YA and Adult Epic Fantasy: What’s the difference?

So I recently moved across the country and in the process of getting to know people, I’ve often been asked what sort of books I read or what my favorite books are—you know, the normal questions avid readers get when getting to know new people. I have no problem rattling off recent favorite titles and I’m not ashamed to tell people that I read a lot of YA fantasy these days.

But having this conversation so often in such a short span of time has got me thinking: what exactly is the difference between a YA fantasy novel and an adult fantasy novel? Why have the people I talked to been so accepting of my adult fantasy tastes but always give me odd looks when I tell them about my favorite YA fantasies?

Now, I’ve taken classes on YA literature and as a connoisseur of YA books, I know all sorts answers to these questions. Adults who read YA are immature or suffering from a Peter Pan complex. YA and adult books are perceived as being fundamentally different. The age of the protagonists. The length of the book. The pacing. The themes.

But so much of that is flexible. Plenty of adult fantasy novels feature teenage protagonists. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books come to mind, as Vin is only sixteen in those books. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle might also fit into that category, because even though the story is framed by adult Kvothe, it’s primarily about young adult Kvothe. Karen Memory, the adult steampunk novel I’m currently reading, is about a teenage girl, but it’s still considered an adult novel.

But, you say, there’s still length and pacing and thematic elements to consider while determining the difference between adult and young adult, and I will grant you all those things. Sanderson and Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin—all staples of the adult fantasy market these days—have long books that sometimes feel like they’re plodding along and Martin’s work certainly has dark enough thematic elements that I’d think twice about handing it to my teenage sister. (Though to be fair, I’d think twice about handing it to any of my sisters, but different strokes for different folks and all that. I just don’t think that those books would appeal to any of my family members.)

Pacing and themes and length, however, also don’t solely determine what’s YA and what’s adult. Since Sanderson broke into the YA scene with The Rithmatist and Steelheart, both released in 2013, I’ve noticed that Mistborn has been rebranded as a YA book. It’s on the shelves as a new YA release at my local Barnes and Noble. I don’t have a problem with this, mind you. I think Mistborn, along with a lot of other adult fantasy novels, hold a lot of appeal for teenagers. In fact, as a teenager, I read far more adult fantasy novels than I do now. I think we should encourage cross-over books like this. We should encourage people to explore young adult and adult books equally.

YA cover art for Mistborn sampaints.com

I think my problem comes when we sort of brush of YA books as “lesser” or when we don’t treat YA epic fantasies with the same respect we treat adult epic fantasies. This is nothing new, of course. Every couple of months, there’s some think piece about how adults should be ashamed of reading YA and then there’s a barrage of rebuttals extolling the virtues of young adult literature. I’ve even written one of those rebuttals. This is a conversation I’m used to having, but I think it’s one that we need to keep having. Because when I talk to new people and we start talking about books and start recommending titles to each other, I am always braced for the sneering and snubbing of my favorite YA fantasy titles, even when they’re as deep and well-developed and nuanced as adult fantasy novels.

Take, for instance, Robin LaFevers His Fair Assassin books. I read the first book, Grave Mercy, not long after it came out because Tricia and Megan recommended it to me, telling me that it was a book about assassin nuns. How could I resist? And I fell in love with these books. If you’re looking for a medieval fantasy and you haven’t read those books, go now. Stop reading this post and go buy the first book. You’ll thank me. These books are filled with depth and character and political intrigue and clashing religions. The world building in these books is spot on and the research LaFevers has done to make these books accurate to the time period is exhausting. Each book has an afterward in which she talks about the historical context—what she’s changed for her own uses and what she kept the same—and she even talks about historically accurate language. I believe at one point she apologizes using the word saboteur because the word hadn’t been invented in the time period the book takes place. This woman knows her stuff and I am in awe of her.

image from girlslife.com

And if you think YA fantasy novels can’t be as dark or “edgy” as their adult counterparts, let me introduce you to Dark Triumph, the second book in the series. Dark Triumph is the sort of book I hand to people with a warning. It involves abusive family relationships, incestuous relationships, the violent murder of a newborn in front of the baby’s mother, and the effects growing up in that environment has on mental health and personal identity. This book doesn’t pull its punches. The threat of rape and violence against women—which George R.R. Martin insists that he includes for “historical accuracy”—is very much present in this book, but unlike in Martin’s books, women rise and triumph over this misogyny. Sybella, the protagonist of Dark Triumph, begins a journey of healing and recovery and self-discovery in that book and despite all the dark, horrible things that take place between the cover of that book, it ends on a note of hope.

And perhaps that is the real difference between adult fantasy and young adult fantasy. No matter how dark the journey contained in a young adult book, they almost always tend to end on a note of triumph and hope. Good wins over evil. People—both good and bad—get what they deserve in the end. No matter how close the world came to ending, balance is always restored.

This isn’t to say that adult fantasy novels all end in tragedy, but I think perhaps adult fantasy novels tend to sacrifice some optimism in exchange for “realism” or “accuracy.” And maybe other readers will think that, as an adult, I need to open my eyes and be aware of the “real world” and develop cynicism to wear as a shield, but I think I’ll stick with YA optimism, thank you very much.

The other big difference I keep coming back to between YA fantasy and adult fantasy, though, is the gender of the protagonist (and often the gender of the writer as well). I have made no effort to hide my undying love for Tamora Pierce’s YA fantasy novels, but I have never once found an adult fantasy novel with such well done female characters. I’m sure those books are out there and some of my favorite lady authors write adult fantasy featuring complex lady characters, but I don’t think I’ve ever found an adult fantasy where girls and women are the heroes of the story full stop. (If you, dear reader, have any recommendations for adult fantasy novels were ladies are the focal point, I’d love to hear it!) In most of the adult books I’ve read, the protagonist has been a man, but usually with a kick-ass woman at his side to help him complete his journey. But it’s his journey, not hers.

In YA, we have dozens and dozens of books that are about girls’ journeys. The works of Tamora Pierce and Robin LaFevers and Rae Carson and Sarah J Maas are all about the paths and journeys of girls and women. The focal character is someone like me and I like that. I like it a lot. I like seeing girls framed as heroes. I like seeing girls saving the day and falling in love at the end. I like seeing girls work with other girls to build a better future for themselves. In Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns series, I literally got shivers when I read about Elisa and Alodia and Cosme meeting together as leaders of their countries because I had never read a story where not one but three positions of world power were held by girls.

I’ve spent a lot of my time reading books about boys and men going off on grand adventures and while I’ve enjoyed those stories, they don’t resonate with me the way stories about girls and women do—and that’s not something I’m ashamed of.

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