SpecFic 101: Big Fat Fantasy

October 17, 2013 Bookish 10


Hello! Welcome to the second SpecFic 101: Introduction to Speculative Fiction post. Today we’re going to talk about Big Fat Fantasy (BFF) — this is a term I picked up from Tsana (but she says she didn’t coin it), which describes the length and breadth of Fantasy written for a predominantly adult audience. I think it’s a better term than trying to distinguish between high fantasy, epic fantasy, alternate history fantasy, etc. etc. etc.

This post is aimed mostly at readers who predominantly read YA, but are interested in branching out to BFF. But first, let’s have a quick look at what I think are the main differences between Fantasy written with a YA audience in mind, and Fantasy written for an adult audience. Please note, these are MY own generalisations – you may not agree with them, and there will be exceptions to every single thing I say, but I’m hoping they’ll help readers transition smoothly.

Size Matters

The first notable difference is the average length of YA novel versus a non-YA novel. Twitter polling shows authors tend to write YA novels with < 100K words, whereas BFF tends to be >150K, and books in both categories live in the middle. I tend to find YA novels are about 300-400 pages in length, remembering that they have quite a large font most of the time. A 400 page BFF novel will almost always be longer, because a smaller font size is used.

Our case study for this post is going to be the Harry Potter series – which began life as Middle Grade books and ended as Young Adult, and has huge cross-over appeal to adults (but was never specifically written for an adult audience). This wonderful post by Jessica Khoury helped me out a lot – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is 77,508 words, while Deathly Hallows is 98,227.

Other notable word counts: The Hunger Games: 99,750; City of Bones: 130,949; Shiver: 94,502; The Fellowship of the Ring: 187k; The Eye of the World: 305k; A Game of Thrones: 298k. The BFF Fantasy word counts are taken from here and are approximate.

That’s a Coinkidink. 

The second difference is closely related to the length of a novel. If you have 400K words to play around with, you can include in-depth world building and pack in more character building moments. You can have your characters plod through the countryside, catching fish at riverbanks and passing through small towns and staying at inns.

YA tends to be full of action – the shorter length demands that everything be packed into a smaller space. So authors only introduce world-building aspects that are absolutely essential, character development tends to occur just before or during action-packed scenes and is usually brief.

One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard from YA fans who read BFF is that nothing happens for pages at a time, which makes sense if you’re used to the world of YA. Conversely, those who mostly read BFF tend to get exasperated at how many convenient coincidences YA tends to have, because how often does the lady living underneath your apartment know everything you ever wished you knew about your mother?

This is not to say all YA is written like this, or that BFF doesn’t have huge coincidences, but in general, non-YA speculative fiction tends to have more leeway when it comes to allowing the characters and action to lull – it’s one of the greatest strengths of YA that it is features high-octane action and rarely gives the characters a break.

Going back to our showcase of Harry Potter, I’ve heard a lot of people say that the author tends to dwell on certain things a lot more in later books: Harry’s discontent in Order of the Phoenix and subsequent rage/disappointment/melancholy being one of them, and the trio’s arduous and often un-fun camping and wandering around in Deathly Hallows being another. I always wonder, though, how much of this is because of a dwindling in Rowling’s ability to write action-filled books, and how much is due to the progression of the series from slim novels to doorstops (Michael Adams’ words, not mine).

Casting Call

Another difference between the two categories is the size of the cast – YA tends to focus on a handful of characters while BFF can follow a cast ranging from one person to twenty people. Throw in multiple points of view, and you can get real messy, real fast.

Readers of YA often comment on books that have character lists at the front or back of a book – they say a large cast turns them off. On the other hand, I find it hard to take a book seriously if it doesn’t have a character list and map attached to it – I simply love books where I get to glimpse the cast and world before beginning the book.

Sometimes this means that readers of YA can feel closer to their protagonists than readers of BFF: the YA genre is built on getting the audience to put themselves into the protagonist’s shoes. It’s usually written in first person or close third person. When reading BFF, YA readers tend to comment on a lack of connection between them and the characters.

