Adult fantasy, YA protagonist

So I was thinking of this recently because of this book I’m reading for Kay Kenyon, The Girl Who Fell Into Myth, which comes out early next year.

Yevliesza has been caring for her ailing father when she is summoned home to a world she has never seen. Using a hidden portal, she enters the realm of Numinat, a myth world arisen from legend. Although she is the daughter of witches, she was raised in the modern age with little knowledge of their arisen world and none of their magic.

This is an adult fantasy, but as you can guess from this snippet of description, it’s very heavy on YA tropes. The protagonist is maybe late teens, maybe early twenties. She’s taking care of her ailing father. She needs to decide what she wants, she needs to sort out what’s important to her, and she needs to take control of her own life and destiny and make a place for herself in broader society. Quite likely she’ll also fall in love (I’m a third of the way through the book and there’s no romance yet, so I’m not sure).

This is very much a YA novel. Except it’s not; it’s really an adult fantasy. And why? Solely because (I would argue) of the pacing.

One could make a case for YA fantasy being high angst and high romance, while adult fantasy is lower in both departments. But I can think of plenty of counterexamples on each side, so I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s pacing. YA is fast. Adult fantasy can be fast; paranormals and UF are particularly likely to be fast-paced (and also particularly likely to be high in angst and romance), but adult fantasy is often leisurely. It seems to me there are lots of examples of adult fantasy that look in every way like a coming-of-age YA story, except that they’re presented as adult. They’re all slower paced. They may also have deeper worldbuilding, because there’s room for that, because they’re slower paced. Some also have more complicated, multi-dimensional plotting, but not all.

For example:

Walk on Earth a Stranger is the first book of a (very good) historical fantasy. It’s definitely YA in all its basic plot elements and tropes.

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

A girl disguises herself as a boy and travels across the country, finding love as well as finding out what kind of person she wants to be. She grows up and begins to build a life for herself. The journey is slow. Everything else is YA. I really loved this trilogy — here are my comments from the first time I read the first book.

I can’t ever think of the above title without immediately thinking of this one, which I read at about the same time and which is also set in an alternate Old-West kind of setting:

Silver on the Road is the excellent first book of a series that (sorry) I kind of thought dropped off at the end. I didn’t think the third book actually felt much like a conclusion, for quite a few reasons. But the first book is really good! Here are my comments about this one.

Isobel, upon her sixteenth birthday, makes the choice to work for the Boss called the Devil by some, in his territory west of the Mississippi. But this is not the devil you know. This is a being who deals fairly with immense—but not unlimited—power, who offers opportunities to people who want to make a deal, and they always get what they deserve. But his land is a wild west that needs a human touch, and that’s where Izzy comes in.

This book is very definitely YA, except that it’s very, very slow-paced. Also, there’s no romance at all, which is rare (but not unknown) in YA.

The Fionavar trilogy is one we’ve probably all read, correct?

It begins with a chance meeting that introduces [five college students] to a man who will change their lives: a mage who brings them to the first of all worlds, Fionavar. In this land of gods and myth, each of them is forced to discover what they are and what they are willing to do, as Fionavar stands on the brink of a terrifying war against a dark, vengeful god…

They’re all college students when the series opens. They’re YA-age protagonists dropped into a fantasy world. Why was this trilogy not published as YA? Three reasons. First, it came out in 1984, which was just about when YA was becoming a thing and just before YA became a BIG thing. Second, it’s slower-paced than most YA, at least for large sections. And five protagonists makes for more complicated plotting; that may be an element in how this trilogy was marketed and perceived. But it’s not just the age of the protagonist. They all grow up and sort out their lives, in a very YA manner. Well, not Kevin, but the rest of them.

It seems to me there are lots of fantasy novels that basically fall into this category. That is, maybe, partly, because a lot of authors default to a late teens / early twenties protagonist and then they’re almost compelled to make the story a coming-of-age story no matter what else they’re doing with that story.

It also seems to me that this is yet another reason of the many that YA as a category is a pretty terrible category. It trains readers to expect and want a fast pace at the expense of a more thoughtful, leisurely pace or deeper worldbuilding. Insist on a fast pace for YA for twenty years and boom, you start hearing comments about how adult SF is taking on many of the characteristics of YA — more angst, more romance, faster pace — and that there’s less room for fantasy novels that don’t have those characteristics. What a shocker that is. I don’t think this has anything to do with social media and short attention spans. I think it has everything to do with what young readers have been taught to expect.

I hereby suggest, possibly not for the first time, that young readers, parents, and librarians quit worrying about whether a novel is YA and start offering a lot more emphatic nudges toward adult novels that would suit individual young readers looking for stuff to read. The Fionavar trilogy was published 38 years ago (I KNOW, I don’t believe that either). Lots of young readers probably haven’t read it. Pull it out and stuff it into their hands. GGK is such a splendid writer, and this trilogy remains a great entry into his work, especially for someone who already enjoys YA fantasy.

