Every month, Olivia Waite pulls back the covers, revealing the very best in new, and classic, romance. We're extending a hand to you. Won't you take it? And if you're still not sated, there's always the archives.
Romance’s greatest strength can also be its greatest weakness.
Romance’s purpose is to map in detail the intimate geography of the human heart. The genre invites us to peer deeply into a hero and/or heroine’s secret world — even when the characters are familiar types (the spunky ingenue, the troubled aristocrat) every romance heavily prioritizes the interiority of its protagonists, in all their messy, muddled glory.
This becomes a weakness when an author forgets to also think about their characters as participants in systems. About power, both personal and political. About money and status and violence and community.
The best romances, obviously, deal with both. Persuasion is a delicate second-chance romance about two people who feel things deeply but privately; it is also an extended meditation on the question of precisely how much weight we should give others’ opinions when steering the course of our lives. Alyssa Cole’s A Hope Divided shows us two brave souls sharing secrets in the attic of a single house; it also touches on Civil War politics, Stoic philosophy, interracial family dynamics, and the ethics of war and resistance.
But then there are the other romances. Stories where an author seems to let herself get too dazzled by the intimacy she’s building between her characters, to the point where she forgets about external systems of power and privilege — including her own — and goes off-track into a dense forest full of thorns and brambles and howling wolves.
This is where you get the Nazi heroes.
I mean, fuck, let’s be clear: this is the best-case scenario for why we see this particular shade of awful — the kind where the hero’s “not really one of them” even though he’s very highly placed within a brutal, fascist regime. Because the author somehow fails to appreciate the difference between a bad boy and a bad man. As with the infamous Nazi inspirational romance from two years ago — yeah, you heard me — this new book is a failure of empathy on a colossal level: redeeming its Nazi-turned-Stasi hero (WTF WTF WTF) requires you to gloss over violence inflicted on every other inhabitant of this fictional world. NOT TO MENTION real-life readers, for some of whom this experience is not fictional.
This hero’s HEA is only (barely) imaginable if you limit your gaze to one made-up couple and never, ever, ever look up.
I do not want to get sidetracked here. Nazi romances are definitely A Problem, but for the purposes of this column they are not The Only Problem. They are the most flagrant symptoms of a broader malady that’s frustrated me for some time. Blistering critique of a single bad book is vital, but so is trying to figure out why one specific type of bad book keeps showing up and crapping in our coffee.
It’s impossible not to see a kinship between the above books and many romances that less immediately advertise their terribleness: books where the heroes sexually assault the heroines (but is forgiven when he grovels later), books that gloss over domestic violence and abusive behavior (he just wants what’s best for her, and she doesn’t know what she wants really), books that attempt to grapple with racism by centering a white character’s feelings about it (ditto homophobia and transphobia), books where the hero’s a straight-up kidnapper or murderer and the text expects us to believe this is NBD because he just feels so bad about it later, you guys.
All these books have the same flaw: they expect us to focus completely on the inner feelings of the specific hero — it’s nearly always the hero who gets a license to be terrible — and ignore emotional or physical harm done to anyone else. It asks us to sympathize with the powerful because deep down, aren’t they the real victims?
Reviewer Jennifer Porter recently wrote an incisive thread about what she termed the Problematic Ever After — HEAs that she couldn’t believe in, for reasons varying from irredeemable jerkishness to a severe, sustained imbalance in the concluding relationship. She states that while she can’t believe in these books, she likes that they force her to think. Romance readership is full of supposedly frivolous comment threads about popular characters (like this one) that are actually lengthy and nuanced conversations about forgiveness, redemption, ethics, and trust. (Extremely Chidi voice.) We talk about consent (both enthusiastic and dubious), and realism, and hope, and regret, and have very complex, mostly respectful debates about rape fantasies and survivorship and tokenism and representation. All the time. You know, for fun.
