Discussion

Discussion | Why I Struggle With YA Fantasy

YA (1)

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: 

Comment

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.

Let’s Discuss

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?

 

15 thoughts on “Discussion | Why I Struggle With YA Fantasy

  1. I SO agree with everything in this post, and it really brought to light for me why I’ve been steering clear of a lot of YA fantasy lately. I like a good romance focused book from time to time, but I’ve found that it’s so common, it’s more difficult to find a book WITHOUT romance. This is especially a problem in fantasy when you go in expecting something different! I made a post a while back talking about my problems with romance in YA, and while I didn’t focus on fantasy in particular, I think that’s definitely part of the problem. And I especially love your point about how it’s expected bc the genre is mostly read by girls! Which is a big yikes!!

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    1. I like reading romance as well! I closet-read a few Nicholas Sparks books and the book community got me to add Red, White and Royal and The Kiss Quotient to my TBR. It’s just so out of nowhere in YA fantasy sometimes. I don’t mind it in general as long as the marketing is more clear. I also think doing without it makes the writing and plot feel more focused. I don’t mind if it’s naturally weaved into the plot if it makes sense. Thanks for chatting 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, Red White and Royal Blue is FANTASTIC! You should definitely read that 😄
        It’s funny, because mere hours after I commented, someone came into the bookstore where I work, specifically asking for a YA fantasy without romance. I couldn’t think of any! It immediately made me think of this post again. Pretty much every single ya fantasy I’ve read, that’s been published in the past 20 years or so, has at least a romantic subplot 🤔

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  2. When I was a teen reading YA Fantasy the romances really annoyed me, because I was definitely not there for that. When I think about the romances in like high fantasy they’re often much more built on trust which can be betrayed and like that sense of family. Romances has its place in high stakes situations in YA fantasy as well, but I think it’s just done badly too often, possibly also because it’s been a while since the writers have been teens and gone through that. I completely agree that it shouldn’t be a given to have such romances though, just because it’s aimed at teens

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    1. Good point! The adults writing for the genre may be a little out of touch after not being a teenager for some time now. Sometimes I read those books and I cringe at forced because it feels like they don’t know actually know who they’re writing for. I think there’s a place for both YA fantasy/romance (paranormal, historical fiction, etc) and more high-fantasy. I just wish it wasn’t so cliche. Some teens love it and some don’t, so I don’t know how much authority I have on the matter.

      I started reading more adult but it’s all murder and mayhem and bloodshed (with exceptions of course). I’m like, where are the platonic relationships, friendships, and found families? Everyone just hates each other wants the other person to die, hahaha

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  3. I think it does say a lot that a lot of YA fantasy tends to be more romance-with-fantasy than fantasy with romance in it, and it’s not even an issue that this is a thing, so much as it is a trend. I think publishers go in with the expectation that their audience will be heavily teen women/young adult women, so obviously, the thing that is gonna bring them in is romance! Ignoring that both fantasy and romance readers are diverse and not every YA reader is looking for romance. I remember reading THG when I was in high school, and even then the Peeta-Katniss-Gale thing was sooooo unnecessary to me. I also think it’s in part adults in the publishing industry not thinking teens are smart enough for epic/high fantasy, when in reality your enjoyment of that vs. romance has nothing to do with your intelligence, but your interests.

    The best solution imo is doing what’s best for the story; sometimes a romance is the worst thing for the story. Sometimes it’s the best. I wish it wasn’t the expectation. I feel burnt out on going into what I expect to be an epic fantasy and it’s… vague fantasy with a huge romance.

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    1. Exactly! I didn’t mind romance in Twilight because that’s literally what it was about. But THG love triangle definitely effected my ability to enjoy the books as a whole. I guess it depends on people’s tastes. I know some people have said the only way they can enjoy epic fantasy is if it has a romance in it, which fair.

      Last year I was burned a few times with thinking I was about to get into this amazing, immersive fantasy… Within the first 5 chapters of this one book there was not one, but TWO love interests. This year, I’ve waited at least a month or two after reading reviews and have already avoided disappointment AND saved money.

