Is YA the Death of Epic Fantasy?

Percy Jackson
Percy Jackson

This article is by Frank LaVoie.

For those of you not familiar with the YA moniker, it refers to the genre of Young Adult literature. In the realm of publishing, it is most often coupled with the word ‘fantasy’, thus denoting a fairly specific breed that has proven its popularity in the form of the Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons of the literary world. The growing scope of YA Fantasy has been wholly responsible for an entire generation taking to books. Even medical science has had to pay attention; they credited Rowling’s works with the highly contagious Hogwart’s headache, onset by nonstop reading of the author’s seven-hundred-word whoppers.

But does the rising fashion-ability of YA Fantasy come at a price?

Many young adult and adult readers didn’t discover the wonders and curiosities of fantasy and science fiction novels in the YA world. We found our love for this sort of endeavor with classics by authors such as J.R.R Tolkien and Robert Jordan. Some of us even trace this affection back to Edmund Spencer and Shakespeare.

We continued reading fantasy in a society where fantasy authors wrote for adults and their novels were found in the normal fiction section of our local libraries and bookstores. Many of us expanded our interests, flocking to gaming and other pursuits. But our first love was what publishers label as Epic or High Fantasy. In this genre, we met our elven friends, our grumpy dwarven companions, and our nemesis the evil sorcerer.

Despite the unusual nature of our desired reading, it came with a certain quality. The lexicon, the syntax, and the high-literary value of many of these works was something that most ‘kids’ didn’t quite get. To read and understand them was a challenge and an accomplishment. Reading Tolkien as a kid while others were tackling Where the Red Fern Grows came with a knowledge that we were more advanced readers – if nothing else.

As an author and someone who follows these genres in the publishing industry, I am noting an obvious trend. As YA Fantasy becomes more popular and in demand, Epic Fantasy is on decline. It still exists in the longer-running series and in some best-selling authors, but more new material comes in the form of YA. It’s the marketable thing to do.

Now, I have nothing against YA Fantasy. I could even see myself writing one. Like many others, I love and aspire to the abilities of Rowling and others like her. And although her pieces became increasingly dark, they don’t contain the true grit of Epic Fantasy. Sometimes I want to see blood, smell death, and feel the sexual tension that might even be expressed in Chapter 1. I want a battle axe to split a skull and a brain matter to splatter across the page as I read. And, I want it all done with a vocabulary and structure that excludes some readers. Sorry.

One thing that I always appreciated about Epic Fantasy was its exclusivity. Not everyone could read it.

My best friend and writing buddy just published an amazing YA Fantasy called Dreamworld. His world inspires me and his writing is simultaneously suspenseful, humorous, and creative. I am not bashing the world of YA Fantasy, as I wish him and others nothing but great success.

I just love my hack and slash. I love the epics that set me apart as a reader. I loved ‘getting’ Tolkien’s Oxford diatribes.

I’m worried that Epic Fantasy will become mythology. So I wrote one. I hope others do as well. And I hope one day to see one of those new novels in the hands of a kid who knows he’s different, special.

About the Author:

Frank LaVoie is the author of Firesoul, the first book in his five-part Empires of Magic series.  To learn more about Frank and his diverse writing projects, visit

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Karen Azinger
5 years ago

I am hoping that the kids who grew up reading Harry Potter will graduate to Tolkien and other epic fantasy. I grew up with Tolkien and can never get enough of great epic fantasy. That is why I started writing my own saga. If you are looking for more epic fantasy with complex plots, battles, love and betrayal, consider the Silk & Steel Saga.

10 years ago

I’m curious as to where you’re finding your numbers when you stated that high/epic fantasy is on the decline. Market analysis shows it’s actually been going strong (accounting for some 6% of total global sales…which is the 3rd highest selling genre). This is due to the harsh economic climate and reader’s need for escapism, so again, I’m curious where you got that information because sales numbers contradict this.

