A Different Kind of Witch

26114389I’ve been looking for a good witchy read to get in the mood for fall (I am SO over summer right now). I love the A Discovery of Witches series, by Deborah Harkness and I’m constantly looking for something that evokes the same kind of high stakes drama, with a hefty dose of romance.

Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey wasn’t that book. At all. But I really, really liked it. It’s a book about grief, family and learning to love. It’s a unique book about witches in that it isn’t based on more typical Northeast U.S./Salem-ish witches, with spatterings of other more traditional magical creatures. Instead, Spells of Blood and Kin focuses on Russian folklore, which means that if you’re looking for something Salem-ish, move on.

When I scanned through Goodreads reviews, I found that the majority of people who didn’t like this book seemed to have trouble with the fact that the supernatural creatures in this book weren’t easy to pin down in terms of the usual fare. The “kin” aren’t werewolves or vampires explicitly, nor do we ever get a detailed definition of who and what they are, how many there are, or even the full picture on the primary kin character. No, this book does things its own way.

The book is told from a threefold POV: Lissa (our witch), Maksim (our centuries-old kin) and Nick (our brand new kin), accompanied by a small cast of side characters. When the story opens we find that Lissa’s grandmother has just died and she’s bound to follow in Baba’s footsteps as the local witch in her Russian-Canadian community. Barred from the church, but simultaneously respected and feared, Lissa is a bit isolated until her stepsister, Stella, crashes into her life.

Our second protagonist, Nick – and I kind of hesitate to call him a protagonist, as he’s the most unlikable and problematic character of the bunch – is a college student with a drinking problem. Even before his supernatural trip, he’s kind of a jackass and a bad friend. But his life gets turned upside down when he is mugged outside a bar, and a dark stranger randomly licks his bloody face. Yeah, that happens, which brings us to Maksim.

Maksim’s control over his violent urges are slipping, resulting in lost time and situations like the aforementioned oddity. Maksim is kin and when Lissa’s grandmother dies, he starts to lose his mind, which brings him to her for help. We get plenty of flashbacks into Maksim’s past to help us understand why he enlisted the help of a witch to begin with, especially when it seems his kind are largely repelled by them.

Sometimes I have a problem when multiple POVs exceed two perspectives, but in this case I think it works well. I’m not sure I would have understood the ending, which is a bit of a surprise, if I hadn’t had a close look at our three protagonists. I especially appreciate the way that Maksim’s perspective is a bridge of understanding between Lissa and Nick’s characters. Really, the book wouldn’t work if told from just Lissa and Nick’s perspectives, or Maksim and Lissa’s; you couldn’t understand the way the characters end up otherwise.

I liked that Humphrey doesn’t give us a “big bad.” Regular human problems like grief, family troubles, addiction and major life changes are all addressed with the amplification of the supernatural elements in the story. But honestly, all three characters are easy to relate to because they struggle with the kinds of things we’re familiar with: how the death of a loved one will change your life, the way some friends become family and some family will never fit into your life, no matter how hard you try to make it work.

I also appreciate that Humphrey writes Nick as the quintessential example of toxic masculinity. He’s angry at women, he’s violent, he’s entitled and a pain in the rear for everyone who’s trying desperately to help him. Sure, this is made worse by the fact that Maksim turns him into a supernaturally strong immortal creature, defined by rage. However, when we have Maksim and his companion Augusta to compare him to, it’s clear that becoming kin ramps up your “bad”side, but it doesn’t make you into a brand new person.

Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, Spells of Blood and Kin went a long way to satisfy my witchy-read itch. It has a slower pace than a lot of books about supernatural stuff and is also a bit shorter. I was a little surprised when I glanced down to find I’d read 97% of the book in two evenings. I recommend it to folks who enjoyed Station Eleven’s unique, slightly slower feel, even though this is a much different book in terms of subject matter.

Allison Carr Waechter is off to the wild next week. Enjoy our conversation about Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle while she’s gone.

 

 

 


Coven Chat: A Court of Mist and Fury

 

17927395We are so excited to discuss Sarah J. Maas’ new book, A Court of Mist and Fury, the second installment in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series. Allison recommended the series to you on Wednesday, so if you haven’t read any of the books yet, go check that out.

Remember, in a Coven Chat, we definitely reveal spoilers, so if you haven’t read either book yet, you might want to hold off on our discussion! 

