My trouble with Young Adult Fantasy

I repeatedly tried to get into young adult fantasy. Without success. Most of the time, I simply could not stand certain approaches that were not the fault of the authors, but rather the common trait of this specific literary niche. And, while I believe it is uniquely rich, inventive and has a lot to offer, I still have trouble digesting most ‘young adult fantasy’ – even the best of it (Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy almost coverted me…almost). I understand the appeal. But I do not share this fascination. Perhaps, young adult fantasy is labelled ‘young adult’ for a reason. Most of these works are not for ancient mammoths like me. However, I neither loved them ten years ago, when I was a teenager myself. For a number of reasons.

A young-adult heroine in a nutshell: she has the rare ability to call magical butterflies, and that gift will somehow save the kingdom. How? Nobody cares. It’s rare.

1. Emotional roller coaster. Artful dodging, political games, military strategy, poisonous affairs – all that is a background for exaggerated and unwarranted emotional sufferings of the main cast. And given the unusually high stakes (your state is falling apart, the assassins are after you, a rival Empire declares war), the question, whether the protagonist confesses her feelings to her childhood friend, is irrelevant. I want to know, what’s going on in that rival Empire. What I get are 5 chapters of teenage angst, peppered with questions like ‘does he really love me?’, ‘do I really love him/her/them both?’  

2. Smart kids – stupid and incompetent adults. All young-adult fantasies will inevitably feature a super-competent 17-year-old that puts all the 50-somethings in their places. He will be brighter, faster, smarter, greater, while the so-called ministers or teachers will suck. Badly.  And in most cases, they are not supposed to be total idiots. It seems that those authors have never been students and have no idea, how politics works. As a rule, adults do not listen to teenagers and do not obey their orders, ask them to lead a revolution and command an army. Teenagers are marginalized. That is why being a teenager sucks. Yes, a teenager can put a stupid adult in his/her place, but not a brilliant adult.

Notable exceptions: Such things do happen. Rarely. There are two example I can think of. The first comes from low life expectancy. If life expectancy is thirty, then….yeah…you are pretty mature by the time you are 15. Thus, an 18-year-old will lead a regimen, if all his soldiers are 16-17. (think Alexander the Great). The second example would feature field promotions or nepotism. This one is illustrated in my favourite Legend of the Galactic Heroes, where Annerose uses her position as the Keizer’s mistress to push her prodigy brother Reinhard into the Fleet. The said brother eclipses everyone in due time. But that feat he does not accomplish alone. Reinhard’s adversary, the brilliant Yang Wen-Li, on the other hand, gets a field promotion and eventually becomes a super-young marshal in his thirties (not at 18).  Even if these scenarios are improbable, they are believable.

The prettiest shall lead. And all shall listen.

 3. A brilliant man of immense power and intellect falling in love with a plain teenager. Not only should her appearance be unassuming (or she should believe that it is), but she herself should not be anything out of the ordinary, except for an occasional super-power. It won’t stop an ancient mage, a fairy king, a supernatural being of immense power from falling in love with her. Why would that outstanding vampire/demon/king be charmed by an average teenager? Also, he is usually drop-dead gorgeous – think Morozko, the Darkling, the immortal Dragon. In some cases, he’s had centuries of adventures and has met the most distinguished, strategically capable, talented and charismatic people history has known.  Think…he met Marie Curie and Sarah Bernard, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and Catherine the Great…and he falls for an underage kid. What is wrong with him?

4. Too much blood and no sex. These works are mature enough to show genocide, talk about murdered parents and spilled blood, but the protagonists will barely kiss. There is usually a lot of angst, but no sex. Simultaneously, you are bombarded with violence and bloodshed and teenage drama. These teenagers cut throats left and right but worry about their first kiss and are otherwise exemplary chaste.

5. Simplified politics and simplified strategies. Our protagonists have no military experience, a handful of allies and shitty weapons. Their strategy is to infiltrate the guarded compound, use the McGuffin and win. Their deceptive intrigue is hiding in the bushes and waiting for the enemy to show up. I guess I can buy that if these guys fail…but they don’t. And they are viewed as the Admiral Yi of their respective universes. Am I supposed to believe that teenagers are the pinnacle of strategy and intrigue? Are these plans supposed to work against infinitely wise, super skilful military experts, often adults with years of experience?

