Low Fantasy is a catchall, and rather inexact, term for that sub-genre of Fantasy that is neither high nor Heroic Fantasy, and usually not Urban Fantasy, though it may overlap with the other sub-genres. Not a good way to define a genre, but English is funny like that -- especially our particular brand of it.
The designation is not a description of the quality of the work, but rather the amount of fantasy, and the number of fantastic or otherwise supernatural elements, it contains, which can be rather difficult to measure. Sometimes comedies are also excluded from the genre, but either way the works that remain don't have a natural unity.
However, while there are no features all Low Fantasy has in common, there are features common in many low fantasies, each the opposite of one of the defining features of High Fantasy:
- Mundane settings: Urban, historical, After the End, or otherwise subdued and only sparsely supernatural. A clear contrast to High Fantasy's wildly superpowered setting.
- Cynicism: Low fantasy is famous for its gray morality (or in nastier cases, Black and Gray Morality), while high fantasy is famous for its Black and White Morality.
- Human dominance: worlds which are populated mostly (or even exclusively) by human beings rather than the usual Tolkienesque mix of elves, dwarves and other humanoids.
- Plot scope: Tends to focus more on the survival and tribulations of one or a few individuals rather than the whole world. A villainous king who steals a magical artifact is less likely to be trying to bring back the Infernal Legions of Hell and conquer the world.
- Heroism: High fantasy heroes are usually all-around nice guys who stand up for the little guy and fight the bad guy. Low fantasy heroes tend to be bitter cynics desperately clinging to their broken moral compass or devil-may-care anti-heroes who save the woman from the evil sorcerer just for the sex.
- Methods: Victories achieved through physical combat, not magical battles or moral superiority - the defining feature of Heroic Fantasy.
- Tone: Tends to be darker or more comedic than your average high-fantasy world.
- Sorcerers: In high fantasy, they're kindly old men who sling fireballs in the name of justice, with the exception of the villain. Magic also tends to be treated as a wondrous force that binds the world together. Low fantasy treats sorcerers as freakishly evil, and quite often insane people who would sacrifice a thousand virgins to some hideous monstrosity from another dimension just to increase their power a tiny bit. Magic is well within Things Man Was Not Meant to Know territory and is often thought of as the evil corrupting force that entices innocent people into doing anything for power. And this all assumes, of course, that magic exists at all - there are examples where magic is essentially non-existent.
- War: In high fantasy a clear "Good vs. Evil" smackdown between civilized races and the Exclusively Evil races. In low fantasy, a useless war between two empires to make their lands marginally bigger.
It has been argued that 'soft' science fiction and Space Opera is essentially fantasy with spaceships and ray guns. It may almost be said that, thematically, Low Fantasy is soft science fiction with dragons and swords... and sometimes not even the former.
Not to be confused with "pulp" fantasy.
- Moribito: Guardian Of The Spirit has a disillusioned cynic trying to make up for her past deeds. Fictional medieval setting with limited magic.
- Spice and Wolf: one of the two main character is a wolf goddess in humanoid form, but the plot is mostly about the mundane things she and the trader she travels with encounter.
- Conan the Cimmerian, the epitome of Heroic Fantasy (or, Sword & Sorcery), is an oft-cited example of low fantasy. Just as Lord of the Rings created high fantasy, Conan founded the genre of Low Fantasy (Sword & Sorcery).
- Shadow of the Lion by Eric Flint, David Freer, and Mercedes Lackey is a good example. It is set in ancient Venice, and, though magic exists, it has little more to do with the day to day life of most citizens than historical "witchcraft" did, and, indeed is treated in much the same way. Except of course for protagonist Marco Valdosta who ends up fulfilling his destiny as a mage by acting as a vessel for the Winged Lion of Venice and saving the city. Virtually the only other fantastical elements are spirits/demigods and demons (from whom humans draw magical power, so arguably these two are just different aspects of the same element).
- A Song of Ice and Fire is arguably a borderline example of low fantasy. While it has gritty realism, it also has an epic scale. It does have shapeshifters, necromancers, sorcerers, priests that can perform miracles, magic and talking doors. The amount of magic grew as the series progressed, and in the beginning was very subtle and ill-defined. Plus, most magic users are painted in the same dark tones typical of Low Fantasy, and the book goes beyond Gray and Gray Morality straight into Black and Gray Morality, making it very cynical and very dark.