Nicola: Although I enjoyed ACOTAR, it was probably my least favourite of Maas’ books, perhaps because of my long-standing attachment to Celaena, or perhaps because I was rather lukewarm about Tamlin as a love interest, and the romance between him and Feyre forms the core plot of the novel. ACOMAF, on the other hand, is quite possibly my favourite. I love the world of Prythian, the human queens and glimpses into their world, the new characters, everything.

Allison: I agree, 100%. The second I was finished I wanted to read it again. Maas has a talent for creating stories like this. The ToG series is one of the few that I’m willing to re-read multiple times as well. I plan to read ACOTAR and ACOMAF again in the very near future.

Alyssa: Yes, I’ve re-read Maas’s series multiple times as well–usually every time a new book comes out. I re-read ACOTAR right before ACOMAF’s release and I was really rooting for Feyre and Tamlin, even though I was intrigued by Rhys too. I assumed Tamlin was Feyre’s true love, with Rhys challenging, but not breaking, their bond. I was worried about a love triangle in ACOMAF, even though I also had faith in Maas’s ability to avoid such cliches, or at least do the unexpected with them.  

Allison: Yes, I worried a little about the love triangle as well, even though I don’t always mind it. It does have a tendency to feel a bit predictable these days.

Alyssa: Now I’m really curious to see how different my next reading of ACOTAR will be since I’ve read ACOMAF. Will I like Tamlin less or view him as being more possessive in ACOTAR, or will I still see him as Feyre sees him and fall for him again? At first I was a little worried about Tamlin’s shift in character and how ACOMAF heads in such a new direction. But it didn’t take long for me to really like that ACOMAF shows Tamlin in a different light and demonstrates, through Feyre and Rhys’s mating bond, that true love is equal partnership–about each person having freedom and choice–not about one person having control over the other, no matter the situation. Maas is really good at changing her main characters’ love interests in her books in a very satisfactory way. I’m surprised by how much I fall in and out of love with these love interests and I’m okay with that. It doesn’t feel flighty or inauthentic.

Nicola: Aye, me too, and I think it’s so satisfactory because it all comes down to solid character development. Feyre changes immensely between the latter part of ACOTAR and the early chapters of ACOMAF, and Tamlin changes, too, and that doesn’t mean their relationship wasn’t real before, but it does mean it’s over now. We discussed this with QoS, but I love how Maas doesn’t fall into the “MC meets her true love in book 1 and they’re together the rest of the series” mould; while it can work well, it can stifle character development as well, and neither Celaena nor Feyre would grow as much as they do if they were tethered to their early loves.

Allison: I love that we get to see Feyre struggle with this. That even though Tamlin locking her in the house is a breaking point for her, she still mourns their relationship. I appreciated the fact that though she feels murky about things when Mor first rescues her, it’s clear she’s done and won’t go back, even if she doesn’t know what to do next. I also really appreciate the way that Maas stages this. Feyre leaves Tamlin’s court twice before Mor steps in the final time. Even though it’s a part of her bargain with Rhys, we can see her relief in not being in Tamlin’s house, even when she feels eager to return, that feeling is complicated by a growing feeling of dread at being in Tamlin’s presence.

Nicola: Agreed. I think a part of her reluctance is that she knows she did something unforgivable in killing those fae for Amarantha, and the only way it’s possibly acceptable is if she did it for her true love, but if she doesn’t love Tamlin, it means she’s just a murderer.

Speaking of romantic relationships, I love how Rhys’ parents’ relationship shows that even with the magical mating bond, love isn’t assured. It’s still a choice. Tamlin and Feyre didn’t fail to make things work because Feyre was someone else’s mate, but because Tamlin became controlling and abusive. Likewise, Feyre and Rhys don’t end up together because they’re mates, but because they respect and challenge each other.

Allison: Yes! This was a cool way of showing that Feyre does love Rhys and that the bond doesn’t affect that. She’s free to love him or not. This also brings up how amazing it is that Rhys is so committed to giving Feyre a choice.

Nicola: Aye, and it makes it so clear how Tamlin wasn’t letting Feyre make choices even in minor things, with the way he cloistered her inside his manor to keep her safe. Tamlin kind of reminds me of Edward Cullen in this book, with the way he controls Feyre ‘for her own good’. The key difference, of course, is that this book emphasises that that is NOT okay, and that Feyre has the RIGHT to freedom and autonomy.

