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? You can also peruse the Kissing Books historical archive.
People will tell you romance is anti-feminist. Others will tell you that romance is definitely, strongly feminist. The weird part is: thanks to the genre’s vast and complicated history, both are sort of right. Paradoxes: such fun.
Academic studies of romance during feminism’s second wave argued that the genre upheld the patriarchy by providing glossy ideals of heterosexual marriage to keep the ladies in line. Fictional happy endings were a panacea, a way of soothing the symptoms without actually curing the disease. This theory would seem to explain the existence of wilder, crueler heroes who are often out-and-out rapists: it is generally taken as given that these were more common in early genre romances like The Flame and the Flower, but the culturally inescapable specter of Christian Grey suggests that time here is a flat and sexually aggressive circle. I’ve definitely read books published in the last few years that seem to take great delight in building up the hero’s strength while tearing down the heroine at every turn, and pretending that this was all kinds of feminist and empowering. These anti-heroes are tamed by love – more or less – or else their heroines learn the virtues of resilience and capitulation to forces larger than themselves. The happily ever after here is that the heroine is permitted to survive.
I loathe reading it, but I can’t pretend those books aren’t part of the genre.
Even foundational romances with strong feminist subtexts can be read in less than revolutionary ways. Pride and Prejudice, genre romance’s ur-mother, is clear on the fundamental helplessness of women’s position in the Regency aristocracy but stops short of fomenting outright rebellion; Elizabeth does not overturn the laws of entailment that prevent her and her sisters from inheriting — she only succeeds in winning the Least Worst Dude so her financial future is assured. It is a personal success but not a regime change.
And then there are the other romances, the subversive, outspoken, definitively feminist ones, which author Courtney Milan recently pointed out have just as lengthy a history within the genre. Persuasion, with its adamant defense of women’s fidelity and rejection of male-penned opinions to the contrary. Romance serials in black-owned American newspapers in the 1920s, resisting the oppressive weight of Jim Crow laws and redlining. (Beverly Jenkins once gave a great RWA keynote about the history of black American romance and guess what? You can watch right here.) Queer romance in all its particular flavors, each with its particular history that sometimes leans into and other times away from mainstream New York-published romance. These books have a long lineage — but it is true that they are often harder to find, suppressed or neglected for reasons that you can guess at but which are far too depressing to list here. I believe these stories have been and are always being written; whether or not they’ve been published in significant numbers is the crux of the matter.
In fact, the more types of romance I read, the more it becomes clear that romance has multiple histories rather than one great shared trunk of origin — historical romance has developed in ways very different from the contemporary, to give one broad example, and this only gets more complicated when you start cross-sectioning for variations in race and class and sexuality and geographic background. Romances depend on either reinforcing or playing against cultural norms of courtship etiquette, so when you move from North America to Niger to the Philippines the novels you find show a lot of variation. Which is great! I love seeing how flexible the genre is, how many millions of ways there are to interpret the One Rule (“a happy ending”). Sometimes I get twitterpated thinking about the great subgenres that haven’t even been invented yet. The future is just full of amazing books!
Ultimately, I am less interested in answering the question Is romance feminist? than I am in asking which romances are feminist, and in what ways, and then wondering where I can get my hands on a copy. The short question is a trap, a bad-faith debate that pretends it can magically produce an Approved Authoritative Opinion On What All These Ladies Are Up To. In short, it’s lazy. The second question, though, requires you to engage with a book on its own terms, and bring your personal thoughts and feelings to bear, and then ask about systems of access (is it available in audio book or with text-to-speech? Are there geographic restrictions on the sale? Was this self-published because some Big Five editor told the author they already had “one of those books” on their list this year?) I’ll leap to defend the genre from slander (as we’ve seen) but my main subject is and always will be the specifics of the text. What does this book do well, what does it reinvent, what does it offer and what does it take away?
This month’s books are all about confronting history, both capital-H-History and our characters’ personal pasts. Sometimes the past is a problem. Other times, it’s only our view of the past that needs to change.
