Cozy Fantasy — Beware of Chicken

[— Karen Myers —]

Call me parochial, but I have never been able to get into the modern fascination with manga and martial arts themed fantasies. It’s not that I don’t like me a good chop-em-up samurai flick or Mizoguchi warm bath and the Chinese equivalents, but I’m not the generation that is fascinated by the minutiae of schools of combat, ascent through the ranks, and all the rest of the real or simulated histories of the martial arts of the East. It’s like being a shooter (which I am) who is not sucked into the world of cartridges, calibers, and models. I got my gamer thrills out of the way with the very first incarnations of (Colossal Cave) Adventure, back in the ’70s (XYZZY, anyone?) on DEC-20s.

That being said…

I was ambushed by an excellent review here and forced to buy the first two books it talks about (all that are out). I liked them so well (and you should see their ratings on Amazon) that I have to spread the word and talk about the larger concept of “cozy fantasy”.

Despite the covers, these are not illustrated works, but conventional-form fantasy novels. The setting is the generic fantasy “realm” of xianxia, a shared sandbox for some Chinese martial arts story settings, as we would speak casually of “medieval European fantasy”. The specific genre form is wuxia, a sort of questing martial hero theme. If that were all, I would yawn and pass by — not my particular thing. But… but… these are both appealing and hilarious. Other than a couple of in-group oddities (who knew that “cultivator” was a term-of-use for “(gamer?) martial artist”, as in “cultivating” form/magic/skill?), these are straight up “what if?” fantasies, with enough of a larger mystery to carry them into a series architecture.

The “what if?” premise takes the form of “If I can cultivate magic (“qi”) and infuse it back into the land/plants/creatures, what might happen when some of these recipients become sapient themselves and start consolidating around the hidden master who has awakened them, each with his own independent personality and life concerns?”. It may not sound all that fascinating in this description, but the treatment is very much in the cozy style. The growing community is an assemblage of people (for some values of “people”) with intertwined lives, concerns, ambitions, all trying to do the proper thing. Yes, there are antagonists, but those are outsiders to the central growing community — within the community, cultural (and family) norms are the primary guides to conflict resolution.

I don’t care where this series is going re: the longer-term mystery/conflict. I just want to go live there for as long as it lasts.

The charm of these books made me pause and re-evaluate some of the various sub-genres of the SFF world. For example, SF-Romance is really part of the Romance genre with SF-window dressing. Ditto for Fantasy-Romance. They need the Romance genre beats and resolutions. Historic-Fantasy is more evenly divided — sometimes focused on the history with a fantasy modification, and sometimes a full-dress fantasy version of actual history.

There are examples of SFF that I would refer to as “low-key” (authors like Nathan Lowell, for example) but I wouldn’t call them “cozies” — they’re still SciFi or Fantasy in their essence.

The genres that are known for “cozy”, esp. small town Mystery-Cozies, aren’t all that appealing to me. However charming the characters may be, they aren’t building a whole world of “coziness”, just presenting a little story for the reader. Outside their world, you know there’s a reality waiting of a rather different flavor, not a never-never-land.

What makes me think of these xianxia books as “Fantasy-Cozies” — not just Cozies with a Fantasy setting, but a successful blend of both genres? I think it’s that the Cozy aspect is never lost sight of, nor limited to just the hero’s surroundings. There are villains, but no tragic worldview. Anyone may die, but sometimes something lingers on. The “everything is alive” in the sense of personality and will is both a Fantasy concept, and agreeable to the Cozy perspective of community. Without being specifically religiously-driven (though deities exist), there is still a fellowship whiff that is reminiscent of idealized communities — ordinary people try to help, instead of hinder. The default impulse is benevolence. There is no sense of an outer world that is altogether opposed — just isolated pockets of unfortunate attitudes.

Part of what appeals to me, I suppose, is a nostalgia for a shared moral culture.

So, for your assignment… what other sorts of books/authors do you think have a strong “cozy” element in their SFF stories, and what makes “cozies” so appealing generally?

22 thoughts on “Cozy Fantasy — Beware of Chicken

  1. I believe that the meditation and all that is in fact cultivation in the Far East. It is not the fault of the practice that it’s used fictionally for power fantasy. 0:)

  2. “The growing community is an assemblage of people (for some values of โ€œpeopleโ€) with intertwined lives, concerns, ambitions, all trying to do the proper thing. Yes, there are antagonists, but those are outsiders to the central growing community โ€” within the community, cultural (and family) norms are the primary guides to conflict resolution.”

    Is that what “cozy” means? Because I sorta write like that. Except I’ve never thought of my writing as being in any way “cozy” in what I take to be the commonly used sense of the word outside writing.

