Escapist Reads

I know I’ve mentioned my search for “cozy” fantasy before, but I’ve been thinking about it again recently, and then there was some discussion on Twitter yesterday, so I thought I’d bring it up again in a form that’s a lot easier for me than Twitter (I don’t write well in short bursts).

A lot of the fan mail I’ve received about the Enchanted, Inc. series is about how these books helped people get through difficult and stressful situations. I’ve heard from moms who read them while on bed rest during difficult pregnancies, people who read them while sitting through chemo infusions, people who read them while in ICU waiting rooms, even people who read them out loud to stroke patients. These readers thanked me for writing something fun and optimistic that wasn’t too stressful to read but that was still engaging enough to hook them and take them away from their surroundings.

Lately, I’ve had the chance to see just how important that can be. I’ve been dealing with some medical stuff that’s involved a lot of tests, scans, and the like, and then waiting for results that could have been scary (they weren’t). One of the issues I’ve been dealing with is possibly high adrenaline levels that are spiking my blood pressure and pulse rate, which means that for a while, until medication got that under control, it was literally bad for me to get too tense. I was reading a book I was enjoying, but I had to put it aside near the climax because I just couldn’t deal with the stress of worrying about the characters. I could feel my blood pressure rising while reading it and could only finish it once the medication started working.

What I needed was what I guess you’d call escapist fantasy. But that’s tricky to find. For one thing, it’s hard to write because it’s a challenge to have enough tension for the book to be engaging without it being super stressful. If you do manage to write that, it’s a very tough sell because editors are looking for intense books. A lot of readers love it when a book rips their hearts out. Angst sells. “Grimdark” is a big thing.

But it’s not just about having a happy ending because the process of getting to a happy ending can be stressful. The romance genre is built around a guaranteed happy ending, but there are romance books that are difficult for me to read because they put the characters through the wringer first. What I’m looking for is really hard to define, and I’m sure it varies by individual because everyone has their own triggers. For instance, I just can’t deal with gambling in books. It stresses me out, big-time, especially in the kind of story where the person has to stake all they own at very high risk. I also have a very hard time with institutional injustice, like a frame job where the authorities are in on it, so the person has nowhere to turn.

Some things I tend to look for:

  • Nothing really dire happening to or threatening the viewpoint character — you may notice that in my books, most of the real suffering happens to other characters while the viewpoint character is the one coming to the rescue without actually going through more than worrying about those other characters. The tension is about whether the protagonist will save the others, not whether she’ll survive or be okay.
  • Moments of hope or joy even during the tough parts.
  • Friendships or relationships that provide support during the tough parts.
  • At least someone with some kind of power (magical, legal, financial, etc.) on the side of the good guys so that there’s a power balance with the villains.
  • More focus on the heroes than on the villains.
  • The stakes focus more on the world than on the characters — the story question is whether they can make the world a better place, not whether they’re going to survive

Even if books like these exist, finding them and identifying them is tricky, and you may not know until you’re midway through whether or not a book will be “safe” for you at this time. Mostly, it seems to be word of mouth. Apparently, word really spread about the Enchanted, Inc. books in some mothers of multiples forums, and that’s why so many moms were reading them during bed rest. So, I thought I might start a list of books that work for me in these circumstances and why. That may also give an idea of what I’m looking for.

  • My Enchanted, Inc. series does seem to work for other people, though for me it’s stressful reading because I want to edit it. I would like more of something like that, but written by someone else.
  • Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are generally what I re-read when I need a comfort read. I suppose bad stuff does happen sometimes to his main characters, but there’s still a reassuring sense that it will all work out, so I trust him to get me where I need to be. The humor and sense of hope help a lot. I just wouldn’t re-read the last book if I’m not up to strong emotions.
  • It’s science fiction rather than fantasy, but To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, is a big comfort read for me. The stakes are high — history itself — but there’s zero worry that the main characters are going to suffer horribly.
  • Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, is a lovely gem of a book that leaves me with a satisfied sigh.

I’ll have to go back through my reading logs to see what else I’ve found, but these are the ones that come to mind and that I reread often when I’m too stressed out by the real world to handle stress in my fiction. And I’m open to suggestions. I’ll have to put the list somewhere on my web site so people can find good recommendations when they need a low-stress, escapist read.

7 Responses to “Escapist Reads”

  1. Brunella

    I love everything about your Enchanted, Inc. series but I think what hooked me was seeing the magical in the commonplace. I’m now thoroughly smitten with gargoyles (especially ones in NYC). I look at people differently wondering if they only look attractive because of the spell they’ve cast. It’s truly magic at it’s finest. And then there are the relationships that happen because of…and in spite of all that magic. Really, they are perfect books in so very many ways. Thank you for them.

  2. Michelle

    Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne have a book coming out in July called Kill the Farm Boy. They’re calling it punlight instead of grimdark. It looks like it will be a fun take on fantasy tropes.

  3. MC

    Hi Shanna,

    Sorry to hear that you have been going through such a stressful time – it’s such a relief when tests results come back and things are ok.

    Thinking of escapist fantasy that fits your criteria…I’d recommend “Howl’s Moving Castle”, by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s a witty, clever and moving send-off of fairy tale themes. The protagonist is 18-year-old Sophie, who has been aged to 90 by a wicked witch’s spell. She sets off to remove the curse, and somehow during her quest becomes the cleaning lady of a very dirty castle owned by a very vain wizard…It’s hilarious.

    P. G. Wodehouse is someone I go to for comfort reading. In some ways, you could call his works fantasy, because they take place in this pre-WWI golden age of British high society that never really existed. The Jeeves and Wooster short stories are wonderful, but I’d recommend his golf stories as my favourites. These short stories are actually funny romances – no knowledge of golf is necessary. If you’d like to try one, I’d recommend “The Clicking of Cuthbert”. Cuthbert is this hearty young golfer who has fallen in love with a young lady. She likes him, but, alas, thinks that he is not literary enough for her – she is enamoured with Russian novelists’ work (the depressing novels), and holds golf in disdain. To try and win her, Cuthbert decides to attend a meeting of the local literary society to which a touring Russian novelist has been invited. Both Cuthbert and the Russian are dreading this event, and when they meet, hilarity ensues. Love and golf win out in the end, needless to say.

    • Shanna Swendson

      I’ve read Howl’s Moving Castle, and it definitely fits the bill.
      I’ve also read some Wodehouse, but I don’t think I’ve read the golf stories. I’ll have to look those up.

      • MC

        Have you tried any other books by Dianne Wynne Jones? I was a big fan as a teen – “Fire and Hemlock”, “A Tale of Time City”, “The Ogre Downstairs”, and more spring to mind. I have started re-reading some, and they are still wonderful, but coming from a mid-40’s perspective, there is a lot of underlying sadness and loss in her books that I can see more clearly now. The hope and resilience are still there, too.

        Another recommendation: “A Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic”, by Emily Croy Barker. It’s a nice, thick book, and even though there are some grim things that happen, the tone isn’t grimdark. The pacing and language remind me just a bit of Jane Austen (and yes, one of the characters carries “Pride and Prejudice” with her). It’s one I got into quite deeply, and stayed up until 4 am to finish.

  4. Debra

    I have just discovered Ali McNamara. I didn’t like her series (Notting Hill) much, but do enjoy the stand alone novels, gently romantic, in beautiful UK settings with a little magic.

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