Why hello book bees! I hope that you’re prepared to read a lot of rambling thoughts about fantasy books, because that’s what I’ve got in store for this post!
Personally, I am always conflicted about this topic because I love fantasy, but I’m not a huge fan of YA protagonists and tropes. I appreciate a fair few YA books and series don’t get me wrong! But I almost always prefer an adult story to a YA one, and I find myself needing to read adult novels following a lot of YA doses. I can’t fully explain why this is, but it means that while I appreciate a lot of the hyped up YA books that the bookish community recommends, I often go a long time between reading them.
Of course, a lot of the innovation in the fantasy genre these days comes from YA series and novels. There’s been a creativity boom in the YA area, which has also led to discussions of readjusting what is and isn’t considered YA (but that’s a discussion for a different blog post). For the purposes of this blog post, I am using YA to refer to novels that are written about and aimed at teenagers. Generally the characters will be aged anywhere from sixteen to twenty-one, and the expected reader age will be ranging from thirteen to nineteen. I am using “adult fantasy” to refer to fantasy novels that have been written about older characters, with more mature plotlines (philosophically, not just sexually), and/or for an intended readership of adults in their twenties and older.
My Fantasy Experience
I started reading fantasy as a kid, but around the time i was thirteen or fourteen I had a strange break in my reading patterns. On the one hand, I was still reading books considered YA and aimed at my age group. On the other hand, I was also reading a lot of larger, more complex “adult” books for myself. I found that I read more genre fiction in YA and more of the “classics” on the other hand. A couple of years later, I fixed this by starting to read more adult genre fiction in the genres I enjoyed at YA. It was around this age–sixteen or seventeen–that I found YA protagonists no longer spoke to me.
While I still read books considered YA fantasy, I usually choose ones that are widely read by adult audiences. I also narrowed in on certain fantasy elements. I had a “dragon phase” for quite some time, and then there was a period where I ready “gritty” fantasy novels such as A Song of Ice and Fire. I was especially interested in fantasy sagas that had layers of history, politics, and magic that intertwined into a thoroughly built fantasy world. While there are certainly well built fantasy worlds in YA, I still find that the worlds I most crave are more often in adult series.
Then, I hit a reading slump during the end of college and beginnings of graduate school. I had so much reading I had to do for my coursework that I simply couldn’t stare at words any more during my free time. That is until I discovered the YA fantasy genre of fairy tale retellings. Largely cheesy YA romance with fantasy elements thrown in for the sake of the retelling, these books are easy to read and usually delightful. I binge read an entire eleven book series in just a week and suddenly I was back in the reading game.
Since that point I have injected quite a bit more YA fantasy into my reading rotation. I’ve found that so long as the world is interesting enough and complex, I can get over my issues with most YA protagonists. Sometimes I even find myself pleasantly surprised by the main characters and not nearly as put off as I thought I’d be. So it is that I’ve started to notice trends and differences between a fantasy book meant for adults and a fantasy book meant for teenagers.
In general, the protagonists and other main characters of novels tend to be of an age with the intended readers. Teenagers are usually the protagonists of YA novels, as a result. However, teenagers are often not the authors of these novels. I am especially aware of when a teenage character is written by an adult and it’s even worse when that teenage character is poorly written by an adult that either had an unusual childhood or has completely forgotten what being a teenager felt like. This is a major factor in why I often don’t connect with YA protagonists: they aren’t often well written.
There are definitely some poorly written protagonists in adult fantasy, don’t get me wrong. Bad writing is all around us as are underdeveloped, gratuitously self-inserted, and dull characters. I’ve just noticed that it is easier for a lot of adult writers to develop fully fledged adult characters, whereas when they attempt to write teenage perspectives without a little help the characters can come across in a few different ways. There’s the underdeveloped YA protagonists who fall into tropes of teenagers but are clearly not based on real teenagers, who can be very complex human beings. There’s YA protagonists who are basically miniature adults who often disdain the company of their fellow teens because oh look at how mature they are! And then there’s YA protagonists that just react so wildly unrealistically because the author cannot grasp a teenager having critical thinking skills.
