If you were to flash back a decade ago? You would have found me in the same position as countless other fantasy fans. Absolutely enamored with everything horrible!

Game of Thrones was as big as it ever was. Everyone (myself included) was addicted to its merciless vision of the fantasy genre. It was brutal! It was grim! It was dark! There was never any telling what would happen next.

The notion that the good guy might not win by default? That was shocking and uncomfortable in the most addictive sort of way. I spent years glued to George R.R. Martin’s book series and the HBO TV series. Years convinced all the terrors and twists of the show would be worth it when it reached its inevitable end.

Game of Thrones wrapped up in 2019 and it was most definitely not worth it. And along the way? The real world took its own dark turn. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some fantasy fans (myself included) found themselves ready for something besides brutality and darkness.

Enter Legends & Lattes.

Orcs, Coffee, and “Low Stakes” Fantasy

The Lord of the Rings first hit bookstores and libraries in 1954 and fantasy fiction has spent decades building on its foundations. If your mental image of fantasy includes elves, dwarves, and apocalyptic wars against evil dark lords, it’s because The Lord of the Rings established those as the benchmarks of the genre.

Even the grimdark content of A Song of Ice and Fire owes a debt of sorts to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels.  Twists like that one famous beheading and “The Red Wedding” are just as much about the author’s desire to separate himself from traditional fantasy narratives as they are about anything else.

Legends & Lattes takes a different approach.

The cover of Legends & Lattes, illustrated by EmberwickArt

Released earlier this year, Legends & Lattes follow the efforts of Viv, an Orc and a former adventurer, to retire from fighting and establish a coffee shop. Described by its subtitle as “A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes,” it’s a story that delivers all the trappings of a familiar fantasy world -swords, magic, elves- minus the epic scale of a world-ending threat.

If A Game of Thrones asks what fantasy would be in the darkest of times, Legends & Lattes presents a vision fantasy wrapped in a fluffy blanket with a warm cup of tea (or coffee). If you asked author Travis Baldree, he’d tell you that’s exactly what he was aiming for.

“I'm an audiobook narrator and I read a lot of action-adventure genre fiction,” Baldree explained. “But I also enjoy reading sweet romance or cozy fiction because it's like chicken soup - it feels nice! I don't get a lot of that kind of work, though. I [would joke] that what I REALLY wanted to read was a Hallmark movie in the Forgotten Realms.”

Legends & Lattes was his effort to create that sort of experience. While the book takes place in a world that could have come straight out of Dungeons & Dragons, the bulk of the story is focused on the daily operations of the main character’s cafe. Her struggles are mostly personal, as are her victories. There are entire chapters dedicated to fresh baked goods, a bard gaining the confidence to perform, and the backstory of the friendly neighborhood succubus.

Even when things do take more serious turns, the consequences never really expand beyond a few characters and one building on a single street. It’s a story designed to be comfortable, fun, and, above all else, cozy.

Cozy Fantasy on the Rise

While Baldree wrote Legends & Lattes for his own satisfaction, the book has still gone on to be a genuine hit. Even months later, it’s holding strong in some of Amazon’s most competitive fiction markets. It’s currently the 19th most popular book on the retail giant’s competitive Romantic Fantasy list. It’s also number five in the LGBQT+ Fantasy category.

If there’s one place where its influence has been most deeply felt, however, it’s the realm of “cozy fantasy.”

Inspired directly by Legends & Lattes, enthusiastic readers established the CozyFantasy community on Reddit. Since its inception in May 2022, r/CozyFantasy has added more than 5,000 subscribing members. The community sees hundreds of posts  every week from people sharing reviews, looking for recommendations, and eager to chat about their favorite works from the subgenre.

A subgenre that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

“Cozy fantasy is a niche within a niche,” said Nathaniel Webb, the creator and editor of Wyngraf - a magazine dedicated to cozy fantasy. It’s also a niche, he admits, that’s “tricky to pin down.”

Cover art from Wyngraf Volume 1

“Some folks look for low-stakes, slice-of-life stories. Other readers only want stories without violence. But then, many readers are okay with a little darkness as long as it's not too gruesome and leads to a happy ending.”

Webb does see one unifying thread that ties cozy fantasy together, however.

“What it really comes down to is a question,” he said. “Is this a world the reader would want to live in?”

If you’re the sort of reader who wishes the Hobbits never left the Shire and Lord of the Rings was all about birthday parties and pipeweed, cozy fantasy might be the niche for you.

Lighter Fare for Darker Times

While books like Legends & Lattes have served as a beacon of sorts for fans of cozy fantasy, the subgenre’s rise may also owe something to the real world off of the pages.

“[Cozy fantasy has actually] existed for a long time,” said Travis Baldree. “Terry Pratchett… Diana Wynn Jones, and plenty of other authors have written fiction that fits the bill. I think right now, people are just hungering for something that isn't fraught or dire.”

Just looking at the past several years, it’s not hard to see why that might be the case. Millions dead from an ongoing global pandemic. The Trump presidency and the reemergence of fascist movements. The burden of student loan debt and the hopelessness of the housing crisis. Stagnant wages, mounting inflation, and a seemingly endless string of recessions.

People of all sorts are more stressed, less settled, and more uncertain about their futures than they have been in any time of recent history. It should be no surprise that some have been looking for kinder fantasies for comfort.

“When you're young, the world seems very irrational, but you're promised that everything will make sense once you grow up,” commented Nathaniel Webb. “Well, here we are! I've got a job and a house and a kid of my own and the world is still irrational. Maybe for previous generations, the world suddenly made sense when they hit eighteen or twenty-five or thirty or forty or something… I don't think that's the common experience anymore.”

Cozy fantasy provides the comfort of the predictable and the familiar with a fantasy twist. Whether you’re talking about a young woman finding her destiny in a magical moving castle or a muscle-bound Orc finding peace in fresh-brewed coffee, it provides the comfort of familiar, uplifting stories with the spice of fantastic worlds.

At the end of the day, how can you really argue with that?