Is YA Fantasy Fast-Paced? I Doubt It

Last week I learned that fantasy is the most popular genre of young adult literature (see my previous post here). Out of a list of forty YA books that Goodreads recently deemed as the most popular of the last three years, 42% of the titles fell into fantasy genre. I admit I haven’t read much of it, nor have I read much YA in general. I decided to explore the world of YA fantasy some more- learn about its appeal to readers and figure out just what it is.

Thankfully, I found a video on AuthorTuber/ EditorTuber Diane Callahan’s YouTube channel addressing just this subject. It is a part of a so far uncompleted, three-part series on YA fantasy.  In the first video, Callahan differentiates YA fantasy from adult fantasy (see note). She suggests that YA fantasies feature limited world building, faster paced plots, and guided narratives that eases readers into the story. I can really see the appeal of this approach. One of my constant complaints about adult fantasy is just how much description there is, most of which adds nothing either thematically or dramatically to the story line. This kind of abridgment might be just what a younger reader (or an older reader like myself) needs.

Case in point, when I was younger, I read Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. I hadn’t, however, known at the time that the text was abridged. But what I remember is how I tore through the novel. In retrospect, that reading experience was one of the first times I remember a book suspending my life. It’s an experience I’ve been chasing ever since. A few years later, I encountered the book again in its unabridged form. While The Three Musketeers is a classic adventure novel, it is also historical fiction. As such, the novel often digresses into a recounting of history and politics- palace intrigues and the genocidal persecution of the Huguenots in particular, and while these were interesting to older me, I don’t think I would have liked it much as a younger reader. Indeed, I have a slight suspicion I still favor the abridgment. Not only did I get the gist of the persecution- with no guided narrative needed- I also got a very fast narrative pace.

Callahan then goes on to tell us that YA fantasy novels also tend to emphasize personal relationships, which comes in the form of love interests and friendships (FYI, adult fantasies do this too especially with friendships). The only YA fantasy I have ever read is Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel, which I had picked up because I was trying to read more steampunk and clockwork punk books. Clare’s book is neither. Like The Three Musketeers, it is adventure, full of politics and intrigue. It also emphasizes a group of friends and highlights romance, so it fits Callahan’s description. What Clockwork Angel is not, however, is fast-paced.

The book follows a set of teenaged Shadowhunters, a race of half-human half-angels charged presumably by God to keep demons in check. This sounds exciting enough, but the novel spends a good amount of time establishing the characters: giving us their back stories and depicting their interpersonal dynamics. All of this, however, has the side effect of placing the main narrative on hold. While the novel’s slow pace didn’t work for me, I’ve been told that fans of Cassandra Clare prefer reading about the characters and their interactions over the main story line. Sprinkled throughout the books, there are also callbacks to older titles in the Shadowhunters Series. It is a circle of characters that is loved, seemingly above all else.

Beginner novelists are always cautioned to pay attention to their novel’s pacing. What I find is that most books typically ignore this aspect of the novel. Whether you are an adult fantasy writer clubbing us over the head with your prodigious imagination or a YA fantasy writer giving us the angst and joy of teenage relationships, a digressive writer need never be interested in narrative pacing. You’ll never capture it unless such things as world building and relationships are subordinated to the main plot. For a good example of a writer who does that well, you can look at She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the writer of the Harry Potter Series.

Note: Diane Callahan’s video is indebted to March McCarron’s essay on the topic (linked here).