Hard Fantasy is usually defined by hard magic systems, in the vein of Brandon Sanderon’s rules for magic. In the past few years, though, I’ve noticed an emerging genre, rooted in low fantasy and swords and sorcery, but stripped of much of what makes fantasy, well, fantasy.
For me, there’s been this weird limbo when it comes to genre distinction. Three novels in particular, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Amberlough, and most recently, Jade City, all share similar elements. They all take place in real world time period analogues generally further from acceptable fantasy time periods. For example, Baru Cormorant takes place in a quasi 19th century alternate reality with different religions and virtually no traces of magic. Amberlough is set in a 1920s Wiemar Republic with a city straight outta of Moulin Rouge. And Jade City is set in a vaguely 1970sesque China/Hong Kong with various levels of later 20th century tech mixed in with magic.
And I love them all because they prove you don’t have to be stuck in the 14th century forever. Look, I love dudes in big armor going on epic quests and kicking ass against the Dork Lord, but I really like/want more, I dunno, science-fiction style stories transplanted into fantasy. You’re starting/have been seeing it with the emergence of gunpowder fantasy the past several years.
But it’s not there. I want character driven dramas told within the context of a greater conflict. I want low level Bob Denard dudes leading merc bands against the backdrop of a changing 20th century inspired world that’s rooted in a fantasy setting.
There is no reason why secondary worlds can’t be hard. Hell, the whole “Another Earth” concept was heavily used back in the 1960s-1980s with the soft science-fiction in the vein of Ursula Le Guin.
But the guns. Pfftttttttttttttt. Really? Hi, I’m a mage. And I use a magic barrier shield to deflect bullets every day. So, there’s no need to be concerned for my general safety.
Fantasy is all about other possibilities, worlds, lifestyles, conflicts, inspired by our world, but with a hint of the fantastic/the otherwordly. We can’t keep these stories within the confines of urban fantasy forever. And this is why Hard Fantasy presents a unique opportunity.
It bridges the gap between Urban Fantasy and Heroic/Epic Fantasy.
Hell, it could be just the thing to widen and bring in a whole new generation of authors and worlds to a hungry millennial audience who are tired of Aragon and company retold for the 100kth time.
It’ll force writers to consider how magic systems change. It’ll allow readers who don’t care for the aesthetics of old to be enticed to read a story about a bard who is beatboxer in a gritty 1980s NYC analogue.
It’s scary. It might not be worth it. But hell, why not?
The market’s there. Who’s it gonna be?
You or the person who had the grit to do it and become a writing darling for their imagination and originality?