What Counts as Cozy Fantasy?
What counts as cozy fantasy is the question on everyone’s lips. Well, maybe not everyone. It is definitely on the lips of fantasy fans as 2023 proves the cozy fantasy genre is not a micro-trend in publishing, but something here to stay. Picture this: a warm fireplace, a hot beverage, and a small dragon curled on your lap, ready to snooze the day away. Maybe tomorrow you will have to take down a tyrant, or just manage the supply chain for your café, but those are tomorrow’s problems. Now, you are warm and cozy, and you know that everything is going to be fine. This is my picture of a cozy fantasy.
I define the cozy fantasy genre as a fantasy book with slice-of-life scenes that center on community or familial relationships: anything from immediate family to found family to friendships to any other close relationship in a character’s life. Cozy is an emotive modifier like horror or thriller, where the category informs readers what emotional effect the book builds. Book Riot has shared cozy fantasy books that you can add to your shelf multiple times and has generally agreed that these are books that feel comforting like a warm hug.
As an aside, the success of the cozy fantasy genre is, in no small part, a testament to the power of independent writers like Travis Baldree, who wrote Legends & Lattes, a book that big publishing didn’t want to buy until its success was proven by sales. Of course, a large aspect of the book’s success came from booktokers like @Books.With.Lee or @MegsTeaRoom who’ve successfully promoted the genre to large audiences of readers who then picked up the books. Now, back to our definition.
The Boundaries of Cozy Fantasy
There is an important ongoing conversation about the boundaries and limits of the cozy modifier for a fantasy book. Mostly, it boils down to the question: How much conflict is allowed in cozy fantasy? The problem with this question is that it likely changes from person to person. How many times a character can be injured before a book no longer feels cozy to you is variable. So, how should we decide to proceed with defining the genre?
It might be best to look to a similar genre in a separate space: slice-of-life fantasy in anime or manga. That is not to say that cozy fantasy must replicate the same boundaries of slice-of-life fantasy, but it could be beneficial to examine a storytelling space that has already decided how much conflict is too much conflict before a show no longer feels warm.
A perfect example is My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! which features a girl who is reborn as the villainess in a game she played in her previous life, so she knows if she doesn’t change things, she will die. It has kidnappings and magical fights but maintains a balance between conflict and slice-of-life scenes by including things like building renovations and tree-climbing competitions. Because the slice-of-life elements are also central to the emotional development of relationships between characters, the show feels cozy, even when characters are in danger.
Cozy Fantasy Conflict Categories
I think we can apply the same approach to conflict in cozy fantasy. We can look at the range of the cozy fantasy genre with an understanding that some stories have less conflict than others. Although this is a large spectrum, I am going to assign three conflict categories to cozy fantasy books: Small Conflict, Medium Conflict, and Large Conflict. These categories have the caveat that because these books are cozy fantasy, they all have a cozy atmosphere and slice-of-life scenes, even though some books may contain more epic battles than others.
The Small Conflict category includes stories with little to no conflict at all, where the fantasy worlds are mostly a setting for a series of slice-of-life scenes. The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O’Neill is an adorable graphic novel about the blacksmith’s apprentice, Greta, who learns how to care for tea dragons and makes friends along the way.
The cozy fantasy romance Witchful Thinking by Celestine Martin also fits into this category. Lucinda Caraway is a local high school teacher and a witch who has a second chance at her first love in a magical small town. The love in question is a mermaid who has to decide if he finally wants to stay in one place as he renovates his house.
In both stories, the conflicts are small enough for me to firmly consider them Small Conflict cozy fantasy books.
Next, the Medium Conflict category encompasses books that have a dash of danger, death, and/or other conflicts. A perfect example is the aforementioned Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree, where the former adventurer Viv goes about setting up a coffee shop in a city with the help of some friends she makes along the way. This sapphic cozy fantasy book contains some conflict between her and a disgruntled former colleague as well as the local muscle, but overall, the cinnamon rolls (both the baked good and the characters) outbalance the violence.
The fantasy romance book The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna is another excellent example of a Medium Conflict cozy fantasy book. British witch Mika Moon breaks with the tradition of witches living secretly when she accepts a job tutoring three adopted witches in the countryside. The book is absolutely adorable but there are instances where magic gets dangerous, and lives are at risk, which is why I’ve categorized it as a Medium Conflict book.
Finally, the Large Conflict category is for all the cozy fantasy books that contain both slice-of-life scenes and epic battles where lives are at risk. A wonderful read in this category is the sapphic cozy fantasy book Can’t Spell Treason Without Tea by Rebecca Thorne, which follows Reyna escaping her role as the Queen’s private guard so she can move to a small town and open up a tea shop where her partner, Kianthe, can sell books. It just so happens Kianthe is also the most powerful living mage. Sure, they make tea and friends, but there is also a deadly queen and dragons to boot.
This kind of Large Conflict, big magic, drag-out fight is also seen in the fantasy romance book That Time I Got Drunk and Saved a Demon by Kimberly Lemming. Although Cinnamon wants to live a calm life with her family and friends, adventure finds her when she gets drunk and saves a daemon with cinnamon. Yes, the spice cinnamon. There are angry gods and big fights, and dragons justly rampaging towns, but also there are plenty of warm moments. Ultimately, these Large Conflict books are still cozy fantasy because of the cozy emotional energy they have.
What Does This Mean for Cozy Fantasy?
What counts as cozy fantasy is an important question because definitions help us as readers, reviewers, and writers know what people are looking for when they ask for something specific. Knowing how much conflict is too much is part of that definitional process when it comes to a newer, but quickly growing, emotive sub-genres like cozy fantasy. While we continue the ongoing debate, I hope you feel perfectly at home finding a cozy space in the spectrum of cozy fantasy.