Cozy SFF?

A post at Black Gate by Violette Malan

I’ve often talked about crossovers, and mixed genre novels, but I don’t think we have anything in our world that’s the equivalent of the cozy mystery. Read on, and let me know what you think.

Malan defines cozy mysteries thus:

There will be a murder, which often takes place “off stage” and of which no graphic or gory details are given.

There is a small circle of suspects, all or most of whom have a motive for the murder.

The sleuth is an amateur, usually a young woman in her twenties or early thirties.

She is usually, but not always, a suspect, though she may be cleared of suspicion quite early.

A plausible excuse is given for why she gets involved in solving the mystery. For example, she has to clear herself, or a friend of suspicion, or she believes the police are focussing their attention in the wrong direction, or, the police don’t think a murder has taken place.

Usually, but not always, our heroine has a “friend on the force” or some other type of professional criminalist who helps out.

She has some romantic involvement with one or more of the other characters.

She is instrumental in solving the crime, that is, she doesn’t just figure it out for the cops, but actually confronts the killer, often finding herself in danger.

Okay, first, I like this. I mean, as a set of expectations for cozy mysteries. Although one of my favorite details about Patricia Greenwood’s second Wisteria Tearoom mystery, An Aria of Omens, is Greenwood’s refusal to force her protagonist to confront the bad guy and put herself in danger, which is generally, to be frank, a deeply stupid thing for the protagonist to do and definitely something that makes me as a reader roll my eyes. So I would like to ditch that particular convention if at all possible. But then, I did feel that this particular book was not as “cozy” as the first book, and perhaps that is partly why.

Okay, anyway, in her second post on the topic, Malan said:

Sarah Avery reminded me of a cozy convention I’d forgotten, that the protagonist is never in any real danger. That doesn’t hold true for any subgenre of either Fantasy or SF, where every character is playing for keeps. As readers, we might feel sure that the main character(s) won’t die, but we often find that living has cost them a great deal.

So, are there Fantasy and SF equivalents to the cozy mystery?

One suggestion we batted around a little was the idea of the “intimate” Fantasy novel. This would be one in which the personal stakes might be very high, but in which the global stakes are minor, or don’t exist at all. This is less unusual for our genres then it used to be.

I agree that an integral part of the cozy mystery subgenre is that the reader should not feel too stressed out about the fate of the protagonist. However, I disagree with the notion that you can’t have this safety net in SFF. Of course you can. Was anybody ever worried about the outcome in Sharon Shinn’s Troubled Waters? Anybody nervous that the protagonist might die? The male lead? Close friends of the protagonist?

Was anybody afraid that one of the children might die, or actually be given to that horrible guy from the other country?

Anybody doubt that the romantic subplot would work itself out? Yes? Speak up!

Of course not, to all of the above.

So I have a suggestion: Cozy mysteries are the equivalent of comfort-read fantasy. I mean here, the kind of warm and fuzzy fantasy novels that are comfort reads the first time you read them, because at no time are you really concerned that the outcome might be terrible. It won’t be, and you can tell.

So are there any plotting conventions for cozy fantasy? And if not, is it really comparable to cozy mystery?

I would say that cozy fantasy would probably share the following characteristics, which are indeed similar to cozy mystery:

If anything gory takes place, it happens offstage or is not described in detail.

There will be a small circle of important characters, none of whom are likely to die.

The protagonist is a young woman (is that usually the case?).

There is an important romance subplot.

The protagonist is instrumental in solving the Problem in the book.

At no point is the reader worried about the main character or the male lead dying, or about really horrible things happening.

The romance works out and there is a happy (or happy enough) ending

Is that enough to declare that this kind of fantasy is similar to cozy mysteries? Did I leave anything out?

Incidentally, Malan says she can’t think of any SF equivalent to cozy mysteries. These do not leap to mind, but, maybe some of the Liaden books? Here I’m thinking of the Pilot’s Choice stories, mostly. Does it work even if other books in the universe are not really the same type?

How about A Civil Campaign? Again, mostly these are space opera, but this particular book might count, do you think?

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7 thoughts on “Cozy SFF?”

  1. I would substitute Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance–A Civil Campaign seems to me to be slightly too harrowing to the feelings. Or is that just me?

  2. I did think of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, too. Less going on, and less emotionally fraught, I can see maybe that one is the better choice.

  3. For fantasy, my first thought is The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. (Not The Hero and the Crown though.)

    I can’t think of another off the top of my head because I tend to prefer to have my heart ripped out in one manner or another.

  4. Patricia Wrede: most of her books to some degree, but especially the Frontier series
    Katharine Kimbriel: Night Calls series
    Stephanie Burgis: Kat series

    Also agree with Troubled Waters and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance.

    I do tend to like a little angst (with a happy ending), but those are some of my favorites when I just something soothing.

  5. Mercedes Lackey (especially her elemental masters series) can be pretty cozy, and I think Mary Robinette Kowal’s glamour and glass series fits that description pretty well.

    On the SF side, maybe some of Anne McCaffrey’s stuff – that series with all the crazy powerful telepaths sprang to mind, but it’s been so long since I read those.
    And, of course, the whole paranormal romance subgenre – Eileen Wilks, for example.

  6. Lots of good suggestions. Paranormal romance does seem to fit, especially with the emphasis on police procedurals in so many paranormals. But do paranormals strike you as soothing? Because I think that’s a very good word for the tone of a cozy mystery. If the book isn’t soothing, it probably isn’t cozy.

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