all around, to step into the Shire, where the hills are green, the hobbits are lazy, and the birdsong is plentiful–there’s nothing quite as wonderful as that.

And hobbits raises a pretty excellent point because one of my favorite things about high fantasy is the different races! You can try to tell me that you’ve never wanted to be an elf before, and I would 100% not believe you. Everyone wants to be an elf at some point in their life! There have been times when I’ve been in the woods and pretended to walk like a dwarf up a particularly steep climb. Or, when I’m out walking the dogs in the winter, and the snow is falling all around, I’ll just twirl and flail around a bit like I’m some elf dancing in the snow. And who hasn’t wanted a) a pet dragon, b) to ride a dragon, or c) to slay a dragon (ya weirdos) at some point in their childhood? Or adulthood, it’s cool, I definitely still want to ride a dragon right now.

Dragons truly might be the best part of high fantasy, let’s be real. Growing up, all I wanted was a dragon, and it always made me so sad that they were painted in a bad light in books and movies. Eragon was just about the best thing that could have ever happened to young Mary, and I look back on those books with such fond nostalgia because of the dragons as heroes archetype that it finally gave my starved, scaly soul.

Fantasy, in general, is such an escape, too, but it’s different with high fantasy. Sometimes, when a book is set in a city that I’ve either been to, or I’ve read about, or I just have some kind of knowledge of, it feels too close to home. Sometimes (like right now), you just want to hide away in something that’s not even a little bit familiar to your current surroundings. I want to burrow deep beneath a hobbit hole. I want to watch rock giants battle each other out under cover of thunder. I want to sneak across the rafters of a royal palace. I want to live with these characters who I wish, more than anything, existed in my real world because it would probably be a better place. Because honestly? Even Sauron might be an improvement right now! (This is biased, I love Sauron with all my heart.)

There are literally countless high fantasy books that I could rec, and choosing just a few to feature in this post has been difficult beyond all belief. I’ll be honest, a lot of them were featured because they’re pretty, or we’d really be here all day as I tried to figure out what my absolute favorite high fantasies were to feature. And that, in itself, is saying something. I have four eight foot tall bookcases, which is six shelves, I think, and an entire bookcase, all six shelves, is dedicated to high fantasy. At the end of the day, it will always, always be what I reach for first, and yeah, I know I said I wasn’t going to do this, but if someone was forcing me to choose, high fantasy would be it for me. Which is very interesting, I’ve got to say, considering it’s not what I write.

Urban Fantasy

I’m sure, if I spent enough time, I could break down why I write urban fantasy over high fantasy, but I would literally have to talk myself in circles before I even came close to the answer, so. I don’t truly know why. Growing up, I wrote primarily high fantasy. Well, for original stories, all of my fanfiction was just straight up drama and romance, but we’re not talking about those. Actually–see, I’ve already started talking myself in circles, this is bad–the first novel I ever wrote was a contemporary. I totally forgot about that. I always say that Ronan was my first real character, that his story, which was set in an alternate fantasy universe rife with dragons and elves and faeries, (oh my!) was my first, but, truthfully, it wasn’t. However, I’ll never publish that contemporary, despite rewriting it again and polishing it up so that it could be published (long story), so we’ll call Ronan my first. It was deep high fantasy, too–mythical creatures, my own language, a non-human MC, dragons, a war as old as time, you name it, I had it.

And yet, if you forced me to choose, right now, what I would write for the rest of my life, it would be urban fantasy. I think it’s because I love the idea that magic is real. Just imagine it–you’re at home, with kids riding by on bicycles, the sound of the highway nearby, with all the modern amenities available, and a sword-wielding badass in all black tells you that there’s a realm existing alongside your own, and he’s one of the guardians that keeps demons at bay. (Am I going to reference Shadowhunters as much as I referenced LOTR? Duh.) That’s just? That’s the dream, isn’t it? Don’t we all want to be whisked away from our everyday lives and find ourselves dropped into a magical world of mayhem and creatures and possibility?

It’s more than possibility, too, though that’s definitely a strong motivator. There’s so much hope in urban fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s there in high fantasy, too, but think about it. The whole idea of urban fantasy is based in hope. We hope that maybe magic exists, so we create it in our cities. We hope that everyday people can accomplish incredible things, so we let them talk to ghosts and travel through time and control the elements. We hope that what we see is not all there is, so we create faery realms and shadow worlds to exist alongside our own. We hope so fervently that there’s something more out there that we give our everyday existence the kind of magic that we’re hoping for. And that, really, is how I talked myself in circles until I arrived at the point of why I write urban fantasy.