Allison: I am so glad to be rid of Tamlin as the love interest.. I had this feeling by the end of ACOTAR that something was up with him that wasn’t so great. It was clear that Maas was putting Rhys in a position to be a complication and that his character was more complex than Feyre originally perceives. Though I was still rooting for Tamlin and Feyre, I was really interested in seeing how things with Rhys played out. I’m pleased with the shift.

Nicola: You know, it’s funny you should say that. When I finished ACOTAR I didn’t really notice anything wrong with Tamlin, and I was rather dreading Rhys’ involvement in ACOMAF, because it felt like Maas was setting up one of those horrible ‘girl falls for abusive and manipulative jackass’ love triangles. I really should have had more faith in Maas, given the nuanced and thoughtful way she’s handled Celaena’s relationships. In this case, she subverted the cliché, so that Feyre realises Tamlin has become abusive and only falls for Rhys once she’s finished grieving that relationship.

Allison: There was something about Rhys’ frustration with Tamlin that made me wonder. Yes, he objectifies Feyre, but he also helps her in a way that is out of character for his persona. It made me wonder why Maas was putting Rhys in Feyre’s way and how his inauthentic behavior reflects on Tamlin. Basically, I figured if Rhys was willing to get vulnerable with Feyre in ACOTAR, that there might be something off about Tamlin.

Nicola: That’s a good point. I’m really excited to re-read ACOTAR soon now that I’ve read ACOMAF and see how it changes my perception of the characters.

Alyssa: I love how good Maas is at shifting our perspectives of her main characters’ relationships. But she also doesn’t create stereotypical love interests who are blatant manipulative jackasses. Instead, we experience the good and the bad of these relationships from Feyre’s or Celaena’s perspectives and our feelings towards their love interests change accordingly. I also like that Feyre’s shift in romantic partners–her falling in love with Rhys and falling out of love with Tamlin–doesn’t dominate ACOMAF.  

Nicola: Aye, there’s so much going on in ACOMAF that I love and the relationships feel like such a natural extension of the characters’ interactions with each other and their development through the other plot points. There’s an interesting parallel between the romances in ACOTAR and ACOMAF. In ACOTAR the romance is primary, the faerie war secondary, while in ACOMAF the threat of the Hybern king is primary, and the romance with Rhys secondary. What this also means is that right from the start, especially knowing that ACOTAR was based on Beauty and the Beast, I was rooting for Feyre to fall for Tamlin not because of him, but because of the change in perspective that represented: her acceptance of the fae.

With Rhys in ACOMAF, I hated him at first, then began to respect and even like him, and by about two-thirds of the way through the novel I was convinced he and Feyre were perfect together, but I didn’t really root for the two of them like I did Feyre and Tamlin, simply because there’s so much else going on and, whether they’re friends or lovers, they share a relationship based on trust and respect that lends them the strength to face the king of Hybern, the human queens, and whatever else the brewing war throws at them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty certain I squealed with delight when they admitted their feelings for each other, but I wouldn’t have been unsatisfied with them deciding they were best as friends, either.

Allison: I agree, I also would have been fine with them staying friends, even though I think they’re really great together as a romantic pair. The first time Rhys takes Feyre, to save her from her wedding day, I was thrilled. I love the way they fail to have a “romance.” He’s not wooing her and she’s not being courted by him, things just develop. The fact that he becomes her friend, even though he knows they are mates, is kind of amazing to me. It’s the best gift he can give to someone whose choices have been repeatedly stripped from them and it comes from a place of real empathy, because he knows what it is to lose your agency. I think understanding the way he avoids enacting the bargain for months in order not to interfere in her life is important. He only takes her at her wedding because she is literally begging someone, anyone to save her. When he sees that she’s being abused he reinstates the agreement between them.

One of the things I really appreciate about Feyre and Rhys, versus Feyre and Tamlin, is that they are both so complicated (and honestly, a bit difficult in terms of personality). Tamlin wants Feyre to be simple and the more difficult she becomes, the more he stifles her. Rhys, however, seems to revel in all of Feyre’s “difficult” personality traits. He likes to see her stand up for herself and creates spaces for her to do that.

