What is cozy fantasy?

Cozy fantasy has been launched into unexpected popularity recently, arguably first by the success of the TikTok viral Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree, and a following spate of popular titles (such as The House in the Cerulean Sea, A Coup of Tea, Emily Wilde’s Encyclopedia of Faeries, That Time I Got Drunk & Saved A Demon, and the Tea Dragon Society). It is not a genre that was invented by Legends and Lattes, contrary to some popular conceptions – cozy fantasy has been around a long time, whether or not it had a popular name. Just look at Howl’s Moving Castle, and I will argue The Hobbit. 

An old lady waves her walking stick at a stone castle on legs with many windows and steam coming out of chimneys. The text reads Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

The term is derived, seemingly, from the moniker of cozy mystery (cozies) used for a long time to refer to the resurgence of post-Golden Age of Detective Fiction stories in the style of Agatha Christie or her contemporaries – murder mysteries, usually featuring amateur detectives (often women) and which usually take place in small communities with a cast of colourful and lovable characters. Think Father Brown or Murder, She Wrote.

Cozy fantasy as a term started popping up quite a while ago – a Goodreads reviewer called Katherine seems to be one of the earliest results that I turned up, who left a review on James Nicol’s A Witch Alone in November 2018: “There needs to be a category just of “cozy fantasy” just for this book.” By 2020 it was being used more and more (no shocker, considering what we were all going through), and then exploded all over the internet soon after. 

The problem with defining cozy fantasy

Defining cozy fantasy is a little bit hard. It is a newish genre, and the boundaries are shifting. Coziness is such a loaded term. What is cozy to you may not be to me. Some decent attempts have been made at narrowing down the term. However, one definition I’ve seen thrown around a lot is “low-stakes”, and I strongly disagree with the notion. I don’t think it helps to define cozy fantasy as such. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I even think that it can be actively harmful. If not wielded carefully, defining cozy can become a tool to uncozify the marginalised. What do I mean by that?

R. Nassor, writing for Tor, has a fascinating blog post that contends modern cozy fantasy is sort of a resurgence of the 1960s “magi-coms” (magic sitcoms) – Addams Family, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, and the sort. Perhaps not directly, but in spirit. I personally love these sitcoms (though I watch them with a heapful of understanding that they’re sixty years old now and come with a lot of problems of the 1960s – namely a heaping of racism). They still appeal to me, because as Nassor so well articulates, they are about magical oddballs being able to enjoy domestic life in defiance of others’ judgment. They both poked fun at the social norms of their time and contended that ‘outsiders’ (magical or otherwise) should be allowed to be happy, living however they wish. After all, we often see how the Addams Family is judged by small minded people, but they are happier and stronger as a family than your average white picket nuclear family.

An image of an eccentrically dressed family sitting together for a family photo, in a cluttered but cozy Victorian-esque living room.

For me personally, this theme always hit close to home as a queer person contending with not fitting into traditional images of domesticity and happiness. Extending this concept to cozy fantasy – I think that an important conversation must be had about who decides what is ‘low stakes’ or ‘cozy’. For queer people, and recently particularly trans or nonbinary people, just being happy and living our lives is an act of defiance and protest. The same can be said for disabled people, and many others. There is plenty of queer happiness, but in real life, queer low stakes don’t really exist. Not anymore. We’re playing for the biggest stakes in the world in real life – survival.

I love wish fulfillment stories that take place in fantasy worlds without real world prejudices (I write them too), and they are a tool of healing. But I also think that we run the risk of pushing valuable stories and authors out of the cozy genre if we rely on low stakes as the defining (and main) aspect of the genre. There has to be room for both stories of escapism and fluff, and stories where happiness is an act of bravery and courage. Opposing oppression (with copious cups of tea and fresh scones) can be cozy. I contend that you can write cozy fantasy about overthrowing a government, damnit.

Further I think that disabled people can easily fall afoul of this problem. Ableism is such that some (many) disabilities are normalized as uncozy, inconvenient, or worse (YouTube, for example, has a serious problem with demonetizing or age restricting creators just for being disabled or talking about disability). The realities of being marginalised conflict with attempts to paint a pretty picture of domestic life. Cozy fantasy shouldn’t shy away from this – it should boldly stare oppression and hate down and defy it by showing a path to happiness. Cozy fantasy can be fantasy’s answer to solarpunk.

Sanitizing coziness

On a similar note, I’ve seen people defining cozy fantasy as “a lack of violence or mature content”. If by mature content they mean sex (lets come out and say the word, please) – I disagree with that even more stringently. There is tons of room for sex in cozy fantasy. What could be more cozy than a natural, pleasurable human passtime?

What about swearing? Cozy fantasy can have swearing in it! I promise!

These things are not uncozy, and by defining them as non-cozy, we alienate people and continue to uphold ideas like sex is dirty (its not) or swearing is bad (it’s not – and we could write a whole episode about how the stigmatisation of swearing is class warfare, but I don’t have time right now).

I’ve also seen a definition that argues the themes of cozy fantasy should be lighter. No, they shouldn’t. Because sometimes being cozy requires strength, bravery, defiance, courage and to defy authority.

All of this I say with the caveat that escapism is not harmful and it is enjoyable. You shouldn’t be ashamed for loving stories with low stakes. The problem arises when low stakes becomes the only option allowed, and in who gets to define what even counts as low stakes.

So what is cozy fantasy, then?

With all of the above in mind, I would like to present my rudimentary definition of cozy fantasy. 

Cozy fantasy is a fantasy story that generally includes most of (but not necessarily all) of the following elements:

  • Themes of belonging or finding your place.
  • A satisfying, happy ending.
  • A hopeful narrative.
  • Reveling in the small joys of life.
  • A comfy aesthetic.

Cozy fantasy also optionally includes,  

  • Low scope – stories that take place in geographically smaller settings, such as one town or city.
  • Place as character, such as lavish descriptions of settings, strong worldbuilding, or literally including genius loci.
  • Soft magic, often with deeply sensory descriptions of magic.
  • Fairy tale like worlds or folklore influences.
  • Copious amounts of good food and drink.

To expound upon the above, I think that the most important part of cozy fantasy is aesthetic. Often a comfortable, more humble sort of aesthetic – one that co-opts both domesticity and naturalistic elements (seriously, someone needs to write an essay about how cottagecore relates to and reflects the 19th century aesthetic movement, especially as imagined by William Morris). Complimenting this aesthetic is a plethora of small joys, such as finding time to smell the roses, drink a good cup of tea, or lighting a candle. 

Finally, I contend that cozy fantasy makes a similar promise to its readers as romance novels do – that they will finish the book both satisfied and happy. No tragic endings, even if the path to read the ending is a little rough. 

What are your thoughts on this definition? I’d love to hear more from you in the comments below.

Further reading

24hy YA book Blog has a post which is well worth reading and addresses another problem with low stakes as a definition of cozy fantasy – “In relying heavily on that term [stakes], many in the community have become dependent on the idea of “stakes” to structure their idea on what kinds of books identify as “cozy,” when truly…there’s an infinite number of ways to write a “cozy fantasy.”

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