Her Hometown Girl by Lorelei Brown (Riptide Publishing: contemporary f/f):
This is a gorgeous heartbreaker of a book. Cai is a tattoo artist in a California coastal town: long dark hair, tall and edgy, plenty of ink. Adorable, curly-haired, fragile Tansy shows up in her shop in a wedding dress – she’s just caught her fiancée banging the caterer’s (male) assistant, has called off the wedding, and is getting an impulsive lace garter tattooed around her upper calf. The two can’t help but fall into bed – they’re both so needy in different ways, even if they know they’re both struggling to heal – and the sex is playfully kinky and absolutely luscious. That said, much of this book deals with the aftermath of Tansy’s prior relationship, which was intensely abusive, and I will make it clear there’s an on-page rape early in the book. Normally this would send me running for the hills; here, it’s that rare case where the assault is absolutely vital to the story. It makes clear that Tansy’s ex-fiancée was worse than just your stock romance Evil Ex. It makes her struggles to assert herself again so much more meaningful. It really raises the stakes for the kink, since Cai doesn’t know the full extent of what Tansy is struggling with until much later (though she’s figured out the emotional abuse long before). This is a book that knows love doesn’t fix trauma, but recognizes that love is necessary for healing. My only complaint is that the final resolution felt a bit rushed – I’d have liked to have seen more of Cai’s thoughts at the end.
She leans forward another bit and takes a lock of my hair between her fingers. I hate that’s I can’t feel it. I want nerves in my hair so I don’t miss any bit of this woman.
Hamilton’s Battalion by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole (self-published: historical m/f, m/m, and f/f)
There are times when superlatives fail and leave only the swear words to carry the point, so believe me when I tell you: this book is so fucking good. I lost count of the times I laughed; I lost count of the times I cried. I went in with the highest possible expectations and I was still completely poleaxed by how vivid the characters were, how brightly the dialogue sparkled, how every page had a line that sliced right through the heart and made me catch my breath. Three of the strongest voices in historical romance poured heart and soul into these stories and it damn well shows.
But it fed my brain as well as my heart, so here are some less sweary thoughts. Every smash hit sparks a flurry of related material, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is no exception. In addition to all the official secondary material and fan-created works, there are already multiple novels now out depicting Eliza and Alexander’s romance. It’s hard not to feel these inevitably white retellings seriously miss the point: they mistake the subject of the play for the message. Hamilton’s Battalion is a true counterpoint, because like the musical it uses the past not as a changeless artifact, but as a means of reimagining our present and future. These romances are a fierce act of unerasing—Jewish history, queer history, black American history are front and center—and the book does its best to banish the toxic dread that’s kept so many of us frozen in the endless months of this year.
"Andromeda was impulsive, but not wasteful, and something in the way the woman had looked at her screamed loneliness, which was the ultimate waste."
Take the Lead by Alexis Daria (SMP Swerve: contemporary m/f)
Repeat readers will have noticed by now that I love a good high-concept contemporary, and it’s hard to get more high-concept than "lumberjack reality star goes on dancing reality show, falls for pro dancer partner." Fans of The Cutting Edge will want to check out this book for the same hot-spark/long-fuse, opposites-attract, stellar-bickering, manly-man-finds-feminine-art-form-is-actually-super-demanding-and-rewarding kind of catnip. Both Stone and Gina are dealing with some serious family baggage, in addition to the pressures of fame and performance and all the messiness of show business. I was rolling right along, eating up the narrative tension between real and scripted drama, when these words from our hero brought me to a screeching halt: “In the split second that followed, Stone decided not to tell her.” Imagine biting into a huge chocolate chip cookie and finding out those chunks are actually black licorice: the bitter flavor colors everything that follows after. This is a known problem in romance: everyone’s standards for dumpworthy fuck-ups are different, so occasionally you run into a story where no amount of groveling can redeem a character emotionally for you as a reader. (Groveling in romance is very much a technical term.) Gina is a beautifully sympathetic heroine who deserves to have all her dreams come true and I am still just livid that Stone jeopardized that to save himself from being emotionally inconvenienced. Jerk. Though he does do a really gratifying grovel. Whatever. I don’t care. (She said, hitting pre-order on book two.)