Alyssa: Yes, agency! So important. I think with ACOTAR, we can lose sight of the fact that Feyre doesn’t have agency in her relationship with Tamlin because we’re swept up in the Beauty and the Beast-like romance. I agree with Nicola’s point that it’s easy to root for Feyre and Tamlin, not because of Tamlin, but because of the change in perspective that the fairy tale symbolizes. But when the curse is broken, Feyre realizes that she must have agency and Tamlin is not willing to grant her that. I like that even though my feelings towards Tamlin have changed at this point and I am so happy that Feyre left him and I wouldn’t want her to go back, I feel for him more than I hate him.

He becomes the monster again and his own worst enemy. His behavior is inexcusable, but it’s realistic. I don’t like it, but I can understand how and why this is happening. He becomes more and more of a manipulative jackass, but I don’t think he sees (or wants to see) himself that way. And I think he’s motivated by love, even if it’s an abusive and destructive love. He seems to really believe in that mythic romance, too, of saving Feyre from a curse and seemingly abusive relationship with Rhys. I’m very interested to see what happens next with Tamlin’s character arc. I guess it’s less about me hating Tamlin for the way he is and more about really championing the way Feyre gains agency in ACOMAF, and not just through her friendship turned romance with Rhys.

Allison: I agree with this so much. Yes, Tamlin turns into an abuser and I think he had the predisposition to be over-protective and stifling to begin with. Nicola is right, he’s similar to Edward Cullen in that way in the first book. There’s something really cool about the way Maas sets up that kind of behavior as seductive, but that can easily turn from problematic to abusive under the right circumstances. I have a hard time forgiving Tamlin for this though, because Rhys went through so much worse Under the Mountain, AND was dealing with the mating bond, and still he fights against his response to protect Feyre at all costs.

However, I appreciate the thoroughness with which Maas reinforces in ACOMAF that being Under the Mountain changed all the characters. I like that Tamlin isn’t wholesale proved to have been an abusive partner from the beginning, but that life circumstances changed him into someone who couldn’t hear Feyre’s point of view anymore. This feels realistic to me. Tamlin, Rhys and Feyre all have pretty severe PTSD from having been Under the Mountain and it was bound to make their relationships change.

I am so pleased that Maas “went there” and points out repeatedly that Amarantha was raping Rhys and that it might have an effect on how he views sex and trust. I think it’s almost taboo to talk about men being raped by women, especially as adults, and I feel that Maas’ treatment of the issue was sensitive and moving. I also love the way Rhys’ character develops in this book. I think there were lots of hints that Rhys was playing a part Under the Mountain in ACOTAR and that he was more complicated than Feyre believes him to be. What I was fascinated by in this book is that he is somewhere in the middle. He’s still a bad boy and arrogant as hell, but that arrogance is explained and his deeper insecurities reveal him to be a whole person in this way that was really satisfying for me.

Alyssa: Yes, definitely. Maas is really good at creating complex and morally ambiguous lead and supporting characters who are likable and usually relatable, despite being arrogant and aggressive. I think Maas’s series demonstrate that these qualities not only mask insecurities, but they are not bad per se. When we are in the heads of arrogant, somewhat villainous or frightening characters (even heroes), these characters are so real and we can accept how they think and act in ways that we would not in our everyday lives.  

Allison: One of the things I’m liking about these books in contrast to the Throne of Glass books (although that series remains one of my all time favorites) is that they are so completely character driven. Maas writes amazing characters, overall, but Throne of Glass’ focus on the larger political drama takes center stage, while ACOTAR has a similar theme of a world in turmoil, but the books stay very close to the main characters, allowing us to know them in a different way. The first person POV allows for this in a different way, but we get to know Rhys, Mor, Cassian, Azriel and Amren pretty well in this book as well. Maas is really skilled at creating scenes that both move the plot and help us know the characters in deep, meaningful ways.

Nicola: Agreed. I’m particularly impressed with the way she manages to give nuance to Feyre’s relationship with her sisters, even though they rarely appear after their rather unflattering introduction at the start of ACOTAR. And yet I can see why Feyre forgives them for their complacency and why she loves them. And, honestly, I rather admire Nesta, in spite of her ill-treatment of Feyre.

Allison: I am really looking forward to seeing who Nesta becomes as a result of her transformation. She’s already so formidable and that moment when she exited the Cauldron felt heavy with foreshadowing Nesta’s potential for being a scary badass as Fae.

