Let’s talk about cozy fantasy.
I am one of the many people finding healing, meaning, and peace in this rapidly developing subgenre. Cozy fantasy leaves the epic battles and sweeping history-making narratives behind and narrows in on a corner of a fantastical world.
This usually includes some combination of an idyllic setting, “low” stakes in comparison with typical high fantasy, and a focus on healing, often after the battle has been won. Let's talk about some of these books.
An Idyllic Setting
Many of these stories stories seem to take place in vacation destinations with no one else around. Crank up the cottagecore; reserve your own island.
Flowerheart by Catherine Bakewell is full of flower shops, cottages, and manors.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna features a cottage surrounded by gardens and beaches.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune was my gateway drug into cozy fantasy. I had never read anything quite like it and I immediately craved more.
Linus Baker lives an ordinary life in the city. He travels to “orphanages” for magical youth and ensures no abuse is ongoing. He takes his job very seriously and he is therefore a sticker for the rules. When he is sent to a particular home on an island surrounded by the ocean, he finds children with abilities and features unlike anything he has ever seen.
He has protected many children, and the stakes have been high. Now the stakes are personal, and the rule book is out the window.
“Low,” Personal, Relatable Stakes
Legends and Lattes by Travis Baldree features the tagline “A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes.” This story is about an orc who has left a life of fighting for a life of peace. She is building a livelihood, friendships, and a town to call home. Failure might mean having to return to a life of violence she doesn’t want for herself. Those stakes are not low. They are high, and they are personal. They are beautifully relatable. “Low” simply must have seemed like the best world to quickly communicate that we won’t be saving a nation from invaders in this story.
Instead, cozy fantasy deals in the kind of stakes we readers deal with every day. The House in the Cerulean Sea and A Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches both deal with the stakes surrounding who will be raising children. This is deeply relatable to anyone in a custody case, any social worker, anyone who has children in their lives, anyone who cares about children, and anyone who has at some point been a child.
A Focus on Healing “After the Battle”
This is where I become captivated. Everyone knows there are habits that are adaptive in some situations and not others. A trauma survivor knows this even better. How can a person who thrives in turmoil learn to also thrive in peace?
In So This is Ever After by F. T. Lukens, our heroes, Arek and Matt, and their party win the battle in the first chapter. The overlord is defeated, and now the band of heroes is learning to run a kingdom and adapt to a new normal — and trying to figure out if their feelings for each other have a place in it. There’s still some action, but the recalibration toward a time of peace and healing, toward personal stakes, still qualifies it as cozy fantasy in my mind.
These elements are strong in The House in the Cerulean Sea and The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches also, but I’ve minimized spoilers on this blog so far, so I’ll leave it at that.
Cozy Fantasy Isn’t New
This type of story isn’t necessarily new. There have always been stories like this, but they have not been labeled this way before. In this post, i have focused on books that I've seen labeled in this new way, but I think it could be applied a lot more broadly.
For example, any time you wrote or read a fanfiction where a fantasy character went to therapy, I argue that it counts. (I have such a weakness for those.) A lot of fanfiction in general qualifies, and this points to what a needed gap there has been in the genre. Show us those healing moments and relatable-stakes moments in between battles - or after them - so we don’t have to write them ourselves!
In the past few years, I’ve seen more and more adults on social media honestly talking about their enjoyment of children’s stories. From a marketing perspective, the “cozy fantasy” label/subgenre is a great way to reel those adults into patronage of the adult fantasy genre and the major fantasy publishers such as Tor.
For me, cozy fantasy provides peaceful spaces full of wonder, and it makes the peaceful spaces full of wonder in the real world easier to notice.