The crop of YA fantasy novels this year has been a true delight. It’s still February, and I’ve already ripped my way through hundreds of pages of adventure, anguish, and romance. As a reader, it’s been a blissful escape during a year that has been tumultuous for so many of us already.
As a writer, I’m also excited to see that there is a changing of the guard in terms of the kinds of stories being released. I mean no offense to gritty urban fantasy, heroines who seem born knowing how to fight off all kinds of monsters, and epic battlefield clashes, but it’s refreshing to find stories writ smaller, and more intimately, than ever. The new themes and personalities that are emerging keep writers on their toes and readers enthralled.
Here are some of the themes that I’ve found to be both popular and powerful this year.
Parental (and family) drama takes center stage.
This year’s heroines are not the orphans and loners of yesteryear. They must navigate family politics and expectations, and break out of the childhood roles that bind them in order to find their identities apart from their parents. In Stephanie Garber’s novel, Caraval, the heroine has a father who brutally beats her and her sister. Part of her journey is not only physically escaping his control, but breaking through the mental trauma that defines her. What I love about the emphasis of the integral role of family on a protagonist, for better or for worse, is that it leads us away from the view that you can separate an individual from where they come from. Heroines who are the products of their history feel more personal, and believable.
The power of art to change us and define us.
I have enjoyed the YA fantasy of the past few years taking a concrete approach to strength in its heroines. These women could fight the biggest monsters, wield the most magic, and us their wits and logic to overcome any obstacle. But I didn’t know that I was missing heroines with artistic, sensitive souls that gave them strength. Now, I can’t imagine a heroine without one. My favorite example is from S. Jae-Jones’ novel, Wintersong. Liesl, the protagonist, is a composer, and the power of music is a theme that acts as the glue holding the story together. It deepens and intensifies both the reader’s understanding of the protagonist, and lends believability to the “specialness” that makes her unique to a goblin king.
Love interests who are happy to be “beta” males.
Praise all that is good, this year the alpha male appears to be taking a backseat to a subtler, more fragile and human male specimen. Bulging muscles and overconfidence are taken off their pedestal for men who are interested in the arts, slender in their build, and comfortable letting a woman take the driver’s seat. Sigh. I’m halfway in love, just thinking about them. A prime example is the character of Jest in Marissa Meyer’s Heartless, which was released last November, but I’m still counting in our 2017 trends. Jest is a performer and a lover. He’s heroic in his own right, but he never robs Cath, the protagonist, of her choices. There is the risk that he is too perfect, but I’ll take that when I see a heroine with the ability and choice for forge her own future.
Novels that play with our sense of what’s real.
Maybe it’s because so many of us are questioning if our news, our politics, even our own opinions can be trusted, but there is a distinct theme that I’ve found winding its way through YA fantasy this year. The current crop of protagonists not only don’t know who they can trust, but they also must question the reality of the very world they inhabit. From Caraval to Heartless to Wintersong, the heroines’ stories are upended as they question what is real, and what is part of a game. Maybe that’s what many of us our wishing – that we might wake up, like Alice, and discover that the upside-down world that frightened us was nothing more than a dream.
Any other trends that have caught your eye this year, or books that you’d recommend to a reader always starving for a good YA fantasy?