I just love the idea of magic floating in the air all around me while I’m sitting here at my dining room table with an open packet of M&Ms leftover from Halloween and Grace annoyingly pacing in front of me so I can’t see the screen and this adorable kid racing down the street on his scooter outside. I love that all of this can be so normal, but maybe my next door neighbor is a vampire. Maybe I am a witch, and y’all just don’t believe me. Maybe Lily is my familiar, maybe the falling autumn leaves become ghosts at night, maybe the streetlight out front flickers because it’s a meeting spot for the unknown. Wow, I’ve just seriously convinced myself that my sleepy little dead end is way cooler than it actually is, and that is why I love urban fantasy so much. It takes the known, shakes it up a bit, and dumps it back out with a touch of unknown dashed through it.

I mean, just look at those covers together. They don’t match at all, and I should put The Babysitter’s Coven in the middle so it’s a little less disturbing to look at, but all three of those books could exist in the same world. Alex Stern could be hunting ghosts at Yale at the same time as Esta is time traveling to save the world at the same time Esme is discovering she’s part of an underground witch gang. And that? Well, that’s just about the coolest thing imaginable.

Obviously, the best is when these two worlds collide via portal magic, but that’s a tricky thing to get right, so I’m not going to rec any, but I’m curious what your favorite fantasy subgenre is!

Do you love urban or high fantasy more?

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she/her | yoga teacher | Tibetan Buddhism | part-time witch | full-time author | astronaut in a previous life

8 thoughts on “Urban Fantasy VS High Fantasy

  1. Great discussion! I would say I prefer High fantasy, and you listed so many good ones! Although you’ve also listed quite some urban fantasies that I’m really interested in reading! So maybe I should read some more Urban fantasy before making the conclusion :p

    (www.evelynreads.com)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, I love looking at subgenres. There are a lot of books that are really hard to pin down into any one subgenre! Also, I’d argue that you can have UF that is in a secondary world. I think my favorite example of this is Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra which is about a sort of beat cop that patrols the city of Elantra where she encounters all sorts of magical occurances.

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    1. It really is! I always get hung up on magical realism because it feels like it should just belong in urban fantasy, and maybe it does as an overarching kind of subgenre, but it also feels very different from the standard kind of urban fantasy that I’m used to.

      Oh, that’s a good point! I don’t know that I’ve ever read a city-specific high fantasy, but it definitely makes sense that that’d slot into urban fantasy, as well. Now I want to read one!

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      1. I put magical realism as a square on the book bingo I run one year and there was this whole debate over what exactly magical realism is vs something like…mythic fantasy which also strays into contemporary fantasy or crosses over into urban fantasy (say, stuff like Charles de Lint’s work is mythic but also contemporary and maybe also could be called urban fantasy). It really depends on *how* you’re defining things. I feel like magical realism, in some cases, could also be urban fantasy, but maybe not in every case? One example is Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin which takes place entirely in New York City. It’s really, in a lot of ways, a love letter to NYC at its heart (even though he explores a lot of other themes in the book as well). But it’s *really* a great example of magical realism. I feel like for me the fantastic elements in magical realism are used more to explore a theme than in regular ‘fantasy’ works? Although that’s a definition that also has its limitations….

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      2. I totally agree! It’s so interesting, when it comes to looking at the nitty gritty of subgenres between books and deciding where something falls, because I think a lot of it becomes personal taste, too. Not that taste affects it a great deal, but magical realism for one person might lean more toward urban fantasy for another, just based on they’re interpreting it. And it’s so cool to see those subgenres kind of blend together and reshape how we think about them.

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  3. High fantasy all the way for me! Take me away from this world, haha, and give me some magic and quests while you’re at it. My understanding of urban is a little more specific than yours (for example, I wouldn’t include Wild Beauty) but like waytoofantasy, I also thought of a title that I consider ‘urban fantasy’ that is set in a secondary world – the title being Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I think for me, an urban setting has to be a critical component of book for me to think of it was urban fantasy.

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    1. That definitely makes sense! I’ve always been iffy about magical realism, if they’re just another subgenre entirely, (though the whole idea of labeling books is another thing entirely) and it makes sense that an urban fantasy should rely on its urban setting as a big focal point. But yeah, I agree with you, high fantasy forever!

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