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Is This Just Fantasy?: A Magical Mystery Tour

Just Fantasy icon magical mystery tourYes, I went there–I titled my reoccurring feature on fantasy fiction with a lyric from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  But, I swear I have a reason beyond a personal enjoyment of seemingly random pop culture references.  Allow me to explain.  I love fantasy fiction; it’s one of the few genres I’ve faithfully read from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood.  Since my first journey into Narnia guided by my mother’s expressive reading voice, I have consumed fantasy fiction of practically every type, style, and sub-genre.  I have dressed up as Hermione Granger, nearly hyperventilated upon meeting Tamora Pierce, Susan Cooper, and Kristin Cashore, and disappeared for hours at a time into a faraway fictional world, only to emerge simultaneously invigorated and exhausted.  And that’s all just the last five years.

However, my deep affection and passion for this genre is not shared by everyone.  Last week,  I co-wrote a post with brilliant fellow fantasy fan Chelsea Condren in response to British novelist Joanna Trollope’s disparaging comments about fantasy fiction.  While we worked to counter Trollope’s specific arguments, rushing to the defense of fantasy is sadly not a new personal experience.  This genre–and its many offshoots–is all too often viewed as ‘merely escapist,’ ‘unconnected to the real world,’ or ‘lacking in substance.’  But as Chelsea and I tried to express, the depth and complexity present in fantasy fiction cannot be so easily dismissed.

Fantasy is a sprawling category of fiction encompassing a constantly shifting list of sub-genres and styles.  For an excellent introduction to the many types of fantasy fiction, please go read Jessica Miller’s post on discovering your preferred ‘brand’ of fantasy.  And while the wide range of stories available under the fantasy umbrella can make it challenging to navigate,  this diversity also allows the genre to maintain a consistently high level of popularity among many different readers.  Fantasy fiction is constantly growing and developing, as Annie Schutte’s post exploring “the next big thing” in fantasy illustrates.

For these reasons (and so many others), I felt that this genre deserves its very own recurring feature here on The Hub.  Through this series, I hope to explore a range of topics, from the genre’s recent trends and classics to discussions of  its key themes and issues. 

Recently, the lines between genres in young adult fiction have been blurring more and more frequently, creating exciting new sub-genres.  In many ways, fantasy fiction in particular has been blending genres for decades, seamlessly incorporating elements from romance, thrillers, adventure stories, and more into its narratives.  But over the past few years, there’s been a particular increase of novels melding rich fantasy adventures with mystery or detective stories.  Here are a few highly readable results of this literary hybridization.

SeraphinaSeraphina by Rachel Hartman (2013 William C. Morris Debut YA Award winner, 2013 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)

Despite forty years of peace between humans and dragons, tension in the kingdom of Goredd remains high.  With the anniversary of the peace treaty between the groups approaching, the capital city is buzzing with anticipation. Seraphina, a brilliant young court musician, is especially worried, for both professional and private reasons. When a member of the royal family is killed in a particularly draconian fashion, Seraphina joins Prince Lucian in his investigation. But in the process, Seraphina must delve deep into the secrets of her own past and face unsettlingly truths about her future.

whitecatWhite Cat by Holly Black (2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults selection)

Cassel has always been the odd one out in his family of powerful Curse Workers.  As the only member lacking the illegal ability to manipulate memories, luck, emotions, or reality with a mere touch, Cassel is the ultimate outsider–the honest kid in a family of magically talented grifters.  At least he was until he killed his best friend Lila three years ago.  But for the first time since that horrible night, Cassel has started to build a normal life.   Then he starts having urgent & disturbing dreams about a white cat and sleepwalking up to the roof of his dorm.  Between his own bizarre actions & his brothers’ secretive behavior, Cassel must face the reality that he will never, ever be normal.

Cassel continues his investigation in Red Glove and Black Heart.

Beka-Cooper-TerrierTerrier by Tamora Pierce (2007 Best Books for Young Adults selection)

One day, Beka Cooper will be a legend.  But at the moment Beka is just another new trainee in the capital city’s police force, the Provost’s Guards—also known as the Dogs.  Beka has been assigned to spend her Puppy year in the city’s most dangerous district: Lower City, land of pickpockets, murderers, thieves, and other rogues.  Even with the help of her talented mentors, her mysterious magical cat, and her own unusual powers, Beka is going to have to use all her smarts to survive her first year and her first big case. 

Beka’s adventures continue in Bloodhound and Mastiff.



City of A Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

Left outside its gates as a child, Nisha became one of the countless orphaned girls given over to the City of a Thousand Dolls to be raised and trained for a useful role in society.  While others have joined one of the five houses and begun to prepare for lives as healers, guards, high society wives, musicians, mistresses, or even assassins, Nisha works as the Matron’s assistant, conducting business all over the City.  But when girls start dying in highly suspicious circumstances, Nisha decides to unravel the secrets surrounding her friends’ deaths–placing her future and life in jeopardy.

Do you have any favorite examples of fantasy-mystery hybrids?  

Are there any particular trends or topics in fantasy fiction you’d like to see discussed here? 

 -Kelly Dickinson, currently reading The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

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I am a librarian at an independent girls' school in the DC-Metro area. I am a compulsive baker, book addict, and genre fiction fan with passion for social justice. Find me on Twitter as @onesmartcupcake.

One Comment

  1. What a terrific post, Kelly! I love the excellent links here – I think fantasy fiction suffers from the stigma of all genre fiction (I’ve seen that “escapist” line with mystery and romance as well) as being seen as not “highbrow” enough for edification of the masses. But seriously, wasn’t Jane Austen considered popular genre fiction in its day? And why does the thought of putting iPods into Austen fan fiction so much more horrifying than her grandson reading The Hunger Games? Yikes.

    Thanks for being so thought provoking…

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