And then another “edgy romance” comes along to claim it’s the hot fascists who most deserve empathy. Or slaveowners. Or stalkers. That this is somehow a daring and iconoclastic position, instead of the simple fetishization of power. And when many of us voice our horror at this amoral position, we’re told we’re stifling creativity or free expression. The truth is, romance’s warm empathic glow becomes a weaponized laser when it’s too narrowly focused. It’s an ethical error people keep choosing to make, and almost always for the amoral (white, straight, male, cis, able-bodied) hero’s benefit.
We believe in people, it seems — but we believe in some people more than others.
Am I saying you shouldn’t write romance with fascists as heroes? Yes I fucking am. What’s wrong with you?
But more importantly, I’m telling you — telling all us authors — to really stop and think about not just what you’re writing, but what you’re publishing. What are you spending time and thought and marketing money on? What is taking up real-world or digital shelf space?
Romance is never a neutral genre. When you designate someone as a hero or heroine in a romance, you are making an ethical claim. This is what distinguishes it from porn — yes, even those super-kinky erotic romances where every scene’s an endless orgasmfest have an ethical framework built in. Porn is about someone being turned on. Romance is about who people turn into.
What choices is your book asking us to support on its characters’ behalf?
Again, it’s about systems. Right now in this country we are seeing a surge in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim rhetoric. We see white supremacy openly tied to the violent power of the state. Our neighbors are being deported, our children are being shot in appalling numbers, and our government hastens to cut medical coverage, especially for disabled Americans who depend on it the most. Flint still doesn’t have clean water, Puerto Rico doesn’t have electricity, and indigenous women are going missing and being murdered at frightening rates.
To look at all this, then to decide that now is the time your self-pubbed fascist hero could really drum up some buzz and rake in the royalties — this is a selfish, selfish choice at best. At worst, it’s outright malicious.
I’m not putting limits on art. Authors, write whatever messy morality you feel like — so long as you’re only poisoning your own sandbox. But when it comes time to publish it, promote it, and profit from something this questionable, you should expect a more rigorous critique.
It’s not about what you’re writing. It’s about what you’re taking money for. That’s what shows us whose side you’re really on.
Tamsen Parker has the canniest timing in all of romance, because just as social media was exploding about the Olympics—and especially the super-duper platonic friends who just kiss each other on the neck and curl passionately around one another to romantic anthems gold-medal magic of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir—she released not one, but two books in her Snow and Ice Games series. On the Edge of Scandal features a hockey coach struggling with chronic pain and his star player struggling with a douchebag boyfriend. (One of these troubles is more easily eliminated than the other.) Coach/player romances aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (especially after the recent Nassar trial) and this book has to navigate carefully to make it through the minefield of squick. Like the mentor/mentee relationship in the previous Seduction on the Slopes (m/m, and hilarious), this is accomplished in no small part by what I’ve come to call Parker’s Chill Feminist Bro Hero Voice: Ash’s inner narration is self-deprecating, casually curse-filled, and humorous—a somewhat hapless but never heartless masculinity that values protectiveness over possessiveness. More than any other author, her heroes feel like dudes you could be friends with in real life. This one didn’t quite stick the landing, but it was still a solid read.
Fire on the Ice, on the other hand, is like taking a bite of what you thought was a caper and learning it’s a pepper, one of the absurdly hot monster kind, and it got where it was today by beating up all the lesser peppers until it absorbed all the capsaicin the entire pepper universe could produce. Which is to say: it’s flaming hot, and agonizing, and definitely an experience you want to talk about with others. Short-track speedskater Blaze Bellamy is a fire-haired, libidinous bruiser who lives to be in the spotlight. Figure skater Maisey Harper is known as the Canadian Ice Princess: cold and aloof and outwardly prim. Inwardly and in-bed-wardly she’s bossy and creative and strong and more than a match for the other woman. The two have hooked up before, so it’s not surprising that the sex is quick to get really, really filthy (in the best way)—but this is a romance, so even amazing sex isn’t what’s going to get us to the end. No, this is the story about two people getting their feelings all tangled up; it’s about fear and vulnerability and hope and betrayal. My only objection is that it felt like there were one or two scenes missing—say, a moment where Blaze overhears a voicemail from Maisey’s parents and confronts how emotionally cruel they’ve been to her, or a moment where Maisey meets someone, anyone else in Blaze’s life. (Blaze doesn’t appear to have friends on the page, which is an odd thing now I come to think of it.) Sometimes the end of a romance feels like less like a conclusion and more like the beginning of a new book, one which the characters are starting to write together. This is definitely one of those.
