The cruelty is the point. If you’re looking to explain why today’s Y.A. best-seller lists are thick with kings, queens and fawning courts, think about why teenagers might be drawn to ambivalent heroes battling within or against the nasty, rigid structures of these monarchic worlds. We all have to know what we’re up against.
With plots that hinge on violence, treachery and outright evil, contemporary royal Y.A. books are a far cry from the sappy princess fare decried by a generation of feminist mothers. The royalty that we respond to most passionately today comes with a promise of subversion — think of Meghan Markle, or the enduring public preference for Harry over William, or “The Crown,” even — and for teenagers, royal-themed novels are keeping pace. These books are an escape for readers eager to see the high stakes of adolescent lives conveyed through the extravagant metaphor of a royal court, the more murderous the better. But they’re more than that, too.
Take “The Cruel Prince,” the first book in Holly Black’s sublime Folk of the Air trilogy. Black’s royal Faerie Court is rife with “twisted words, pranks, omissions, riddles, scandals, not to mention their revenges upon one another for ancient, half-remembered slights,” as the book puts it. “Storms are less fickle than they are, seas less capricious.” Ah yes, middle school. Who among us can ever fully shake the memory of that fraught childhood cafeteria, and the sacred table the popular kids claimed as if it had been granted them by divine right?
“What is a more monstrous time than sixth grade?” Black said during a recent phone interview. “This is a time when kids are really trying power on. While we may not poison our enemies, we have these social relationships where you take stuff to extremes. What happens if I do this terrible thing?” Her trilogy’s second installment, “The Wicked King,” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list when it came out in January. The final installment, “The Queen of Nothing,” will publish this November with a six-figure marketing and publicity campaign.
“We can’t tap this well enough,” said Stacey Barney, an executive editor at Putnam Young Readers, who publishes royalty-themed best sellers like Renée Ahdieh’s “The Wrath and the Dawn.” “A teenager’s life is completely about hierarchy and power. The power they don’t have, the power that somebody else has above them, and how they can interact with power and still come out being wholly themselves.”
As I read through a stack of these books recently, my thoughts kept going to the question of where my extroverted and generous and hot-tempered daughter, who enters sixth grade this fall, will sit in the middle school lunchroom. What battles will she wage as she learns to navigate social power and experiences its fickle nature? What goodness will she be tempted to sacrifice for darker thrills of status or control?
One 12-year-old I know has already devoured the canons of Marissa Meyer and Sarah J. Maas and raced through Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone.” Her chosen genre mirrors the social drama and painful clashes at her private school. She told me breathlessly about her school’s constantly shifting social hierarchy, offering full bios on the king and queen of the seventh grade as though it were all scripted fantasy. “The queen bullied a couple of girls out of school already,” she revealed. “One girl had to eat lunch in the bathroom because the queen didn’t like her.”
Just because there aren’t beheadings at her school doesn’t mean real wounds aren’t inflicted. “Fantasy novels give this illusion that the stakes are as high as they feel when you’re a teenager,” said Leigh Bardugo, whose latest book, “King of Scars,” debuted at No. 1 on The Times’s best-seller list in February. “But I think for teenagers they actually are that high. I think you really are dealing in a world of tremendous cruelty and intensity, and Y.A. gives truth to that.”
One hopes that banished seventh grader had one of Bardugo’s books in the bathroom with her to keep her company. Because in the world of Y.A., however harrowing the adventures, however cruel the kingdom, the hero gets out alive. “People come to the category with an expectation of hope,” Bardugo says. “You know you will leave a story with the possibility for recovery intact.”
My 15-year-old babysitter, another high fantasy fanatic — she’s the one who first urged me to read Bardugo — agreed. “I can be dramatic, I’ll cop to it,” she told me. Still, she said, the high stakes of Y.A. fantasy feel true to teenage tumultuousness: “I’m not the hero of a book, but in my everyday life I can sometimes feel like ‘If I don’t win this battle, the world will end.’”
When I was young I blazed through the Sweet Valley High books, dazzled by the beauty of the Wakefield twins and the foibles of their equally attractive friends and boyfriends. Surely a lavaliere necklace and blond hair and blue-green eyes the color of the ocean would make life feel less dreary and fragile.
Sweet Valley High felt like a peek into a world the average teenager will never travel. Those books were like today’s filtered worlds of social media — a glossily curated portrait of white, affluent, manufactured adolescence. Reading them was like falling into a stupor of voyeurism. But pressing yourself up against windows is not unlike indulging in the metronome swipe of social media. Your phone runs out of charge and you’re left depressed by life’s dull imperfections.
In the exaggerated courts of Y.A. fantasy, there are rages of youth those Sweet Valley High books had no interest in tackling — the yearning, the fear, the discomfort and the anger. The power games played out in small, petty ways in high school are present in these novels on a grand, political scale. There is ample room for darkness in these books. But they preach resilience. They read like survival guides.
Dhonielle Clayton, whose high fantasy series “The Belles” is set in an opulent multicultural court, says she grew up hopelessly searching for her black self in the books she read: “So now I’m writing books that little me wished she’d gotten to read.” Clayton wants a black girl who reads her books “to see herself in a world where she is in the decadent dresses and she is the most beautiful and everything that she looks like is what is praised. She is the one in control.” But when the knives come out, she’s primed for that, too.
This kind of fantasy, Clayton believes, can help a reader from any background make truer sense of reality. “When people say, ‘Oh, I’m getting so tired of all the royalty stuff,’ I think, ‘Well, you might be tired of it because it’s been a thousand white girl royalty books,’” she told me. “What about stories centered on people of color? What about queer kids?”
That’s another anxiety I have for my child, who is one of the few incoming black theater majors at her fine arts academy. Will the imaginations there be bold enough to include her? I take comfort in the pioneering work of Clayton, Adeyemi and other authors of diverse royal Y.A., like Malinda Lo, whose “Ash,” a reimagining of Cinderella in which the orphaned daughter falls in love not with a prince but with a huntress, is being published in a 10th-anniversary edition. Or Hafsah Faizal, the author of the best-selling “We Hunt the Flame,” a high fantasy inspired by ancient Arabia. Or Casey McQuiston, the author of the best-selling “Red, White and Royal Blue,” a delight of a novel about the romance between a British prince and the American president’s son. They are taking on the crucial, lonely task of wresting their heroes from the margins, and their stories thrum with real-life political charge.
As I finished my cache of royal Y.A. books, it struck me that the most pressing question for the genre’s teenage readers looking around their schools and out at the wider world may be this one: Who are we willing to imagine in power in the first place?
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