Building Blocks

Another important difference is the scope for world-building. I know a lot of readers who don’t enjoy pages and pages of world building, and I’ve noted more than a few regular YA readers comment on info-dumps in BFF. While authors of BFF are as prone to info-dumping, telling not showing, and creating flat secondary characters as authors of any other genre, sometimes their introduction of a completely alien world can be mistaken by some as info-dumping.

Interestingly, I’ve read many reviews of Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead, that complain that readers didn’t know what was going on for a lot of the time. I think it’s odd because if Mead had explained everything to readers from the get-go, then perhaps she would have been accused of info-dumping, and I wonder where the middle ground lies. Books like Gameboard of the Gods and The Bone Season greatly interest me, because many fans of YA gravitated towards them, for one reason or another, and then tended to review them based on their expectations of YA, which unfortunately weren’t met because these books aren’t YA.

BFF Recommendations

With all that in mind, let’s get to the fun stuff! These are mostly Fantasy, since that’s what I’m most comfortable with.

BFF that has been recently re-branded as YA

YA hasn’t always been its own thing in Speculative Fiction – there was a time when all the coolest authors were writing what we’d call YA today but back then they were just writing for any audience. Some of these books have recently been re-branded YA, with new covers to reflect this.

The Black Magician trilogy by Trudi Canavan – I came to this series late (I was 20 when I first read it) but I was immediately captured by the world and the protagonist. Trudi’s writing is nothing short of magical, and now devour all her books with great enthusiasm. Here’s the synopsis of the first book:

“We should expect this young woman to be more powerful than our average novice, possibly even more powerful than the average magician.”

This year, like every other, the magicians of Imardin gather to purge the city of undesirables. Cloaked in the protection of their sorcery, they move with no fear of the vagrants and miscreants who despise them and their work—until one enraged girl, barely more than a child, hurls a stone at the hated invaders… and effortlessly penetrates their magical shield.

What the Magicians’ Guild has long dreaded has finally come to pass. There is someone outside their ranks who possesses a raw power beyond imagining, an untrained mage who must be found and schooled before she destroys herself and her city with a force she cannot yet control.

Eon and Eona by Alison Goodman – I read these while on a cruise last year, and they are simply amazing. Defying the Speculative Fiction trend of writing in trilogies, Goodman writes a powerful duology inspired by medieval Asia where dragons ensure the well-being of their people.

Eon has been studying the ancient art of Dragon Magic for four years, hoping he’ll be able to apprentice to one of the twelve energy dragons of good fortune. But he also has a dark secret. He is actually Eona, a sixteen-year-old girl who has been living a dangerous lie for the chance to become a Dragon-eye, the human link to an energy dragon’s power. It is forbidden for females to practice the Dragon Magic and, if discovered, Eon faces a terrible death. After a dazzling sword ceremony, Eon’s affinity with the twelve dragons catapults him into the treacherous world of the Imperial court, where he makes a powerful enemy, Lord Ido.

Male Perspectives!

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini – some people vehemently dislike the first book of this series, but since I grew up with the books, I have to recommend them to others! I love the world and the magic, Saphira is awesome, and I love the importance of family and loyalty to the storyline. If you watched the movie and hated it, fear not, the book is basically nothing like the movie aside from the bare basics.

A lot of people also point out that the first book, Eragon, is a retelling of Star Wars Episode 4, but I can point to quite a few books that rely on the same themes and tropes, and let’s face it, A New Hope isn’t the most original plot-line out there. There’s also a lot of discourse over his borrowing of character and place names from the Lord of the Rings, but authors do this all the time to pay homage. I think it’s all forgivable: Paolini was still a teenager when he wrote Eragon and you can see how both he, as an author, and consequently his protagonist, matured throughout the series.

On a side-note, a lot of the things people seem to hate about Eragon tend to crop up over and over again in mainstream YA speculative fiction, but most people love those … Branding really does seem to have something to do with reader expectations: brand it as YA and people are significantly more forgiving of plot-holes, overused tropes and sub-par writing. We will come back to this in the next post!

One boy . . . One dragon . . . A world of adventure.

