One of the most interesting things dystopian novels have always tried to show us is how humanity develops in the face of the worst. This gets amped up when we focus on dystopian romance novels, specifically. What sort of sacrifices will a couple have to make? What will that do to a fledgling relationship? And so on.
As well as giving us ready-made action and drama, this kind of setting shapes some of my favourite protagonists to read about: antiheroes and antiheroines. I tend to find morally ambiguous characters much more interesting than those with fixed parameters (though of course, a good/bad opposites pairing has its own awesomeness). The books below make the most of the opportunity to throw off ‘civilised’ constraints provided by the dystopian setting, producing a rich exploration of power and moral codes.
The books below range from the famous to the obscure, YA to adult. What you won’t find are any which explicitly reimagine the post-COVID world. Although plenty of quarantine romances have already been written, and plenty where some sort of pandemic has decimated the world, I find it extremely difficult to read them. They’re just a little too close to home. I’m fine with pre-2020 pandemic novels, where the authors probably assumed they were penning an inventive apocalypse that would never actually happen, but post-2020 ones are a little too real.
Must-Read Dystopian Romances: YA
The Diabolic (Diabolic #1) by S.J. Kincaid
A fantasy masterpiece. In Kincaid’s distant futuristic world, humans have long since abandoned Earth to live on various planets, and resurrected the Roman Empire in the process. Nemesis is a ‘diabolic’, effectively a test-tube baby with enhanced physical abilities, created to love and protect a single human – Sidonia. But when Sidonia and her family are killed by the power-hungry Emperor, Nemesis teams up with his mad nephew Tyrus to get revenge.
The political intrigue of the novel is brilliant. I classify this as a dystopia because it’s set in a world where concepts such as democracy, meritocracy, and justice have long since crumbled away. Instead, the Emperor’s word is law, and abuses perpetrated by the social elite are ignored. Nemesis herself is a wonderful character; though she was created without empathy, it’s a delight to see her slowly develop the capacity to care for others than Sidonia. And of course, the romance aspect is great too.
Angelfall (Penryn & the End of Days #1) by Susan Ee
Welcome to the post-apocalypse. When the angels descended from heaven, the world as Penryn knew it was gone. In its place is a new reality, governed by street gangs and violence. Living with a wheelchair-using younger sister and a mother with schizophrenia, she’s acutely aware of how vulnerable their position is. Then she meets Raffe. He’s an angel whose wings were torn from his back – and he’s the only one who can help Penryn rescue her sister from the remote, merciless angels who took her.
Tragically, Ee hasn’t written any more books since finishing this series (the last book of which, in any case, is a letdown). But the first two are great. Penryn is strong and smart, without being unrealistic. Her slow-burn romance with Raffe is never allowed to supersede her personal goals, but enables her character to grow in different ways.
Blood Red Road (Dust Lands #1) by Moira Young
I read this one in primary school, and even then it struck me as being so well-written and unique that I’ve never forgotten it. Dour Saba is the ‘night’ to her twin brother Lugh’s ‘day’; while he’s the talker, she prefers to lurk in the shadows. They live in the shadow of the long-fallen Wrecker civilisation, eking out an existence among the landfills. When Lugh gets kidnapped, Saba must set out to rescue him – but ends up with her own problems in the process, such as Jack, the charming daredevil who insists on helping her.
This one uses speech interestingly – there are no speech marks, and dialects are conveyed realistically. The second book of the trilogy gets heavy on the angst, and the third one is flatly disappointing, but the first one is absolutely worth a read. Saba is a great antiheroine.
Goddess in the Machine (Goddess in the Machine #1) by Lora Beth Johnson
An incredibly inventive space fantasy. The last thing Andra remembers is being part of the migration away from Earth. But when she wakes up on a distant planet, it’s a thousand years later – and everyone she knows is dead. The world has changed irrevocably: language and culture have mutated to an almost unrecognisable level, and knowledge of science has fallen away, to be replaced by superstition. Zhade, the boy who found her cryogenically frozen in a cave, thinks she’s a goddess. Harnessing his belief, Andra works to get back home to whatever’s left of Earth.
The dystopia element here works quite interestingly. Despite being set far in the future, we’re shown how humanity has in fact regressed to a somewhat medieval mindset. Then, the novel asks, does technology cross the line into being magic?
Disruption (Disruption #1) by Jessica Shirvington
This one is more of a ‘classic’ YA dystopia, with a stratified society along the lines of Ally Condie’s Matched or Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Maggie lives in a world where M-bands, built by the Mercer Corporation, rule every aspect of your life. They’re able to automatically tell how well you ‘match’ with every person you meet, whether that’s as a friend, a short-term romantic partner, or that rarest of unicorns – a ‘true match’. Maggie’s father once worked for the Mercer Corporation. Since his disappearance, however, she’s been working to get him back – and her plan hinges on Quinn Mercer, heir to the empire.
Maggie is a wonderfully manipulative heroine. She’s smart, driven, and ruthless. Quinn comes off as a little more bland in comparison – Maggie is totally the star of the show.
More Than This by Patrick Ness
I first read this book when I was 15, and it’s often hovered at the back of my mind. It features Seth, a gay teenager who should be dead. But when he wakes up after drowning, he finds himself in a strange new deserted place. Where on earth is he? And what happened to him? More, the rules of this new place don’t seem that great…
This is a book which is probably improved by being read without any major knowledge of the plot. Though it is romantic, romance is an element which forms part of Seth’s backstory, rather than necessarily being present while reading.
