I’ve always loved stories about otherworldly creatures, from Bengali folk tales about the shakchunni – a witch who hides in trees and traps unsuspecting women if their hair is kept loose after dark – to layered narratives like the Arabian Nights, filled with magical creatures. That I would grow up to be someone who loves fantasy didn’t surprise anyone, but for a long time, my idea of fantasy books was very limited. They mostly featured cis, white, straight characters – and as long as those were good stories, I rarely complained. It wasn’t until I started reading more widely and more deliberately that I realized that there is so much more out there to discover.
Like a lot of life-changing discoveries, I stumbled upon my first queer fantasy romance story accidentally. My first brush with queer characters in fantasy began with Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series. While the central focus of the series is the pairing between a straight couple, Clary and Jace, it was queer characters like Alec and Magnus (#Malec) who later became more important to me than the main couple. Soon I began to read romance fantasy books where the main characters belonged to the LGBTQ+ umbrella in one way or another and found a long list of rewarding titles – all of which, unfortunately, could not make it on this list for brevity’s sake.
Some of my early ventures of queer fantasy romance included Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, a subversive take on the Chosen One story, and Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. One of the things I have always loved about fantasy romance books is that they play with reality, include social commentary, make you squeal over the main couple (is this just me?) and of course, transport you to a different, immersive world. I hope these titles do the same while also offering fresh perspectives.
Note: Some of the following books deal with content that may be triggering for readers. I’ve tried to include content warnings where I could, but please do your research before picking one of these up.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
If you go looking for stories that feature queer fantasy or queer romances, it won’t be long before you stumble upon a recommendation for The Song of Achilles – and for good reason. Retelling Homer’s The Iliad, Madeline Miller writes the story of Greek demigod Achilles and Patroclus, following them through childhood to the Trojan War. The book follows their bond, and we watch the two go from strangers, then friends, and eventually to lovers. If the heartfelt romance isn’t good enough bait, this sweeping tale features gods and goddesses, sea nymphs and centaurs, treacherous kings, ominous prophecies, and a quest for glory that fantasy lovers will find familiar.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut novel reimagines the founding of the Ming Dynasty. It is 1345, and China is under Mongol rule. Meanwhile, two siblings of the Zhu family are given opposing fates: the eighth son, Zhu Chongba, is destined for greatness, while the second daughter is prophesied to nothingness. When Zhu Chongba is killed in an attack, his sister assumes his identity and enters a monastery. Her journey begins as she soon joins a rebel army fighting against the Mongols. A historical epic fantasy series, this story features a genderqueer lesbian main character, political intrigue, war, and of course, a compelling story that will have you waiting for the sequel.
CW: war themes, murder, death, violence, child murder (off-page), starvation, gender dysphoria, misgendering, internalized homophobia, ableism, amputation, misogyny
Timekeeper by Tara Sim
Tara Sim creates an alternate Victorian world where time is a lot more substantial than we’re used to. Clock towers around the world ensure that time moves at a steady pace, and mechanics look after the clock towers. When two o’clock goes missing at a tower in a small town, Danny, a young but talented mechanic, is sent to fix the problem. Danny himself is riddled with fears in the aftermath of an accident that still haunts him. This small assignment sets the story in motion, as Danny soon meets someone unexpected, and finds himself entangled in a plot where everything is not as it seems. Timekeeper is a beautiful YA fantasy about time, grief, loneliness, and two boys falling in love.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Laid-back and fun-loving Kiem, Prince Royal of Iskat, an icy and forbidding planet, has never involved himself in politics. In a bid to keep their alliances intact, his grandmother the emperor asks Kiem to marry Prince Jainan of Thea – a planet that sounds like post-apocalyptic Earth. The hitch? Jainan also happens to be the widow of Kiem’s cousin, Taam. Kiem and Jainan wrangle their way to a marriage, but just when they think they’re in the clear, Jainan becomes a suspect for Taam’s murder, throwing the alliance into jeopardy and unearthing buried secrets. Winter’s Orbit is a sci-fi fantasy novel, a romance, and a political drama all wrapped in one. It is written in gorgeous prose with a diverse set of characters, with a world that was both beautiful and immersive.
CW: domestic abuse
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Captive princess Malini grows weaker day by day in the magical prison her brother locked her in. Her only hope arrives in the form of her maidservant Priya, whose forbidden power holds the key to both their freedoms. Malini wants to take the throne and stop the dictatorship her brother is running and Priya is looking for her family. Told in shifting perspectives, The Jasmine Throne explores themes of misogyny and imperialism in an India-inspired world while also delivering a thoughtful romance.
CW: misogyny, murder, violence, homophobia (including internalized), suicidal ideation, immolation, self-mutilation, familial abuse, body horror, drug use, fire
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
Reading The Watchmaker of Filigree Street feels like drinking a hot cup of tea on a cold, dreary day. Set in Victorian London, the story begins when our protagonist, Thaniel Steepleton, comes home to find a mysterious pocket watch. Months later, the watch saves his life. Grateful but uncomprehending, Thaniel goes looking for the watchmaker and finds Keita Mori. A Japanese immigrant, Mori spends his time creating whimsical and magical inventions in his shop. Thaniel and Mori soon find companionship and solace in each other, when the arrival of an unexpected guest comes along and threatens to break their fragile happiness. If you want a slow-paced novel that takes its time letting the reader explore a new world and all the relationships in it, while filling you with both wonder and joy, pick this one up.