Then Gina smiled, and the tension eased. Sometimes he thought her smile was the only real thing in his world.
Stars in Their Eyes by Pema Donyo (Crimson Romance: historical m/f)
Romances set in Lost Generation Paris are hopefully growing less rare, because it’s a severely underused setting for glittery, bittersweet, rain-drenched love stories. This swift and slender read is a second-chance romance between an aspiring novelist and a Chinese-American silent-film actress, very light on the sex and heavy on the anguished pining. The prose has the kind of straightforward clarity I usually associate with inspirational or young adult romances—but every now and again those plain sentences resolve into a metaphor so lovely you find yourself breathless: Their breaths fogged together, emitting human smoke into the night air. My god, you could just die. We see more of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas than we do of Iris’ family back in LA—though Alice’s cameo is pitch-perfect, and I vastly appreciate the way the hero is in awe of Gertrude as a literary genius and a mentor. It’s not a flawless book; there are a few too many petulant dialogues for my taste, and the plot is a bit simple. But ever since I finished it, I have been unable to stop thinking about rain on the Seine, and a lamplight shining, while a Louis Armstrong song plays in the background. If you have access to a windowseat and a stiff cocktail in a jazz club sometime this winter, this book will match both to perfection.
Iris swung their arms together as they walked, casting a “V” shadow against the sidewalk that reminded him of a bird in flight.
Ransom by Julie Garwood (Pocket Books: Scottish historical m/f)
Julie Garwood was writing scrappy northern girls watching their father get betrayed and beheaded long before George R. R. Martin made the big time. Like Arya Stark, Ransom’s heroine Gillian is profoundly scarred and transformed by having witnessed the brutal slaughter of her family and the wreck of her ancestral home; unlike Arya, Gillian does not close herself off emotionally as a result of the trauma. She may not be an assassin but she is loyal, compassionate, thoughtful, and, oh yes, a stone-cold badass. Completely unafraid of physical pain. Oh, these stab wounds on my arm? The ones that are inflamed and infected? They might slow us down on our cross-country escape, so please do cauterize them with Burny Medieval Mystery Potion, and then we’ll be on our way. Yes, do hold down my arm for the treatment, that’s very helpful, thank you. Pardon me while I go scream a little outside to relieve my feelings, and then we can mount right up and head home. While all the big, tough, musclehead Highland warriors stare at her in awe and fear. At one point the villain strikes her in the face, knocking her to the stone floor; Gillian looks up at him, smiles, and the villain has a panic attack from pure existential terror. She isn’t at all superhuman—she suffers fear and impatience and self-doubt and exhaustion—but beneath all that curling hair is a stubborn streak of pure evil that’s a delight to behold. All the best Garwood heroines are a little evil (my favorite, petite violet-eyed Jamie from The Bride, once punches a horse in the face when it tries to bite her) but Gillian is terrifying enough to fit in any grimdark medieval-set fantasy you could name. Especially since Romancelandia’s Scotland is only slightly less of a made-up world than Westeros—less eager to torture its heroines, of course, but still violent, grimy, and rife with betrayal.
Hesitantly, she placed her hand in his and looked up at him. Embarrassed to see that he was still glowering at her, she smiled sweetly and whispered, “If you do not stop glaring at me, I swear I will kick you soundly. Then you will have something to frown about.”
Read with Pride Northwest, November 4:
Fans of LGBTQ romance (ahem! points at self) will be thrilled to know there’s a full free day of events planned at the Central Library. Attending authors include James Brock, Austin Chant, Christine Danse, Seattle Review of Books’ own Nisi Shawl, and Rebekah Weatherspoon. The event opens with a two-hour block for NaNoWriMo writing, then splits into panels for sharing book recommendations, craft tips, and a panel on writing queer romance as a political act in troubled times. There’s also a book fair on the fourth floor, and you can bet I’ll be heading straight there with a full month’s book budget in my eager little hands.
New Column! 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?
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:
New column! 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?
This month’s books show that in Romancelandia, enemies and villains are not precisely the same thing.
