Comparing Epic Fantasy vs. High Fantasy

What’s the difference between Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy?

fantasy walkway over a waterfall

Whether you’re a seasoned fantasy enthusiast or just dipping your toes into the genre for the first time, distinguishing between subgenres can greatly enhance your reading experience. Among the myriad of fantasy realms, two subgenres often muddled together are epic fantasy and high fantasy. While they share fundamental elements like diverse worlds, magic, and heroic quests, each boasts distinct traits that set them apart.

In this guide, we’ll navigate these beloved fantasy genres, unravelling their unique characteristics to help you navigate the literary landscape.

What is High Fantasy

High Fantasy immerses readers in entirely new worlds brimming with fantastical elements. The term “high” in high fantasy often refers to the level or amount of fantasy aspects present in a novel. On the other end of the fantasy spectrum, you will find low fantasy. Low fantasy is typically based in the real world with minimal world building and focuses more on personal journeys or small-scale conflicts.  

The Important Elements of High Fantasy Novels 

High Fantasy immerses readers in imaginative realms that are distinctly different from our own. These worlds are often meticulously crafted, featuring richly detailed landscapes, diverse kingdoms, and vibrant cultures. To break down the genre, you will typically find some version of the following in high fantasy books: 

  • Imaginative realms with rich landscapes, kingdoms, and cultures.
  • Grand-scale conflicts such as wars between kingdoms or battles against dark forces.
  • Central protagonist or group of heroes on epic quests.
  • Mythical beings like dragons, trolls, elves, dwarves, and wizards.
  • Historic or magical technologies that defy conventional logic.
  • Fundamental elements permeating the world and shaping characters’ lives.

While High Fantasy settings often evoke mediaeval-like societies, they may also incorporate advanced or magical technologies that defy conventional logic. Whether it’s enchanted artefacts, ancient relics, or arcane devices powered by magic, these elements contribute to the richness and complexity of the world, offering readers glimpses of technological marvels beyond their wildest imagination.

Examples of high fantasy works

Some examples of classic high fantasy include: 

1. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The central conflict revolves around Kvothe’s quest for knowledge, vengeance, and redemption. Kvothe serves as the central protagonist, a gifted musician, scholar, and arcanist whose thirst for knowledge and ambition drives him to achieve greatness, despite facing numerous challenges and setbacks throughout his journey.

name of the wind cover

2. Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Eragon follows the journey of a young farm boy named Eragon who discovers a dragon egg, setting off a chain of events that thrusts him into a battle against a tyrannical ruler. The world of Alagaësia is populated by a diverse array of creatures, including dragons, elves, dwarves, urgals (a brutish race), and various mythical beasts that roam the land.

eragon book cover

3. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Set in the city of Camorr, a bustling metropolis reminiscent of Venice, the story follows the exploits of Locke Lamora and his band of skilled thieves known as the Gentlemen Bastards. As they navigate the treacherous underworld of crime and corruption, Locke and his companions embark on daring heists and elaborate schemes to outwit their rivals and amass wealth and power. 

the lies of locke lamora cover

What is Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy focuses on large scale stories of whole kingdoms, countries, empires, or even the universe itself. Epic fantasy will generally also include a large scale list of characters and fantasy elements. 

At the heart of Epic Fantasy lies the art of world-building, where authors craft intricate and immersive settings that serve as the backdrop for their stories. From towering castles and ancient ruins to sprawling cities and untamed wilderness, these worlds are brought to life with meticulous detail and vivid imagery.

Epic Fantasy is characterised by its complex and multifaceted narratives, which often weave together multiple plotlines, perspectives, and themes. These narratives unfold over multiple volumes, allowing authors to explore diverse story arcs, subplots, and character dynamics with depth and nuance. Themes of power, destiny, sacrifice, and redemption are common in Epic Fantasy, as are motifs of heroism, loyalty, and the struggle between good and evil.

The Important Elements of Epic Fantasy Novels

Epic Fantasy is a genre that invites readers on an epic journey of discovery, adventure, and exploration, where the boundaries of reality are pushed to their limits and the possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the author. 

  • At the heart of Epic Fantasy lies its monumental scale and high stakes. The narrative typically unfolds on a grand canvas, spanning vast landscapes and involving conflicts of epic proportions. 
  • Epic Fantasy stories are populated by a diverse array of characters, ranging from humble peasants to powerful sorcerers, noble warriors, and cunning villains. 
  • From ancient prophecies and mythic destinies to quests for lost artefacts and battles against dark forces, these grand narratives captivate readers with their sense of adventure and heroism.

