Growing up, my two favorite books were written by a not-necessarily-obscure, but-also-not-particularly-popular fantasy author named Mary Brown. These two books were Dragonne’s Eg, about a poor schoolteacher who receives a mysterious inheritance–but the stipulations of the inheritance include carrying a supposed dragon’s egg all the way back to China; and The Unlikely Ones, where a deformed girl and her talking animal companions, all the ex-slaves of a fearsome witch, go on a quest to fix themselves and return the witch’s stolen gems to a dragon.
The not-so-surprising part, if you know me at all: they are both great journeys across great distances, and both end with dragons. Obviously, I also loved The Hobbit (also, not surprisingly, an adventure book involving dragons at the finish line), and definitely Song in the Silence (about a girl who goes so far as to fall in love with a dragon. Ballsy). I also really adore a non-fiction adventure autobiography called The Long Walk, about a man who escapes from a Russian gulag in Siberia and treks to safety in India. (An incredible book, if gritty and emotional and thrilling is your jam.)
Now, after writing three adventure books myself (one YA fantasy, one MG fantasy, and one NA contemporary), I finally realized why I love these sorts of stories so much–and why, in my opinion, adventure books speak to many readers of all ages.
Life is a journey. Of course, our day-to-day journeys are not quests to return dragon eggs or steal a pile of gold, but they are journeys nonetheless. This journey is the reason I believed in “Happily Ever After” after a childhood of Disney movies; it’s comforting to think that there’s an end goal, a final save point after the boss is defeated/the gems are returned/the gold is stuffed in a sack and thrown over our backs. But the thing I loved about both Dragonne’s Eg and The Unlikely Ones is that the hero’s journey never really ends. Both of these books end at a beginning. Like any real life adventure, a good adventure story is just a snapshot in time; a particularly moving step in a hero’s life.
Adventures hold promise and danger. Across great distance and great time, many a peculiar thing can happen. Easily my favorite thing about adventure stories are the myriad strange situations characters find themselves in: ending up penniless and naked after being robbed by bandits, taken captive by a jealous witch, trying to escape an underground goblin kingdom–anything is possible on an adventure. The best adventures are one where our heroes’ lot gets worse and worse, and somehow, they still manage to wriggle back out again. My favorite is when they learn something essential during their captivity they wouldn’t have learned otherwise! (Seeing all the parallels to real life yet?)
New friends and new enemies. I love writing adventure stories because I get to meet and explore so many different types and styles of characters. In an adventure, it’s all right to bring in a character temporarily–someone like Tom Bombadil, who is infinitely memorable and only occupies a few square pages.
Not to mention–parties! If you’ve ever played an RPG, you’re familiar with the concept: you gather together your best fighters and go on a quest. Each member of your party has skills that balance out the other, and so does each member of a party in a good adventure book! I loved the cast of Dragonne’s Eg because they’re all so dysfunctional: a lawyer, a gambler, a girl with no wisdom of the world, a snarky cat and a mystical tiny unicorn. You love them because they’re flawed, and you love them more when their flaws save them.
Explore and experience the world. This one’s pretty simple: landscapes. If there’s anything I love about writing fantasy, it’s the world-building; and an adventure story is the best way to explore the world you’ve built. (It’s also so delightful to explore another author’s world this way!) Not to say that adventures in our own world aren’t fascinating in the same way. The Long Walk took me through fantastic, scary places I’d never been–the Gobi desert, the Himalayas, the Siberian tundra. You get to see and feel these places without even going there. (And isn’t that the point of a book?)
Change is inevitable. In my opinion, the best part of an adventure story is the consequences of adventure. What do you have to sacrifice to get where you’re going? How does the process of sacrifice change you? And, of course, when you get there–do you still want what you set out for? Adventures can be so transformational that rarely is the hero the same person he or she was at the beginning, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Thanks for reading about my love affair with adventure stories! Why do you read action/adventure? I’d love to hear from you!