I don’t remember which book it was, but I read a book jacket a few days ago, and it contained a label that I’ve noticed a few times before - Dark Fantasy.
What is dark fantasy? The wiki article about it doesn’t offer much illumination, and few enough examples they can be counted on your fingers. The problem I have with grasping what is meant by this is that Fantasy and Horror are very closely related as it is. They cover the same sorts of creatures a lot of the time (vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and witches appear in both fantasy and horror with regularity), and both are rely heavily on the supernatural. The biggest difference between fantasy fantasy and horror often comes down to how many people die over the course of the novel. The line blurs even more when we’re talking specifically about Urban Fantasy and Contemporary Horror, given that both deal with supernatural in a modern real-world setting.
So what make dark fantasy fantasy rather than horror? Is it strictly a further subdivision of Sword and Sorcery which would make it distinct from horror? If we pick up a novel marketed as dark fantasy, what sort of basic plotline should we expect?
And does anyone have any recommendations of books that might actually be properly labeled dark fantasy?
The division of fantastic fiction into microgenres is a relatively recent development; a hunnert years ago there wouldn’t really have been a division between “fantasy” and “horror”. So it may be easiest to think of it as fantasy with elements of horror.
Horror does not need fantasy, but often has fantastic elements central to it. Dark fantasy, for me, means no punches pulled, no playing nice for the sake of the intended reader. Reciprocally, dark fantasy doesn’t need horror, but frequently contains it. Because of this, they often seem the same from a cursory look, but from my experience, they are fully different animals.
An example of what I think is dark fantasy, but not horror is Gene Wolfe’s Claw of the Conciliator. Definitely has its share of horrific elements, but I don’t think many would label it horror after reading.
I take it to mean fantasy without the classic Good vs. Bad divide. Everybody is more or less a bastard, the luckless good guy will usually wind up tortured to death etc. Take Holly Blacks Tithe, or the Warhammer Role Playing Game.
Yeah ok, bad example, but there is still that general dark fantasy “mood” - lots and lots of torture, nobody is really “good” (Kaye doesn’t count - she’s the reader proxy, and she’s a brat). I believe a supporting character is ripped to pieces for fun, an elf is wearing iron as penance for hundreds of years, the main guy is being forced to torture people he cares about to death etc.
The whole first book reads like torture, torture, adolescent angst, torture, identity crisis and spam.
I think the difference is that horror, while having supernatural elements, typically takes place in the real world. That is, many horror stories involving ghosts/vampires/etc. are set in places in real-world locations. Even if the setting isn’t explicitly stated, it’s likely that, aside from the supernatural elements, the rest of the story will have large aspects of reality.
Dark fantasy, by contrast, has all the typical elements of fantasy (kingdoms, magic, artifacts (ala the One Ring)) but the novel is grittier. The good characters aren’t paragons of saintliness, people die, there’s more blood, and things like this.
This is a great example - the Urth of the New Sun is also superb ‘dark fantasy’ in parts.
A lot will come down to the author’s style as much as what they’re writing about. Jack Vance wrote the classic Dying Earth books which ostensibly fit the bill for a dark fantasy theme. They’re the total opposite of dark fantasy though, as his style is so light and comedic - Cugel’s Saga might be the funniest fantasy book ever written. Gene Wolfe takes a similar dying earth backdrop for the Book of the New Sun and it’s the antithesis of Vance’s work. Wolfe’s cryptic, mysterious style - very straight-faced and sombre, is made to measure for dark fantasy.
I remember as a kid my copy of SotT had ‘science fantasy’ stamped on the back. Thought it was the coolest thing ever! Not SF, not fantasy, but something even better.
Since we’re talking about Gene Wolfe anyway, I want to hijack my own thread: are the characters in the Long Sun and/or Short Sun the same ones as in the New Sun? I’ve only read the New Sun stories and since I started rereading them last fall, I’m curious how the three works/series connect.
There are a lot of connections, particularly with the Short sun books, but the characters are completely different (or completely the same, if you’re a critic of Wolfe :)) The BotNS is Wolfe’s masterpiece, and a bona fide masterpiece of the genre as a whole, so the later works are not quite in that league. They’re still outstanding, though, when compared to the rest of the Sf / fantasy bookshelves. The Long Sun books are very good, but flag a bit over the course of the four of them IIRC. I really liked the first two which establish most of the ideas, but thought the latter two sort of descended to the level of everyday decent SF. The short sun books, though, are very strong. The last one (return to the whorl), was absolute vintage Wolfe and really brought everything to a fantastic and emotive conclusion. I read it as his swansong in some ways - bringing the curtain down on his Urth / Whorl creation. He’s written a few other novels since that are a bit half-hearted in comparison. His short stories, though, are still exceptionally good.