If you had told me a few years ago that I would be writing a newsletter article on science fiction and fantasy, I would have laughed in your face and gone back to my mystery novel. But here we are. I’ve long been a die-hard fan of mysteries and had no interest in speculative fiction. But as I’ve developed as a reader and as a librarian, I’ve learned about the range of appeals and doorways within genres, so I’ve occasionally found entry points into sci-fi and fantasy that I’ve really enjoyed. But nothing has grabbed me like the rise of cozy science fiction and fantasy, and suddenly I’ve been eager to toss away my puzzle mysteries and police procedurals and relish a world of magical teashops, wandering robots, and hedge witches. And I’m not alone: cozy science fiction and fantasy is one of the hottest trends in fiction right now, so here's what you need to know about this emerging subgenre.
If you’re not familiar with these books, they have a similar sensibility to their cousin, the cozy mystery: the themes, tone, and atmosphere are relatively light, compared to the high stakes and dense world-building of epic fantasy, the technical jargon of hard sci-fi, or the gritty darkness of urban fantasy. In these stories, there’s a feel-good sense of enchantment. They often feature found families, characters who are charmingly out of their element, narrative complications that can be solved without a lot of death and destruction, and a heartwarming ending.
I think it’s also important to understand why we’re seeing a significant rise in books with these qualities, across genres. With a worldwide pandemic, political upheaval, and domestic and international violence in our collective experience, fiction must address both the realities of our world, but also the emotional needs of readers. Our reading examines our collective grief and loss, but also the necessity of comfort and a sense of stability. As I began exploring these books, I was reminded of the lighter stories I loved as a child, full of fairy tales, adventurous journeys, and the possibility of new worlds. Cozy sci-fi and fantasy slot in perfectly to give us comfort, both in its low stakes and its sense of familiarity.
It’s impossible to talk about cozy fantasy this year without highlighting 2022’s breakaway hit, Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree. Subtitled “A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes”, it’s the story of a retired mercenary orc who discovers coffee and decides to build a coffee shop for the community in her new town. It is utterly delightful, and other authors, including Rebecca Thorne, the author of Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea, acknowledge Baldree’s influence on their writing this year. Another recent gentle fantasy is The Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura, which finds seven lonely students in Tokyo transported into a Grimms’ fairy tale world through their mirrors, where they find empathy and friendship. Within science fiction, The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal combines the tropes of the cozy mystery (and a nod to The Thin Man films) with an interplanetary-space-liner setting. Becky Chambers’ new series, starting with A Psalm for the Wild-Built, is a serene, contemplative journey between a tea monk and an inquisitive robot.
Although we've seen a wave of books being published in the past few years, the trend isn’t exactly new. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit is a great example of many of the hallmarks of the subgenre. Bilbo Baggins is a guileless character in an epic quest that’s way over his head, but his wide-eyed approach to his adventures and the frequent ruminations on his home (and the food he’s missing!) map out the appeals that make cozy fantasy resonate with readers. More recently, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a space opera that focuses on the found-family relationships within a crew digging wormholes to distant planets in the galaxy. Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic leans toward magical realism, but it creates a sense of magical domesticity that will likely attract fans of more contemporary novels. As we wait for more titles to be published, it’s worth pointing your customers toward these older books as well.
Maybe you're a seasoned reader of speculative fiction, or you’re like me and are just now discovering its joys, but cozy science fiction and fantasy are the books your shelves need right now. You can find more titles on our ipage list: worlds of warmth and comfort await!