Examples of epic fantasy works

Some examples of epic fantasy series include: 

1. Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb

The Farseer Trilogy is set in the fictional realm of the Six Duchies, a kingdom plagued by political intrigue, courtly machinations, and threats from external forces. The story follows FitzChivalry Farseer, a royal bastard with a secret lineage, as he navigates the treacherous waters of court politics and battles against dark forces threatening the kingdom.

Farseer Trilogy Boxset image

2. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan

The Wheel of Time series is set in a sprawling world where time is cyclical, and the fate of nations is bound to the ebb and flow of the Wheel of Time. The series features a vast array of cultures, religions, and magical systems, each with its own unique history and mythology. The series explores themes of destiny, free will, and the nature of power, as characters grapple with their roles in the unfolding drama of the Wheel of Time.

wheel of time boxset

3. In All Jest by D.E. King

The series follows the books A Fool’s Errand, Fool Me Twice, and Spire of Fools. The series takes place in the fantastical world of Dharatan, a realm filled with magic, secrets, and danger. The central conflict arises when Lani stumbles upon a dying man named Ashantha, and is given an amulet. With a secret society of jesters, an eight-hundred year old secret, and dangerous assassins, the encapsulates the key elements of a high fantasy novel. 

in all jest books 1-3

Blurred Line: Where High Meets Epic

Works that blur the line between High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy often feature a grand scale and scope, encompassing vast landscapes, diverse cultures, and epic conflicts that shape the fate of worlds. 

These works possess elements of both High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy, offering readers a rich storytelling that draws from the strengths of each genre.

  1. A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin: The series is set in the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos, where noble houses vie for power, and ancient threats loom beyond the Wall in the frozen north. While the series features a vast ensemble cast, characters like Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister are central figures, each navigating the complex web of power dynamics, personal challenges, and moral dilemmas.
  2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien: The story follows a disparate group of characters, including hobbits, elves, dwarves, and humans, as they embark on a perilous quest to destroy the One Ring and defeat the dark lord Sauron. The narrative of The Lord of the Rings is epic in scale, encompassing themes of heroism, friendship, sacrifice, and the struggle between good and evil. 
  3. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: The Fifth Season is set in a world plagued by catastrophic seismic events known as “Fifth Seasons,” which bring devastation and chaos to the land. The Fifth Season blends elements of high fantasy with science fiction and dystopian fiction, creating a world that is both familiar and alien. The narrative of The Fifth Season is gripping and suspenseful, with multiple storylines that intertwine and converge as the story unfolds.

Comparison and Contrast

High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy are both beloved subgenres of fantasy literature, each offering unique storytelling experiences. While they share common elements such as fantastical worlds and epic quests, there are key differences that distinguish them from one another. 

The struggle between good and evil is a central theme in both High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy, but the way this theme is portrayed and explored can vary between the two genres.  In High Fantasy, the battle between good and evil is often a fundamental theme woven into the fabric of the narrative. It’s not uncommon for High Fantasy stories to feature clear-cut distinctions between heroic protagonists fighting against malevolent antagonists.

Similarly, Epic Fantasy often explores the struggle between good and evil on a grand scale, with protagonists confronting powerful adversaries and dark forces that threaten to plunge the world into darkness. The conflict between good and evil in Epic Fantasy is often depicted as an epic struggle for the fate of civilizations, with heroes and villains battling for control over the forces that shape the world.

Despite the clear delineation between good and evil, High Fantasy stories may still incorporate elements of moral complexity, with characters grappling with difficult choices and shades of grey. Epic Fantasy, too, may delve into moral complexity, with characters facing moral dilemmas and ethical quandaries as they navigate the challenges of their world. While the struggle between good and evil remains a central theme, Epic Fantasy stories may explore the complexities of power, redemption, and sacrifice, blurring the lines between heroism and villainy.

From dark fantasy, urban fantasy, historical fantasy or even science fiction, there are countless fantasy subgenres that break down these central themes, allowing us to look at the human condition. 


From magical elements and magical creatures to the hero’s journey or fantasy world building, there is a lot that goes into these intricate novels. When we take a look at the fantasy genre, we can explore themes from morality to the infinite struggle for good versus evil. In both high fantasy literature and the epic fantasy genre, we are transported to a place where anything is possible, and the boundaries of reality are tested.

Dive into fantasy and embark on a thrilling adventure by exploring a new epic story or immersing yourself in a high fantasy fiction series today! Within the pages of these captivating tales, new worlds await your discovery, filled with magic, wonder, and endless possibilities.