When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon soon realizes he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself. Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power.

With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds. Can Eragon take up the mantle of the legendary Dragon Riders?

The fate of the Empire may rest in his hands.

The Broken Well trilogy by Sam Bowring – Sam’s books are horrendously overlooked, if you ask me, in discussions of quality Speculative Fiction. I love his characters and the worlds that he creates, and his style of storytelling is clever, witty and sophisticated all at once. This trilogy will appeal to readers of YA because of the ages and experiences of the protagonists, and because the world-building is kind to first-time readers.

For a millennium the lands of Fenvarrow and Kainordas have been at war, ever since the gods of shadow and light broke the Great Well of Souls. In absence of victory a stalemate persists – until a prophecy foretells of a child of power who will destroy the balance forever.

Mages from two lands race to claim the newborn. But in a ferocious battle of magic fought over the baby, his very soul is being ripped apart,leaving two boys in its wake. Each side seizes a child,uncertain whether they now possess the one capable of victory.

Bel grows to be a charismatic though troubled warrior, Losara an enigmatic and thoughtful mage. Both are strong, yet incomplete. As they struggle to discover their destinies, each must ask the ultimate question: will he, one day, have to face himself?


The Pandora English series by Tara Moss – a wonderful mix of high fashion and paranormal shenanigans, the Pandora English books will be loved by paranormal fans who want to read something a little edgier. I think they’re awesome, and am awaiting the release of the fourth book, The Cobra Queen, with barely concealed impatience.

Pandora English is no ordinary small town orphan. When she’s invited to live with her mysterious Great-Aunt Celia in New York City, she seizes the opportunity to escape her stifling hometown break from her tragic past and make it as a writer. Things, however, are not what she is expecting.

For starters, her great-aunt’s gothic mansion is in a mist-wreathed Manhattan suburb that doesn’t appear on maps. And then there’s Celia herself – a former designer to the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age – who is elegant, unnaturally young and always wearing a veil. Pandora lands a job at a fashion magazine and her first assignment is covering the A-list launch of the latest miracle cream, BloodofYouth. But something is not right about the product, nor Athanasia, the drop-dead beautiful face of the brand. It seems there may be a secret ingredient in BloodofYouth, a secret worth killing for…

Urban Fantasy

The Unbound series by Rachel Vincent – I loved Blood Bound so much, and although I haven’t gotten around to reading the next two books, I love the world that Vincent has created – which allows for magically binding oaths that physically don’t allow people to go back on their word. I like the wonderful group of friends with exceptional powers that are the protagonists for the series as well, because they’re realistic women who struggle with real issues.

By blood, by word, by magic …

Most can’t touch the power. But Liv Warren is special— a paranormal tracker who follows the scent of blood. Liv makes her own rules, and the most important one is trust no one. But when her friend’s daughter goes missing, Liv has no choice but to find the girl. Thanks to a childhood oath, Liv can’t rest until the child is home safe. But that means trusting Cam Caballero, the former lover forbidden to her.

Bound by oath and lost in desire for a man she cannot have, Liv is racing to save the child from a dark criminal underworld where secrets, lies, trauma and danger lurk around every corner…every touch…every kiss. And more blood will be spilled before it’s over …

The next post will flip this one on its head: YA recommendations for those who usually read BFF! Stay tuned for next time 🙂

Happy Reading!

Let’s Discuss: Have you read any of the above, and if so, did you like it? Which other BFF titles would you recommend to someone who predominantly reads YA? Do you have any requests for future SpecFic 101 posts?

10 Responses to “SpecFic 101: Big Fat Fantasy”

  1. Dee

    As a BFF-lover from a long way back, I was eagerly awaiting this post, and I’m really intrigued by some of the points you’ve raised that I’d never considered before – like the pacing differences of YA and BFF. I’d experienced that a little myself, in lamenting the “lack of depth and complexity” I often feel about YA, but I’d never considered how it might feel going the other way.

    Huge Trudi Canavan love, but I must sadly admit that I tried Sam Bowring as a no-pressure summer read… and disliked it so intensely within a hundred pages that I took it back to the store. But different strokes, boring world if we were all alike, etc!

