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There is a type of romance that revels in workless wealth and luxury (see: most dukes and so many category romances set in the Greek islands). There’s another kind that makes the performance of labor central to the plot and the romantic arc. And in this second type, obviously, romance heroes and heroines never have incidental jobs.
Part of this is just fiction’s general conceit. Everything in a novel means something, or else you’d leave it out. And a romance might not always show that high-powered CEO setting the agenda for the board meeting, or give you pages of the governess heroine planning Young Lady Plot Moppet’s curriculum. But even the most sketched-in career is going to have narrative heft, because in a work-based romance novel what someone does tells you who they are. Labor is character, and character is destiny.
That super-rich CEO is going to have some of those sharp edges ground down. The governess heroine is absolutely going to repair some deep-seated rift in her employer’s household – solving the mystery of his first wife’s disappearance, or bridging an emotional gulf between a parent and a child. Cupcake bakers, Navy SEALS, lawyers, journalists, librarians, police and fire services, professional athletes, tattoo artists, publicists, and astronauts: these jobs have cultural and therefore narrative capital. Speculative subgenres are not exempt either with their space pirates, monster hunters, witches, and psychics.
The fantasy in these romances is not just a fulfilling sexual relationship. The fantasy is that the work you do matters, and will have a meaningful positive impact on the world. Your dreams of success are not trivial. They are not selfish. It might take sacrifice, but you’re hard-working and determined. You’ll eventually come up with the great marketing idea that will turn your failing seaside hotel into the latest trendy vacation spot, while the cutthroat but distractingly hot real estate developer will stop trying to pressure you to sell and will instead turn his energy to rehabilitating the town’s waterfront boardwalk, creating jobs for all those nosy local folks who gossiped about the two of you every time you had a big public spat outside the ice cream shop. You weren’t thinking about saving the world, or leading the revolution. For most of the book, you might have been barely scraping by. But by the end, you will be invaluable to your corner of society. You will be loved, yes, but also you will be known. Your efforts and talents will be recognized. You will mean something.
Royally Yours by Everly James (self-published: f/f contemporary)
Cute lesbian princess romance where they meet in an urban farming co-op. Which may not be quite what it appears (where is all that tuition money going?). It’s one of those books that throws a bit of everything into the mix – melodrama, mystery, misunderstandings – so it’s lucky that the prose is as airy and delicate as candyfloss. Princess Melody of Madrana is trying to escape the rigid rules of her tyrannical royal mother. Farm-raised Ellie loves art, gardening, and growing things but loves New York City more than the small upstate town she grew up in. Hints of real trouble cut the sweetness somewhat, and the author has a gift for cozy descriptions that make you wish all these places and people were real so you could go visit. The plot is a bit of a meander, but otherwise this is an fun, fluffy confection to keep handy for getting through flu season and stressful family dinners.
Melody pasted on a smile. She had an idea brewing that made her fingers tingle. It had fallen so neatly into her head that it was like a book toppling from the highest shelf. But she couldn’t let on that she had a plan.
Spectred Isle by KJ Charles (self-published: m/m historical fantasy)
If you’re a fan of historical fantasy, I can tell you this story’s tone is the exact midpoint between Jonathan Strange and Sorcerer to the Crown. If you aren’t a fan of historical fantasy, this is a marvelous place to start. Ex-WWI soldier and archaeologist Saul Lazenby is disgraced in the eyes of his government and disowned by his family. The only person who’ll hire him is a crackpot amateur occultist with a head full of magical nonsense, who drags him around London looking for odd legends and implausible incidents. At least it’s a living – until actual magical things start happening, and actual magician Randolph Glyde starts turning up in all the wrong places, looking cynical and sinful. Randolph is from a long line of English magicians, guardians of the old ways and servants of the country – not the government, but the land itself, which grants Green Men like Randolph significant powers and arcane responsibilities. One of which is to keep bumbling neophytes like Saul from meddling in magics they do not understand. Naturally he has to take an interest in the man. Surely it’s nothing to do with Saul’s haunted eyes or perfect top lip. Watching two guarded men trade arch Lost Generation banter while edging closer and closer to romance is deeply satisfying; the book’s wry, anguished, darkly witty prose will make it perfect for the coming rains of autumn.
“If only more of his work involved sinewy, sunburned, sensitive men, rather than people who lacked the common decency to die properly.”
Acting on Impulse by Mia Sosa (HarperCollins: contemporary m/f)
This romance turns on the thematic tension between acting-meaning-performance and acting-meaning-doing. Carter Stone is sick of being typecast as the forgettable lead in television romcoms; he wants a serious part, one that will earn him respect and A-list status. Tori Alvarez is a physical trainer who hopes to start her own studio with a workout program accessible to bodies of all shapes, abilities, and income levels. She’s also reeling from a very public breakup with a very ambitious jerk, who played up their relationship in the media but constantly nitpicked her in private. Whipping rising star Carter into shape for a meaty role in a high-profile film would be great for business, but she doesn’t want her personal life anywhere near the limelight. Both are guarded in distinctly different ways: Tori is prickly and suspicious, while Carter uses affable charm as a defensive mechanism to keep people distracted from his real vulnerabilities. The book is an emotional roller coaster – tender wounds are poked at, families cause drama, careers take hits and recover – but the thing about roller coasters is the good ones have to have a lot of carefully laid out, sturdy structure underneath. What I’m trying to say is that the book feels both effortless and intricate, in the way of truly great genre offerings (Die Hard, Jurassic Park, Clueless) and I have very giddy expectations for the next in the series.