Nicola: Yes! Me too. I think she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with, not unlike Mor. I knew from the moment she was introduced that Mor would be a formidable woman, because Maas knows enough about mythology to know the connotations of naming her character Morrigan, and yet it’s also clear right from the start that she’s warm and kind. She’s willing to befriend Feyre, a woman who loathes the person who matters the most to Mor, because she can see that Feyre needs a friend. And yet I would not want to get on her bad side.

Allison: No kidding! It’s interesting to watch how she and Amren go through almost opposing developments from Feyre’s perspective. She sees Mor as approachable and warm from the start and then grows to understand that she’s a potentially terrifying powerhouse, while Amren scares the crap out of her from the start, but gentles somewhat as time goes on… Though to call Amren gentle at all is probably a mistake.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how all of their relationships grow and change in the next book. I’m definitely hoping for some more of the dual perspective. I liked hearing Rhys’ thoughts at the end. What are you two looking forward to?

Nicola: Yeah, I’d love to see more scenes from other characters’ perspectives, though I’m not sure how feasible multiple characters would be with a first-person POV. And this book totally upended my perception of so many characters, so I can’t wait to see how they and their relationships develop further.

Alyssa: Yes, I’d love more multiple perspectives, even though I agree it’s likely more difficult with a first person POV and might mean trying to do too much in a trilogy. But her multiple narratives is one of my favorite aspects of her series. And, of course, all of the sexy scenes too. 🙂

Allison: Thanks to you both, as alwasys, for this lovely talk. Dear readers, please tell us what you think in the comments!


Star Touched

25203675I love fairy tale retellings and The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi felt fresh and familiar at the same time. Our heroine, Maya, is one of the Raja of Bharata’s daughters. She has spent her life as an outcast in the palace, as her horoscope predicts that she will partner with Death. Her mother is long-dead and her father’s harem doesn’t step up to care for her. She has a close relationship with one of her younger sisters, Gauri, but has no other friends.

The kingdom of Bharata is at war, and to try and forge a peace her father makes a dangerous plan for Maya’s marriage. Chaos ensues and Maya finds herself spirited away to a mysterious and magical land with a suitor named Amar. It is clear from the start that Amar’s kingdom is full of secrets, as he cannot reveal the true nature of his plans until a month has passed. The more Maya learns the more confusing things become.

Steeped in Indian folklore, The Star-Touched Queen feels familiar in that in many ways; it reminds me of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series or Rosamunde Hodge’s Cruel Beauty. At the same time, Chokshi builds a world that feels new and exciting from lots of fantasy work currently being published.

Maya is a clever character and I like that she is an intellectual warrior. Like Marie Rukoski’s Kestrel in The Winner’s Trilogy, she uses her wit to fight her battles, rather than weaponry. Before she is whisked off to Amar’s kingdom, and her father’s plan to marry her off, she hopes to spend her life in study. No one expects that she will marry because of her terrible horoscope, so she anticipates a life spent learning.

I love Maya’s relationship with her little sister, especially what we get to see of Gauri when she’s grown a bit. I’ve heard a rumor that the sequel to this book will be about Gauri, which excites me because she was such a vibrant character and we don’t get to see enough of her in this novel. Additionally, Maya’s relationship with Kamala, a flesh eating horse, is unusually sweet and the dialogue between them is funny enough that I found myself laughing aloud. Chokshi has a deft hand when it comes to mixing the horrific and strange with the beautiful, which was a bright spot in the book.

The worldbuilding and Chokshi’s descriptions of both Bharata and Amar’s kingdom, Akaran are lush and create a beautiful backdrop for the story. If I had one complaint, it would be that the book feels too rushed. The book is defined by two distinct parts and I think each could have been a book in its own right. There were some loose ends that didn’t get picked up that I feel could have used a bit more fleshing out. Basically, The Star Touched Queen was wonderful in so many ways, I would love to have had more time with the world Chokshi built.

Fans of Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn and Melissa Grey’s The Girl At Midnight will find common ground here in terms of the love story between Maya and Amar. Misunderstandings about Amar’s intentions abound. I hesitate to say more because doing so will ruin the story, but let’s just say that Maya doesn’t know what she thinks she knows and ends up paying dearly for it.