    Trawling through my “YA-ish” tag on Goodreads, I wonder whether the following might fall on the BFF side of the crossover point:
    – NK Jemisin’s “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”
    – Kate Elliot’s “Cold Magic”
    – Aidan Harte’s “Irenicon”

    • Shaheen

      Thanks for your lovely reply!

      I’m a big fan of both categories, so I’m fairly adept at trying to explain to others what I see in both – these posts are my way of getting that across I guess 😀 I love what YA offers to readers 🙂

      Did you read The Broken Well trilogy or the Strange Threads duology by Sam? Curious because while TBW is more YA tending, ST isn’t YA at all and is more complex and mature. I liked them both though, so I might not be the best person to ask :p

      I haven’t read any of the books you mentioned there, but I own them all (stick around long enough, and you’ll realise that’s the theme for 2013 – I have it, but it lies unread with 300 other books. I blame my wedding). I love Kate Elliott’s writing though, and am looking forward to (eventually) reading the Spiritwalker books, and I just bought Irencion the other day and it’s pretty cover is taunting me.

      Hope you come back next month for YA recs 😀

      Ta, S

  2. Rochelle Sharpe

    Great post. I read mainly YA but there are a few BFF books that I have read and loved; books by Brent Weeks, Jo Spurrier, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Raymond E. Feist.

    I’ve wanted to read Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician for a while now but haven’t gotten around to it.
    I’m struggling through Eragon (I loved the movie) I own all the books so I am hoping that the others get better.

    • Shaheen

      I think Eragon‘s a really interesting one, because often, people who liked the movie dislike the books – I think because the movie is so different from the books. The opposite holds true as well, and I am yet to find someone who likes both (although know many people who dislike both!)

      Brent is a God. Like, a GOD. I debated whether to put The Night Angel Trilogy into this post – my 18 year old brother loved them when he read them earlier this year but when he tried them at 15/16 they bored him – the prose really annoyed him.

      Similarly, I wouldn’t recommend Jo to anyone fresh out of YA because of the subject matter and complexity of the world-building. I have a friend who basically only reads YA, who greatly disliked torture scenes in Sara Douglass’ work which didn’t even register to me when I read them ages ago, so that was the motivation there to avoid Winter be my Shield. She will, however, be featured in the upcoming Australian Authors SpecFic101 post.

  3. Stacey Nash

    Great post! I started out as a BFF reader when I was a teen and read it up until about Twilight made YA a big category. Recently I tried to read one of my beloved BFFs and I just can’t get into it, for all the reasons you stated above.

    The slower pace, the excess world building, the large cast of characters and the thing that most stopped me from getting into the story was the multiple POVs. I found that I just wanted to stay with my favourite character.

    It’s really interesting how the two differ and I wonder if there is more room for some middle ground because both categories are wonderful!

    • Shaheen

      The next post, discussing YA recs for those who predominantly read BFF, should be interesting because the books I’m thinking of recommending straddle the two genres, so they might be the middle ground you’re after!

  4. Tsana

    Cool post! I haven’t read Eragon, having cringed through the movie, and Sam Bowring is still on my long TBR list.

    I have to say I wouldn’t count paranormal and urban fantasy as BFF. I mean, they’re definitely fantasy, but they’re not usually as long and the worldbuilding depth and cast size are not congruent with other BFFs. Although I also think they’re similar to YA in those areas, so it makes sense to recommend them to YA fans. (Well, I’m making assumptions about Rachel Vincent’s books since I haven’t read them.)

    • Shaheen


      I used these examples because I think they have a different flavour to UF and Paranormal stories under the YA banner, and like you say, they would provide a jumping off point before really wading into the thick of BFF. 😀

  5. Lanaia

    Thank you for these SpecFic 101 posts, they’re really great! I haven’t read any of these books yet so thanks for recommendations 🙂 I read both YA and BFF books. In high fantasy, where the world is imaginary I need to have a great world building. For example, I enjoy reading R.R. Martin’s books because of the whole world building. And maps! I love books with maps 😀

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