Young adult fantasy romanticizes folkloric creatures

This week, Aimée Carter’s latest novel, The Goddess Inheritance, hit bookshelves, continuing the otherworldly literary trend in teen fiction.

Following in the footsteps of previous trends featuring vampires, werewolves and fairies, Greek gods and goddesses might be yet another installment in the teen fantasy literary canon, one that really picked up speed with the release of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight in 2005. Nowadays, when ambling down the aisles of Barnes & Noble, it’s hard to imagine a time when magic and the fantastical didn’t make up the bulk of young adult literature.

Carter’s The Goddess Inheritance marks the final segment of her five-book long The Goddess Test series, which follows 18-year-old Kate Winters as she struggles to handle the normal responsibilities of a teenager while fretting over her mother’s worsening illness. Her life changes, however, when she meets Henry, a Hades-esque figure who promises immortality and might just be able to save her mother — if she can pass seven tests and become his future bride and goddess of the underworld.

The Goddess Test stands alongside other works, such as Meg Cabot’s Abandon series, a modern retelling of the original Persephone and Hades myth. With adoring fan bases and largely indifferent reviews from major critics, the two series only add to a young reader’s startling obsession with antiheroic love interests.

Teen fantasy writers seem to hybridize villainy and romance in their male characters, though they sometimes tend to sacrifice some of their darker traits for sexier ones. Twilight had vampire Edward Cullen, with his bronze hair and “coal black” eyes. Similarly, Lauren Kate enticed lusty teens with the demonic Cam, a fallen angel who rivals the protagonist’s affection for the angel Daniel. For several readers, the more threatening the male love interest, the more enticing. And though, admittedly, other popular novels, such as Eragon, Inkheart and The Hunger Games, don’t quite follow this “attractive monster” formula, it’s hard to ignore the fact that teen fantasy has taken a shift toward darker romance.

This isn’t to rail against Twilight or to criticize the third-rate writing of several bestselling series. What is worth discussing, however, is that no matter the magical world, teen fantasy often glamorizes male love interests who seem dangerous or threatening — probably because the pattern has proven financially successful with Meyer’s Twilight series, which grossed $1.7 billion  on book sales alone according to Statistic Brain.

“It’s better if we’re not friends,” says Edward at the beginning of Twilight, in an attempt to dismantle Bella’s growing interest in him. “Trust me.”

Edward’s depiction in Twilight has earned Meyer criticism for glamorizing a romance that displays several characteristics of an abusive relationship. But, despite his warnings, Edward is hardly the monster he makes himself out to be.

Twilight readers quickly realize Edward is hardly threatening, despite his dialogue. Unlike his predecessors Dracula and the vampire Lestat, Edward doesn’t burn in the sunlight — he glitters. He doesn’t have sharp fangs, nor does he manage to adopt a grotesque appearance when he’s bloodthirsty. (Instead, his eyes turn black.) In short, as a monster figure, Edward has been completely emasculated.

“Bella, I couldn’t live with myself if I ever hurt you,” Edward says later in the novel. “You don’t know how it’s tortured me. The thought of you, still, white, cold … to never see you blush scarlet again, to never see that flash of intuition in your eyes when you see through my pretenses … it would be unendurable.”

Yet again, readers are unsurprised when Edward reaches this epiphany. They’ve realized his harmlessness from the very beginning. And, perhaps as Meyer intended, he is much less a monster than a shell of a vampire who is dangerous more so as a man than as a folkloric creature.

Similarly, Jacob is also unthreatening — as a werewolf, that is. In one of the series’ “more dangerous” scenes, Bella gets angry at Jacob — he’s kissed her without her permission — and breaks her hand after punching him in the face. Though, in this sense, Jacob certainly causes physical harm to come to Bella, he is not threatening as a werewolf but as a man — one incapable of understanding the boundaries of sexual assault.

Admittedly, other teen fantasy novels tend raise the stakes a little more than Twilight does when it comes to potentially dangerous male love interests.

In the Wicked Lovely series, for example, Irial manages to seduce Leslie into a life-threatening stupor as he feeds on her negative emotions. Incapable of leaving his side, Leslie gives off behaviors largely reminiscent of a drug addict’s withdrawal symptoms. Here, author Melissa Marr definitely manages to convince her audience that Leslie could be heading for some serious trouble. As a result, readers understand why Leslie chooses to leave Irial by the end of Ink Exchange; he might be a partial lover but he is infinitely more villainous.

But Twilight’s not-so-monstrous monsters still bring to mind one question: Why are readers constantly seeking romance with characters who are pretending to be monsters? Characters such as Irial are dangerous and appropriately romantically unappealing. But without the pretense of scary fangs or genuinely terrifying werewolf behaviors, Edward and Jacob are free to be physically attractive yet still romantically problematic — and these are the characters that sell.

I’m not arguing for more abusive male characters here, but for a clearer recognition of what villainy actually looks like. In Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire series, for example, Lestat commits truly horrible actions such as abandoning his mother or freezing the child-woman, Claudia, in a permanent prepubescent state. In short, Lestat and similar characters’ good looks don’t make up for their horrendous actions. And though readers might enjoy reading about him, it’s clear that Rice doesn’t intend for her vampire to be a romantic interest to anyone outside of his demonic circle.

Yes, it’s true that villainy is ambiguous, and we might even be attracted to some of literature’s darker characters. But if authors want to increase the protagonist’s (and readers’) awareness of potential threats, something larger within the text should be at stake.

Maybe then, larger trends of abuse and danger might seem less romantically appealing.


Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore in majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.

1 reply
  1. Melissa Marr
    Melissa Marr says:

    I enjoyed your take on villainy here & tweeted this to my fans :)

    FWIW, Irial is born out of the tradition of the Gothic villain and Byronic Hero, as (arguably) many of the love interests in recent YA paranormals are. Some are a softer blend with more of the Gothic Hero’s traits and only a few Gothic Villain traits, but in most cases, they boil down to some mix of the Hero & Villian & thereby fit into the pattern of the Byronic Hero (trying to be good but has a dark side/deep secret/danger to the love interest).

    Thx for the read.

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