Overall, I enjoyed The Star-Touched Queen and look forward to reading more of Chokshi’s work. If you’re looking for a magical reimagining of Indian folklore, or just a fairy-tale retelling, I think you won’t be disappointed.

Allison Carr Waechter is back with her books after a long and painful slump.

 


In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente

The Orphan's Tales by Catherynne M Valente“Never put your faith in a Prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a Witch.”
― Catherynne M. Valente, In the Night Garden

Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars. Each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before. From ill-tempered mermaid to fastidious Beast, nothing is ever quite what it seems in these ever-shifting tales even, and especially, their teller.

Catherynne Valente solidified her space as one of my favorite authors with this exquisitely written duology The Orphan Tales.

The first volume, In the Night Garden, introduces us to a mysterious storyteller and her curious upbringing in the lush gardens of a Sultan’s palace. Our guide weaves nested tales within stories within myths that flow along the pages as if we are in a dream.

While amidst this tapestry of tales, each interwoven story makes perfect sense, but once you close the book they blend together into an abstract feeling – hard to describe, but imprinted in your memory like a incredibly detailed daydream.

Valente’s prose is rich and all-encompassing. You can feel the moonlight, smell the spices, and hear the sea nearby as she paints each fairytale into an enchanting reality.

Although her stories are most certainly beautiful, they can also be dark and gritty – giving each tale incredible depth. She inverts gender tropes, tossing aside any suggestion of women being weak. In Valente’s world, princesses are pirates as well as beasts. Maidens are rarely what they appear, and women can grow up to be fierce warriors.

This duology is not an easy read. Both volumes are interconnected and the swirling, dancing plot can be hard to follow at times. You may also find, like I have, each story feels even richer when read aloud.

There is an amazing payoff once you let go of trying to make the connections between each story. Simply enjoying each well-honed sentence is the secret to fully enjoying this series. Your questions will finally be answered, and once you see how each timeline lines up, you will be in awe of Valente’s creative genius.

 

Mary King is the creator of the haute esoteric lifestyle blog Orb of the Night. She spends far too much time on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She can usually be found painting, planning, or reading with a nice cup of tea.

 

 


Liminal Space: When the Lines Between YA and Adult Get Blurry

22698568Allison: Recently, after finishing The Invasion of the Tearling, I shouted at Alyssa (via the internet) “THIS IS NOT YA!” and she gently reminded me that, no, it’s not. This launched a discussion between me, Nicola and Alyssa about the recent blurring of lines between YA and adult novels in a certain subset of the sci-fi/fantasy world. Today, we’d like to share some of that discussion with you.

What is YA, anyway?

Nicola: Part of the issue with the blurred lines between adult fantasy and YA is that it is so difficult to pin down a definition of what YA is. It generally features teenage protagonists, who usually grapple with some kind of coming-of-age theme. It’s often told in a close POV, frequently first-person. You see I’m using lots of generalisations, because YA The Shattered Courtis a very varied category, even if we just restrict ourselves to fantasy, or even fantasy set in a secondary world.

But if we look at my list of characteristics above, we see that something like Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses has more in common with much of YA fantasy than something like Lord of the Rings, which, in spite of its age, is still what many lay people think of as characteristic fantasy. Maas’ Feyre is a young woman (19), who tells the story in first-person and who discovers that the world is not as black-and-white as she imagined, with the Fae not being the utter monsters of her imagination.

Allison: I think that one of the definitions I would add to “YA” is that it’s often more quickly paced than “adult” fantasy (such as LOTR). I think that’s why ACOTAR, the Tearling books and A Darker Shade of Magic and The Shattered Court are all enjoyable for people who like the subject matter and pace of YA fantasy, but with more adult subject matter.

A Darker Shade final for Irene Alyssa: I agree with everything you’re both saying. YA in general is in a very liminal space between children’s and adult books. In the bookstore where I worked, the YA section used to be in the children’s area. Then Twilight happened. YA (ages 12 & up), now re-categorized as Teen, moved to the adult fiction area and the old YA section in the children’s area became Middle Grade (ages 8-11).

Also, the line between YA and adult is even blurrier for fantasy than for contemporary because their teen protagonists (whether 15 or 19 yrs old) are not typical teens, dealing with what we think of as typical teen issues. The conflicts in fantasy are usually more extreme and demand much greater heroics. To become a hero, teen protagonists must “grow up” and demonstrate physical an16096824d mental strength more quickly because there’s usually a greater sense of urgency and emergency. They usually face multiple life-or-death situations and must undergo a more significant self-transformation to not only stay alive but defeat their enemies. Often teens in fantasy (I’m thinking of Celaena) seem more adult than real world teens.