And as Michelle said, if you’re looking for a particular reading level then you will usually find it within adult fantasy. You seem to insinuate that YA fiction isn’t “worthy” because it isn’t intellectually challenging enough but you also seem to disregard the reader demographic it’s aimed for. 

I understand that you’re looking for a particular level of maturity within the story line (which I wholeheartedly agree with), but again…YA isn’t intended nor marketed toward readers in your age group. It’s like saying that the Romance genre embellishes otherwise gritty lust and is, therefore, useless. That’s not at all true. It may be true for you but it’s not true for the audience Romance is meant to target.

And the fact that you’re looking for vocabulary and a structure that “excludes some readers” gives me pause, especially when you cite Tolkien as an advanced read, (which I firmly disagree with). I never found fantasy altogether challenging other than the contrived, archaic language used by many authors, which ends up turning a potentially good story into a dry and very boring read. The challenge in this case is staying awake long enough to absorb the contents of a scene.

What I personally think is ruining the high fantasy subgenre is the fact that so many authors are writing with the intent to win accolades and critical acclaim instead of writing for their readers. This shows in the diction/language used within their writing and the result is pretentious, verbose, archaic language that is tiresome to read. 

You have to remember that the majority of readers aren’t English graduates who enjoyed analyzing Shakespeare and Dickens. They’re working-class people looking for a momentary escape from real life with, hopefully, a little moral depth to keep them occupied after they put your book down.

I know that I personally write fantasy to change the dynamics of what has already been done. I’m tired of the pseudo-Tolkien imitations and the lack of originality and quality within the genre. So I aim to write something that is unavailable to read. 

I suppose everyone expects something a little different from the fantasy genre since it provides the most room for creative license. I hope you accomplish your goals and I wish you the best of luck in your writing endeavors.


Michelle Franklin
10 years ago

No, there’s plenty of Epic and High Fantasy around. Publishers just don’t advertise it as much. Just stick to the adult section when searching and you’ll find what you’re looking for.

10 years ago

Again, I love your point of view, Frank. To me, though, a good novel is a good novel. I love everything from Percy Jackson to Harry Potter to The Wheel of Time. The one thing you may not have talked about in Epic Fantasy is the way great authors (Tolkien, Jordan, Goodkind) give us an unbelievable look into the struggle between good and evil. Their characters don’t necessarily do good things at all times, but they fight the good fight against unspeakable odds and overwhelming hopelessness. And in most epic fantasies there is an evil god that is being fought, as opposed to a person in most YA fantasies.

Dante Sawyer
Dante Sawyer
10 years ago

I see what you mean by all this.  YA fantasy is slowly choking literature.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I have huge respect for Rowling and her work, I just hate the fact that the trends of YA fantasy have allowed for the birth and even flourishing of such atrocities as The Twilight Series.  Rowling, although breathing some life back into the genre, also brought forth a new breed of author.  YA fantasy should be changed to Anyone fantasy, as it markets to more than just the younger generations.  It lacks, as you put it, “exclusivity”.
Now I don’t really believe that epic fantasy is dying.  You yourself published an Epic/High fantasy novel, a feat which (if the genre was really dying) would have been damn near impossible.  You are living proof the genre lives and there are new authors willing to take up the challenge to create new worlds, races, and creatures.  You’re living proof that there still is epic fantasy.
Let me finish by saying, as an aspiring author, you inspire me to write and create something completely original; something that in twenty years someone will look back and say: “Wow… that one book started all that.”  I believe you can do it, and that belief spawns my own dreams.
Anyone who reads this, check out Firesoul.  It’s a great read and the start of something magical.

10 years ago

Jenna (and all) –

Thanks for the comments and input thus far.

In particular, I wanted to address Jenna’s remarks about world-building and the ability to study the scope of an author’s creation.

This is something I left out of my article (and I shouldn’t have) altogether. Yes, this is another element of Epic fantasy that has roots in the godfather’s of the genre. Most Epic/High fantasy selections (at least those of noteworthy praise) include vivid and detailed descriptions of setting, cultures, magical systems, languages, and more. People study the elven language created by Tolkien for a reason.