I’m not going to make her sorry for giving up control for a while. Never make someone sorry for something you’d like to do again.
Queen of leflaria by Effie Calvin (NineStar Press: fantasy f/f):
I have a terrible weakness for a scoundrel with heart of gold, and most especially scoundrelly princesses in lesbian fantasy novels. This particular book gets off to a slow start (so many fantasy god names, and we only just got here!) but the pace picks up as soon as Crown Princess Adale of Ieflaria stomps grumpily onto the page with a hangover and grass stains on her silver gown. Adale is being pressured to marry Esofi, princess of Rhodia, who was betrothed to Adale’s older brother until the crown prince’s recent death. Esofi brings an entourage of battlemages to help with Ieflaria’s current dragon problem, and her arrival naturally stirs up long-simmering political tensions and conspiracies. Adale has nothing against Esofi (whose blonde, plump prettiness appeals to her) but believes herself completely incapable of being the kind of queen her country needs. Her late brother’s shadow looms large and brings on a torrent of endearing self-doubt.
Gentle, devout Esofi, meanwhile, may look like “a fat little rosebud,” but that’s only until she gets angry enough to send a bolt of raw magic through your face with her bare hands. Because she’s a badass dragonslayer. Who is very aware of her responsibilities to her adopted people, even though she yearns to be loved for who she is and not just how useful she can be.
Reader, I loved them both so much by the end.
The book admittedly is not without flaws—the prose is at times painfully direct, which makes it skew toward YA even though it’s marketed as adult—but what it does well is so rare and to be treasured that I have zero qualms recommending it. I almost put it aside in the early chapters, and I shudder at the near-miss, because by the halfway point I couldn’t put it down. Remember last month’s Old Skool story with dragons that I felt was almost something special? This new one is the real deal: a queer-femme-centric, trans-inclusive, lushly realized fantasy romance with nonbinary forms of aristocratic and military address, political intrigue, dragons, political intrigue among dragons, and manipulative gods. And a stupidly gorgeous cover. Do not miss this one.
“What about your parents?” asked Adale.
Esofi swallowed visibly. “My father is a good man,” she said at last. “Our people love him for his patience and understanding.”
“And your mother?”
“Oh, they love her too,” said Esofi in a brittle tone. “Everyone loves her.”
“I am sorry,” whispered Adale.
Dance with Me by Alexis Daria (SMP Swerve: contemporary m/f):
In the first book of this dynamic series we saw dance reality show judge Dimitri and star professional dancer Natasha (both secondary characters) hooking up, and arguing, and hooking up some more. We thought they were just dicking around. We thought it was only physical. But oh, my friends, we were wrong.
Dimitri’s crazy about Natasha. Has been from the moment they met. He’s tried to play things casual until he’s sure of how she feels, which is a dumb but classic move that usually leaves a hero looking arrogant and unfeeling. And Natasha? Has no idea how he feels. She wants Dimitri desperately—can’t stay away from him—but she imagines herself as alone and unloveable so thoroughly that it blinds her to any other possibility for her future.
The emotional suspense this generates is exquisite. This is the kind of romance where the characters’ yearning becomes an ache in the reader’s gut, where you occasionally have to put the book down to yell incoherent things at the wall because there are too many feelings to stay locked silently inside your body.
