I opened my book blog in 2019 after taking a hiatus from reading for about two years. I'd missed out on the changing trends in book popularity. Young adult fantasy had become the hottest stuff on the market, and I had a lot of catching up to do, having last read Rick Riordan's The Sword of Summer (2015), sometime around 2016. Without further ado, I turned to the Bangladeshi bookstagram community, a connective platform of book bloggers based on Instagram. As I made my way through various feeds, I began to notice certain patterns, the most prominent of them being, the popularity of young adult fantasy books. Everyone had them on their bookshelves. Everyone read them and fawned over them. Online stores were getting creative with the contents of these books, coming up with themed candles, beautifully designed bookmarks, and exclusive sticker packs. It was almost as though the genre had developed a cult following of its own.
In an effort to catch up with the growing crowd, I dove headfirst into the genre and bought the very popular Folk of the Air (2018) trilogy by popular children's book and YA author Holly Black. Now all I had to do was curl up with my recent purchase and a steaming mug of tea and devour the words for brunch on a rainy day. I was halfway through The Cruel Prince (2018)—the first book in the series—when a thought popped up in my head.
This feels like something I've read before.
The feeling never left and after I finished the book, I realised I had indeed read something like it before. There was a chosen hero, an arch nemesis who colludes with inexplicable dark forces, a love triangle more complicated than the intersecting plotlines of Game of Thrones. This described just about every other young adult fantasy book out there.
Ah, there's a formula to it then.
If memory serves well, the first fantasy book I'd ever read was an urban fantasy novel set during the 1900s in London, C S Lewis' The Magician's Nephew (1955). The Biblical allegories spanning the novel weren't all that clear to me back in elementary school. To me, it was a fantastical tale of two friends who had found a secret gateway to a world of magic hidden within ours. I went on to read more urban fantasies which overlapped with the bildungsroman genre, such as J K Rowling's Harry Potter (1997) series, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & The Olympians (2005) series, Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments (2007) series, and Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga (2005). The first two were in sync with what I had read in Lewis' works, but the latter weren't. Different doesn't necessarily mean negative, but both Meyer's and Clare's works turned out to be quite the disappointment.
In Clare's City of Bones (2007), protagonist Clary Fray is described primarily as being "different from other girls" by her love interest Jace Herondale, and the stereotype is echoed by other characters throughout the novel. The "not like other girls" trope was also popularised by Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga series through the characterisation of its protagonist Bella Swann. Meyer's series was instantly popular amongst teens and young adults, when it first came out, the reason being the premise which revolved around a gothic romance set during the present day. When writing the Twilight Saga, Stephanie Meyer was influenced by her religious upbringing and thus gave her readers a high school romance which bordered on the supernatural, while censoring out the NSFW content or rebellious teen behaviour. Meyer ultimately failed to follow through with the gothic intrigue, having relied too much on stereotypes. The Twilight Saga continues to retain its early-2000s popularity amongst readers as a work of fiction that everyone "loves to hate". In stark contrast, Rowling and Riordan gave us relatively well-developed characters with relatable personalities. Take the character growth exhibited by the titular characters in both the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series, who evolve from being wayward teens to sensible adults, forming meaningful relationships with the people around them. What added to the delight of reading these series was their social commentary surrounding real world issues, exploring class politics, racial prejudice, abuse of power, dictatorship, judicial injustice, and more, all through elements of fantasy.
Poor character development was not the only problem--other problematic trends which took center stage in the Twilight Saga and Mortal Instruments include the "good girl falls for bad boy" trope, two-dimensional villainous characters, and an unnecessarily complicated love triangle no one can keep up with. Provocative storytelling be damned. YA fantasy writers Kiera Cass and Holly Black apparently felt the same way, churning out what they had picked up from other mainstream favourites. Lo and behold! The Selection (2012) series and Folk of the Air (2018) trilogy similarly came to life, forcibly stretching out formulaic stories over too many books we didn't really need.
It is also important to acknowledge that not all YA fantasy books published in the 2010s have been unoriginal. In recent times, the genre has gained depth in terms of cultural representation and morally complex characters as new age authors move past unacceptable norms set up by their less imaginative contemporaries. While Leigh Bardugo and Soman Chainani have given us intriguing storylines and unconventional character arcs in the Grishaverse (2012) and The School for Good and Evil (2013), their efforts were triumphed by Marissa Meyer's The Lunar Chronicles (2012), Roshani Chokshi's The Gilded Wolves (2018), Hafsah Faizal's We Hunt The Flame (2019), and Tomi Adeyemi's Legacy of Orisha (2018), all of which have dominated the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list for the right reasons. Alongside increased relatability, readers have also been given a taste of culturally rich landscapes inspired by ancient mythologies from all over the globe, taking inspiration from stories beyond the conventional white fairytales we have all heard as kids.
Take Legacy of Orisha for instance, written by a Nigerian-American author, which takes inspiration from gods and goddesses in West African mythology as well as literary works such as the Harry Potter series, and Sabaa Tahir's An Ember In The Ashes series. Tomi Adeyemi had always intended for her work in YA fantasy to reflect on the racial tension and cultural oppression that black people experience in first world countries like the USA. In books like the Grishaverse and The Lunar Chronicles, the narratives offer complex and flawed individuals caught up in a battle against the backdrop of a dystopian world. There are enough grey shades to make the readers genuinely want to emotionally invest in the fictional realm. You keep coming back for more. That being said, more or less all YA novels in written these days tend to fall back on a problematic stereotype to appeal to the teen demographic, which is all too often intent on hyping a clichèd angle on social networking sites.
So, to answer the question posed in the title of this article: No; young adult fantasy still remains an imaginative yet strongly relatable escape for its readers. Prominent writers of the genre continue to hand us fictional works which mirror the harsh reality that we're accustomed to, setting up the stage for better comprehension of how ambiguous humanity's moral compass can really be. However, some books being written for the genre do pose the threat of turning it rote. As avid readers, we must decide what we'd rather prioritise: a compelling narrative or cheap thrills?
Rasha Jameel divides her time between majoring in microbiology and pursuing her passion for writing. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org