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Not All Fantasy Is Equal

Which of these types of fantasy do you prefer? Below is a poll to show us what the Spec Faith readership likes best.

Rhetorics_Of_Fantasy_coverIn 2008 Professor Farah Mendelsohn published Rhetorics Of Fantasy, a scholarly analysis of fantasy that classifies stories based on the relationship of the protagonist to the fantasy elements. From the reviews I’ve read, I think the breakdown of fantasy into four overarching types may have merit.

The categories are Portal-Quest, Immersive, Intrusive, and Liminal. The first three seem to be the most common. Here’s a brief description of each as I understand it.

Portal-Quest Fantasy. This one may be the easiest to understand based on it’s name. The protagonist enters into a fantasy world through a one-way portal, sets things right in that place, and returns to the real world.

The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe is a classic example of a Portal-Quest Fantasy. But so is Lord Of The Rings. Though there isn’t a portal to the real world, there is still this sense of leaving a known world (the Shire) and traveling to unknown places. Certainly the trilogy is a classic quest fantasy.

Another that could be classified as a Portal-Quest Fantsay is the series that influenced me to become a fantasy writer—Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever.

Immersive Fantasy. Stories that start out and take place entirely in a fantasy world are Immersive Fantasy. I think of Karen Hancock’s Guardian-King series as an example of this type of fantasy.

Interestingly, The Lord Of The Rings also could be slotted into this category as well, indicating that there may be overlaps with these categories. Others that come to mind would be Jill Williamson’s Blood Of Kings series, Patrick Carr’s The Staff & The Sword trilogy, and Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Tales Of Goldstone Wood series.

As I think about it, I guess dystopian and post-apocalyptic fantasy would have to be considered immersive. While the fantasy world is supposedly the real world, the futuristic aspect creates an other world setting. Novels of this type include The Hunger Games, Divergent, Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands trilogy, and Nadine Brandes’s A Time To Die.

Intrusive Fantasy. Stories that fit into this classification bring the fantasy elements into the real world. C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew comes to mind as an example of Intrusive Fantasy though it retains Portal Fantasy aspects as well—another indication that there may overlap with the categories.

Some people call this type the opposite of Portal-Quest Fantasy. Stories like Twilight and Merrie Destefano’s Fathom (in which Selkies exist) would also seem to fall into this group.

Harry Potter would best be classified as Intrusive Fantasy, I believe, though there is an element of Immersive Fantasy, too. The interesting thing about Rowling’s work is that the protagonist is part of the fantastical intrusion, whereas most other stories in this category have a protagonist from the real world who experiences the intrusion of magic or magical beings.

Liminal Fantasy. I don’t have a strong grasp of what these stories are like. One blogger described them like this: “Like the intrusive fantasy, the liminal fantasy is set in our world, but there the fantastic elements are fleeting, barely glimpsed.” One Amazon reviewer defined them this way: “This is the most unusual fantasy, and the smallest category, the one where the fantastic is never fully revealed but always around the next corner or just out of sight.”

Apparently in this category, the fantastical is a known and accepted part of the world, not a shocking anomaly. I can’t think of a title I’ve read that would fit this category. How about you? If you’ve read this type of fantasy, please share titles to help me understand this category better.

So I’m curious. Which of these types of fantasy do you prefer? Below is a poll to show us what the Spec Faith readership likes best. Even if you don’t identify yourself as a fantasy fan but you’ve read some fantasy, feel free to participate. Then in the comments, tell us what makes you like one type more than another.

What type of fantasy do you prefer?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Bethany A. Jennings

I love all of these (except the last one…it doesn’t sound fantastical enough to tempt me, and I’ve never read anything like that), but if I had to pick just ONE I’d pick immersive fantasy.  It’s interesting, but my trilogy isn’t exactly portal fantasy, because the characters don’t stay in the other world the whole time, but it’s not any of the other kinds either.  It’s maybe a little more like Harry Potter without the intrusion aspect?  Maybe it’s portal/immersion fantasy?  Not sure.  Plus it’s really more sci-fi.  …I like genre-benders. 😛

Janeen Ippolito

“Apparently in this category, the fantastical is a known and accepted part of the world, not a shocking anomaly. ”

Interesting definition. Would this include those urban fantasies where vampires and other magical beings have “come out” and carry social security cards or whatever? Although that still suggests they were an “other” for some time.

I’m working on an AU series set in present-day earth with a host of different types of humans that have existed on the planet since the beginning of the world. Hence, they’ve always been a part of the established order in some way or another, and aren’t considered fantastical.

Is that what you mean?

I tend to love stories and writing in fantasy, not particular genres, but actually, if I had to choose I enjoy stories where the fantastical is considered normal. It’s a fun way of re-imagining life.