I also see how one can get similar feelings from YA as well. I guess another point is the blured line between the two subsets of the genre we call fantasy.

I am interested in what other qualities I left out and what other readers and writers think makes High or Epic Fantasy different from counterparts in YA.

Jenna St. Hilaire
10 years ago

Fascinating thoughts!

Alexandra Hollingshead has a point: most ‘YA fantasy’ is in fact urban fantasy, popping in and out of our own world. And a number of those, Harry Potter included, are written on more of a middle-grade reading level. But if you want a little cheer, Harry Potter was the arrow that pointed me down the road to other fantasy novels. (Tolkien didn’t quite do it on his own.) I’m now hooked on Jordan’s Wheel of Time books and ready to search for others.

Gore isn’t really my thing–and as Digital_Fey pointed out, it’s more than available in contemporary and dystopian YA for older teens–but what I want is strong and in-depth worldbuilding. This is hard to come by. I love it that I can get online and study Sindarin or Quenya, even though I haven’t managed to pursue that as I want to. I love having the Aiel concept of ji’e’toh fix my attention for a full day away from the books. And I love feeling like I know the world inside the book almost as well as I know my hometown. In a lighter, more comic way, Harry Potter did that for me, which is how it interested me in high fantasy.

And like you, though possibly worrying more about the shift to urban fantasies than the reading level, I’ve worried that epic fantasy would disappear. I agree with you in wanting to see more of it written at an adult, intellectual reading level, too.

Cheers on the publication of your book!

10 years ago

A very interesting and thought-provoking article; there is indeed something attractive about the exclusivity of well-written fantasy, and it’s disappointing  to see it being dumbed down for the masses. However, I beg to differ with regard to the paragraph on violence; YA aimed at a 16+ age group has just as much grit, violence and horror as epic fantasy, even if the setting tends more towards back alleys than battlefields.

Alexandra Hollingshead
10 years ago

I, admittedly, haven’t yet really understood the need for YA fiction, as a term. There’s been good YA, bad YA, just as any genre, but – fantasy or otherwise – I don’t understand why we need it. I felt that ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’s’ was more than enough, but now we’re cutting it up into every two years being a new genre. There’s also ‘middle-grade’, for this. I find it needless.

Regarding YA fantasy, specifically, obviously there have been a few good ones, Garth Nix stands out, but… I don’t like URBAN fantasy, as a whole, and that is what the majority of YA fantasy is. It isn’t really a problem with the ‘YA’ part of it, though, it is just the rising popularity of urban fantasy, be that oriented at children, young adults, or adults. Having fantasy written for a younger audience shouldn’t be a bad thing because that’s what most fantasy was for many, many years. Our genre originates from fairy tales. I mean, it took Tolkien for critics to say that maybe fantasy could be enjoyed by people over the age of 8, lest it be pulp trite.

10 years ago

The only downside to this trend is the lack of respect non-readers and writers have for YA fantasy authors. They’re like, “Oh, you write for teens? That’s cute.” There has become this stigma that fantasy and other forms of genre fiction are “junk food” and eventually you grow up and begin to read “real literature.”

Honestly, aside from that, I don’t think epic fantasy is dying out; I think YA fantasy is becoming more popular.

Alora Pendrak
Alora Pendrak
Reply to  Byeol
4 years ago

As i YA Fantasy writer i actually put my pen to paper so to speak becuse i was disatisfied with the YA fantasy books i kept reading . Where was the world building, the interesting characters, a plot that wasn’t paper thin pretense. i think Wicked Lovely was the last straw for me. they dropped the war between four fairy groups just to resolve a flipping love triangle when you already knew who they established pairs would end up being! I wanted a lot more from my fantasy then i was getting. So i understand but i’m not sure High fantasy is dying. I also think there’s room for the two to mesh for even greater stories.

8 years ago

Why isn’t your book available for Kindle, Frank?  Reading the description (and as one of those kids who raised herself on Tolkein and even waded through E.R. Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros), I’m interested in what you’ve written.

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