What's the difference?
When an editor's guidelines say they want strong fantasy, magic realism, or genre-bending stories that don't quite fit a specific style, it helps to know how to identify fantasy sub-genres to sell your idea. Sub-genres overlap. More than may be represented in your manuscript. An adventure story line like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has an Arthurian thread. Yet when presenting it to a publisher, a storyline like this would fall under Action/Adventure Fantasy. Following the historical Arthurian plot thread to find the Holy Grail will interest those who enjoy that genre, but the real plot moves through a World War II setting loaded with action.
The overall theme of Epic Fantasy is good vs. evil. The protagonist tends to be a person of no importance, influence, or power who unexpectedly finds themselves thrown into the mist of a battle to uphold what is right. The reluctant hero/protagonist experiences personal growth as they journey to learn not only about the fantasy world but also about themselves. In Donna Sundblad's, the young Manelin learns lessons in forgiveness before the magic of The Land works for him.
The scope of the epic fantasy world is large. Characters travel great distances looking for answers, which often involve a quest to find a missing magical piece to solve the plot puzzle. This magic often has ties to mythology and has limitations when it comes to solving the protagonist's dilemma. This missing piece will offer the magic necessary to rescue a heroine or free a down-trodden or enslaved people.
High Fantasy can also fall under the Epic Fantasy category. Lords and ladies sporting medieval styles grace the pages and plots of High Fantasy. Here too, you'll find dragons, knights, castles and kingdoms. The theme of High Fantasy often focuses on good vs. evil and is rooted in medieval European legends or mythology.
Adventure Fantasy takes characters beyond their current reality, and into a new dimension where the rules of reality shift carrying characters on a roller coaster of adventure in a world where magical realism rules.
In the screenplay Mimzy, two siblings develop special talents after finding a mysterious box of toys. Soon the kids, their parents, and teacher are drawn into a strange and sometimes terrifying world. It's their new adventure-filled reality.
As you work down this list, you'll see that the fantasy genre has something for everyone. A storyline like Ghost has elements of comedy as Whoopi Goldberg takes on murdered Patrick Swazy's spirit so that he can make things right on earth. A thread of romance also runs through this thriller. So although it could be listed as a thriller, it is also comedy. As a writer, you'd present it as both in your proposal or pitch.
Fantasy novels like Return to UKOO by Don Hurst are another form of Comedy Fantasy known as satire. Return to UKOO's 40-year-old homicide detective Dale Hern is drawn into an alternate world to discover who and what he really is as he survives such obstacles as the stink of Poo Pool. Hurst's use of irony, sarcasm, and ridicule allow the reader to smile at human vice and folly.
Heroic Fantasy Magic is an accepted part of the culture in Heroic Fantasy. Usually written in a pre-modern fantasy world with almost a medieval flavor, Heroic Fantasy includes traditional magical characters like wizards, soothsayers, or oracles who wield magical powers for or against a hero as the plot works out in a fantastic world where creatures like dragons, ogres, unicorns, griffins, and other traditional fantasy animals roam. Heroes traditionally are males out to rescue a damsel in distress.
Urban Fantasy In Urban Fantasy, magic invades modern times. One of two scenarios plays out. Either characters stay the same while the world changes, or characters change and the world stays the same. In both, a magical agent of change introduces the magic that makes the storyline possible. Often characters learn a life lesson that changes how they think when they return to their "real world" lives at the end of the story. In Back to the Future, the protagonist, Marty, returns to his real life with a new respect for his parents.