- Eisenstein's Sorcerer's Son is fairly idealistic, but the small scale plot and human dominated world are enough to mark it as low fantasy.
- Discworld, particularly from about Men At Arms onwards as Pratchett begins to explore how a city like Ankh-Morpork would actually work. However while the feel is often Low Fantasy the actual setting - with dwarfs, trolls, extra-dimensional elves and dragons, interactive deities, recurring threats to reality itself and numerous wizards and witches is more High Fantasy. Much of the humour comes from meshing the two forms together (for example, in Sourcery the magic is very much High Fantasy, but the magicians are as Low Fantasy as they come) and much of the plot and conflict come from the juxtaposition of the idealism of High Fantasy against the cynicism of Low Fantasy.
- The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie is arguably Low Fantasy at its rawest.
- The Dying Earth series (and Tabletop RPG based on the books): an After the End setting, where many societies have returned to a feudal and agrarian state or disintegrated completely, magic has all but replaced science, and Life is cheap. Characters include the selfish rogue and conman Cugel the Clever who has to reluctantly undergo quests for a wizard he tried to rob; Liane the Wanderer, who happily commits casual murder and comes to a bad end at the hands of a collector with an unusual fetish for eyes; and the magician Rhialto the Marvellous, who constantly quarrels with his companions. It's safe to say that 99% of characters encountered are amoral, selfish, callous, narcissistic, sociopathic and thoroughly unpleasant Anti Heroes, or simply insane. The only character who is even remotely sympathetic is Mazirian the Magician, and even he can be ruthless when it suits him.
- Albeit perhaps more so in the later stories: the earlier set has Turjan of Miir, T'sain, T'sais (after some development), and Etarr, at least.
- The Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch: the main characters are a gang of sophisticated con men, who tend to run around cities rife with organized crime. The magical ability of the world is actually pretty high, but it's all in the hands of a wizards' guild that appears rarely and has it in for the protagonists.
- The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake could be seen as an extreme case of this even to the point that it's open to debate whether it counts as a fantasy series or not. While it does take place in a fantasy setting (an impossibly large and ambiguously sentient castle) and if doused with a good dose of fantasy imagery (a giant dead tree many hundreds of feet from the ground on which a set of twins have tea), it contains no instances of magic, dragons, talking animals or any other such element found in even the lowest of fantasy novel. Also the nonexistence of major conflict throughout most of the novels sets it apart from other fantasy stories. The third books really brings up doubts about the books' fantasy merit. Still, this doesn't repel book stores from insisting on placing these books in the fantasy section (actually, I'm not sure where else they would go). But I guess there was Boy in Darkness.
- Most of the fantasy novels of Barbara Hambly.
- Most of the fantasy of Joel Rosenberg.
- Robin Hobb's Farseer series is classic Low Fantasy.
- Notable because the events described are very much high fantasy, but the story focuses on characters who barely ever see the significance of their actions, and the plot is very much grounded in their day to day experiences.
- The Paladin by C. J. Cherryh is an example of the "no visible magic" variety of Low Fantasy.
- Although a series about talking cats may sound like High Fantasy, Warrior Cats has some very distinct Low Fantasy qualities, with its dark tone, Gray and Grey Morality, increasingly dysfunctional characters, and minimal involvement of supernatural forces.
- Alan Campbell's Deepgate Codex trilogy combines many Low Fantasy elements with a Steampunk setting.
- Ronja the Robbers Daughter is a great example of a Low Fantasy children's book.
- K.J Parker's Scavenger Trilogy is good example of a low fantasy. The series sticks to mundane settings and has a dark tone. It provides a troubling take on heroism. Supernatural elements are present but low-key. The wars are inglorious, both in the field and their aims.
- The Indigo series fits on most counts: It's After the End. Sentient nonhuman beings are rare. Morality is mainly grey and gray. Clan feuds are more likely than actual wars (although one kingdom does get captured by an Evil Overlord who turns out not to be evil after all). And magic isn't particularly reliable or predictable, and is rarely powerful. However, the future of the human race is on the shoulders of our eponymous heroine and her "dog." Or something.
- James K. Burk's High Rage (and its as yet unpublished sequel Taking Hope): intrigue, war, politics, swordfighting and some interesting magic, but no dragons or world-shattering conflicts.