  3. The books were inspired by the “Chicken Attack” You tube shorts. Go see them.

  4. Have you read Nathan Lowell’s “Wizard’s Butler”? It’s about a former combat medic and EMT who becomes a butler for a crazy old coot who…well, exactly what it says on the tin. A lot of it’s low-key humor about the EMT adjusting to a different kind of uniform and to the invisible house-keepers. The actual wizarding community feels like the more benign side of the Harry Potter grownups: these colorful eccentrics with strange abilities who go out and have all these wild adventures.

    There seems to be the beginnings of a “magic house” subgenre: Wizard’s Butler, Ilona Andrews’s Innkeeper series (although that one has a broader cosmic angle and might be invoking Clark’s Law), Charlie D. Holmberg’s Keeper of Enchanted Rooms (don’t love the ghost angle with that one) and at least one other book with steampunk trappings I haven’t read. As a former Castlevania player I am sucker for weird fantastical houses full of secrets, so I hope this continues to be a thing. Maybe Gormenghast is their remote ancestor, I don’t know.

    Cozy SF: maybe some of the later Bujolds (Civil Campaign is the most obvious one, could make a case for my personal favorite Memory), Stasheff’s Warlock books, H. Beam Piper’s Omnilingual and Lone Star Planet.

    Cozy to me means a story-feel that engenders goodwill towards and between the more sympathetic characters, a low-stress treatment of potentially serious events, and a positive value assigned to observance of social protocols (not necessarily stereotypically “posh” social protocols either; see Lone Star Planet for example).

    1. Indeed, Lowell is one of the folks I refer to as “low-key”.

      Thanks for the Ilona Andrews ref — I knew some of her other works, but not those. Bujold — of course. Don’t forget the Liaden books, to some degree.

      1. Sorry, I misread the SFF reference that included him to be SF, so thought maybe his fantasy works had been overlooked.

        Innkeeper books do retain the kind of gritty, grossout moments that her urban fantasies have going on, and I know people who’ve bounced off of them because of that, but I don’t believe the Innkeeper books are anything out of the way in that regard for people who already read her other series.

        1. Your comment on “House” books led me indirectly to (new to me) Jenny Schwartz and “The House That Walked Between Worlds” (Uncertain Sanctuary series). Looks good… The heroine is a descendent of Baba Yaga (but of course).

          Some of the other things I come across are too steampunk-like for me. I’m not a steampunk fan, myself, and would rather echo history in the form of settings/situation, not candids of famous figures and cut-and-paste references to famous events/discovery. My general take on steampunk is that the authors are so busy preening about “ooh, look what I did there” referential cleverness that “story” suffers. “Pastiche” is not my favorite narrative genre. [MilSciFi (IMHO) sometimes suffers from this as well, but in a more rigorous concentrated fashion that explores the “what-ifs” better from a “story” perspective.]

          1. What you do sounds like my take on what steampunk ought to be. I’m plodding through a tradpub steampunk American Civil War with zombies thing, and so far the best things about it are the hardware and the fact that the Confederates don’t automatically have horns and tails.

          2. I’ll have to check out The House That Walked Between Worlds (just added it to my e-book list) – I’m a sucker for anything Baba Yaga-related (I have an Afanasyev collection, and I’ll throw out a thanks to Cedar Sanderson for her The East Witch (Baba Yaga by another name))

    2. And while we’re on the subject of “House” books, I’d like to remind folks of Rita Beeman’s (only so far) book Mabel Murkwood and the Overly Familiar, recommended a few months ago by Cedar Sanderson. I quite enjoyed that, and it falls into this category (more or less). Hope she comes up with a few sequels soon…

    1. And to think of having spent my life so far totally unaware of that… (I’ve been laughing the whole time.) Thanks for that.

      1. Just remember, when Lawdog says the rooster had a black-belt in chicken-fu…. he might be right.

        Ray Stevens is hilarious. “Mississippi Squirrel Revival”, “Santy Claus Is A Watchin’ You”, “The Streak”…..

  5. There are a number of Slice-Of-Life type of stories coming out these days that are really good. BOC is a webnovel, so if you want to read ahead of the published books, you can find it on royal road. I believe it goes up to book 4.

    Another story very much in line with BOC is ‘Hard Enough’, also on Royal Road. This one is a Pokemon SI, from the POV of a 16 year boy who is caring for his nine younger siblings and family business after his parents have abandoned them. For all that it is based off of an old console game, it has a massive amount of heart and intricate world building.

  6. Read both of them when they came out. A decent read, but I was surprised to see something labeled a cozy fantasy earlier this week. Not enough to click on it but perhaps I should have.

    I have taken cozy to mean a slice of home life and normality.

    1. A slice of home life and normality. I suppose that is what I am going for. In the sense of re-establishing or building home life and normality after a trauma or dislocation.

      1. I first ran across a cozy genre with “cozy apocalypse.” The world ended, and the characters are doing fine.

        I recommend the Haley and Nana series.

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