6. Protagonists with unbelievable skills. ‘He is good at math at 18’ is believable. A super-assassin at 18, who takes down 17 grown-up bodybuilders and kung-fu masters in one outing – that is already too much for my taste. Usually, this extraordinary set of abilities receives one type of explanation: ‘he lived on the streets and had to survive’, ‘she went to a super-assassin school for gifted mages’. And there is a problem with this explanation. Many peers of the said-genius also went to the same super-school and many others had even worse lives. Did their opponents recruit their leaders among farmers and orchid breeders?   

7. All important characters are kids. I am most drawn to extraordinary minds. Your average teenager does not have one. Your brilliant artist and commander opposed to society is usually around thirty. But there are notable exceptions to the rule. Artemis Fowl is exemplary – a brilliant strategist, a conflicted prodigy and a morally grey almost-villain with a knack for philosophy. Oh, yes, he’s somewhere around thirteen. He is also Byronic-all-over-the-place. He is basically an adult in a kid’s body. An ordinary kid would not have been half as interesting.

Are there great young adult fantasy novels that subvert all these points? Definitely. Perhaps, I have not come across them. Also, there are some that are still great even if they focus on super-competent and chaste teenagers. It is, perhaps, that I am a bloodthirsty mammoth, who has outlived her usefulness. And, perhaps, I just miss fantasy books with relatively old protagonists.

3 thoughts on “My trouble with Young Adult Fantasy

  1. Hell, yeah. All of the above, and more. Carefully targeted YA is mostly unbearable, like a half-baked cake made from a quickly googled recipe… some authors seem to believe there’s easy money on that market, and it’s enough to dumb down the plot&characters and apply a few popular tropes. As a teenager, I used to read everything I could find, never cared if I’m in the target group, just if I like the book. My parents sometimes did, so I had to be careful with some of what I found 😉

    Incidentally, “Legend of the Galactic Heroes”… something I’ve learned about years ago, got most of the episodes, but am too scared to start, it’s so long. Anime adaptation, that is. You’ve read the books I assume?

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    1. The curious thing about most YA novels is that they are somehow very easy to read. I am not a fast reader, but I finished the whole Cruel Prince trilogy in two days for some reason. On the other hand, my favorite new Thrawn Trilogy took two weeks (ok, I made notes). I think I can understand why some people are crazy about YA fantasy. It is super-accessible and it also features just the right amount of tropes to seem somewhat familiar.

      LOGH is still my favorite series (together with Thrawn, perhaps). I first saw the anime adaptation as a kid and I could not think about anything else for months. I even missed school because everything around me seemed drab and dull. I wanted to be Reinhard so badly that I organized a coup to overthrow the headmaster. It did not end well. Ok, to be fair, that was my first attempt at a ‘revolution’. After years of studying popular resistance, I now see where it went wrong. 🙂

      In high school, I read the LOGH novels in the worst possible translation. A couple of years ago I finally managed to get the new English edition, and it once again blew my mind away. First, unlike most series, LOGH is very structured and laconic: it’s not Sanderson or Rothfuss, where the very first book of your trilogy/series is literally the whole of War and Peace and With Fire and Sword combined. They are relatively short, but altogether they form a complete storyline. The best about it is the lack of cupboard-cut characters that are the mark of so much of military fantasy and SF. It’s not Mamay, where the action is logical, but you barely remember why the hell this is happening. In LOGH, the characters are spectacular. Again, because I was a kid when I first found it, LOGH featured my first fiction crush – Paul von Oberstein. (Thrawn came much later) Another thing is a pet-peeve of mine: Tanaka for all his perks does not vilify ambition and intellect, so you won’t get the stupid “They won because the power of love/friendship saved them!” Usually, people are undone or saved by brains there. And I very much liked that.

      I wholeheartedly recommend it, but I still get that LOGH is not for everyone. It’s very, very political. Over the top. LOGH features a lot of philosophical discussions about the will of people, relativity of evil, etc. Also, there is a lack of female characters. The ones that are there, are interesting and powerful (they eventually become), but they don’t usually steal the spotlight till the very end. And, yes, Reinhard can be annoying to some, and he is one of the main characters.

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      1. Well, I’m all for sf that combines politics and warfare with philosophy, I got through most of David’s Weber novels… It’s just that the scale of the series always scared me. I might start with the first novel, and see how I like it.

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