- The Stone Dance of the Chameleon takes place in a world with no magic at all, but is definitely fantasy.
- Tales of the Otori, in which magic is rare (and controlled by a secretive network of supernatural spies and assassins), magic-users are generally feared and mistrusted, all but one of the main antagonists are non-magical, political intrigue and military strategy play as big a part in the plot as the supernatural elements, and the protagonist is a former religious pacifist turned vengeance seeker after the massacre of his village.
- The Redwall novels are another example of low fantasy, where the villains often go to war for petty reasons, magic is almost nothing more than prophecy and ascended parlor tricks, the scope is limited to Mossflower woods (or if they do go afar, wherever that place happens to be; our heroes are not going out to save the world as you'd expect in High Fantasy), and where in the earlier books, Anyone Can Die. What breaks that mold is the Funny Animal cast, the Black and White Morality, and the fact the Brian Jacques himself ostensibly writes these books for kids.
- Gunfighter's Ride is about a Pony Express rider and his horse dealing with magical menaces.
- Last Dragon has very little magic and the dragons are, as might be inferred from the title, extinct. The tone of the novel is rather harsh too.
- The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio is a simple travel tale with little magic involved(mostly dreams and visions which have minor bearing on the plot). The setting is rather like Medieval Central Asia and if you look up place names you will sometimes find them actually corresponding to place names in medieval times.
- Leslie Barringer's three-book Neustria Cycle - Gerfalcon, Joris of the Rock, and Shy Leopardess. The first book was published in 1927. Neustria was actually a Frankish country that got merged into the early Holy Roman Empire, but this Neustria still exists in the 14th or 15th century, and although it's supposedly French-speaking, Neustrian place-names don't match anything on a historical map, making this not quite Historical Fantasy. On the other hand, Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Egypt, Provence, England, and Tuscany are mentioned, so the world's geography isn't entirely unrelated to our own. History is also somewhat the same, as the hero writes an epic poem based on Arthurian legend and whittles toys for a child in the shape of Charlemagne and his paladins; the Avignon Papacy appears to be in place, too. As for magic, witches mostly use trickery and psychology, but they're shown to have a few genuinely supernatural powers as well.
- Black Company - there are werebeasts, some otherworldly creatures and powerful magic, but mostly it's nasty stuff, and in the end even near-godlike sorcerers conquer land with armies.
- Thieves' World. Welcome to the Wretched Hive. Life is brutal and often short. Gods occasionally walk among the people, priests and mages tend to be big fish and occasionally perform impressive deeds... but they can be as desperate as anyone else and most of their deeds is something to which most people would be lucky not to get close enough to witness, let alone be part of. Psychic Powers seem to be more practical, but very limited in scope and scale, with about as many idiosyncrasies.
- Warhammer Fantasy Battle Swings from Low to High Fantasy, and everything in between. In particular, many areas around The Empire or the Border Princes are typically Low Fantasy for the most part. An article in White Dwarf magazine even gave tips on how players can structure their armies to be Low Fantasy.
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay on the other hand defaults and mostly stays there. Although you can encounter very potent supernatural elements, it usually means you're in way over your head.
- Iron Kingdoms (at least in their RPG incarnation) take a pretty good shot at this one. Even in the tabletop battle game, wars between nations are usually concerned with either land-grabbing or religious differences (the kind with fire), but anything involving the undead Cryx faction usually veers off into ludicrous world-threatening territory.
- The Everblight faction is very much in the same territory; also, the "fantasy" level is much higher than most other low fantasy settings (what with war wizards binding magic steampunk robots or giant monsters and the number of intelligent races); the Grimdark tone and Black and Gray Morality more than make up for it.
- Ironclaw is a rare example of a Tabletop Games excursion into Low Fantasy, with an emphasis on interpersonal conflict, politics, and characters who actually have a place and role in society other than "adventurer". The relative paucity of "monsters" (Guilt Free Slaughter Victims) in a Funny Animal-populated setting gets a Lampshade Hanging in one supplement:
Frater Perphredo: Where are the monsters? My friend, we're all monsters.
