What Makes It a Fantasy?

The bookselling industry requires that publishers and authors categorize their books. That makes sense. Readers in search of something new to read usually know that they’re looking for a mystery, biography, cookbook, etc. They would not at all be pleased to find bookstores, be they brick-and-mortar or electronic, with no more organization than a rummage sale.

While the industry has a clear understanding of the various genres, it’s not all that clear to me. For example, what would you say is the difference between a mystery and a thriller? (Some years ago I heard one author, I believe it was Margaret Maron, say the difference is a $700,000 advance.).

I find it especially difficult to categorize my books, The Lost King and its sequel, The King’s Ransom. The saga of a man who loses everything—his home, his possessions, his family— was inspired by the plight of contemporary people who through economic downsizing have found themselves “pink-slipped” out of a life they spent decades building. Sounds like general fiction, right? However, the story wanted to be told in “once-upon-a-time” fashion and ended up taking place in the middle Middle Ages. So, is this historical fiction? Well, it might be except for the dragon.

Does a dragon make it a fantasy? Webster’s defines “fantasy” as “the free play of creative imagination.” That sounds like fiction in general, doesn’t it? Drilling down, Merriam-Webster goes on to describe a fantasy as “imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters.” Wikipedia explains “fantasy fiction” as the genre that “uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting.”

Honestly, the setting of my stories is enigmatic but it isn’t all that strange nor is there a lot that’s supernatural. The power of magic does boggle and disquiet the series’ medieval characters as it does today. (If it didn’t entertainers like Criss Angel and Penn and Teller wouldn’t have careers.) Still, I worry that aficionados of fantasy fiction will be looking for lots of spell casting and potion brewing. Instead they’ll find, as one reader put it, that the stories hold “a fantasy medieval mirror to our world.”

The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam have found vocal fans not so much among readers diving into a make-believe world to escape the pressures and limitations of 21st reality. Instead the stories have been taken to heart by readers, men especially, who found the hero’s experiences to be much like their own and felt validated that someone understood and expressed their struggle. So maybe The Lost King and The King’s Ransom aren’t fantasy fiction. But what about that dragon?

I want to get the category right so that the stories can be found by their readers and I don’t want people who pick up the books to be disappointed. What do you think? Are The Lost King and The King’s Ransom fantasy or simply general fiction—with a dragon?

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