What draws you to fantasy books?
And what is ‘cozy’ fantasy anyway?
Someone on Reddit recently asked the question, “What draws you to fantasy books and why?” I’ve been thinking about this question a lot since then, especially how it relates to the idea of cozy fantasy I’ve gravitated towards writing these past few years. The simple answer is that I love the fantasy aesthetic, as I’m sure many of you do. I'm not one to romanticize the realities of actual human history upon which most fantasy world building is loosely based, but there's something about that time period I do love to see romanticized in other imagined worlds. Those of you who’ve chatted books and writing with me will find it no surprise that I’m not particularly drawn to dramatic sword fights, cavalry charges, or the ultimate showdown between good and evil upon which the fate of the universe rests. I do, however, have an unabashed love of long journeys, taverns, campfires, and pretty much anything to do with the acquisition and subsequent use of a simple and sturdy cloak. I’m a sucker for a rogue skulking across rooftops, or a young kid apprenticing to a surly old wizard. I adore the moments between major plot events, where characters are simply inhabiting a well-crafted fantasy setting and interacting with the landscape or other inhabitants who are just trying to get through their day while the Big Bad Evil Entity desperately tries to escape its ancient tomb.
I reach for fantasy books because they offer me a world that shares all the complexity of our own human experience, delivered without the trappings of our modern lives. I’m not sure how many of you share this feeling, but I tend to feel most whole and happy when I’m out in nature. I love being away from the noise of the city, somewhere I can walk beneath tall trees, listen to water lapping gently upon the shore, or even struggling to haul myself up a mountain where the only thing I can see for miles in every direction is mountains, trees, and picturesque alpine lakes. If you’ve ever sat around a campfire and lost yourself staring at the glowing embers, you probably have least some small idea of what I’m driving at here. Stripped of technological advances that admittedly made even our great-great-great grandparents’ lives easier, authors tend to focus on themes of discovering inner strength or developing deep friendships and alliances while overcoming whatever odds are stacked against their characters. Beneath the conflict and adversity that comes standard with any popular narrative, there is almost always some uplifting element within a main character’s arc. At least, there is in the kind of fantasy books I gravitate towards.
Perhaps most importantly of all, fantasy is really just a setting. Within that setting, I love that the genre can encompass any other genre from beautifully literary and contemplative (See: Guy Gavriel Kay) to silly pulp adventure and everything in between. I reach for fantasy because I want to read stories about people, but I'm also kind of sick of the current state of our world and society. When I look to fantasy, I can get whatever type of story I'm in the mood for, set in a world that's close enough to ours yet also far enough removed that I don't have to think about the stress waiting for me here in 2022.
This is where we start getting closer to what I’ve been thinking of as ‘cozy’ fantasy. The cozy label is more commonly associated with mystery, where it implies that things will never get too dark or intense. Cozy mysteries have their own specific set of tropes that don’t necessarily apply to the kind of fantasy I’m most interested in these days, but essentially what I’m talking about is slice-of-life stories where the stakes are often more local and personal. Stories where a reader like me can sink into the world and know that the main character won’t wind up wading knee-deep through guts on a battlefield or watching everyone around them die while they evolve from lowly turnip farmer’s child into the foretold warrior-mage who spends nine books stressing out over an inevitable battle for the fate of all that is good in the world. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those types of stories, and I’ve read and enjoyed my fair share of the classics, but I’m far more apt to fall in love with the first half of a story when the character is still on the learning end of their power progression, only to skim through the final fight scenes and dramatic confrontations that are the big payoff for other readers.
In much the same way I travel to see how other people life, to taste new foods, and to walk amongst the relics of some other culture’s past, I turn to fantasy to take me someplace new. I want to know what it’s like to spend a day in some fantastical world without having to worry about a major conflict. In the first Traveling Librarian book, there’s a scene where the main character spends an afternoon at a sort of fantasy spa. The chapter does contain a very minor incident that nudges the plot ever so slightly forward, but mostly it’s just a thing the character experiences while traveling farther from home than they’ve ever been. The Traveling Librarian has a definite through-line, but it’s what a lot of readers would deride as one of those stories where “nothing happens.”