An enemy is a useful cog in any genre’s story machine. Opposing goals spark conflict, lead to arguments and struggles, and the straightforward kind of who’s gonna win this drama that so many books and movies and reality shows thrive on. Romance has featured volatile enemies ever since Beatrice and Benedick first traded insults, or since Elizabeth Bennet first told Mr. Darcy he could take his proposal and shove it somewhere thoroughly ungenteel (I paraphrase).
Darcy and Benedick, though, are not our story villains. That role goes to Don John (I love the blank and bitter Keanu Reeves portrayal. Fight me) and Wickham, that charm-vomiting lech. Villains are also useful to the plot – but villains are static, unpleasant, morally repulsive. Unredeemable.
Enemies, though, can be turned into lovers.
There’s a whole romance subgenre for this, called, with laudable clarity, enemies-to-lovers. In other words there is a whole species of book that exists to turn someone you hate into someone you love. Outsider views of mainstream romance often imagine both hero and heroine as idealized archetypes – the too-oft-expressed fear that frumpy housewives will catch Unrealistic Expectations from all those fuschia Fabio hunks assumes that romance heroes are always kind, protective, and sexually generous. On the page, though, romance heroes/heroines are frequently assholes. They scorn. They undermine. They loathe with the fire of a thousand suns.
And then…they learn. They change. They begin to defend each other, in private first and then in public. An enemy might make a mistake, or follow a bad principle, or operate under a misunderstanding – but they will repent this, and eventually find some way to atone. Love and respect blossom in the unlikeliest of places. When done well it feels like a sunrise breaking over the horizon of the heart.
So here’s to the enemies, the nemeses, the soon-to-be-cherished foes. They show us that hatred can be set aside. That opposition and conflict are not the same thing as evil.
They give us hope for one another. It’s what romance does best.
Sidebar by Carsen Taite (Bold Strokes Books: contemporary f/f.)
There was so much to like about this book. Judge Camille Avery is new to the federal bench and looking to make an impression. Her new clerk West Fallon would rather be saving the world but couldn’t break a promise to her mentor to serve the court system for one year. The heroines sparkle both alone and when together – which makes it a complete mystery why the book spends so much time keeping them separated. They honestly spent more time avoiding each other than they did falling in love, which makes the big Grand Gesture at the end ring terribly hollow. That said, this is a stellar example of what romance readers call competence porn, where part of the pleasure is watching the protagonists actually perform their fancy, exciting, difficult jobs.
Other girls dreamed of being president someday, but in her dreams she’d been wearing a black robe and seated beside eight other justices at the highest court in the land. This was just the first step, and she was determined to tread carefully.
Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai (Avon Books: contemporary m/f)
Every so often an already strong author pulls out the stops and presents the world with a masterpiece. Jeannie Lin’s The Jade Temptress, for instance, or Earth Bound by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner. And now Alisha Rai, because this is hands-down the best romance I’ve read all year. Sharp, sexy, funny, and achingly real, it’s the first in a trilogy of romances between two once-close, now-feuding families, the Kanes and the Chandlers, where the weight of secrets is almost Gothic. Everybody has something to hide; everybody has something to lose. Nicholas Chandler is an executive for the grocery chain his family used to co-own with the Kanes – before a fatal crash, a shady business deal, and a suspicious fire shattered the relationship. Nico is a dutiful son, a loving grandson, and a protective older brother 364 days out of the year. That last day belongs to Olivia Kane, his high school love whom he’s never gotten over. Now a successful tattoo artist moving from city to city, Livvy texts him one day a year for the furtive, desperate sex they can’t seem to stop having. But now Livvy’s back to care for her ailing mother, and with a town full of gossips watching, she and Nico will have to try to keep their distance and keep the walls up between their wounded hearts. You can guess how well that works. It’s glorious.
“You’re so damn stubborn, Livs.” “A stubborn marshmallow?” “All marshmallows are stubborn. Nothing that soft could hold its shape unless it was stubborn as hell.”
