I’m so happy to have Savannah back on Reads & Reels! Her posts are always so insightful and relatable. Here’s another gem I know you guys are going to love!
I’m a big fan of speculative fiction, as you may have been able to tell from my post back in April. And though I’m a few years older than the target demographic, I still indulge in plenty of young adult speculative fiction, especially YA fantasy — which teems with all the imagination and innovation of “adult” fantasy, while maintaining the unparalleled emotional resonance of adolescence. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and anyone who says YA is easier to write than other types of fiction is sorely mistaken (and yes, this is the hill I’m willing the die on).
In any case, if you’re a YA fantasy fan like me, you’ve probably noticed certain trends arising over the past couple of years — or starting to arise. Many haven’t quite entered the mainstream yet, much as I might want them to. And while I can’t exactly call myself a YA influencer, that doesn’t mean I can’t put my opinions out there and hope for the best! On that note, here are four of the coolest emerging YA fantasy trends that I would love to see more of in the future — along with some recent examples and recommendations to show you what I mean.
1. Magical realism
Established by the legendary likes of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, magical realism has been around for decades, but has only begun to pervade YA fantasy in the last five years or so — and it’s been a beautiful transition to watch.
How does magical realism differ from outright fantasy, you may ask? Well, the latter part of the phrase should answer that question. Rather than taking place in a made-up universe, magical realist stories happen in our own world, in this timeline or a similar one — in other words, they’re realistic. However, the persistent trace of strange, mystical elements put them in the same arena as fantasy, and particularly inventive works of magical realism often blend the two.
One stunning example of this in YA is Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, about the eponymous Ava, a girl who’s born with wings. As she matures into a teenager, Ava finds herself increasingly desperate to have a normal life — which, for obvious reasons, is impossible. She’s also genealogically “cursed” to never find love, so when she runs into a boy who worships her as an angel, their relationship is cursed before it begins… or is it?
What I love about magical realism is how it makes the utterly bizarre feel organic. By setting these stories in a world we recognize, magical realist authors make them much easier to imagine and, indeed, experience ourselves. This is especially important when it comes to emotional tales like Ava Lavender. And it’s precisely why it would be great to see in more YA fantasy going forward, since emotion is such a key component of young adult stories.
2. Asian-inspired fantasy
Another cool trend I’ve noticed on the rise is Asian-inspired settings and stories in YA fantasy, such as this year’s Descendant of the Crane by Joan He and Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim. As someone who believes diverse stories are a) imperative to the canon and b) way more interesting than reading about white people all the time anyway, I’m always happy to see non-Western countries represented in new books. This is especially true for fantasy which, as I’m sure many of us know, has historically been dominated by white male authors.
While Asian-inspired fantasy is nothing new, it’s taken a while for this trend to crop up in YA. But with trailblazers like Julie C. Dao (author of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns) and Renée Ahdieh (author of The Wrath and the Dawn), as well as brilliant newcomers like He and Lim, Asian-inspired YA fantasy has picked up some serious momentum lately.
I have no doubt it will continue to populate the shelves, but hope to see even more cultural detail and nuance in future publications. Don’t get me wrong, evey one of the aforementioned books is amazing — but in all that exhilarating action and magic, the significance of the Asian-influenced setting and society (say that ten times fast) can get lost in the shuffle, which just seems like a shame when it’s so compelling and distinct.
3. Fairy tale and folklore retellings
Another oft-seen trend that’s become particularly popular in YA fantasy is retellings of fairy tales and folklore. (This also slightly overlaps with my previous point — Spin the Dawn, about a girl who masquerades as a boy to pursue her dream, was partly inspired by the story of Mulan). More bestselling books like Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, Jackson Pearce’s Sisters Red, and Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood indicate that young readers have a voracious appetite for retellings in all kinds of different forms.
Again, this trend is cool, if not cutting-edge — but what I think could be really interesting is if YA authors start retelling lesser-known and darker stories, rather than just those we know from Disney. As evidenced by the dark tone of novels like The Hazel Wood (which was a breakout bestseller), young readers can clearly handle (and appreciate) mature themes and events.
So why not do a Pied Piper retelling, or a Rumpelstiltskin retelling? I’d love to see these infamous characters get some backstory and fleshed-out arcs, in the name of explaining their actions and possibly even gaining readers’ sympathies (like what Gregory Maguire did for the Wicked Witch of the West in Wicked). Or why not reboot a famously Disneyfied fairy tale, like The Little Mermaid, with a tragic atmosphere similar to the Hans Christian Andersen original? Yes, Disney has cornered the market on their own live-action remakes, but that doesn’t mean authors can’t try their hand at adapting the source material.
The bottom line is that there are endless possibilities when it comes to fairy tale and folklore retellings, and I very much look forward to what comes next. (For the record, I also wouldn’t say no to more Shakespeare retellings — or any other literary classics, really. Bring ‘em on!)
4. Matriarchal societies
Finally, my personal favorite trend that I’ve observed in recent fantasy is the prevalence of matriarchal societies. Like magical realism, this is another feature that’s just starting to make its way into YA fantasy, and tends to be more of a tangential detail than a central component to the plot (e.g. in Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives, wherein a matriarch controls the economy, but this fact that has little to do with the main story).
However, from the impressive matriarchal societies I’ve seen evolving in fantasy overall, this is one element that any book of speculative fiction could benefit from including. For example, in Kameron Hurley’s elaborately plotted Mirror Empire series, it’s incredibly invigorating (if not always comfortable) that women are the ones dominating and harassing the men. And in Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu, the matriarchy isn’t just a feminist inclusion, but a pretty big driving force behind the plot: tragedy strikes in an all-female community, and one of them must venture into a horrific non-matriarchal society to bring back a lifesaving resource.
Needless to say, this would be a fascinating (and empowering) phenomenon for young women to read more about in fantasy YA. And while many YA authors already do a pretty stellar job of including feminism and other important messages in their work, if you’re like me, you’re always hungry for more! Luckily, there’s a ton of great YA fantasy out there to satisfy us ravenous readers — and many more promising titles to come.
Savannah is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.