      Thanks for discussing. I appreciate it. 🙂

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      1. I definitely go into YA with different preparation than I do adult; usually I can tell if something is more romance heavy by the way reviewers talk about their ships/pairings and if it feels like that’s a big focus over any other plot, I know to wait on it until I’m in the mood for more fantasy-fluffed romance than fantasy. I don’t knock people who *do* prefer their fantasy like that; I just wish it was marketed like that and the blurbs were more up front, lol.

        And of course! I really liked how nuanced this discussion was. It’s really hard to find conversations about YA that aren’t “YA is the best and if you don’t like it you suck” or “YA is trash and you’re trash for reading it.” YA has its peaks and valleys just like adult or MG fiction do, and crit and discussion are the only ways it’ll grow.

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  4. I love this post! I love high fantasies with a hint of romance, but I definitely get super frustrated when it takes over the plot. Like, a couple romantic chapters in a huge tome is nice, but when the mc spends the entire time angsting about their love life instead of, you know, saving the world, I’m like… priorities???

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    1. lololol …. Is it realistic to start pairing up when the world is ending? I don’t know. I can suspend disbelief in some cases and other times I’m like, Your about to DIE. Your love-pentagon doesn’t matter!

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  5. I think it should be marketed more clearly but I really wonder how those decisions are made in publishing houses? Is it so entwined in peoples minds that they don’t really think nah, this should be called a romance? Or this is too much of a romance but hey here’s some magic so let’s slap a fantasy card on it so people will buy it? Now I really want to go look for statistics 🙂 Interesting discussion.

    And thanks for the warning about Legendary! I didn’t even like Caraval that much but was dancing around Legendary for some reason. I will be taking several steps back now!

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    1. I tried to listen to Legendary on audiobook and I think I saw a review that it turns into a love triangle with Tella? There’s a lot of crushing and swooning and romance and pursuing. It was too much. No hate on that series. I like the idea of Caraval and a mystery magician pulling all the puppet strings, but reading felt like being fed spoonfuls of sugar. 😬

      I feel like marketing does it intentionally for some reason. Maybe in the late 90s and early 2000s when YA really took off, that was just the norm. Especially after Twilight, it was just expected. Now it’s almost 15+ years later. Either way, I wish publishers made it more clearly defined. I just have scour reviews now pre-publication just so I don’t get locked into something I end up disliking.

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  6. To answer one of your discussion questions, I personally think YA leans on romance so much for the teenage target audience. I think that a lot of it stems from the fact that the teen years are generally the stage of life where people start exploring romance and those types of relationships, along with so many of the other themes YA fantasies generally cover. Since I try my best to read YAs with that fact in mind, the romance normally doesn’t bother me, and most of the time I like the romance as a way to take a mental break from a lot of the darker themes YA incorporates these days, but that’s just me! My only problem with so much of popular romance in YA fantasies though is just how white-washed and heteronormative they are. The community is slowly making progress in terms of that diversity, but there’s still such a long way to go. The romance that’s incorporated in the stories becomes so much more realistic and relatable to more kids experiencing those emotions if they can see all of themselves reflected in that.

    This is a really great post! Lots of times I don’t really think about the romance when I read; I love romance so I just kinda go with the flow! But I like when I find posts that force me to think about the content I consume!

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    1. asdfghjkl Sorry this is so late. I was going back through some posts and just saw your reply. 😅

      You are absolutely right about several things. The issue definitely comes from the fact that there’s not much for non-hetero or non-white readers to see themselves in. That would explain “the demand” side of why these stories keep getting pumped out every single year. It’s as simple as the fact that the typical target demographic see themselves. I wonder how much more I would have liked romance in YA fantasy if it were more inclusive?

      I also like your point about romance being a “mental break from a lot of the darker themes”. That’s sooo true. Baring in mind that I’m an older reader (late twenties) having a relief from all the death and darkness definitely makes it better to immerse oneself. I know a few people who love high-stakes plots but need the romance to lighten the rougher themes.

      This gave me something to be more aware of and think about. Thank you!

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