Austin Gunderson

Not having read Rhetorics of Fantasy (but now interested in doing so), I’d have to say that Mendelsohn’s “liminal” (literally: “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold”) fantasy sounds a lot like magical realism, in which a story’s fantastic elements are treated nonchalantly, as though they’re just a normal part of an otherwise unexceptional world and thus deserve no particular explanation or exploration. On the other hand, Mendelsohn might be referring to something more along the lines of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales series, which is 99.99% historical fiction and .01% spiritual thriller. It features several key events in the lives of its protagonists — a pagan life-swap, a Christian exorcism, etc. — that seem obviously supernatural, yet whose causes remain ultimately ambiguous. In fact, I’ve found that a lot of “Celtic fiction” (for lack of a better term) operates under a paradigm of ambiguity — whether to cultivate an atmosphere of mystery or to furnish an author with plausible deniability regarding overt paganism, it’s hard to tell. Either way, it seems the “liminal” category is perfect for stories in which the fantastic is incidental.

Elijah David

Austin, I agree with you, and I have read most of Rhetorics of Fantasy (as research in a class on magical realism trying to distinguish fantasy and MR). Liminal fantasy, from what I remember of Mendelsohn’s explanation, would actually cover both magical realism and the other books you mentioned, because both of them include magic (or “maybe-it’s-magic”) on the outskirts of awareness; for a lot of magical realism, the “magic” is on the outskirts of awareness not in terms of distance, but in terms of how the author presents it (or doesn’t). Mendelsohn also included a lot of recent urban fantasy in this category. I remember her mentioning China Mieville in this section.

Kessie Carroll

Yeah, I was going to say, “limnal” sounds like “magical realism”. The only book like this that I’ve ever read was Fire and Hemlock, where the entire book you’re on the fence about whether there’s magic or not. Then the ending is SO magical and weird that it is shocking and bizarre.

I prefer Intrusive, I think–that’s where urban fantasy falls. That and Immersive, I think. But I like modern/urban, where a normal person runs into the city-dwelling monsters.


I would say liminal sounds like either urban fantasy or magical realism. I think of Maggie Stiefvater’s “Scorpio Races” as liminal fantasy, since the fantastical element isn’t viewed as unusual to the outside world; it’s just the set-up for the larger point of the story. I actually like this kind of fantasy a lot, though I prefer Quest stories more often.

Julie D

Just curious to see where people think George MacDonald’s work would go.

D. M. Dutcher

Lilith is portal-quest fantasy, as Mister Vane is taken into the weird fairy world by the crow. I think Phantastes also is portal-quest. At the Back of the North Wind would be intrusive fantasy, literally; The North Wind intrudes into the protag’s life. His shorter works tend to be immersive, existing in their own worlds.

Janeen Ippolito

In terms of magical realism, I’d have to recommend “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender. Beautifully written, very evocative, with just a touch of oddness. Since I have synaesthesia, it hit pretty close to home as being on just on the other side of possible.

Janeen Ippolito

“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender is an adult novel. It’s secular and has some mature topics, and a little undeveloped and unfocused at the end, but I still enjoyed it.

“On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the slice. To her horror, she finds that her cheerful mother tastes of despair. Soon, she’s  privy to the secret knowledge that most families keep hidden: her father’s detachment, her mother’s transgression, her brother’s increasing retreat from the world. But there are some family secrets that even her cursed taste buds can’t discern.”


E. Stephen Burnett

It would seem that all these more-or-less overlapping categories get even more complicated when you factor in science fiction (“hard” and “light” and all in between), space fantasy/space opera, alternate history, steampunk, urban fantasy, superheroes …

Chawna Schroeder

The first books that came to mind when you described liminal was Athol Dickson’s Lost Mission and The Opposite of Art, both of which hint at supernatural elements that never fully materialize and yet are very present.  I have traditionally classified them as magical realism, but like some of the others here, I wonder if they refer to the same thing?

Audie Thacker

From the description of liminal, it seems a lot like Lovecraft’s stories. Few things are fully revealed, most of the threats or fantasic elements are more hinted at then fully shown. Along that same line, Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian” might be another example, because it also does more hinting at threats and dangers than really showing them.

Pam Halter

My friend, Joyce Magnin, wrote a wonderful middle grade novel that could be considered Liminal Fantasy.  It’s called “CAKE- love, chickens and a taste of peculiar”

When I attended the first Highlights Whole Novel Workshop for Fantasy in 2010, an agent joined us for the day. She broke down the types of fantasy. I’ll have to look for my notes to remember them all. High fantasy, urban fantasy, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, portal, magical realism, steampunk, etc. And she also talked about horror a little, which is a type of spec fiction, but not exactly fantasy.

I think the borders are definitely blurred in a lot of cases as authors get more and more creative.

Summer Kinard

The liminal fantasy category sounds like magical realism. The genre was popularized by Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Laura Esquivel. Have you seen Like Water For Chocolate? It’s there. American writers who use this style recently are Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal.

Since I’m a Christian writer, I sometimes call my liminal style “miraculous realism.” My latest novel, The Salvation of Jeffrey Lapin, uses some fantasy elements to illustrate real Christian tradition. But the normalcy of miracles sets the story apart a bit.

I found your blog on the ACFW Spec group on Facebook, and I’m so glad you linked! I’m a new follower.

Terri Luckey

My favorite is probably immersive, although I like it all.  I’m not sure what category my novel fits, maybe immersive? Kayndo Ring of Death is post-apocalyptic, and takes place in the future. Some think it’s our world, but I don’t say. And there’s a few fantasy components like companion animals that mind speak.