I love digging into the hazy, grey areas of the romance genre. Because the genre is so large, and because it both overlaps with other genres, and possesses sub-genres that overlap with each other, there are many areas where definitions get vague and borders begin to blur. There are a number of things that we don’t have clear cut definitions for in the genre, and dark romance is a good example. No two discussions I’ve seen of the category ever seem to reach the same consensus as to what dark romance books are, and where they belong. Ultimately the category falls into an awkward area between romance, erotica, and horror. And while I’d love to see an actual horror romance novel some day, no that’s not exactly what a dark romance is, either. So what is a dark romance?
What is dark romance?
To get technical, dark romance books are not romances in the strictest sense of the word. Depending on who you ask, they can be anything from a standard romance novel with dark tones or themes (as with something like Eve Silver’s Dark Gothic series), to a black sheep cousin of New Adult, to a subset of Erotic Romance that indulges itself in all things frightening and taboo.
I think the latter is the most accurate, since the works you find categorized as dark romance are much more akin to erotica than they are to romance. When ever I work with this category I keep thinking of a quote from Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren, about how “Romance is sex plus love.” and “Erotica is sex plus fear.” Anyone who has spent time delving into dark romance can tell you that fear is what makes the category run. At its heart, dark romance is a catalog of our deepest fears. Just in the dark romance books on this list alone you’ll find:
- Dubious (very) consent or straight up non-consent
- Rape fantasies
- Sex trafficking and/or sexual slavery
- BDSM based plot lines with extremely limited boundaries
- Violence, which can be sexual or non-sexual and, depending on the author, extreme
- Heroes and/or heroines who are assassins, mob members, serial killers, etc.
- Complex revenge narratives
- Any relationship that can be construed as taboo
- Faustian bargains with people with dubious morals, or no morals.
Now, looking at the list above you might be thinking: Jessica…what the heck is wrong with you? Why would you even want to read a book that features any of those things? Let alone more than one of them. Why would anyone?
To which, really, I have only one reply: Catharsis; beautiful, beautiful catharsis that reaches deep down and, for a short while, scrapes up all the things a reader is afraid of, lays them out on a page, and allows the reader to face them in absolute safety. As often as they need. As often as they want. Dark romance, in the true nature of fiction that allows us to experience things beyond our scope of knowing, is for many readers and emotional release valve.
Maybe for others it’s just the titillation of the taboo. Certainly dark romance has enough critics, whose main argument is that it fetishizes violence against women, among other things. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it’s an opinion and everyone has one. Whatever the reason that readers keep reading, this category has been going strong for years now, and shows little sign of stopping.
A final note: This list is shorter than I originally intended. Though there are many dark romance books out there, there is a noticeable dearth of authors of color writing in this category. At some point a discussion needs to be had about privilege, and who gets to feel safe reading and writing these books given their subject matter. But this isn’t the place to have that conversation, nor am I the one qualified to lead it.
Less Intense Dark Romances
Let’s start in the shallow end of the pool, for those of you who haven’t read dark romance before and aren’t sure how much of a game of chicken you want to play with your sensibilities.
The Siren by Tiffany Reisz
Calling this a “less intense” dark romance is stretching the truth a bit. This series is very dark at times and very emotional at all times. But I’m putting it in this portion of the list because, as dark as Reisz goes in this series, she balances it in equal parts with humor and light. The series features many couples but focuses mainly around three central figures: Nora, a dominatrix and erotica writer; her friend Kingsley, an obnoxiously rich club owner who basically runs Manhattan’s BDSM scene; and her lover Søren, a Jesuit priest and the acknowledged ruler of the underground kingdom that Kingsley created for him.
Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon
Weatherspoon loves to play with themes of dominance and submission in her books. She has at least one other series besides Beards & Bondage (of which Haven is the first book) that revolves around the same. Haven is about a camping trip gone seriously awry, which pitches a young woman on the run into the arms of a solitary nature photographer who’s not keen on company. Drawn together by their shared experience the night of the incident, the two get involved in an intense relationship, hindered by their own dark memories.