Nicola: That’s a good point, Alyssa, about how the teen protagonists in fantasy tend to be facing much more severe situations than the teens in contemporary novels and the teenage audience. I’d also argue that epic fantasy themes have a lot of crossover with YA themes in general. Kelsea in The Queen of the Tearling and Sophie in The Shattered Court are 19 and 21 respectively; like so many YA protagonists, they’re young women coming to terms with who they are and their place in the world.

Alyssa: Yes. And we experience that intimately and usually from a close (often first-person) POV. Like you mentioned earlier, YA is usually very personable and immediate. Adult fantasy, however, can depict main characters at more of a distance. For example, one of the reasons the Tearling books are adult rather than YA fantasy is that we as readers are distanced from Kelsea as a main POV character and we sometimes have a better grasp of the other characters’ feelings and thoughts than we do Kelsea’s. Also, YA is usually more hopeful than adult fiction–with a trajectory towards a happy ending, a “love conquers all” romance, and a positive message about self-resilience and humanity in general despite all the ways we humans have messed up and perpetuate violence.

Maas’ books, especially ACOTAR, are perfect examples of this blurry line between YA and adult. They are categorized as juvenile fiction for older readers (ages 14 & up), so they are really in that liminal space between most YA (12 & up) and adult fantasy. ACOTAR is for a more mature audience than her Throne of Glass series and has more explicit sex and violence. (See our ACOTAR discussion post where we go into more detail about these series’ differences). ACOTAR has also been considered New Adult, but that label is tricky too, especially for books that are not contemporary romance.

We also can’t ignore how sales and marketing affect how a book is categorized. Will it sell better as YA or adult? Will as many people buy it if it’s say $25 rather than $18? Will it sell better on a YA or adult fantasy/new fiction shelf? Let’s consider Maas’ books again. What later became her Throne of Glass series was not originally written as YA and these books have a lot of crossover appeal. It seems that if ToG had been published as adult fantasy instead, ACOTAR would be considered adult fantasy. But since ToG is such a popular YA series, ACOTAR is also YA.

Nicola: I’m reminded of an article Nicola Morgan wrote a while back on tips for writing for teens. In it she talks about the importance of ‘teenage interest’:

“If teenagers are interested, you can write about it. If they aren’t, you can’t. Things they are not interested in include: menopause, pensions and midlife angst.”

The flip-side to this, of course, is that teenagers are interested in a lot of the same things adults are interested in: romance, friendship, social justice, politics, magic, scientific endeavour, the list goes on.

Allison: I agree. Here’s my concern: in a book like The Invasion of the Tearling, which I know lots of teenagers will read, things like graphic marital rape aren’t (in my opinion) really “YA” topics. While it might not be something that’s such a big deal (as far as appropriateness) for a 17-19 year old to read, it’s a pretty big deal for a 14 year old. I mean, I’m 33 and I kind of freaked out about that aspect of the book because I had misclassified it as YA and really wasn’t expecting that kind of subject matter. I think that both adults and teenagers can be interested in lots of the same kinds of stuff, but when it comes to more sensitive topics like violence or even consensual sex, there’s different levels of interest and I feel like narrative elements should address the audience the book is “meant” for. That gets a little messy in the kinds of liminal books we’re discussing.

Female authors/protags in adult fantasy classed as YA

Nicola: I think, in a way, the success of women in YA has worked against us, in that I find that fantasy, a traditionally male genre that women have carved out a place for ourselves in in YA, when it’s written by and about women, even when it has explicit sex and adult protagonists, is more likely to be classed as YA than the male counterpart.

I think there’s some unconscious sexism going on here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that librarians and booksellers, who in my experience are lovely people, are part of some vast conspiracy to discredit female authors. Rather, I think that a lot of people have this unconscious association in their minds, that when they see a fantasy book cover/title and a woman’s name, the default assumption is YA, where that same assumption does not apply with male authors.