I make my living convincing audiences that love at first sight exists. Turns out I’m a shitty actor because there’s not much pretending involved. It happens. Because I’m pretty sure I’m experiencing it right now.
Highland Dragon Warrior by Isabel Cooper (Sourcebooks: historical fantasy m/f).
Isabel Cooper’s romances have a Lovecraftian edge – most notably her glorious debut No Proper Lady, a time-traveling tentacle-monster miracle best described as “Terminator 2 meets My Fair Lady.” Even without the tentacles, there’s always the sense that something sinister is muttering about blood in the shadows. This new book kicks off a medieval prequel series to Cooper’s Victorian-set Highland Dragon shifter books, which now that I write it out sounds like the most Peak Romance thing you can make without having to send a check to Colin Firth. The year is 1304 and our Scottish dragons are fighting hard in a doomed rebellion to cast off their recent conquest by the English king. By the time Jewish alchemist heroine Sophia is explaining to semi-immortal dragon shifter hero Cathal why the deer he just killed is not kosher, I was in love. This is a tender, slow-burn romance in a dark and eldritch world – more Gothic than grimdark, thankfully. The magic is delightfully medieval: herblore, sympathetic influences, planetary alignments, dream worlds. The plot is a trifle too straightforward but the richness of the atmosphere and the gentle power of the romance more than makes up for it. Bonus points for a big, burly, warrior hero who is also kind, careful of his strength, unsure of his leadership skills, and unshakeable in his belief in the heroine’s intellect.
“You swim in time,” she said with no bitterness and only a trace of envy. “We…we ration it and if we don’t count each drop, that’s only because we can’t.”
The Husband Test by Betina Krahn
Medieval-set romance novels can flirt more directly with fairy tales than most other subgenres. Betina Krahn’s lively and charming story about know-it-all novice nun Eloise and a blustery earl named Peril certainly has a lot of Grimm-approved elements: a curse that needs breaking, a realm in decline, a witch in the woods, an evil villain, plenty of daring rescues. But one moment in particular illustrates the way romance can subvert these much-repeated tropes even as it feeds on them. Eloise is an unruly, hands-on novice whose constant attempts to “improve” the convent have the abbess at her wits’ end. To get a little peace of mind, she contrives to send Eloise as a “husband judge” to the Earl of Whitmore, whose estate is in rough shape and in need of a “bride of virtue” to break a spurned woman’s curse. Eloise will judge the earl’s fitness as a marital prospect, and the abbess will then send him a bride from one of the high-born maidens the convent educates and protects. Eloise and Peril take an instant dislike to one another – but gradually, as they work to improve the estate and the lives of its tenants, they come to recognize the other’s value. Eloise sends a letter approving the earl’s character, and the abbess sends back a small wooden box with the message: “The earl’s bride is here.” Eloise opens it to find a mirror within – meaning, of course, that she is to marry the earl. It’s a classic riddle-solution, and any fairy tale version of this story would have ended right here.
In The Husband Test, this moment comes precisely at the halfway mark. Instead of being relieved and delighted – Eloise and Peril have already made out a couple times, and they’re clearly irresistibly into one another – our heroine is horrified. She’s spent her whole life among the nuns, expected to take her final vows at the end of this mission, and now they’re telling her she’s unfit. That they don’t want her. She is being cast out by the only family she’s ever known, and it is shattering. We know she’ll come to love her husband, and we know she’ll overcome the curse and end up beloved and blissful in her new role as lady of the manor. But that’s half a book away: right now we must witness Eloise mourn for the dream she’s cherished for a lifetime. Nisi Shawl in a recent column said that stories find their driving tension in “the gap between ‘What is’ and ‘What must be’” – and The Husband Test certainly thrives in that space.
Emerald City Writers’ Conference: October 12–14: I have a deep, abiding affection for the Emerald City Writers’ Conference: it was my first conference as a baby romance writer, and I’ve served on the committee a few times in past years. The conference is organized by the Greater Seattle chapter of the Romance Writers of America and while the workshops have a strong romance bent, the craft and techniques being taught are by no means limited to romance writers. I’m particularly excited about this year’s list of research-track workshops (“Poisoning – Accidentally or On Purpose”) but I know I’ll end up somewhere unexpected and useful. This con has a national reputation for being friendly, welcoming, and valuable for writers at all levels; it is geared toward professional writers but opens free to the public at 6 p.m. on Saturday night for the Passport to Romance Reader Appreciation Event (spoiler: I’m one of the authors attending!), which is essentially a cocktail party for readers and authors alike. And we romance folks love a good cocktail party.
Further out on the calendar: