May is peak cottagecore vibes for me: the nascent blooms, the birdsong, the feel of sun on your skin. It’s all very life-affirming after the cold dregs of winter. Cottagecore, like spring, is pleasant. Pretty. Unchallenging. And above all, a fantasy. So what better time of year than May to dip into some cozy fantasy?
I was first made aware of this niche genre by a friend of mine, a fellow cozy enjoyer, my Stardew Valley compatriot. While discussing our current reads, she turned to me and said, “Okay, don’t judge me, but…” and then described Legends and Lattes to me, essentially a story about an orc running a coffee shop. Far from judging, I thought it sounded lovely. I looked it up and had a chuckle at the novel’s subtitle: “A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes”. Because that’s cozy fantasy in a nutshell. The fantasy doesn’t necessarily need to be high, but the stakes must be low. Sometimes you want to just chill with some elves without it becoming a whole thing.
Typically, the markings of high fantasy involve (per Masterclass) “a setting very unlike Earth”, “world threatening forces”, and “fantastic creatures, historic or unusual technologies, magical elements, and other unearthly elements”. We’re talking Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Fifth Season territory: maybe based somewhat on the real world (Tolkien and Martin based their continents on Earth’s recognizable geography), but populated with fantastical creatures and shaped by a need to vanquish a world-shattering foe (or foes). Cozy fantasy, on the other hand, can feature the trappings of high fantasy (creatures, magic, etc.) without the hassle of saving the world. Everyone’s definitions of what counts as “cozy” seems to differ slightly, but I like the way Book Riot puts it: “Cozy is an emotive modifier like horror or thriller, where the category informs readers what emotional effect the book builds.” It’s a rejection of the cynical, grimdark facets of some modern fantasy (like the Game of Thrones HBO series) which can sometimes seem dark for dark’s sake. This is fantasy, people! We don’t always have to base it on some pseudo-medieval brutality!
I still haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of Legends and Lattes (the waitlist is looooong), but the more I think about it, the more I realize I have been subconsciously seeking out cozy fantasy for a long time. It’s not really all that new! J.R.R. Tolkien could be considered cozy, in a certain light. As a fan of the LOTR films, I’ve always joked about moving to The Shire or Rivendell. I have no desire to fight at Helm’s Deep, but I would love to simply grow some potatoes in my little hobbit garden, or drift ethereally through the moonlight in Elven robes. In fact, to me, cozy fantasy sounds like “Concerning Hobbits” from the Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. I am also a Practical Magic movie afficionado; it broke my heart to learn that the witches’ gorgeous Victorian mansion on the cliffside wasn’t real, but that doesn’t stop me from dreaming about it (that conservatory? Hello!). And who among us didn’t wish to travel through a magical wardrobe as a child, into an enchanted wintery landscape full of talking animals?
The term “cozy fantasy” has really taken hold in the book industry lately, giving name to a very specific set of attributes—or what we in the library world call “appeal factors”. Clearly, it’s hitting a niche. Legends and Lattes is doing gangbusters on BookTok, as are plenty of other cozy reads (all roads lead to BookTok). Is it a coincidence that the demand for this genre coincides with an unprecedented level of collective anxiety? A post-pandemic wind-down from all the stress, anger, and uncertainty? Cozy fantasy is often described as “feeling like a warm hug,” a descriptor I’ve used to describe TJ Klune’s books The House in the Cerulean Sea and Under the Whispering Door (and will probably also use for his newest cozy effort, In the Lives of Puppets). Unsurprisingly, Klune’s books are also big on BookTok.
So if you’re on the same wavelength as countless readers (and TikTok users) and you’re jonesing for some low-stakes, feel good fantasy, check out some recommendations below (but make sure you put the kettle on first!).
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones: The source material for the famously cozy Studio Ghibli film? Enough said.
Witchmark by C.L. Polk: A charming historical (Edwardian era, to be precise) romance featuring magic, mystery, and bicycles.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers: A quick and comforting little slice of life novella about a tea monk and a robot contemplating life and meaning.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna: A cutesy title leads you into a heartwarming story of moving from isolation to love and family.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune: More found family! A worker’s drab life is transformed by a host of colourful creature-like children and their charming caregiver.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison: A high fantasy tale in which a young half-goblin man uses kindness and compassion to navigate royal court intrigue.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: Okay, technically not fantasy but fantasy-adjacent, I couldn’t leave this foundational text of the cottagecore aesthetic off the list.