When I think of the fantasy genre, my mind usually flutters to images of fiery dragons, wise wizards, and enchanted artifacts. However, a new trend is taking flight in the world of fantasy literature, challenging the traditional norms and stereotypes associated with the genre. This emerging sub-genre, known as ‘magic-less fantasy,’ weaves imaginative tales of fantasy realms without the conventional trope of magic.

How can a fantasy world exist without magic? That’s precisely where the allure of magic-less fantasy lies. It challenges authors to create fantastical, otherworldly settings and compelling narratives using only the tools of natural, physical phenomena and human ingenuity. Let’s explore a few standout examples of this intriguing sub-genre.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson introduces us to a world ripe with political intrigue and cultural conflict, yet devoid of magical elements. Dickinson has created a universe that is diverse, complex, and engaging, focusing on the psychological development of characters, political machinations, and cultural conflicts. The lack of magic doesn’t make this world any less fantastical; instead, it brings the underlying themes of power, control, and the human condition into sharp relief.

In The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, we follow the journey of Maia, a half-goblin, half-elf, who unexpectedly ascends to the imperial throne following the death of his father. The novel does away with magical plot devices and instead relies on the intricate politics of a court in turmoil, highlighting the theme of an outsider trying to fit into an established system.

Another brilliant book worth mentioning is The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. While there are certain mystical elements at play, they’re woven so intrinsically into the fabric of the world that they don’t seem like ‘magic’ in the traditional sense. The story centers around Fitz, a royal bastard and assassin, dealing with courtly politics, betrayal, and love in a world that feels grounded and realistic.

Then, there’s George R.R. Martin’s acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series. Despite having certain elements of magic, the focus largely remains on political intrigue, complex characters, and their interactions, demonstrating that fantasy can thrive with minimal magical elements.

The trend of magic-less fantasy emphasizes the aspects of world-building, character development, and narrative complexity. By removing magic from the equation, authors are challenged to create tension, conflict, and resolution through alternative means. This results in stories grounded more deeply in character interactions, politics, cultural clashes, and human psychology.

In essence, magic-less fantasy strips down the genre to its core, unearthing the raw, human elements often overshadowed by the grandeur of magic. It’s a reminder that at the heart of every fantasy tale—whether there be dragons or not—are the characters and their journeys.

If you’re a fantasy enthusiast looking to try something a little different or a newcomer to the genre intimidated by the prospect of complex magic systems, magic-less fantasy might just be the perfect entry point for you. It serves up all the richness of the fantasy genre without the potentially confusing elements of magic. Now, I only say potentially confusing. One of the main reasons I read fantasy is to experience the wonders of magic but when it comes to fiction I’m a firm believer in the more variety the better.