Both Dimitri and Natasha are driven, talented, ambitious, and hard-working. They’re both immigrants, and have parallel but not identical struggles around how they’ve dealt with that experience. Family, creativity, friendship, when to ask for help and when you need to stand up and get things done on your own—this book has a lot going on, but it never feels like too much. It has real-life complications and nuance but is never muddy: there’s no one easy answer to a serious problem, but there are a lot of ways to figure out new solutions and do a little bit better than you did before. This book believes hope is a process, a muscle you can develop with practice, and that’s something we all need at this moment in time.
I enjoyed the first book, but this one? I fell utterly in love. Head over heels. And doesn’t it lift your heart when an author’s second book is even better than their first? I can’t wait to see where this author goes next. I’m along for anything she’s got planned.
Hope. That was it. That was the thing fluttering in her chest like a bird trying to fight free from a cage.”
Second Sight by Amanda Quick (Jove Books, historical paranormal m/f):
It can be hard, sometimes, for readers who like their genres all to happen at once. You can find mystery, and romance, and mystery romances (more commonly known as romantic suspense); you can find fantasy, and romance, and fantasy romances, and romances with fantasy elements (or paranormal romances—don’t get me started on the distinctions between these subgenres or we’ll be here all day). Less common is to find one book or series that blends all these elements together. Especially in a historical setting, which is my absolute favorite. So it’s no wonder I got hooked badly by Amanda Quick’s Arcane Society series, where psychically talented Victorians hunt killers and thieves and megalomaniacal alchemists through the gaslit alleys of London. These books can be a bit like Mercedes Lackey’s books—unsubtle wish fulfillment tales, where you can see all the gears at work while you read—but it’s so much fun watching everything come together that the lack of subtlety matters less than that ultimate reader question: What’s going to happen next?
Second Sight, the first book, is still my favorite of the series on account of the heroine, Venetia. She’s a professional photographer in an era when the process is new and the chemicals volatile so poisonings and explosions are common accidents. She can also see auras, which is one reason her photographs always appear to capture the essence of their subjects. She is hired by rich eccentric Gabriel Jones to photograph the art collection at his country manor—and while she’s there, she decides to let him seduce her because she’s attracted to him and has never had the chance to be seduced before. Turns out, sex is fun! But they don’t get to go for a second round because thieves begin attacking and Gabriel hustles Venetia out a secret passage to safety. Later, Venetia reads about Gabriel’s death that night, and mourns the loss of someone so intelligent, kind, and hot. (She could tell a lot of this from his aura, you see, even though they’d only just met.)
So she borrows his last name.
It’s a sound business decision: an unmarried young woman would have a much harder time setting up a photography studio than a widow, so Venetia Milton becomes Mrs. Venetia Jones, whose late, lamented husband died tragically and left her the money to start her business. Her photos become an instant fad among the aristocracy, who are eager to purchase portraits in this mysterious new medium.
And then Gabriel Jones shows up, very much alive, and very interested to know why Venetia is going about town posing as his widow. Also, the thieves who interrupted that first night are still out there, they’ve graduated to murder, and they have their sights set on Venetia.
This is where the book really starts to have fun. There are aristocrats whose external beauty does not mask the terrible sins in their aura. There are adorable scenes with Venetia’s matchmaking family, who decide Gabriel is Just The Thing She Needs. There are murders by shadowy figures in fog-laced streets, pursued by Gabriel’s psychic tracking gifts, and a fantastic scene where Venetia dons an impeccably tailored men’s suit and takes Gabriel to the drag kings’ club for a fun night out. It’s a book that throws in everything but the kitchen sink, but it stays anchored in the emotional connection between two strong, dazzling characters. Great for chill winter days, when it feels like the world will never be green again.
He was the man she had been waiting for, the lover who was destined to ruin her. But first she wanted to photograph him.