Sunday, February 27, 2011

Not Your Mother's Romance Novels

by Laurie K.

When I think of romance novels, I think of heaving bosoms, unlikely declarations of love and throbbing purple… prose.  I imagine some hopelessly romanticized settings that in reality weren’t what any sane person would call romantic – a pirate ship, or a plantation before the Civil War, or, you know, any time in Ireland pretty much ever.  (I once read a romance that had all three, which I thought was a little over the top.)  They always struck me as, well, silly, and silly puts me off.

I have always stuck to epic fantasy, science fiction and, as it emerged as a genre, urban fantasy.  Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, romance crept into my favorite settings.  And I like it.

Romance snuck up on me.   I read everything on my Kindle, so I never have a chance to see the most obvious indication of a romance novel – its cover.  I picked up Lord of the Fading Lands by C.L. Wilson because someone had told me it was the start of a great epic fantasy series. Immediately I was consumed by the tragic, beautiful Fey, the sinister Eld, and the capricious humans of Celieria.  About halfway through the book, a love scene happened and I felt a jolt of realization. This was a romance novel!   But it was too late; I was all in.  War was coming to the Fading Lands and the Fey were so few.  Would Celieria help us or hinder us? 

While I was hungrily downloading the second and third books of the series, I pondered my fate and wondered how this could have happened.  It was actually pretty simple:  Lord of the Fading Lands was a beautifully written, intricately crafted epic fantasy and a romance novel.  I hadn’t known such a thing existed. 

Another thing that puts me off about romance novels is the insistence on bodice-ripping titles.  It is my life-long habit to run like hell from titles like Her Most Insidious Desire or With Bated Breath (I just made those up, but they’re pretty good, huh?). This is how I almost missed out on the excellent Psy-Changeling series from Nalini Singh.  The first book is titled Slave to Sensation.   With much trepidation, I picked up the Kindle sample.

It quickly became apparent that I was reading a science fiction novel.  This was the near future on an alternate Earth.  Powerful psionicists, a race called the Psy, were locked into an emotionless existence by their government and any dissenters were ‘rehabilitated’ into lobotomized vegetables.  An oppressed minority of born shapeshifters were attempting to gain more political and economic clout against the dominant Psy.  The much-disadvantaged humans were fighting a quiet, yet increasingly desperate insurgency against both factions.  

The wonderful world building, a tense political environment, and the interesting characters won me over.  The romance angle was beautifully incorporated, not at the expense of the setting but as an adjunct to it.  It was as natural as breathing.  I devoured all nine novels in a period of a few weeks, and am eagerly anticipating the tenth.

After willfully breaking my no-romance stance with the Psy-Changeling series, I dove headlong into paranormal romance.  I quickly devoured J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series.  It’s a dark and gritty urban fantasy about a race of vampires and the undead nemesis that is stalking them to extinction.  The books chronicle the lives of the last few members of Black Dagger Brotherhood, males specifically bred to defend the vampire race.  I have to admit that it’s a lot more violent than I imagined a paranormal romance would be.  Needless to say, I loved it.  Where some authors would back off from the all-too-graphic consequences of having a completely conscienceless bad guy, Ward never does.  (Again, loved it.)  It takes the characters into deep, complicated storylines that have lasting consequences throughout the entire series.

I have to admit that there have been a few books that got put back down for being bodice-rippers in disguise.  There’s a heavy demand for that, it’s just not something I demand.  I’ll never be into the old school romance novels, but I’m a sucker for the beautifully crafted new school.  If you like your happily-ever-afters a little (or a lot) darker than the norm, these are the books for you. 

Which paranormal romance has you caught up?
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  1. Meljean Brook's Iron Seas series - so far there is Iron Duke and a short, Here There Be Monsters, in Burning Up. Steampunk romance. Loved it.

    I have Slave to Sensation in my bookpile to read.

  2. I also recommend the Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs. And this is a good reminder that I'm about three books behind in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series.

  3. One good thing that may come out of the ebook "revolution" is that these books can be easily cross-listed as "romance" AND "fantasy" or whatever else they happen to be. I get a little weary of walking back and forth between the romance and sff sections, trying to figure out where each bookstore has decided my favorite authors should be pigeonholed.

    Nalini Singh is fantastic! I also like Jeaniene Frost.

  4. Yes, the Kindle has really made me re-evaluate my reading choices. When you can get a sample of anything and see if you like it, you're not as bound to judge by section, cover and/or title as you might have been before. I probably go through 20 samples a month, and I'd say I buy about 70% of the books I sample.