Down With Dystopia: The Rise of the Royal Court

When I tried describing a book to someone last week, I realized that I was mixing up characters and plots, pulling from multiple titles I had recently read. Finally setting aside some time, I decided to look into these books a bit more, and then I fell down a rabbit hole. Suddenly, I’m not seeing dystopian books a-la Hunger Games and Divergent anymore. Now, books about princesses and kingdoms (and magic – ooo!) have taken the floor and are proudly waltzing by.
dystopia royal court princess

Is anyone else noticing this? Does this mark the end of depressing dystopian worlds? Is historical fiction donning a fancy new Y.A. get-up? We still have strong female characters completely dominating young adult literature; however, rather than the run-of-the-mill dystopia once dominating popular books, our heroines are now featured in the high courts of fantasy realms and fairy tale retellings.

I’m not saying this is a problem, but, does my observation carry greater meaning when I point out that many…most… of these books are written by debut authors?  I get that these things come in waves, but this seems more like a tsunami. Below are a number of recent, and soon-to-be books that include some aspect of royal courts:

  1. Red Queen (et al) – Victoria Aveyard
  2. Shadow & Bone (et al) – Leigh Bardugo
  3. Girl of Fire and Thorns (et al) – Rae Carson
  4. Graceling (et al) – Kristin Cashmore
  5. The Selection (et al) – Kiera Cass
  6. The Healer’s Apprentice (et all) – Melanie Dickerson
  7. The Jewel (et al)- Amy Ewing
  8. Deception’s Princess (et al) – Esther M. Friesner
  9. Princess of the Midnight Ball (et al) – Jessica Day George
  10. Seraphina (et al) – Rachel Hartman
  11. Cruel Beauty (et al)- Rosamund Hodge
  12. Princess of Thorns – Stacey Jay
  13. Stolen Songbird (et al)- Danielle L. Jenson
  14. The Queen of the Tearling (et al) – Erika Johansen
  15. Grave Mercy (et al)- Robin LeFevers
  16. Winterspell (et al)- Claire Legrand
  17. Stitching Snow – R. C. Lewis
  18. Throne of Glass (et al)- Sarah J. Maas
  19. Cinder (et al)- Marissa Meyer
  20. Suspicion – Alexandra Monir
  21. Legendary (et al) – L. H. Nicole
  22. Queen of Hearts: The Crown (et al)  – Colleen Oakes
  23. Snow Like Ashes (et al) – Sara Raasch
  24. Camelot Burning (et al)- Kathryn Rose
  25. Legacy (et al) – Jesikah Sundin
  26. Stray (et al) – Elissa Sussman
  27. A Wicked Thing (et al) – Rhiannon Thomas
  28. Crown of Ice (et al) – Vicki L. Weavil
  29. Storm Siren (et al) – Mary Weber
  30. Illusions of Fate (et al)- Kiersten White

That’s well over a two dozen titles, not including the respective continuations and sequels, e-book prequels or e-book short of some kind. (Those marked by ‘et al’ indicate some continuation in their series or intended series.) Of the authors that I’ve pulled into this list, there are only three that do not explicitly note a continuation of story.  I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll see more than just one entry in these remaining three all the same.

So what’s with this sudden spike in popularity? Here are some observations:

Women authors — At least in this genre, it seems as though unless your name is George R.R. Martin, most fantasy books are being written by women. There are a few men that are writing for young adults: John Green, Rick Yancey, Patrick Ness, Scott Westerfeld, Rick Riordan… but they’re not necessarily explicitly ‘fantasy’ authors. Where is the new blood? Where are the male debut authors? And where are the male debut fantasy authors?

Princesses — I don’t think I need to point out the dream every little girl (and some boys!) have of growing up to be a princess. Rags to riches, coming of age, reluctant hero(ine)… and other themes are common in such princess fantasy stories. Also present are kings, queens, princes, duchies, nobility, lords, ladies, and the like. Everyone loves to play dress up. Everyone also loves coming from modest beginnings,  and not necessarily entitled to the fame and fortune, but, of course, deserving. Humble = likable.

Gossip — I really, really don’t want to go there, but there’s also a clear connection between certain elements in this genre (such as spies, assassins, espionage…all of which boil down to gossip, lies, and general underhanded-ness,) that are present in many stories with women characters. Perhaps it’s simply an aspect of the everyday feminine culture that is handled in different ways from book to book, but it is undeniable that gossip is a common thread.

**NOTE: There’s much hesitation, self-awareness, and self-censorship I exercise in writing this entry. I feel like feminist readers of my blog will tear me to pieces… but these aren’t meant to be pokes or jabs at the nature of feminism or female culture. I’m not criticizing these points I bring up, but rather I seek to open a thread of conversation to be had with a purity of motive.**

~    ~   ~

At this year’s Horn Book Awards Colloquium, held at Simmons College (Boston, MA), there was an interesting panel held on the diversity of literature for children and young adults. This was headed by individuals in the publishing world, all of whom claim to scour for talent every day trying to find diverse books to publish. Unfortunately, without the talent… there’s nothing to publish.

So much of this time I had been blaming the publishing world. I’d thought, well, of course they are the reason there is not more diversity in books – because they want to take something popular that makes them money and drill as far down into the well as they can… Further illustrated by my list above. Or is it? Are books like these getting published because that’s just what the writing talent is currently producing? Is it because these books are easily marketable to the established audience? Are there writers out there producing diverse literature and the work is just ‘not good enough’ yet to make it to print? I think it’s unfair to place the blame on any one faction of the book world. Everyone simply has to work harder to produce and promote diverse literature.

My final question is this: Does the list above demonstrate the diversity we are all working so hard for?

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