- While not gritty or cynical in the slightest (just the opposite, really), the Atelier series of games tend to have many of the other marks of Low Fantasy. In the earlier (and Japan-exclusive) games especially, the setting is dominated by humans, there is very little blatant magic (most "magical effects" are at least manufactured by the alchemist heroes of the games, often with recipes that have at least a little grounding in actual science), and the setting of the games only encompasses a single country or principality (on purpose, as the protagonist is working in a time limit and typically is running a business anyway, and doesn't have time to go casually Walking the Earth). The Atelier Iris sub-series, which did make it to America, has received some criticism for moving away from most or all of these elements; Mana Khemia and Atelier games on the DS, Liese and Annie, have brought the Low Fantasy elements back to the forefront to at least some degree, with Atelier Rorona deliberately going back to it full-force.
- Darklands sits comfortably between high and low, although its roots are firmly planted in Low Fantasy due to taking place in 15th century Central Europe, during the last years of the Holy Roman Empire. You spend a great deal of time simply making enough money to survive, and spend a lot of time visiting very mundane cities and villages, negotiating with local lords (most of whom don't have the time to talk to you anyway), studying at universities and cathedrals, and tackling robber knights and brigands. Magic comes only in the form of alchemical concoctions (recipes for which are supposedly, but not really, based on the works of real-world alchemists and philosophers), which take a long time and precious (real-world) ingredients. The supernatural elements, however, are pretty strong, with many mythical creatures from European lore lurking in the countryside, and an over-arching plot involving the summoning of demons from hell. Also, Christian saints apparently have great powers to bestow upon their followers.
- Resonance of Fate. Gun Fu replaces magic, and the game is decidedly Steampunk.
- Thief fits this trope to a tee and even adds a very gritty Film Noir aesthetic coupled with medievalish Clock Punk and Steampunk into the overall mix...
- Sunset Over Imdahl hits seven items out of nine on the checklist, and barely avoids the last two—it's a pointless war to keep a crumbling empire together, and magic is barely present, let alone good or evil.
- Bungie's Myth series is arguably an example. While its setting does have wizards of incalcuable power and legions of undead soldiers in a campaign to exterminate the living, the focus of the series tends to be on rank-and-file soldiers struggling to get by, fighting a seemingly hopeless war which none of them expect to survive, and just observing the world falling apart around them. There is little in the way of heroics, just a collective resolve not to go quietly into the night.
- Dwarf Fortress may have humanoid species besides humans (with the spotlight, naturally, on the dwarves, though all of the races are assholes in their own way), but it's quite low as fantasy goes. Technological advances range between the bronze and medieval ages (though, with a little creativity, the dwarves can go well beyond), there's no magic (and the magic immediately in development, necromancy and immortality, is only controlled by the few who learned of divine secrets), and the most common threats to your colonies are rather mundane issues such as the local wildlife, the scarcity of natural resources, and invasions from the malevolent goblins (or, perish the thought, running out of booze). Dragons and megabeasts may exist, but they are few and far between. With that said, the game is relatively easy to modify, allowing code-savvy players to add their own mythical terrors and magic if they wish.
- Gungnir, which is gritty and set to a Black and Gray Morality racial conflict. The world has some magic, but anything flashy is bound to be a forbidden art; there are Sprites, but they tend to stay away from people, and the resident angel's morality and objectives are a bit questionable. It helps that this game is part of the unabashedly Dark Fantasy Dept. Heaven series.
- Skyrim is an interesting example on account of its two main quests. The first is very much high fantasy with an ancient, indisputably evil force returning and a chosen hero with a unique superpower standing up to fight it. The other main thread, the Civil War, has much more in common with low fantasy as two morally ambiguous and mostly human factions oppress, backstab and manipulate pretty much everyone in the land. The game's sidequests also reflect this, ranging from helping talking dogs and ancient gods on the one hand to a grisly slog to track down a serial killer on the other.
- Dragon Age is mostly low fantasy, though the sequel (focused on a single city and the kyriarchy within) more so than Origins.
- The Witcher is made of this. Humans became dominant by conquering other people, elves and dwarves are so racially oppressed they let aside their differences to start a rebellion together. The word 'human' itself is put into question, the therm 'non-human' is considered a racial slur toward the other races. Also, it appears there's other earthly races aside the standard European=human, at least an arabic antagonist in the first game.
- A Scotsman in Egypt is mostly a Historical Fiction/Alternate History story, but it also contains a few low-key fantasy elements, mostly consisting of the visions various characters experience, coupled with the one witch who uncannily recites a conversation from decades ago, mostly spoken by dead men half a continent away.