Allison: I agree. I think that the “confusion” about whether the books we’re talking about are YA or not (even when they clearly are not YA) has to do with who’s authoring the books. It’s sad that it seems like a slam to YA at the same time, because as we’ve established countless times in the past, the three of us firmly believe there’s nothing “low-quality” about YA, any more than there is in any other genre of fiction.

In the case of Victoria Schwab and Sarah J Maas’s work, both have written YA in the past, so I think it’s tempting to say “Well they write YA too and the subject matter is similar, so it’s a natural confusion!” However, I think in the case of Erika Johansen, we see that even debut authors are being lumped into this blurry category, without much thought. For me, it’s hard not to think that there’s a nasty kind of sexism at work here. It reeks of internalized misogyny.

Alyssa: So true. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s wonderful that women writers have contributed so much to YA’s success and that the majority of YA authors are women, but it also means that YA is often debased due to sexism.

Success in YA leads to similar work in adult

Allison: At the same time, I think this is a step forward for fantasy, which has been led by predominantly male authors for a long time. I don’t read YA because I identify with teenagers, I read YA mostly because I like female-led fantasy adventures, so I would love it if the success in the YA market leads to more similarly themed adult fantasy novels being published.

Nicola: Yes! In fact, YA has gotten SO MUCH better for female-led fantasy even in the past decade. I remember being annoyed when I was a teenager at the dearth of female protagonists in high fantasy books aimed at people my age. I’m sure it was being written, but it was getting lost somewhere between agent querying and my public library, where the only female-led high fantasy books I remember reading were Tamora Pierce’s. In contrast, the vast majority of the books I’ve read so far this year either have a female protagonist or joint/female protagonists. I’d love for the increased popularity of female-led YA fantasy to lead to greater recognition of the women already writing fantasy aimed at adults.

Alyssa: I agree. YA’s success has had a generally positive influence on adult fantasy–especially in terms of the rise in female protagonists. I think women and men are now more likely to read female-authored and female-led fantasy than ten, or even five, years ago.

I think this Guardian article, by Sarah Hughes, is relevant to our discussion. Even though I’m older than the Harry Potter generation, my passion for such fantasy and dystopian series as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games sparked my interest in YA after decades of reading mostly adult fiction that was rarely fantasy and often male-centric. Probably just as many adults as young adults have read Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games series. And these days more adults than youth are reading YA.

Nicola: I would consider myself part of the Harry Potter generation, but when I was growing up most of my peers, male and female, weren’t all that interested in fantasy. Harry Potter was popular, as were the Lord of the Rings movies, but most of my peers weren’t interested in fantasy beyond that.

It’s really only in the past eight years or so that the popularity of SF/F in YA has really picked up, and for today’s teens fantasy is normal in a way it wasn’t when I was their age. I think the knock-on effect of YA SF/F isn’t so much that the adults raised on it are now expecting more female-led SF/F (I was in university by the time The Hunger Games and Divergent, two of the examples given, were released) as it is that these female-led books were so popular that adult women started picking them up and expect more female-led fantasy, this time about people our own age.

Allison: I have always been a fantasy reader, though I think I’m something of an anomaly in that I never got into most of the male-authored fantasy “canon.” I was 30 when I read my first Neil Gaiman book and authors like Terry Brooks that I’m sure I’d love still elude me. I loved Madeline L’Engle, Tamora Pierce, Meredith Ann Pierce, Susan Cooper, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Monica Furlong, Mary Stewart, Patricia C Wrede, etc. I think that was largely because I was a kid who loved to play pretend and it was hard for me to get into any books that wouldn’t allow me to supplant myself as the main character at a later date.

I read The Hunger Games, Twilight and Harry Potter while I was in college, but not much else in terms of SF/F. College and grad school killed most of my desire to read for fun, so I was thrilled to return to the world as an adult reader and find it rich with new SF/F. I remember the day I got my Kindle I downloaded all of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels and was immediately itching for more. It wasn’t ’til I got my hands on Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches that I really understood that I’d like to read fantasy with adult protagonists that read a bit like the YA books I liked so well. I think we’re just at the beginning of an awesome trend in SF/F, which makes me really happy.

I think I speak for all of us when I say that I hope that all the success in YA fantasy (and SF) recently will lead to more well-written, female-led books for adults! Thanks for joining us today. We’ll be talking about some of these “liminal” books in the upcoming weeks when we discuss Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling series.

Until next time,

Nicola, Alyssa and Allison