Asking for It by Lilah Pace
Vivienne Charles fantasizes about being taken by force, a desire that frightens and shames her as a survivor of sexual assault. Jonah Marks has his own fantasies about force, and when he approaches Vivienne and suggests a mutually beneficial relationship that will satisfy both their fantasies, they enter into a relationship that is more than a little twisted. But when emotions and past secrets catch up with them, everything starts to unravel. I loved Asking for It because Pace’s discussion of rape fantasies, speaking through the voice of Vivienne’s therapist, was unapologetically honest.
Comfort Object by Annabel Joseph
Nell is an out-of-work professional sub in need of a job. Jeremy Gray is a jaded film star in need of a “personal assistant”. With no job and no home, Nell takes Jeremy up on his offer in exchange for the promise of a better future: comply with all this demands, and he’ll pay for her to finish college and start a new life. Despite their imbalance of power, the situation actually works out fairly well for these two; things are complicated but not particularly dark or broken. At least until a stalker begins to threaten their secret life together.
Degradation by Stylo Fantôme
This first book in Fantôme’s Kane trilogy is rough. Though not as dark as books further down this list, it’s definitely an emotional, sadomasochistic mess. When Tatum O’Shea was 18, she officially screwed up her life. One life-changing encounter with her sister’s scary boyfriend was all it took. Seven years later she runs into Jameson Kane again. He’s just as much of a selfish, soulless monster, and the connection between them is just as real. She calls him Satan, but when Jameson offers to pay for the pleasure of her company Tate doesn’t turn him down. She’s determined to prove that she’s grown up enough now to play games with the devil. Even if it destroys her.
Truly Twisted Dark Romances
Okay, hang on to something, because this is where Alice really falls down the rabbit hole. Some of these books are so dark they have stuck to me like scotch tape.
Tears of Tess by Pepper Winters
Tess Snow’s life is amazing. She’s got one more semester left of school, a loving boyfriend, and a bright future full of happiness. Until her romantic trip to Mexico with said boyfriend turns into a nightmare when Tess is stolen. Drugged, transported, and ultimately sold, Tess’s life is obliterated in the blink of an eye. And the man in whose hands she finds herself, the man who calls himself only Q? He’s an enigmatic monster with dark secrets and an even darker soul. Tears is the first in Winters’s Monster in the Dark series, and the books just get darker as they go along people.
Captive in the Dark by C.J. Roberts
This freaking series. I swear. This is the first of three books in the Dark Duet series, and it is something. Caleb is a man intent on revenge. His own past has been one of slavery and mistreatment, so he has no qualms about inflicting the same on someone else for the sake of his vengeance. Olivia Ruiz is just a beautiful, easy target. It’s nothing personal. But when Caleb finds himself irresistibly attracted to his captive, all those carefully laid plans for revenge slowly start to come apart.
Twist Me by Anna Zaires
Nora Leston has been stolen, and she now belongs to a man who is both beautiful and ruthless, tender and cruel. He controls her life entirely and she belongs to him. To Julian. She doesn’t know why he took her, or who he really is, but she can’t help but be drawn to the darkness inside of him. As you may have noticed by now, captivity is a recurring theme in a lot of these novels, because it allows the authors to explore complex concepts like Stockholm Syndrome and consent. Or lack thereof.
Born Sinner by S.L. Jennings
So I couldn’t leave the freaking scary angels off this list because come on, where’s the fun in that? Eden was bred and born for a chance to unleash death and destruction on the world. Her thoughts, her words, everything she is was created for evil. Which is probably why the group that call themselves the Se7en tried to kill her. When the leader of the Se7en took her prisoner, he told her it was simply a matter of killing one to save a million. The only just solution. So why can’t he bring himself to kill her? Why does Eden find herself in the arms of the man who was meant to kill her, as he tries to save her instead?
Killing Sarai by J.A. Redmerski
This book is the start of a lengthy series, and the first two books are basically one woman’s bloodthirsty revenge parade. It’s…very satisfying, to say the least. Sarai can’t remember what it’s like to live a normal life. She’s been held captive in the compound of a notorious drug lord for nine years, and all she knows is violence and death. That’s all Victor’s ever known as well, and how he came to be a skilled, sought after assassin who never lets anything come before his business. Until Sarai. When he finds her stowing away in his car after a visit to the complex, he can’t make himself return her to her captor. Then end up on the run together, growing closer even as their enemies draw near.
