Is There Such a Thing as “Hard Fantasy?”

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Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash

We all know the term “hard science fiction,” but did you know there’s such a thing as “hard fantasy?”

It came up the other day when discussing the works of Brandon Sanderson. The Stormlight Archive is fantasy that reads oddly like science fiction, but does that make it hard fantasy?


What is the Definition of Hard Fantasy?

Hard fantasy is, in many ways, the opposite of fabulism. Let’s take, say, the wonderful work of Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a fabulist. His worlds don’t have to make sense. They just have to be beautiful. (Yes, I’m a fan of Gaiman).

Hard fantasy is primarily used in two ways:

  1. To refer to works that are primarily set in a rational world, but have elements of magic. The first use of the word was in reference to historical fantasy. If you write a historical story in which you do your research, are scrupulous about anthrological details, then have magic swords? That’s hard fantasy. One subset of hard fantasy is works like my own The Lay of Lady Percival where Arthuriana is shifted back to its “historical” context of the 4th century. Another example of this kind of hard fantasy would be the very slightly fantastical works of Rosemary Sutcliff.
  2. To refer to works where, like The Stormlight Chronicles, magic is treated like science. Magic has hard rules, which can’t be broken, and there are detailed explanations of exactly how magic works.

So, basically, type I is “Fantasy in which a lot of science is applied to the underlying world” and type II is “Fantasy in which magic is a form of science.”

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Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Do You Have any More Examples?

The best way to explain what IS hard fantasy is to give more examples. So I’m going to dredge up a few.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and sequels by Michael Swanwick. Although this is steampunk fairy tales, it’s steampunk fairy tales with rules. Magic is literally used as technology.

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Although the magic is very amorphous, Martin spent a lot of time working out the dual seasons system and has explicitly said that yes, Westeros is in a binary star system.

The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. Napoleonic war with dragons, anyone? The dragons evolved, have been bred into different types like horses, their ability to fly despite their size is explained. (She admits that there’s no way there would be enough food for the…)

Master of the Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy. This is another one that goes into the deep details of exactly how magic works and what the rules are.

Arguably, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, although I’m not entirely convinced that it’s true fantasy. But that’s an argument for it being hard fantasy.

An Land Fit For Heroes by Richard K. Morgan. Which is A Song of Ice and Fire except make it gayer and yes, even, even more grimdark. Absolutely not for everyone.

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead (another example of hard Arthuriana). Be aware it’s also Christian fiction, which either made you perk up or shy away (It’s not obnoxiously preachy). I would also count his King Raven Trilogy, which is a retelling of Robin Hood with so much liberty taken it barely counts, but it’s still pretty decent.

If you have any more put them in the comments!

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Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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