A few examples of this spring to mind. Bella Swan from the Twilight saga, for instance, is a YA protagonist who openly admits to not fitting in with other teenagers because she behaves as an adult. I actually appreciated the acknowledgement of that in text because Bella behaves exactly as she is: a teenager who was forced to grow up at a young age and learn to care for herself, and when faced with major life decisions tends to become impulsive and driven by reactionary feelings because she was never given guidance. If Twilight had been written with the preparation needed to dive deep into childhood trauma and how that accelerates maturity in young people–especially young women–then Bella would actually be a really great example of a YA protagonist. But, well, we all know where Twilight went (and I personally still enjoy the series now and again).
I have to say that the way romance is treated in YA books for me goes one of two ways. Either the book is designed around romance–such as most fairy tale retellings–and thus I am prepared for the poor communication, magical intervention, and “but they’re my soulmate!” drama of a shoehorned romance story. Or, the book is about something else entirely and as the growing trend seems to be somehow finds the time to focus on the needless drama of a teenage romance. It’s almost as though in the past ten years or so a formula was released to YA authors that included “misguided and highly dramatic first love required.”
The reason I really don’t like unnecessary romance in a YA novel is that often times the romance is not a positive one. It’s hard to have a healthy relationship sometimes, and being a teenager can definitely make that harder. Add to that the stakes facing a lot of YA teenagers and frankly, who the hell has time to date in that mess? It really ruins a story for me if there’s an unnecessary and especially unhealthy romance thrown in there that could be removed and the story would function just fine. Of course, there are unhealthy romances in adult novels too, even adult romance novels. But there’s a bit more nuance in those books, and often the author intends for the readers to realize how unhealthy the depicted relationship is. YA relationships are often immature because the author doesn’t necessarily understand how a teenage relationship is, and they can and do lead to actual teenage readers engaging in unhealthy romantic relationships modeled after what they’ve read.
There is just one thing I can’t stand in general: unnecessary drama. If I spend half a book rolling my eyes at the drama then I’m not going to enjoy the other half of it very much at all. Once again, I’m not saying that adult books don’t have their fair share of drama. But something about YA books lends itself to a lot more. I think this ultimately boils down to bad writing and a poor understanding of teenagers, where adults add unnecessary drama to a story because they seem to believe that’s the only way teenagers express their emotions.
When I was a teenager, I enjoyed reading books like the Gossip Girl series because the level of drama that happened in those books simply never happened in my real life. Similarly, as an adult I enjoy watching TV series and reading online articles that have the same levels of drama. I do not enjoy reading those levels of drama in books that are of a completely different genre though. The end of the world is nearing and this group of teenagers are the only people who’ve taken it upon themselves to save everybody? Sure. Said group of teenagers can’t get through a single day without a weird in fight over perceived relationship slights? No.
My god sometimes the dialogue that adults write for teenagers is so bad it hurts. I would much rather read a book about a teenager written by an adult in which the teenager sometimes sounds a little too mature than read another book where an average teenager is given utterly ridiculous dialogue because the adult author thinks that makes them realistic. Teenagers have different speech patterns all the time, and with different people! When I was a teenager, the way I spoke with my peers was vastly different from how I spoke with teachers and adults, and neither of them was this weird slangy misconception that I read far too often in YA books.
I’m all for picking a voice and sticking with it for a character. But for some reason, adults attempting to make teenage voices outside of apocalyptic or fantasy books in which their voices are inherently different anyways just rubs me the wrong way.
I think I’ve gone on long enough and I realize that the last few points I brought up were pretty broad and could apply to any genre, not just fantasy. Ultimately, fantasy YA has a lot to offer. New and creative worlds, retellings, and magic systems are out there in the YA shelves. But still, despite the authors having the whole world of their own making available to them, I find myself repeatedly disappointed by YA fantasy books that had wonderful concepts but were bogged down by the poor quality writing of the author. When I do read a well written YA novel, I’m usually so relieved that I end up reading everything by that author (if they have multiple works).
What about you book bees? Do you prefer your fantasy to be YA, NA, Middle Grade, Adult, or a mix? Do you have any pet peeves for fantasy books?