Pennies by Pepper Winters
I almost didn’t put this one on the list. As far as dark and twisty goes, this book take the cake. Never before have I read a book where I was just one giant cringe for most of the 300 pages. I think I actually screamed at my Kindle near the end. This is not a book about a stolen girl falling in love with her master. Pim’s master is freaking terrifying, and he gets his creepy rocks off terrorizing Pim. The romantic lead in the Dollar series is Elder, the man who rescues her…if you can really call it a rescue. I honestly didn’t think Winters could get darker than her Indebted series but this was intense.
Fear Me by B.B. Reid
Remember that thing I said about revenge plots being a recurring feature in dark romances? Lake Monroe is a senior in High School, ands she should be worrying about the things that normal seniors about. Not the fact that her childhood tormentor of 10 years, Kieran Masters, is going to be released from juvi and rejoining the class for their final year. Not the fact that she’s the one who got him sent away, and soon he’s going to be free to do something about it.
Comfort Food by Kitty Thomas
You will never look at chicken soup the same, so if that’s your favorite food skip this one. Seriously. Emily Vargas is being held captive. She doesn’t know why, or what her captor wants. All she knows is that, like it or not, that beautiful monster is slowly conditioning her to be whatever it is he wants her to be. He’s the only one she sees, he feeds her by hand every day, and he’s slowly breaking down her resolve. This one made my brain go “yikes.” So, you know, make sure you pick it up if you’re looking for dark and twisty.
Wanderlust by Skye Warren
Oh, Wanderlust. Just thinking about this book makes me want to swear. Wanderlust is the story of Evie, who is finally going to get away from her life and see the world. A plan which lasts for exactly one whole day, until she’s snatched from her motel the first night. Hunter is a trucker, who apparently can’t tell the difference between a human being and a shiny object you might pick up and put in your pocket. He sticks Evie in the back of his big rig, sets off across the country, and even as she’s plotting her escape Evie finds herself drawn to the weird relationship forming between her and Hunter.
Ruthless People by J.J. McAvoy
Need more mob in your dark romance? Here you go. Ruthless People follows the marriage of Melody Giovanni and Liam Callahan; a marriage arranged by their fathers to end generations of bloodshed between the Irish and the Italians. They were both bred to rule, both bred to be ruthless masters of all they survey. So neither is about to let the other master them. But like it or not, with so many people eager for them to fail and let their kingdom crumble, they have no choice but to work together and keep up appearances.
Raw by Belle Aurora
Like a lot of dark romances, Raw is one of those divisive books that everyone either loves or hates (just look at the reviews and you’ll see what I mean). Lexi has her life in order. Despite her rough start in life, she’s got her education, a good job, and she’s got friends who understand what it’s like to come from the backside of nothing. Lexi also has a stalker. Every time she turns around he’s there. He’s always watching her. Get ready to double-up triple-up, because this book ends badly and Lexi and her stalker don’t get their resolution until book three of the series. (Book two is about a different couple entirely, so technically you could skip it if you’re not a series order purist.)
Monster in His Eyes by J.M. Darhower
The synopsis for this novel begins: “Ignazio Vitale is not a good man.” And really what else do you need to know? Darhower’s romantic suspense, the first in the Monster in His Eyes series, is about college student Karissa and suspiciously-rich-with-no-known-profession Naz who turns up in her life one day. And he wants her. And she’s drawn to him. And you just know it’s going to be a disaster because the power imbalance is so ridiculously skewed. Sure enough, Naz is basically made of dark and dangerous secrets that put Karissa’s life in danger.
Crow by A. Zavarelli
Last one. Don’t quit on me now. Mackenzie’s best friend Talia is missing, and Mack knows the Irish mob that Talia was tangled up in is to blame. So Mack goes looking, intending to prove that they’re behind the disappearance and, if she can’t find Talia alive, to get her revenge. Her plan seemed simple on the surface, until she caught the eye of Lachlan Crow. Next in line to rule, Lachlan doesn’t believe a single lie that comes out of Mack’s mouth, and she’s in serious danger of having her cover blown. Too bad they have some serious chemistry between them, because that’s the last thing Mack needs when he’s all that is standing between her and her plans.
If dark romance books don’t seem like they’re going to be your cup of tea you can always check out this list of Must-Read Contemporary Romances. Or, if you’re leaning more towards the erotic side of things but without the content warnings, you can hop over to this great list of Must-Read Erotic Fiction Novels.