Welcome! Instead of writing a September Wrap Up (I’ve mostly reread books), I have decided to share my thoughts on YA fantasy today. I say “today” when I really mean that I’ve been writing this essay-like piece for the past couple of months. Anyway, I hope you enjoy!
Read by hundreds of thousands of devoted readers, young adult fantasy is a considerable genre that appeals to many. There is a constant stream of books getting published under the category, but, as broad as it seems, the genre is extremely narrow. Consider the fact that a large population of YA fantasy writers are young women, and out of those women very few are of colour. Moreover, the recognized and celebrated authors are predominantly white. Due to these constraints, the absence of a balance between mixed-race characters–especially main characters–and white characters is prominent. Without that diversity, the genre can feel very one-dimensional and monotonous.
Young adult fantasy is notoriously formulaic; authors seem exceptionally inclined to check fixed boxes, rather than creating their own boxes to check. That is to say, there is very much a pattern that is visible throughout most–if not, all–YA fantasy books. Notice the way the main character’s (who is usually a girl) disposition is awfully similar to another’s. The woman at the centre of YA fantasy novels is most likely to be white; miraculously attractive; adopt, or already possess, a snarky nature; and somehow find herself in love with the “bad boy” (who conveniently is also in love with her) that decides to show up at random intervals throughout the story. And for those of you who have never read YA fantasy, it’s for the best, really.
A popular trend in this genre is to continuously remind readers that she–the main character–is his. I mean to say, the love interest (the man) is constantly saying things along the lines of, or explicitly, You are mine. This is one of the tendencies that irritates me so much about Sarah J. Maas, especially. There is this constant theme of possession and territorialism found in the men. It induces a sort of toxicity in the story. In my view, that is not romantic in the slightest, and I do not condone the owning of a person!
Truthfully, YA fantasy novels cannot survive on their own without the romance element that readers crave. This is because the plots are simply not captivating nor interesting enough; rather, they are quite honestly inadequate and colourless. For the most part, romance is what fuels young adult fantasy. Take a look at: Cassandra Clare’s work (The Mortal Instruments series, The Infernal Devices trilogy, and The Dark Artifices trilogy), Sarah J. Maas’s work (Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses), Tahereh Mafi’s work (Shatter Me), Maggie Stiefvater’s work (The Raven Boys), Stephanie Garber’s work (Caraval), Stephenie Meyer’s work (Twilight), Sabaa Tahir’s work (An Ember in the Ashes), Holly Black’s work (The Folk of the Air trilogy), Jennifer L. Armentrout’s work (Lux), Laini Taylor’s work (Daughter of Smoke and Bone), Becca Fitzpatrick’s work (Hush, Hush), Michelle Hodkin’s work (The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer), Ally Condie’s work (Matched). (Yes, I have read all of those series/trilogies, for better or worse.) The leading male characters in the series referenced are described almost identically in both appearance and behaviour to one another. These female authors do seem to have a fascination with creating handsome, mysterious men to be at the focus of their story (most of these writers are indeed married…). This genre needs to stop drawing all the reader’s attention to the physical beauty of the characters, and rather focus on creating a distinctive, riveting tale that leaves an impression on the reader. Not to mention, focus on the internal beauty of a character.
Presently, we as people are so absorbed with our appearance. This is partly owing to social media, it’s owing to our peers, and it’s owing to numerous beauty brands promoting products that provoke a sense of insecurity in women (and men!). However, this can also be owing to the image of perfection depicted in young adult fantasy characters. Granted, it is not realistic fiction, so it does not, in any way, have to represent our world. But why write about characters–especially men–that more so resemble, and are thought to resemble, an attractive object rather than simply a human being (provided they’re human, that is)? The main male character is often seen as flawed in regards to his history, but definitely not in his looks; the female, on the other hand, is not explicitly said to be beautiful (in some books this is not the case, though), but she acts as the male character’s rock. The image is as so: the beautiful male character with a twisted past beside the loving female character, who helps him through his nightmares and difficult times. In other words, YA authors need to deviate from crafting a man with an uncanny past, yet a striking face, and a woman who he is territorial about (as mentioned, see Sarah J. Maas’s work) but will support and help him. To be clear: beauty is not everything!
Let’s now focus on what exactly sets Harry Potter apart from every YA fantasy series. Joanne Rowling (J.K. Rowling) created a rich and immersive world that millions are still able to enjoy and yearn to return to. She provided us with a warming and familiar home such as Hogwarts. I find the wizarding world to have such a memorable depth to it and generate a sense of real intrigue. Granted, some may argue that Sarah J. Maas’s fantasy worlds are just as intricately crafted and captivating, but I find they are easily forgettable and not nearly as fascinating. Every time I reread a Harry Potter book, I ask myself a new question about the vast world, about the complex characters, about all the little pieces of information that eventually connect to the plot. This is a sign of a thought-provoking and genuinely marvellous read😉. Instead, most of the time, I am utterly confused when it comes to YA fantasy worlds and their logistics; the names are totally bizarre and uninteresting. Seriously, you cannot beat the name Honeydukes or Flourish and Blott’s. Rowling created a world–a home to return to; these YA fantasy writers continue to create simple stories. Our world fell in love with not only the plot line in Harry Potter, nor the characters, but they truly fell–and continue to fall–in love with the comfort and warmth the magical world provides.
Most characters present in young adult fantasy are bland and indistinguishable. Apart from classic hobbies found in this genre, such as the main female drawing or having a soft spot for art (I can name five young adult fantasy books where this is the case) and the main male playing an instrument (see most Cassandra Clare books), their personalities are often only explored in their entirety when aiding the plot. Commonly, I find that YA authors decide against fleshing out a character and thoroughly developing them into being, because they are so focused on the world-building and the plot. If the cast of characters are not widely developed, the book becomes shallow. The A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy is a great example of a series of books that produced at least two extremely compelling (main) characters. (Although this trilogy is marketed as an adult series, it is most certainly appropriate for a young adult audience.) Now, I will not blatantly shame a series, but I will point out that I, personally, feel YA fantasy characters lack depth–giving men eerie pasts involving physical abuse or harm is not depth!–and true quality.
Nowadays, most young adult fiction–fantasy or not–is mass produced due to a demand for merely entertaining novels. The immense popularity that pulp fiction has amassed in the young adult/new adult community is insane and frankly reveals readers’ poor taste (the significantly OVERhyped book Red, White & Royal Blue–a regrettable book, at best, that I struggled to finish–being a prime example of pulp fiction). Instead of wasting my time reading books such as that, I am slowly transitioning to literary fiction, which will not drive me to insanity. So, that’s a relief!
Thank you for reading,