Let me preface this by saying I LOVE young adult books, especially YA Contemporary. I also enjoy YA Fantasy. I noticed that the reason why I struggle to find something that sticks with me isn’t that I’m outgrowing the YA demographic, but because romance seems to be everywhere—especially heteronormative, vanilla romance. The Harry Potter series worked because the romance didn’t fully come to fruition until the characters became teenagers and struggled with their feelings, but I felt it was done in a natural way. There were definitely some angsty moments, but I personally felt like it was realistic.
Twilight is a romance first and foremost and a paranormal second. However, I noticed that many YA stories throw in the romance unexpectedly. My first thought is to assume, “Well, it’s YA…YA books just do that.” The Hunger Games included a love triangle even though children were murdering each other. We all kind of accepted that as the norm for some reason. As much as I do feel like the relationship between Peeta and Katniss evolves to something truly meaningful, I didn’t get the point of including Gale for an additional conflict. Personally, I felt Katniss and Gale could have remained platonic.
In Francina’s video, Romance is Ruining Fantasy, she discusses how romance and fantasy have two very different plot structures yet they continue to be mismarketed. Lord of the Rings is pure fantasy. The Notebook is pure romance. I notice a great deal of YA Fantasy looks like mash-up of both.
Every time I open a YA book, I wonder: Is it romance or high fantasy? Obviously, some fantasy has a romance subplot but sometimes fantasy feels like a subplot to a romance. Someone said awhile back that the only way they can read high fantasy is if there’s a romance in it and that’s completely fine. There’s something about romantic emotions in a high-stakes plot that draw us into a story. This formula has been successful for the likes of City of Bones, Twilight, and A Court of Thorns and Roses.
In some cases, the blending of genres can be jarring. For instance, ever since I read Daughter of Smoke and Bone I was completely expecting an immersive, urban-fantasy set in Prague about a girl with a mysterious past and for me personally, the romance came out of left field. The synopsis itself states things like, “bestselling epic fantasy trilogy”. The summary has a passing mention of a “star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past.” I remember that 75% of the book only vaguely hints at the romance until the end and it made it difficult for me to care about the big reveal even though I felt like it was a solid book otherwise.
After watching Francina’s video, I finally realized why my expectations with YA fantasy are constantly at odds when she made these points:
“I think it’s very important to deliver what your promise on the blurb and inside the pages because that’s what I’m going to pay attention to and that’s what my focus is on.”
“….a problem that I see in a lot of the fantasy I read is I have no idea what I’m getting into because a lot of them don’t differentiate or don’t seem to know where they stand in the romance field. They don’t know if they’re a complete romance with fantastical elements or whether they’re both romance and a fantasy plot go hand and hand, or that it’s a complete fantasy with a romance subplot.”
“I’m not quite sure all of them know that [romance and fantasy as a genre] are two different plot structures. One is low-stakes. One is high-stakes. And you can’t just match them together or mismatch things.”
Perhaps the romance as a main plot makes the story lighter and accessible. It seems like while teenagers are perfectly capable of deciding what’s too heavy and what’s just fluffy enough for themselves, the maturity in fantasy nowadays does seem to pander to older readers.
A commenter made an excellent point here:
I feel like some writers who choose to omit any romance go instantly to grimdark. If it has romance, it’s for teens. If it doesn’t, make it darker and scarier. Are those the only two options? Why is the stigma that female writers can only write fantasy with Twilight-levels of romance? Is it demand or is it supply? Look at any top list of YA fantasy and you’ll see hundreds of books written by women. The themes of those bestsellers almost always include: love interest, love triangle, epic love, romance and the politics and battles are secondary.
I recently had to DNF Legendary by Stephanie Garber for the reasons above. I LOVED Caraval when it was first released, but whoa, there was even twice the romance in the sequel and I couldn’t handle it. That’s okay. It’s meant to be a romance adventure story and I realized it wasn’t for me. While I do recognize I’m not the target age market I personally think some stories could be stronger without romance.
To wrap things up, I think the marketing for YA fantasy can be a tad confusing. If I see the synopsis indicate a badass assassin, a kingdom on the verge of decline, evil afoot, etc etc that’s what I expect. Essentially, if I order savory, I don’t want sweet (or vice-versa). Maybe I just have to come expect romance in YA fantasy. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. It just meant that gravitated toward adult fantasy sooner. However, I only wish the marketing for YA fantasy was a bit more transparent.
Do you think that YA fantasy has to have romance to appeal to it’s target audience (teens)? Do you feel like the marketing is misleading for these kinds of books? Are you a must-have-romance-so-I-can-swoon type of reader or I need a lot of stab-stab-stab sort of reader? Or do fall somewhere in-between?