Diversity in YA Fantasy

Posted by on Oct 30, 2014 in General Discussions, Guest Posts, Race and Ethnicity | 1 comment

The King’s Blood and Diversity in YA Fantasy

by S.E. Zbasnik


If one can imagine dragons filling the sky, lightning shooting from fingertips, and skeletons walking the earth, why is it so hard to include a color other than lily white for the people in a fantasy world?

Representation isn’t just a pretty buzzword for people to toss around. It cracks open stories and worlds once closed to those of people who aren’t white and male. It gives everyone a chance to see themselves save the day instead of being the funny sidekick, or temptress, or random evil guy. More and more color is being added to genre, but people still argue with sword and shield medieval fantasy it can only be based upon generic European history. Adding anyone other than Caucasian pale isn’t realistic.

Neither are animals with the head and body of a lion, a serpent for a tail, and a goat to round it all out. But people don’t throw up their hands in anger or scream about the PC police when a chimera rears its unrealistic head in a story. Even if you want to create a medieval fantasy grounded more in reality, it’s not that difficult to come up with an explanation for why people of color could save the day.

ciaraFor The King’s Blood, I was about toe deep into the creating process when I decided “You know, I haven’t done a main character that’s black. Why not?” I’d laid the bones already for Ciara, shaped some of her muscle, delved into her psyche, but the addition of the final layers – the superficial skin and hair – gave the character life.

Oh, but if I was going to write and satirize the traditional European/British fantasy then how can someone have any color in the cast? Pretty damn easily, actually. Since it is a fantasy book, I didn’t need to rely exclusively upon any history to shape my world. I can pick and choose from whatever I want. Ciara’s father became a wayward soul from the southern lands who, after rescuing an out-of-his-depth Lord, swore his service to the man. Fall in love with a local, have a few kids, and tada, a bi-racial lead that feels she can never belong anywhere.

But that wasn’t enough. I had all of Dunlaw – a land that bore some resemblance to the Ottoman Empire, especially in terms of sprawling power – to mine from. Enter Taban. Ciara believes him to be an assassin, though he’d never call himself that. With skin as dark as rich earth and a smile brighter than the moon, Taban keeps a watchful eye over Ciara and her charge – the useless prince Aldrin. She’s never certain why he’s there, and he’s not one to reveal his secrets, but there is no noble savage there, no magical being sent to teach lessons. Taban is just a very talented man focused on his job.

Opening up the world, realizing that people travel and can fall in love across race and country lines, the book became so much richer. On top of Ciara and Taban, along for the ride is a witch. Isa hails from a land she doesn’t like to talk about much. With Asian influences – relying a bit on Korean, but her being a traveler it’s a mixed bag – Isa shatters stereotypes. She’s plump, she speaks her mind, she withers flowers instead of the other way around, and she’s never afraid of her powers. Her addition to the group carries with it a threat. If they don’t accomplish a task before the sunrise on spring, there’s a good chance that witch will kill them.

For all of my characters of color, I offered up a small sentence or two for an explanation of how they wound up in this frozen land. But I also did the same for the white characters. Why is a character there? What do they do? What reasons could they have for existing? That’s the point of writing a book, to explore to the core of humanity and crawl out with an entertaining joke or two.

To act as if the addition of diversity is too hard to do, too impossible to think of, is to miss most of the human experience.

This book won an award package that included a free book cover. In the end, I used one I created instead of the free offer because their artist produced a book cover of a white woman’s flesh and hooded eyelids. This was after I stressed three times that my book was about a black girl. Her response, “Well, I like to create in my mind the characters as I read them.”

She’d rather whitewash away everything that made Ciara interesting to me, every moment when the girl is othered but turns around to fight for her own place in the world. To straighten her hair, lighten her face, shrink her nose, and turn her into every other fair skinned and dull YA fantasy heroine.

When white and male is the default, to the point the inclusion of anything else is deemed too difficult, the world is a colorless place, bereft of anything new.


S. E. Zbasnik has a degree in genetics, which means there may or may not be a horde of monkeoctopi doing her bidding to take over the world. Bringing that scientific approach to the fantasy world is her game, trying to put some common sense into magic and magic into common sense.

She currently lives with her husband and beloved dog, who dress up like Sherlock Holmes and solve mysteries in their spare time. She spends nearly of all her time in Nebraska but that’s because it is impossible to leave without finding the lamppost. She lives in a house that has at least four walls and there are some other souls wandering forlornly calling to their lost lives within.

She loves and hates writing as she both loves and hates herself.

Connect with S. E. Zbasnik on her website, Facebook and Twitter.

More about The King’s Blood:

The King's Blood CoverFrom the Blurb:

Magic is coming back. Or so say the old prophesies cobbled together from wandering soothsayers, women huffing broken gas lines, and the back of comic tomes. The Evil Empire™ of Avar and its perfectly sane, in no way crazy Emperor risks others’ life and limb to stop it from coming to pass.

The only obstinate chunk of gravel in their shoes is a small kingdom warring against the over confident reach of the growing Empire. The fight was going well for them, all things considered, right until their King went and let his head slip right off his shoulders.

Now Ciara, a black servant into her sixteenth year, finds herself on a mad quest across the countryside trying to get the second son and possibly only hope of the severed Ostero line back onto his throne. Along the way, she and Aldrin — the rather simple and OH GODS KEEP HIM AWAY FROM ANYTHING SHARP prince — find themselves at the mercy of assassins, witches, traveling historians, a sect of killer doctors, and the unblinkers.

Can two teens survive an entire Empire crashing down upon them while a shambling army of corpses waits patiently in the shadows? Will the religious fight for and against magic rip apart the world they all became rather fond of? And just how can a fifteen year old take over a throne dangling precariously over the edge of war?

Book Links: Goodreads Amazon

One Comment

  1. This book seems so dope! Just wish it weren’t so expensive via paperback!

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