Maybe I’m the Problem, or a reflection on YA fantasy

When you think of a fantasy novel, what comes to mind? Personally, I’ve never read any of those large epic fantasies that are so emblematic of the genre. I haven’t read Lord of the Rings. I haven’t read a single Brandon Sanderson novel. I don’t even know enough about what I might expect from those adventurous tomes to name another example. 

What I have read of fantasy trends closer to the more YA sort—those quick and short and plot-driven novels that are so popular on Booktube, or were in 2019 and 2020. Not a Court of Mist and Fury nor any of the other thousand or so books that Sarah J. Maas has written, but things like Ruinsong by Julia Embers, Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, and Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft—all three of which I received ARCs of from the publisher. 

Ruinsong and Where Dreams Descend were both pitched as Phantom of the Opera retellings, or at least stories inspired by it. Ruinsong is a standalone, following a teen girl who has been forced to torture people by the queen or risk losing her magic and her love interest, a former aristocrat turned revolutionary. After the aristocracy is overturned by those with magic—some particular term used for them that I can’t recall—and forced into peasantry, the queen rules with cruelty. It’s the sort of ‘both sides’ fiction that I find particularly mind-numbing. The magic users were subjugated and the moment they got power, they were made as cruel and heartless as the aristocracy. It’s a tired trope but also fits neatly into reactionary ideas about whatever group is currently fighting for their rights. 

Where Dreams Descend was a better book. The first book in a duology, it follows a young magician—Kallia—who escapes from a more powerful and dangerous magician that runs a club in the woods. She makes it to the nearest city and enters a competition with the intent to prove that women can be just as good as magicians as men. Ultimately, the narrative was mostly centered around romance—around Kallia and a infamous retired magician named Demarco, around Kallia and the man she ran from, Jack. The competition, the mystery behind it all, the magic, it faded to the back in favor of the romance getting more time and focus. Had the book not been so distinctly about challenging the patriarchy it might have seemed less egregious but as it is, there’s a subplot about challenging misogyny that is decentered in order to present a romance.

Down Comes the Night was not much better, if anything it was the most disappointing of the the three. It presented an intriguing magic system and the plot scheduled more political than adventure like the other two. it also treaded beautifully close to horror at times. I also thought the romance was compelling, the most compelling of the three. However, the focus was split between the romantic elements and plot elements, a near constant tug between the two that kept either from really shining. They felt like two different and distinct stories that happened to share the same characters rather than one. It was disjointed and it led to a frustrating reading experience.

After all this,  and I’ve read many more than just this handful of novels, I can’t help but think I should just stop. I no longer care about the YA fantasy stories that intrigued me so much when I started getting back into reading. It’s been a pattern, just this near constant disappointment with this genre and age category combination so I think I’m done for now. I’ll get through any ARCs I have, anything I bought, but I’m disillusioned even with those.

It’s bittersweet, really. I can still remember how much I loved YA fantasy, and more broadly the YA age category, when I was even three years younger. During my senior yeah of high school and my first semester of college, YA fantasy was most of what I’ve read. I read book after book with the occasional adult book thrown in. It’s something I look upon fondly—those first few months when I was just getting back into reading.

I miss it. But looking at my reading now, I feel so much more fulfilled in it. When it comes to the adult books I largely read now—from literary to sci-fi to poetry collections—it’s easier for me to have the conversations I came to these spaces to have. It’s not that there is more meat on the bone of adult novels when compared to YA, but adult more often offers me what I’m looking to chew on.

So, this is a goodbye to YA fantasy. I look forward to the day I come back.

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