Ok, everyone, I’ve been intending to write recently about what I perceive as the sudden influx of YA fantasy (or is it just me??) when I FINALLY CRACKED THE CODE.
Of course, I ended up figuring this out in the process of a Shower Thought, which really makes me want to roll my eyes, but whatever. I’ll get to that. Let’s start with the initial point, though.
The Current Rise of YA Fantasy
Again, this could just be my perception alone, but I feel like fantasy is becoming the go-to more and more often for those big releases. I don’t know if this is a side effect of the clear popularity of Sarah J. Maas or what, but I have noticed a definite uptick in fantasy.
When I go to the YA Novels of 2020 list on Goodreads (an awesome list if you’re looking for any new books that came out this year), it’s easy to pick out the fantasy novels. They’re frequent, like:
- At #1: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Hunger Games, #0) by Suzanne Collins [I know it’s dystopia, but it’s not our world, so I’m counting it.]
- At #4: A Sky Beyond the Storm (An Ember in the Ashes, #4) by Sabaa Tahir
- At #5: Imagine Me (Shatter Me, #6) by Tahereh Mafi
- At #6: All the Stars and Teeth (All the Stars and Teeth, #1) by Adalyn Grace
- At #7: A Heart So Fierce and Broken (Cursebreakers, #2) by Brigid Kemmerer
- At #9: Blood & Honey (Serpent & Dove, #2) by Shelby Mahurin
- At #10: The Shadows Between Us by Tricia Levenseller
And that’s just the top ten. Even if you exclude my Hunger Games selection, that’s still over half of them. Literally, the only two at the top that weren’t fantasy were The Hand on the Wall by Maureen Johnson and One of Us is Next by Karen M. McManus.
Now, granted, this list is generated by people voting on which books they are most looking forward to, which is why the majority of those books are A) in a series and B) later in the series. But I think it also proves my point: there is a demand for YA Fantasy and the publishers know it. I mean, two of those I listed are series that were finished (Shatter Me and Hunger Games) but have recently come back.
And I know the publishing world doesn’t move this fast, but a lot of us are looking for escapism right now due to the pandemic, politics, and the general dumpster fire that is 2020. Fantasies fill that void because it just allows us to remove ourselves from what is familiar. (I have found myself reading contemporary stories and being like, “How are you going to the movies when the theaters are closed?” or something similar.)
Fantasies are also usually pretty exciting. They’re dangerous and adventurous and action-packed. The stakes are high and the books are generally hard to put down. This also heightens the escapism elements because it becomes all-encompassing as we read them. I know this is why I read as much fantasy as I do.
But as I have mentioned in many of my reviews of fantasies, I often struggle to get into the stories and I’VE FINALLY CRACKED THE CODE.
Good vs. GREAT Fantasy Novels
Ok, so to help prove my hypothesis, I’m going to give you four fantasy novels that I’m going to talk about (spoiler-free) to explain my thoughts. Those novels are:
- A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
- Night Spinner by Addie Thorley
- Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan
- An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Now, two of these books I was absolutely over the moon about (ACOTAR and Night Spinner), one I thought had merits but I struggled with (Wicked Saints), and one I’m reading at the time I’m writing this (An Ember in the Ashes).
My hypothesis as to what makes a great fantasy novel is this: a great fantasy novel allows you to get to know the main character and the world at the same time, acclimating to both before the action truly starts. That way, you have an easier time buying into what’s happening.
ACOTAR and Night Spinner pull this off. Wicked Saints and Ember do not.
When ACOTAR starts, we meet Feyre and see her walking through the village. She tells us about the type of people who live there, how poor her family is, her family dynamics, and the dangers of the fey early on. We learn about her character and discover that she enjoys painting and that she’s got a casual relationship going with a local boy. All of this before the real “action” starts. Therefore, we have a fairly thorough understanding of the world and Feyre’s loyalty and heart before the wolf shows up on her doorstep.
Night Spinner begins with Enebish sneaking out of the monastery to enjoy the night air and lament her current fate. We begin to understand her night spinner powers and why she’s so tormented by guilt and exiled to this (quite terrible) monastery. We also meet her best friend before she ever makes the deal to try to gain her freedom.
Both of those stories hooked me from the very beginning because I was able to connect with the main characters. By the time the action started, I was able to understand the stakes and begin to predict how the characters would react. Like when the wolf shows up at Feyre’s door, I already knew she’d be selfless enough to do anything to protect her family. If we had started the story at that moment instead, I wouldn’t have the same understanding of the world or Feyre’s character and I would have been learning as the story went along.
That’s exactly the problem with the other two stories, along with the multiple narrators.
Wicked Saints begins with Nadya peeling potatoes when she hears cannons and realizes the monastery is under attack. We jump almost immediately into this battle, where people who are important to Nadya are dying or sacrificing themselves to help her escape. And as exciting as it is, it didn’t draw me into the story for long because I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t understand why Nadya was important or why anyone was even bothering to attack this monastery. By jumping right into the action, I spent the next 50-100 pages trying to figure all of this out. It does not help that there is another narrator in this story as well, which means I’m now trying to figure out two characters of two different cultures in the same world.
I’m running into the same problem with An Ember in the Ashes. Two narrators of vastly different cultures in the same world. A story that immediately starts with the conflict rather than allowing us some understanding before we get there. In this case, we start with Laia listening as her brother sneaks back into the house during the night when they realize soldiers are arriving to raid their house. People die and Laia goes on the run. Those deaths meant nothing to me because I didn’t understand the characters yet. There were no stakes for this because again, I didn’t understand the world.
I understand why stories do this. It’s more fun to start with the action. But in the long run, I think it makes it that much harder to really get into the story. I know that’s what I tend to struggle with. If I can understand the characters from the beginning, I will devour that book in as few sitting as possible. It’s just good writing to be able to juggle the character- and world-building at the same time. I wish more writers (or editors? Publishers?) understood this and pushed for it.
Granted, this is not the end-all-be-all. A book can start strong and then suck. It can start with action and still be amazing. But I just realized there was a pattern between the books I raved over and the ones I was struggling with. And it’s really, truly as simple as did we get to know the characters and the world before the action starts?
Is this something you’ve noticed as well? Does this hold true for you as well? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear what you think of my theory!