As you probably know, the fantasy genre is an enormous genre covering countless different subgenres. Some of these stories are hundreds of years old, while others are still being published this year. Because of the massive size of the fantasy genre, it is helpful to break it down into smaller subgenres. Not only does this make it more simple to categorize a novel, it also allows for creative crossover within two or more genres. Mixing genres has resulted in some of the most popular and creative works of fantasy.
The cowboy fantasy is a genre that is not hugely popular like some others, but it does have a loyal following. Though there are not hundreds of thousands of cowboy fantasy novels to choose from, there are many that are worth reading. If cowboy fantasy seems like two words you would have never put together, you are definitely not alone. The cowboy fantasy and related genres that paved the way to its existence are outlined below.
Western novels took hold of readers long before Western movies were a staple in American homes. Westerns are very specific and have a certain style that keeps readers coming back for more. Some of the elements of a Western that are part of just about every Western novel are cowboys, outlaws, sheriffs, and duels. These elements add a sense of adventure and excitement to any good Western novel. The lawlessness of the West is also often a featured element, and the protagonist is often someone who is not always a law-abiding citizen.
Some other common elements of a western are Native Americans, references to the American Civil War, and Western pioneers. These elements add a sense of history and truth to a Western. By featuring elements that are typically taught in school, it grounds the novel in normalcy and realism.
Western novels have been popular since the late 1800s, but they steadily lost readership in the 1970s. This is when Western movies also began to go out of fashion. The over-saturation of Western books and movies caused readers to seek out new genres. The good old fashion Western novel has never really recovered from this sudden decline. The good news is that there are now some crossover genres that take elements of the classic western genre.
The term “Weird West” is a term that has been in use for about 50 years, but the actual idea of weird west is much older. Weird west typically represents the genres of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi westerns. These weird western genres can refer to books, movies, comics, and so on. There is an element of either fantasy, horror, or sci-fi mixed with elements of a traditional western.
The weird west genre takes popular elements of traditional westerns such as bandits and cowboys and adds in elements of fantasy or sci-fi, such as taking place in outer space or a sheriff who is also a vampire. These stories are often more thrill-based than traditional westerns, but they still keep many of the same elements.
The Star Wars films are some of the most popular weird west movies out there. They take themes and actions from traditional western films and put them in a new setting with new technology and issues to resolve. Though Star Wars leans more towards sci-fi than fantasy, they can still be part of the weird west genre.
Cowboy fantasy takes the elements of a weird west novel and puts them into a fantasy world. It is an even smaller subgenre than those previously discussed like sci-fi western. Cowboy fantasy typically has traditional western themes and ideas. The difference is that these ideas take place in a fantasy world created by the author of the novel.
Medieval settings are very popular for cowboy fantasies. In general, the Medieval era is a great location for many types of fantasy stories. The Medieval era and the Wild West actually have quite a few similarities. This makes them great partners for a crossover story.
Both of these eras see great advances in technology. Though their technology may not be as “modern” as what we know, there is exponential growth during these time periods in terms of weaponry, communication, and so on.
Both of these eras are very lawless and rely largely on a class system for their limited government and justice systems. There were many wars fought during both of these time periods making them a great setting for a fantasy battle.
In many good fantasy novels, there is an element of folklore. Whether it is folklore that has been passed down through generations, or folklore that is created by the novel’s author, it is often a key element to the story. This folklore can also be present in cowboy fantasy.
Cowboy fantasy novels often contain folklore from the Western era, but this is not always the case. Western folklore often consisted of tales of trailblazers who came before or stories brought to the settlers by the Native Americans. Wherever it comes from, it adds a classic fantasy element to the story.
Examples of Cowboy Fantasy
As I mentioned, cowboy fantasy is a relatively small subgenre of fantasy. But it seems to be steadily growing. Classifying a novel as cowboy fantasy is not always as straightforward as you may want it to be. Because of the nature of a cowboy fantasy, it can often be hard to place a novel in this category. There are so many genres that can cross over in a cowboy or western territory that one person’s opinion may not be the same as another’s. That said, the two examples below are generally considered western or cowboy fantasies by many.
The Dark Tower
The Dark Tower is a series of eight novels by world-famous author, Steven King. This series takes themes from many different genres including sci-fi, western, dark fantasy, and horror. The first novel in the series was published in 1982, meaning the decline in popularity of the traditional western novel had already begun. That is not a concern for King, though, because not only is he inspired by Westerns, he is also inspired by medieval legends, movies, and other folklore. He names The Lord of the Rings series as a major inspiration for his own series.
The Dark Tower series follows Roland Deschain on his journey to find the Dark Tower which is the central point of every universe. The world in which Roland lives takes many elements of the Wild West and incorporates them with a world of magic. There are inexplicable things happening in Roland’s world, and he is on a mission to solve these problems. Roland faces many enemies that he must defeat, and he also makes friends along the way.
The classic elements of fantasy and westerns combined in this series make it one unlike any other. King is known for his suspenseful and horrifying novels, and though there is less horror and suspense in this series than many of his other books, the classic King elements are still there.
Red Country by Joe Abercrombie is a more recent take on the cowboy fantasy. This novel is a stand-alone spinoff of the author’s highly popular First Law trilogy. In this novel, a young girl journeys to an old west town across the barren plains. There are duels, gold mining, and feuds, just like any good western novel. Eventually, she takes to the mountains where she is faced with ghosts and other fantastical creatures.
Though this novel does not contain large amounts of magic and fantasy, there are still enough elements for it to be considered cowboy fantasy. Abercrombie takes some of the best elements of a western and fantasy and combines them into a story that keeps the reader coming back for more.
Cowboy Fantasy: Conclusion
I hope this article has helped clarify what this genre is and what makes it unique.
And as usual, feel free to leave a message in the comments below if you have questions about this or another fiction literature-related topic!