Shatter Me (Shatter Me #1) by Tahereh Mafi
Mafi’s ultra-popular series features Juliette, a teenaged girl who’s been imprisoned for murder by the shadowy Reestablishment, thanks to her fatal touch. Outside the bars of her cage, the world is being battered by drought and disease. The paucity of survivors has enabled a fascistic regime to take control – and, they realise, Juliette could be one of their weapons.
This one seems to be a bit of a Marmite book: you either love it or hate it. The writing style is flowery, and I did think it bordered on the unreadable at times, but it certainly appears to be up many people’s streets. Warren, the villainous love interest, is another draw.
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
A fever dream of a book. It’s set in Mega City, a dystopian capitalist nightmare where gangs toil away in the hopes of moving from slums to the luxurious Towers. Although violence is everywhere, it’s all perpetrated by women: men are second-class citizens, employed only as labourers or as papi chulos, club dancers.
Nalah is the leader of Las Mal Criadas, a girl gang who’s this close to moving into the Towers. But before they can make it in, Déesse – the charismatic female leader of Mega City – tasks them with seeing off the Ashé Ryders, another gang suspected of encroaching on the city. The journey teaches Nalah a lot about power, responsibility, and herself. It’s a bittersweet book, and like More than This the romance is more ‘what could have been’ than what was, but it’s a memorable read.
Legend (Legend #1) by Marie Lu
The United States is gone and in its place is the Republic, which – a la 1984 – is constantly at war with its neighbours. June was born into the Republic’s ruling circles, making her a prodigy groomed for military success. Meanwhile, Day is a slum-dweller and a wanted criminal. When June’s older brother is murdered, Day is the chief suspect. But meeting him makes June realise that there’s more to the crime than she thinks.
Must-Read Dystopian Romances: Adult
Swallow It Down by Addison Cain
Cain is notoriously poor at finishing series; only one of her many series has actually been completed, and even then the ending was left open, so she could continue the characters’ storyline in a sequel series. This – plus the length of time she leaves in between installments, and their high cost:length ratio – means I’ve stopped recommending many of her books. However, this particular novel is a standalone, and it fits the dystopian romance bill in a deliciously creepy way.
In Cain’s post-apocalyptic world, some unnamed moron of a US President started a nuclear war that’s devastated the landscape. Women are in short supply, many having been sexually assaulted and murdered by the gangs of roving, lawless men. Enter Eugenia. She was essentially sold into sexual slavery by her companion, and is now the property of Aaron, a man who’s carved out a little niche of relative peace on an abandoned cruise ship. To keep his community going, however, he effectively runs a prostitution ring. Men toil in exchange for sex with the ship’s women; the women in turn will only obtain their freedom once they’ve had enough sex to pay off their debts.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of dark – even demoralising – themes in the novel. Although it is a romance, it’s heavily coloured by the bleakness of the surrounding dystopia.
Land of the Beautiful Dead by R. Lee Smith
This one is incredibly unique, and one of my favourite books. Don’t let its length (over 200k words, I think) put you off.
Years ago, Azrael – lord of death – rose to take over the world. Absolutely immortal, he also has the power of reviving the dead, turning them into zombies. Articulate and elegant zombies, but zombies all the same, subject to his utter control. Now he lives in his walled territory of Haven with his dead servants and a select group of humans. Outside the walls, the rest of humanity is tearing itself to pieces. Lan – determined, desperate, and with nothing left to lose – smuggles herself inside Haven. Though she becomes merely one of Azrael’s many mistresses, her impact on his existence ends up being unforeseeable.
Magic Bites (Kate Daniels #1) by Ilona Andrews
This series really needs no introduction. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Atlanta where magic wars with technology for supremacy. Through it all, Kate Daniels – mercenary, magic-user, and snark dispenser – navigates the chaos which is her life.
Tamed (The Condemned #4) by Alison Aimes
Although it’s the fourth in a series, I don’t think you absolutely need to have read the preceding installments in order to enjoy this one. It features Grif, an ‘interrogator’ who’s one of the Condemned – a group of criminals sentenced to serve out their terms on a prison planet. It’s a brutal place, with little to eat, and nothing to do except fight with each other. Though he and his friends are slowly making themselves a liveable community, they’re aware of how precarious it is. That’s where Nayla comes in. She’s a member of a hostile tribe, and Grif has been tasked with extracting her secrets from her…
Beyond Control (Beyond #2) by Kit Rocha
Dallas is the king of Sector Four, a slice of territory known for both hedonism and its thriving liquor business. Lex is his right-hand woman – but can she be more?
I remember this series making waves years ago, for its gritty depictions of a gangland-type dystopia and plentiful sex. Though Lex and Dallas are the main couple, Lex also hooks up with a woman, and there are some ménage scenes.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
This story is set in the summer of 2022 – a parallel 2022 where horrific levels of pollution and global crises have resulted in a dystopian world with rising sea levels. Seven years ago, the ship Atargatis was sent out to the Mariana Trench by entertainment conglomerate Imagine Studios to look for mermaids. Then all communications are lost with the ship, and it’s discovered adrift at sea many months later. Everybody on board has disappeared. The only thing recoverable is a scrap of film showing the crew members being torn to pieces by terrifying part-humanoid, part-fish creatures.
Victoria, sister of a woman who vanished on that ship, is determined to uncover the truth. So she accepts the offer to travel on the Melusine, which is being sent out to see exactly what happened. Also on the ship is Olivia, an autistic lesbian with whom Victoria strikes up a relationship that seems touchingly innocent amongst the horror and gore in the rest of the novel.
If you want more, here’s a list of some other dystopian novels!