**Some spoilers for House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas, the Blood and Ash series by Jennifer L. Armentrout, the Bargainer series by Laura Thalassa, and the Serpent & Dove series by Shelby Mahurin**
Fantasy is my favorite genre. I live for the vibrancy and beauty of new worlds, for the complexity and intrigue of mythical creatures, and for the escape that these novels provide me during tough times. So it’s no surprise that I’ve been reading and rereading fantasy novel after fantasy novel since lockdown began. I’ve amassed such a comprehensive list of fantasy books under my belt, that a gruesome, ubiquitous trope in the genre has become impossible for me to ignore.
If a sixty-year-old man began pursuing a nineteen-year-old girl, we would rightfully label him a pedophile and creep without hesitation. A man with sagging skin and frayed gray hair chasing after a young and innocent girl does, after all, paint an atrocious picture.
But when centuries-old men involve themselves with nineteen-year-old girls in immensely popular fantasy novels, their attentions inspire fanaticism and blind devotion among young readers. Is it easier to ignore the fact that these men are more than ten times the age of their female romantic interests because they are described as tall and dashing with bulking muscles, rather than hunched and desiccated with missing teeth?
I’m appalled and conflicted by authors whose work I otherwise enjoy so greatly, who otherwise make attempts to keep their work progressive and inclusive, writing characters of color, characters that are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, and female protagonists who are brave, independent, and resilient.
Sarah J. Maas, whose Throne of Glass series and A Court of Thorns and Roses books are nearly household names at this point, spoke as a guest in a recent livestream about her firm belief in presenting characters dealing with real mental health issues, and portraying characters who engage in safe, consensual, loving sex. I was inspired by this candid, authentic discussion. But at the same time, in 2020, only months ago, she released the first installment of her adult fantasy series, House of Earth and Blood, in which the male protagonist and romantic interest Hunt, is hundreds of years old, while the female protagonist Bryce is in her mid-twenties.
Laura Thalassa is another fan- and personal-favorite fantasy author. She consistently writes strong, daring, bold female characters who completely subvert the helpless damsel in distress cliché. However, even in her prominent Bargainer series, the male protagonist Des is over two centuries old when he meets the female lead Callie, who is only sixteen at the time. Granted, their romantic relationship doesn’t progress for another seven years, but I still find a guy who is 200+ years old marrying a twenty-three-year-old woman beyond disturbing.
Jennifer L. Armentrout has written a similarly mismatched couple in her new, rave-reviewed and fan favorite Blood and Ash series. Poppy is barely nineteen when Hawke comes into her life, who we later find out has several centuries under his belt.
This list, unfortunately, could go on and on. It’s disgusting and absurd that, to create alluring fantastical male protagonists, there must be a colossal age difference and corresponding power hierarchy between the male and female leads. This is a horribly detrimental message to be sending readers, especially when fantasy readers are often young and impressionable. It also counteracts and undermines any other efforts on the authors’ part to write progressive stories. We should not be promoting pedophilia, however veiled and decorated it may be.
I’m hopeful for upcoming change, however. Shelby Mahurin released her wildly popular novel Serpent & Dove in the fall of 2019 and its equally popular sequel Blood & Honey earlier this year. The novels follow Lou, an experienced and raunchy eighteen-year-old and her male romantic interest Reid, a principled and celibate twenty-year-old. The plausible age gap and inversion of traditional gender power dynamics when it comes to sexual experience do not make this series any less enjoyable or detract in any way from the love story. Lou and Reid’s romance, in fact, is a desperately needed breath of fresh air in a genre that has remained dangerously stagnant in forsaking pedophilic age gaps.