If you haven’t noticed, about 80% percent of the books I review on this blog are fantasy, and there are reasons for this beyond the fact that I just like the fantasy genre. My switch to reading almost exclusively fantasy books is something that is quite recent, and quite purposeful. I actively seek out YA fantasy books, and actively avoid YA books of other genres (which, in YA, is usually contemporary or the “realistic” genre). Here’s the reason why:
Fantasy is mostly devoid of the dark material that litters contemporary young adult literature.
If you take a look at some of the contemporary YA books I’ve reviewed, such as Willow or Freeze Frame, you’ll notice a trend: most, if not all, of these books have at their center some form of dark material. Willow is about self-harm. Freeze Frame is about accidental killing. Protagonists in contemporary YA angst. They suffer. They partake in dangerous activities, such as drugs. They have sex, they drink, they smoke, they swear like sailors. At one point, I was a little obsessed with books like this. Then, I just felt sick when I read them. The presentation of dark material like what I just mentioned (and stuff that’s even darker) seems to be getting more and more prevalent. Authors say that this is a realistic picture of what teens are going through and their books are efforts to connect with the reader. Sorry, but if teens are really going through all this, then they don’t need this stuff cramming what they read, too.
Fantasy, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, goes this dark. I have yet to meet a fantasy character who cuts. At most, fantasy protagonists suffer from some sort of insecurity or deficiency. They angst about it, but not to the extent of contemporary YA. Maybe the dark material is the purpose of contemporary YA, and not the purpose of fantasy, but if that’s the case, I much prefer the uplifting, highly imaginative, often awesomeness of fantasy.
Fantasy is also mostly devoid of some of the more annoying aspects of contemporary/progressive literature, due to the fact that fantasy often takes place in medieval- or Victorian-like worlds.
A lot of fantasies are often “royal fantasies;” that is, there’s a king and queen, the main character is a prince or princess, etc. This means that a lot of the customs are similar to what they were in the 1500s—1800s, depending on the fantasy. Seraphina, for example, is a lot like Renaissance Italy; Eon is medieval China; and Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life is about late-1800s—early-1900s England (the time periods reflect atmosphere/customs; they aren’t the actual time periods of the stories). It would really just be jarring to include contemporary ideas into these sorts of worlds.
This is, sadly, becoming less and less prevalent as “progressive fantasy” is becoming more and more common. In fact, I would say most contemporary fantasies are also progressive fantasies; Kristin Cashore’s Graceling trilogy (her novel Bitterblue still makes me rage) and Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns trilogy (which I reviewed on this blog) are examples of progressive fantasy.
This is also why I find older children’s and middle grade books, such as those by Elizabeth Enright and E. L. Konigsburg, much more appealing than current books, mainly because older books, fantasy or not, are usually devoid of both the dark material and the progressivism of contemporary ones.
Fantasy also has a number of other things going for it:
Fantasy is highly imaginative, usually has a rich cast of characters, utilizes unique plots and plot mechanics, and can have great worldbuilding.
I’ve found that after a while, all the protagonists of contemporary YA start feeling the same. While fantasy has the “every princess is a rebellious princess” trope, there is enough charming, unique protagonists to counteract the onslaught of princesses rebelling against propriety. Fantasy also can have a lot of great side characters that are sometimes even better than the protagonists themselves.
And, of course, my favorite thing about fantasy is the worldbuilding. Going to a different world that has different rules is a lovely break when I’m digging into philosophy texts here on Earth. In addition, through the worldbuilding, fantasy can show some sort of ethical or moral dilemma in a different way, or present some idea differently, that can have a powerful effect on the reader (I still find it heavily ironic that The Hunger Games, which is among other things about how violence as entertainment is wrong, is now a movie. Just stop and think about that for a moment. It makes me want to start a discussion).
Fantasy has its flaws, but to me, it’s like taking a breath of fresh air. It’s a reminder that not everything has to be all doom and gloom, all the time. Magic may not be real, but the imagination certainly is.