And that’s entirely by design.
Every so often, I see someone in one of the various online fantasy book communities say they wish someone would write a travelogue in a fantasy setting. No major plot issue to be solved, just the random adventures and missteps of someone traveling through foreign lands. The Traveling Librarian is very much my version of that, with some concessions made to plot and pacing to keep the thing rolling forward. Stepping out of the medieval/early modern setting, Saber and Stone, the first Braelorne Academy book, is my riff on what it might really be like if someone were to discover magic was actually real and they’d been granted a full scholarship to a magic boarding school on the other side of the country. Some bigger events do happen, but at the time I was writing it, I was in kind of a rough place personally. I simply wanted to explore how a magic school curriculum might look, or what the experience of being plucked out of high school and being thrust into this confusing arcane world might feel like. It’s a school story with no bullies, because I’m just not interested in that dynamic after seeing it executed in such a cliche fashion in almost every high school focused book or movie I’ve consumed.
I want to talk about what has become something of a dirty phrase in the reading world: wish fulfillment. I have never seen this word used in any context but criticism, and though I freely concede that wish fulfillment can often feel deeply unsatisfying or unsettling when it’s used as a way for the author to insert themselves into a story in order to become the most perfect hero for whom every love interest swoons and who quickly becomes peerlessly skilled at everything they do, I think there’s a certain validity to stories where we get to live out something uniquely satisfying through the eyes of a fictional character.
The pandemic has been hard on many of us, and I’m no exception. I’ve felt increasingly isolated and depressed over the state of the world. Wish fulfillment over these past couple of years has become about wanting to read stories where characters are flawed. Where they fail in ways any of us might were we forced to navigate the same events, but who ultimately reach within themselves to find the strength I’ve felt slipping out of my grasp most days of these past couple of years. Wish fulfillment has meant writing about characters who have to deal with as much internal conflict as external. Characters who meet people who are equally complex; displaying flaws, charisma, or talent that either help the main character move forward or who provide a shoulder to lean on when the main character can’t walk on their own. Wish fulfillment has meant writing stories that have a certain tone and quality I can really only described as that feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket with either a hot drink or a glass of bourbon near at hand, only a few dim lights illuminating a book, and rain falling in heavy sheets that obliterate the outside world.
Even the name of this newsletter is a callout to the kind of place I feel safe and comforted, browsing the stacks of a library or used bookstore, buzzing from the idea of being surrounded by endless possibility waiting in those pages. Or maybe it’s just the smell of moldering paper and binding glue that makes me a little light-headed. Either way, it’s part of the aesthetic and tone I’m trying to develop in my writing.
I’ve been reading comments and reviews from fantasy readers long enough to know that I’m going to alienate a lot of people with these kinds of stories. I already know my characters will be dismissed as Gary, Mary, or Enby Stus. I know I’ll garner reviews that call my books aimless and boring.
However, I also know there are at least a few of you out there looking for the same things I am. A few of you who want to read about the complications of friendships and awkward affections. Some of you who enjoy descriptions of surroundings, diversions into history, and a significant amount of word count devoted to describing the food, drink, sights, sounds, and smells in a given scene. You are my people, and I’m writing these books as much for you as I am for myself. Because as much as I love fantasy, I haven’t been finding enough of what I want. The only reasonable response to that for a writer is to put it out there myself.
I’ll be aiming to send out an email every Wednesday at 9am Pacific Time. These will either be similar to what you’ve just read here, progress reports, short stories, or other miscellaneous stories and events I think you might like to read. If you have comments, questions, or requests, don’t hesitate to leave a comment down below.
Thanks for reading, and see you among the stacks!