One of my favourite subgenres of fantasy is “this world, but with magic”. Ruritanian-romance fantasy is a subtly different beast –a world with regular countries and also some imaginary ones– and thinly-disguised-world-with-different names (the world of the Deryni, or of A Natural History of Dragons) is a vastly different beast. The former I read avidly, the latter only when it’s so well written, like the two I mentioned, that I can ignore the guessing game.
Even this-world-with-magic is not a monoculture. I’ve observed a number of main types:
A. Completely this world
It’s the world we live in and magic exists in this world but most people aren’t aware of it.
(1) Secret elite. Some people have magical talent and keep that carefully hidden from “normal” people, possibly except a chosen few. This makes magic-users into a secret society, even a secret elite. This elite may regard themselves as (good, in their own eyes) shepherds of the non-magical folk and treat them like sheep accordingly; or they may think non-magical people exist for them, the elite, to make use of; or they completely ignore them except as providers of anything mundane, like food or services, that they may need. (Er, shouldn’t do too much research. Here’s a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theories, which I found by searching for “secret elite”.)
Examples: Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz (disclaimer: must reread). Also her Adept books, I think. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. Probably Harry Potter though I first had that in (2), because the wizards do look down on the Muggles.
I used to love this type: it gave me a thrill to imagine that there’s more between heaven and earth etcetera. Something like this is probably what attracts so many people to Gnosticism and exclusive movements (I hesitate to mention Freemasonry here, because I know a couple of Freemasons and they seem to be sensible enough): they can be in the secret elite, or at least a secret elite.
(2) People just don’t notice. This is akin to (1), but it’s not about an elite that looks down on the ordinary populace with (benign or not) condescension, it’s just people who recognise each other when something relevant happens and find ways to explore, to learn, to solve problems together.
Examples: Any number of children’s books in which your friendly neighbour turns out to be a witch, or your grandfather a wizard. Any number of YA books in which the protagonist finds out (s)he has magical talent. The Ogre Downstairs (and some others) by Diana Wynne Jones. The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.
I much prefer this to (1) these days, perhaps because I know now that it’s normal, and often fun, to be part of a non-mainstream group (roleplayers, Orthodox church choir singers, women who prefer skirts to trousers, people who swim in an outdoor pool in winter) but “people secretly in charge of others’ lives” is not a group I want to belong to: I have little taste for power.
… is it coincidence that (1) are mostly adult books and (2) are mostly children’s or YA books? Do (writers and/or publishers think that) adults want power fantasies, and children want cooperation/discovery fantasies? In that case I’d rather not grow up, thank you very much. File this with the gritty/grimdark “negative is more realistic” discussion.
B. Magical world
The world is our own with this difference that magic exists and is a normal, accepted part of it. There might be slight Ruritanian differences but they’re mostly not crucial to the story or the setting.
Examples: the Regency Magic books by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. The Elemental Masters series by Mercedes Lackey, which I’m currently reading (prompt for this post). Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones.
Some, perhaps most, people in a Type B world are probably not actively aware of magic, but that’s rather like most people in this-world-as-it-is aren’t aware of things they don’t have contact with. If in my student days I hadn’t had a crush on someone who did competitive ballroom dancing, I wouldn’t have known it existed. There are also things I know exist but couldn’t care less about– can’t think of any now, of course, but you get the idea.
This is, hands down, my favourite type of the subgenre, perhaps my favourite type of fantasy ever. Not because I can’t be hedgehogged to acquaint myself with a completely new fantasy world (though some people who think up completely new fantasy worlds go to great lengths to make it DIFFERENT! SPECIAL!! and put me off by going over the top with that), but because it adds delicious new flavours to the “real” world. I prefer “this world is like ours, except for this one thing” to the conceit of “our world is really like this and we have the secret”.
One remarkable thing about this type is that villains tend to have the (A1) mindset: we have the power and we can do what we want with the sheeple.
C. Elfland Crossover
This is mostly not what I mean when I think “this world with magic” so I won’t expound on it, just mention that I’m aware it exists. There’s a very wide scope here, from people/creatures/ideas from Faerie/some alternate world popping up in this world to stories about people from this world who cross into Faerie/some alternate world and have all their adventures in that world, with the this-world parts as a framing device at most. I tend to like this type more in proportion to the amount of story in this world: I loved the this-world parts of Esther Friesner’s Elf Defense, for example, and found the Faerie parts much more forgettable.