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10 thoughts on “Adult fantasy, YA protagonist”

  1. I would say perhaps the Fionavar trilogy is more adult bc of the way GGK deals with death and dying. I think all of Sharon Shinn’s books might be classified as YA, although the pace of her Archangel books is leisurely. Even though she also deals with difficult themes (slavery, prejudice) it’s not in a way that brings me to tears, as GGK did in his early novels. Could that be the difference ?

  2. I have the Fionavar trilogy on my TBR (because you keep mentioning it!) but I really should read it.

    YA should be defined by themes, regardless of pacing, romance, or angst (imo).

  3. Disagree on themes only. I think including things like pacing is important, because insofar as it makes sense to have YA as a category, reading level should factor into it. Young adults are less experienced readers; many will be happily reading adult books, but others may not yet have the practice, patience or reading speed to be as absorbed by a long, slower paced, more complex book. If it reads like Finnegan’s Wake, whatever the themes, it’s not likely to be doing a good job of serving the reading needs of people who’ve recently moved on from middle-grade.
    (Librarian; we talk about stuff like this in library school.)

  4. Agreed on the Gilman series. The third book left me unsatisfied. From what I recall, there was a novella called Gabriel’s Road that followed the third book and was supposed to provide additional closure. But I still felt like that series left enough dangling ends for a fourth full length book and a better resolution.

  5. Back when I was the target age group, we read juveniles, not YA. And the thing I notice most is that juveniles could feature an actual adult, however young, as the main character, and one not in military service, whereas YA has many more juveniles, and the adults are often in military service — which means they have superiors, and not the independence and sole responsibility for their own lives that juveniles’ adult heroes had.

  6. I’m not saying YA shouldn’t be defined by themes. I’m saying that’s not how YA actually seems to be defined in practice. When I’ve been asked to switch a novel one way or the other (which has happened three times), each time the editor focused exclusively on pacing and worldbuilding, not on themes, plot, or language. I do agree with the viewpoint that YA is always a coming of age story — the protagonist moves from being a child to being an adult — and that this is a major difference between YA and MG.

    I’d be happy to argue about readability. I don’t think pacing has anything to do with complexity necessarily. Rae Carson’s trilogy is very slow paced, but the actual plot is quite simple.

    Sharon Shinn’s Archangel books were published and marketed as adult fantasy. They’d mostly fit the YA category and I’m sure a fair number of readers perceive them as YA, but that’s not what the publisher thought they were.

    Mary, it drives me up the wall that YA doesn’t allow older protagonists. I think that’s a terrible disservice to young readers. It says very clearly, “You should be able to emphasize with people who aren’t like you — but only if they’re your age.”

  7. This post reminded me of an NY Times article I read a while ago titled, “A Star of Y.A. Imagines a Supernatural Ivy League in Her Debut for Adults,” about Leigh Bardugo’s 2019 book Ninth House. I remember wondering at the time why the writer of the article would classify Ninth House as an book for “adults” but categorize “Six of Crows” as YA, since the protagonist of Ninth House is a college student and so would seem the quintessential “young adult.”

    Link to the NY Times article here for those who are interested.

  8. TC, much easier to do links from the backside of this website, so there, that should look a bit neater now. And thank you for the link — yes this sort of “Here’s an adult novel that clearly looks exactly like a YA novel” is always a puzzle.

  9. I re-read the NYT article and realized that it actually had a little snippet re the YA v. adult:
    According to established genre conventions, the novel Bardugo planned had to be aimed at adults, she explained. “Y.A. fiction tends to have a finite quality,” she said. “You’re looking toward a goal — prom or graduation or revolution — and we leave these characters after a moment of tremendous transformation.”

    She continued: “But the challenges faced by my heroine are different and don’t stop at one particular point.” She was referring to Alex, the star of “Ninth House,” a traumatized freshman whose work for Lethe is both painful and revelatory. “The goal for her is trying to survive in the world and take care of the people she loves.”
    This is kind of funny because it reminds me of something a professor said in a college class I took a long time ago (“20th Century American Novel from Dreiser to the Present”), which is that one main difference between 19th century novels and 20th century novels is that the protagonist in the former is on an ascending path and the novel usually ends on what Bardugo would refer to as a finite point, e.g., a marriage, whereas many of the 20th century novels we read in his class is about the protagonist on a descending path, going from a high point to, e.g., death, loneliness, realization of life’s pointlessness, etc. But I don’t think anybody would think of Charles Dickens as a YA writer!

    As a side note, I have been able to get my husband, who likes fantasy but would never say he reads “YA,” to read lots of novels marketed as “YA” simply because we share a Kindle and he browses through the books I download. Similarly, the daughter of a friend of mine is in high school and is a voracious reader, and we frequently swap book recommendations. So to me the borders of “YA” v. adult is definitely very porous….

  10. The ALA Alex award is given annually to 10 books that were written for adults but which the judging panel thinks likely to appeal to ages 12-18. Skimming over recent years I see many are fantasy or science fiction, though many are other genres or nonfiction. From the ones I recognize, I don’t see many commonalities.

    I tend to avoid things marketed as YA because they tend to be dystopian and that’s not my jam.

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