CW: bomb blasts, violence, murder
The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass
Ryan Douglass’s debut YA novel follows Jake Livingston, one of the only Black kids at his high school. If his daily life wasn’t difficult enough, fraught with microaggressions, Jake is also set apart by his ability to see the dead. Most of the time he catches the last moments of the deceased, playing in loops. When he encounters Sawyer, the ghost of a teen who shot and killed six kids at his school before taking his own life, this changes. Soon bodies start turning up in Jake’s neighborhood and his entire world is threatened. A creepy, fast-paced thriller that tackles issues such as homophobia, racism, bullying, and abuse, The Taking of Jake Livingston is a dark fantasy novel that ends too soon, with the added bonus of a slow-burn romance on the side.
CW: abuse, sexual assault, school shooting, homophobia, racism, bullying
Spellbound by Allie Therin
Set in a reimagined 1920s New York, Allie Therin’s world is filled with magical artifacts called relics. The story follows artifact collector Arthur Kenzie and scruffy paranormal Rory Flannigan. Rory has the ability to look into a relic’s past, thereby unlocking the secret to activating one. Arthur may not have magic, but he makes up for it in spades with his kindness and charm. When a dangerous relic washes ashore in the city, danger follows on its heels, throwing Rory and Arthur together in their attempts to stop it from falling into the wrong hands. If you want a feel-good romance novel that makes you root for its characters while peppering in a little social commentary, Spellbound will not let you down.
Downtime by Tamara Allen
When FBI Agent Morgan Nash gets stuck in Victorian London due to a spell gone unexpectedly right, he is not happy. Snarky, tired, and perhaps lonelier than he realizes, Morgan is a grouch. He grouches in disbelief when he’s pulled back through time, then grouches some more when he realizes that the 19th century isn’t so great with heating, or electricity, or gay men (the last one, to be fair, is atrocious). When Ezra, one of the party who cast the spell – apologetic, kindly, accommodating Ezra – confesses that he can see the dead, Morgan decides he’s a conman and is, on top of being unhappy, highly suspicious. Then Morgan stumbles upon a newspaper article about Jack the Ripper and soon gets caught up trying to catch him. Meanwhile, Ezra’s abilities seem more and more convincing, and Morgan soon finds that he’s not only at risk of losing his sanity by believing him, but also his heart. If you want a historical fantasy romance with a grumpy/sunshine slow-burn romance, a murder mystery, and found family themes, Downtime has you covered.
CW: violence, gruesome murders, sexual abuse, mentions of suicidal ideations
Lore & Lust by Karla Nicole
You can’t expect me to write this list without including vampires, although Karla Nicole’s vampires are probably the most cultured and intellectual ones I’ve read about in a while. Lore & Lust follows the story of Haruka Hirano, a vampire recluse, who is drawn out by the demands of British society when he’s asked to witness a bonding ceremony. Along with him, another vampire has been invited – Nino Bianchi. When Bianchi doesn’t respond to the Duke’s invitations, Haruka goes to see him, hoping to convince him to attend. What begins as an easy friendship between Haruka and Nino slowly turns into something more. Nicole promises us a slow-burn romance and Lore & Lust does not disappoint. If you want a thoughtful vampire romance where characters’ cultural backgrounds are as much a part of their story alongside their vampirism, you’re in luck.
The Wolf at the Door by Charlie Adhara
Someone on Twitter called the protagonist of this book, Cooper Dayton, a cross between a national treasure and a natural disaster, and they couldn’t have been more apt. In the first book of a series, former FBI agent Cooper gets paired with sexy werewolf Oliver Park as they investigate a series of murders. Charlie Adhara writes a neat mystery thriller alongside a slow-burn romance (can you tell I’m a fan of these?). The Wolf at the Door has banter, two agents discreetly checking each other out, and social commentary on police brutality. The cherry on top of this narrative, however, is Cooper’s character. Cooper is a bumbling mess wrapped around a core of honest decency who will make you cringe even as you root for him.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness follows Genry Ai, a human who is sent to planet Winter to convince its inhabitants, the Gethen, to join the Ekumen, an alliance between worlds in space. The story begins two years into his stay, when his political status – and life – are endangered because of the shifting powers among the government. His only ally may be Estraven, an advisor to the king. Written as a journal, with shifting perspectives, Genry and Estraven tell a story. A story that tells us if Genry is successful in his mission, a story about the Gethen – their way of life, their government, their philosophies – a story about friendship and a love story between two people, alien to each other in the beginning, who come together as they can. Ursula K. Le Guin’s book is a thoughtful exploration of gender, sexuality, friendship, and love.
CW: war, labor camps, shooting, suicide, incest, violence
Ever since the pandemic began, I’ve taken shelter by diving into comforting reads. Some of these books challenged me to think about our world and all the different people in it, while other titles felt like a sweet escape away from our increasingly troubling reality. Whether you’re on the hunt for something mentally stimulating, or looking for something to make you swoon, I hope you find something on this list to do one, the other, or both for you.