This is a guest post from Jessica Avery. Jessica grew up in the frosty, but not quite frozen, woods of Western Maine, where for seven or so chilly months of the year there’s not much to do but read. She cut her reading teeth on fantasy and romance, and not much has changed in the last decade or so. Though she did take her reading to the professional level, by adding a B.A. and an M.A. in English. Still, it’s a long road from earning an English degree to getting to use an English degree. So until she can find her niche in the book world, Jessica spends her work time surfing an administrative desk at a small local college in her home state, and her free time putting a few of her critical analysis skills to work by blogging professionally about romance and fantasy novels. Follow her on Twitter @JtheBookworm.
Everyone has their favorite type of book to reach for on long winter nights. For me, winter is the season when I always rotate a greater number of fantasy books into my usual romance reading schedule. I let big, epic stories set in vast worlds of magic carry me through to springtime. But one thing I noticed earlier this year, as I started to step up my fantasy intake, was that I couldn’t seem the find the right balance. Either there wasn’t enough magic in my romance, or there wasn’t enough flirting in my fantasy. Lucky for me, a fellow reader brought the fantasy romance subgenre to my attention.
Somehow I’d let it slip past me, unnoticed! Revoke my reading badge, because fantasy romance series are not even a new phenomenon. There have been a number scattered throughout the history of the romance genre. They have, however, seen an upsurgence in interest and in production in the last few years. Veronica Scott of USA Today’s Happily Ever After blog suggested back in 2015 that the popularity of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Game of Thrones might be the driving influence behind this new wave of novels. Two years later I’m pretty sure this still holds true. The result of that lasting influence is a small but vibrant subgenre of single-title length romance novels which “include the high stakes, the magic, the swordplay, the ancient civilizations, kings, queens, wizards, sorceresses … and the Happily Ever After romance endings.” (Scott)
That this mashup of genres should work so well or be so popular with readers of romance is unsurprising. After all, both fantasy and romance are fundamentally similar. For one, both genres traditionally insist upon an optimistic outcome and a hopeful world view.
Now is the point where someone goes “Wait. Has she not read the A Song of Ice and Fire series?” Well actually, no, I haven’t. It’s true, there are facets of the fantasy genre, like the grimdark trend generally attributed to G.R.R.M’s series, that challenge the idea that good always triumphs. But much of the fantasy that I’ve seen published in recent years suggests that, as a whole, the genre still adheres to the rule of “Good Conquers Evil.” Just like the romance genre is governed by the rule of “Love Conquers All.”
Fantasy and romance novels also share very similar plot structures, based around the idea of “The Quest.” In fantasy, one or more protagonists set out on a journey during which they contend with external forces as well as their own internal character developments until finally evil is defeated and our heroes move forward into a bright new future that promises happiness (even if only for now). In the romance, two protagonists set off on a journey of a different sort, during which they also contend with both external and internal forces as they progress towards love and the promise of the genre-requisite happily ever after (or, again, happy at least for now).
These parallels of purpose and form mean that romance and fantasy are able to meld together in the fantasy romance, promising both magical, vividly imagined new worlds and epic romance. You want kissing and dragon slaying? Fantasy romance can do that. It intersects with paranormal romance. It intersects at times with historical romance. It can overlap with suspense romance too! This is all thanks to the fantasy genre’s varied themes, many of which dovetail neatly with the subgenres of romance. Political intrigue, assassinations, complex magic systems, mythical creatures and a two people falling madly in love?
Fantasy Romance: You want it, we’ve got it.**
(**Not their official slogan)
A Promise of Fire for example, is the first book in Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles, and in it soothsayer Catalia “Cat” Fisa finds herself going toe-to-toe with warlord Griffin Sinta, all while trying to duck her own God’s-touched destiny. Life’s not easy when you’re the Kingmaker, “the woman who divines the truth through lies”—especially not when ham-fisted warriors suddenly decide that you’re a perfectly travel-sized magical weapon. And when said warrior is as attractive as he is insufferable? Well, tune in for realm-conquering and magical hijinks at 11.
Jasminda, the heroine of the first book in L. Penelope’s Earthsinger Chronicles, Song of Blood and Stone is also hiding out from her own identity. You thought being a human lie-detector sounded rough, try being cast out into a “land where cold whispers of invasion and war linger on the wind” because your magical abilities scare the neighbors back home. Add to the mix an isolated cabin, a very handsome captive spy named Jack, a perilous journey, and the mystery of “The Queen Who Sleeps.” The result is a fantasy romance with a core of political and social intrigue—because come on, who doesn’t love a spy love story?
Also, I would like to point out that Penelope’s series is only one of many fabulous fantasy romance options from writers of color. The website WOCIR (Women of Color In Romance) has a whole fantasy tag, for interested parties! I chose to feature Penelope’s Song of Blood and Stone because—exciting!—the book is getting a new, hardcover release from St. Martin’s Press this May. And you can bet it’s high on my spring shopping list.
Of the three series starter books in this post, C.L. Wilson’s The Winter King, which is first in her Weathermages of Mystral series, is the most traditionally a romance in terms of form. But that doesn’t mean it’s short on fantasy elements. Khamsin is a rebellious princess whose father the king of Summer (well Summerlea, technically, but you get the idea) marries her to the King of Winter as punishment. Punishment’s name is actually Wynter, and here we return to the warlord model again, because he’s Mr. Conquer 2014. You can also throw in a dark magical power slowly turning his heart to ice (I see your Snow Queen allusion, Wilson), “dangerous forces” gathering in the distance, inter-kingdom struggles, and all the awkward strife of an arranged marriage.
With a diverse array of plots, character types, magical elements, and romantic tropes, fantasy romance is the ideal grab bag for people like me who want to live, sleep, and breathe the intersection where romance meets fantasy. But for those of you who are romance readers OR fantasy readers, and looking to broaden your genre horizons I hope this list will be a jumping-off point. That’s one thing about those long nights of winter reading: they’re just perfect for trying new things!