The blockbuster world of fantasy fiction is getting more political in more ways than one. We talk to four of its biggest rising stars about why.

By David Canfield
February 28, 2020 at 03:07 PM EST
Macmillan Children's; Macmillan; Sourcebooks Fire; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Millennial fantasy: It's a subgenre that, if you read enough of it, carries a pretty clear meaning. Particularly in the YA space, the category that once yielded Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings is becoming newly dominated by a more diverse slate of authors, whose focus on epic world-building and transporting narratives is no less central than their attention to the political power of storytelling.

Quietly, it's one of the biggest stories in publishing right now — in part because the impact appears to be lasting. EW went straight to the source on these transformations, speaking to four of YA's hottest new names: Tomi Adeyemi, 26, whose No. 1 best-sellers Children of Blood and Bone and Children of Virtue and Vengeance have combined for the biggest series around right now; Adalyn Grace, 26, whose first book All the Stars and Teeth launched high on best-seller lists earlier this month; Hafsah Faizal, 26, whose 2019 debut We Hunt the Flame was inspired by ancient Arabia; and Ryan La Sala, 28, who broke out a few months ago with Reverie, a twisty queer adventure.

The limits of old fantasy

TOMI ADEYEMI: I didn't even think of it that way, of what "new fantasy" looks like, but that is what it was in that moment. It would be helpful to define what old fantasy was to me. Old fantasy was Harry Potter. It was Lord of the Rings. Even though Hunger Games is more sci-fi/dystopia, that's what it was to me — these big, epic stories; crazy battles; and incredible adventures with captivating worlds. But without anyone who looked like me. If I was in the story, I immediately died, or when it would be adapted, there'd be some sort of controversy. Fantasy was this thing I loved dearly but never saw myself in. When I was writing my own fantasy stories, I loved it, but I couldn't write stories with people who looked like me, because I subconsciously internalized, "Oh, if I'm not in any of these stories, that's probably because black people can't be in these stories. Let me follow the rules." That's what old fantasy was.

ADALYN GRACE: Growing up, I really thought of fantasy just as escapism, this fun thing where you can journey off into different places that worked and operated differently than where I lived.

HAFSAH FAIZAL: As a kid, I hated reading. I disliked it completely. I would rather do anything else. As an adult, looking back on that, I felt like I needed to hide that part of me. But looking back, I realized at the time there was nothing for me to read. There were stories about kids who were never like me. Why should I try to escape in a fantasy or fiction and then see I'm not included there either?

RYAN LA SALA: I tried to read The Hobbit three times, but I couldn’t get past the dwarves singing about misty mountains. We even had the audiobook, where they literally sang, and it put me right to sleep. It all felt so serious and drab! And it all felt deeply, dauntingly masculine. "Repellingly heterosexual" is how I would describe a lot of the science fiction and fantasy books I found as a little gay kid. By the time I tried to read classic fantasy, I was already lost to the much flashier, flamboyant fantasy of anime. I got my fill of fantasy from anime, cartoons, manga, comics, and videogames — really anything but books — mostly because of the much bendier limits on gender and magic. The visuals were prioritized alongside story. Optics mattered. I was compelled, completely, by stories that featured powerful girls fighting back. I felt I had much more in common with Sailor Moon than I did Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker or, heaven forbid, Ender Wiggins.

Illustration by Kevin Hong for EW

A new era begins

ADEYEMI: Sabaa Tahir was new fantasy for me. I had read Red Queen before her book; I could tell, "Okay, we are in a different time. You don't have to parse out an adventure over seven books. You can grab them in the first chapter and just go off on this epic adventure." I was already getting my feet wet in what types of fantasy were being considered today. When I read An Ember in the Ashes, it was unlike anything. I'd never seen a world like that. I'd never seen characters who looked even a bit like me. I'd never seen that culture, that richness, that heart. I felt so seen. It's not even a direct representation of my culture. Not only on a story level was this the most amazing, most engaging, most exciting thing I'd ever read, on an internal level I was a part of that adventure. I actually get to ride with her and fight with her. The beauty of stories is you get so connected to these characters, even if they don't exist. It was about real people and real problems. It was a beacon for me.

GRACE: This new wave of fantasy started to turn more political. With the political landscape as it is and the world as it is, that's being reflected more in all books. Fantasy has a unique ability to do certain things with it. It doesn't have to reflect our actual world; it can reflect ideas of how things should be, or how things shouldn't be. We have a lot more room to play with things and explore how different things work. I didn't even realize I had some political element in my book until I sat down and read it back. I was like, "Oh, I guess I wrote that!" It's so natural for us, just because we're really in this political climate right now.

FAIZAL: We’re authors who are not afraid to write about the cultures we come from, the traditions that we believe in. We're not afraid to take that extra step and be a little bit more brave. Writing what we really, really want to write. So many more coming up. It's really great for readers to see themselves, finally.

LA SALA: Just like me, a lot of millennials see something wrong and exhaust themselves trying to fix it. I absolutely see this trend in publishing, too. Not only are we writing unabashedly diverse stories, we’re often doing it on our own terms and without the compromise that would have been instinctual a decade ago. Further, we’re also the ones ardently supporting one another, amplifying messages of diversity and social justice, and holding establishments accountable when tired, dishonest efforts at diversity are substituted for actual progress.

Making an impact

ADEYEMI: What I tried to do — and what I think new fantasy is — is taking the epic adventures we always loved, these heroic, fierce, captivating, charismatic characters we've always loved, to new settings, exploring new cultures, and finding a way to say something powerful about what's going on today. A lot of fantasy and science fiction in general have always dealt with oppression, marginalization, and power structures. The new wave of fantasy we're seeing right now is, even though we’re seeing something and we know it’s fake, you can't ignore the parallels to the real world.

GRACE: It was really important to not really show clearly one right and one wrong. I wanted to create worlds and situations that made young readers think. I grew up in a very conservative family — “this is right, this is wrong” — so when I was creating and editing All the Stars and Teeth, I wanted to not do that. I didn't want it to be so black and white. This is a young-adult novel; I wanted young readers to be able to think for themselves and start to get more comfortable thinking for themselves. It took me awhile because of how I grew up. I want to offer that more.

FAIZAL: The world of Arabia is so steeped in misconceptions, and so often demonized or exoticized. In my book, it might seem like "Oh, this is not Arabian enough," whereas at the same time I was trying to tell people that this is a place that is home to all of these people, and the people there are just like anywhere else. I always wanted to be published so I could show young Muslims like me that we don't have to hide our identities to succeed in this world. You can still be who you are, practice your religion, and go for it. There are a lot of books that take place in "Arabia," but it's mixed with South Asia and is not always accurate. I wanted to keep that clear as I was writing.

LA SALA: Queerness will never be a question in my work. If anyone deserves the arcane honor of magic, it’s queer people, who have had to master the art of self-transformation since literally forever. Reverie is about escapism and dreams, but it’s about the real stuff. In writing a book about dreams, I sought to reveal how the rules of our own reality are formed and enforced, often alienating people from a world we require them to participate in. In Reverie, dreaming is a private yet political action, because it reorients power, giving it entirely to the dreamer. The characters learn lessons within these reveries, mostly about why reveries form within us, and how they ultimately conflict with reality. I know a lot of people frame escapism as the antithesis of political action, but I disagree. I never discourage escapes. People need breaks from the harshness of reality. And, ultimately, it’s escapes that show us the work that needs doing once we’re ready to wake up.

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

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