A Study of Fiber and Demons by Jasmine Gower (Less Than Three Press: fantasy m/m/f)
Academic infighting at a magical university: my absolute favorite thing in any genre. Fantasy romance often has more scope for moral flexibility, less shiningly heroic heroes, and this book takes full advantage of that liberty. Disgraced academic Alim is petty and bitter and more than a little shady – he’s also intelligent and ambitious and lonely, which together nicely temper his obvious faults. The romance is slow to start, but who cares when the bickering is so much fun? This is definitely one of the least optimistic romances I’ve read in some time – people are treacherous and self-serving, academia is corrupt at every level – but watching three uniquely terrible people come to care for each other and decide to be slightly less terrible is surprisingly satisfying. Plus squid-demons and an underwater city. It breaks my heart a little that the title and cover are not more representative of this book’s wit and charm.
“Now don’t be like that,” Alim said, but he didn’t push Liam’s hand away. “You’re my nemesis. What would people say?”
The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare (historical m/f, Avon Books)
A Regency romp is like a glass of champagne: all sparkle and fizz. You can’t live on it, but the best ones make you wish that you could. This book strings a series of implausible events together with snappy dialogue and dazzling chemistry. There are anachronisms, but to trot them out for pedantry’s sake would be like criticizing the Marx Brothers for unrealistic set design. This is a Technicolor romance version of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella smashed together, with a dash of Batman thrown in for shits and giggles. And there are giggles, thanks to Dare’s genius for delightful turns of phrase. The wit makes familiar character types seem new again: the misanthropic, wealthy ducal hero with a scarred face, the open-hearted seamstress heroine with a spine of steel, snarky butlers, plucky urchins. A feel-good, laugh-out-loud confection for when you’re harried and heartsore.
“Do not harbor any illusions that my scars transformed me into a jaded, ill-tempered wretch. I was always – and shall remain – a jaded, ill-tempered wretch.” “Were you always this long-winded, too?”
Indigo by Beverly Jenkins
To read a Beverly Jenkins historical is to see the veil drawn aside and a light shone down onto the past. The celebrated Queen of black American historical romance, she focuses on black heroes and heroines – most in the 19th century, though she also writes contemporaries – who are the architects of their destiny and staunch advocates for their race. Indigo is the story of Hester, a formerly enslaved heroine, and Galen, a wealthy black Creole hero, born free: both work for the Underground Railroad and fight against the shuddering cruelties of the chattel slavery system in 1856 Michigan. It’s common to say that historical romance’s appeal lies in its escapism – but it’s important to ask just who is escaping, and from what. Fantasies of vast aristocratic wealth and social power can exclude readers when those fantasies depend on the subjugation of entire groups of people, as shown in Tyrese L. Colman’s great recent essay on reading Jane Eyre while black. Beverly Jenkins is focused on a whole other kind of escape, both literally and figuratively. She offers readers visions of black community and shared purpose during a time when whitewashed historical narratives would have us believe all black folk lived in bondage, poverty, and fear. She gives respect, tenderness, and love to people who were too often met with violence, derision, and dehumanization. Her stories ring with rich details – Indigo is based on the true story of a free black man who sold himself back into slavery to be with the woman he loved; the book features a cameo by John Brown and shows characters supporting the Free Produce Movement. The question of whether slavery will end by law or by bloodshed looms large. All this plus heart-stopping adventure, swoony sex, and intrigue. Some classics grow rickety with the passage of time: this one only feels more and more vital as the weird time of 2017 weirds on.
The second ever Historical Romance Retreat has a stellar lineup: Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Elizabeth Essex, Jade Lee, and Delilah Marvelle, among others. Spokane’s Davenport Hotel is a uniquely charming venue and a perfect backdrop for expert historical garb – you’ve never seen anything quite like a ballroom full of historical romance fans dressed to the nines. In addition to author meet-and-greets and some truly tempting presentations (History of Medicinal Herbs! The Women of Pugilism! A tasting lecture on the history of port!), the schedule features a movie night, a Regency gambling night, a book fair, the Grand Ball, and an intriguing little calendar item called Absinthe and Abigails. The whole luxurious thing takes place September 27 - October 1.
Further out on the calendar
New column! 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?
Every first Thursday, this column will showcase four new romance releases and one revered classic or foundational influence from years past. All five books will end with a Happily Ever After, or at least a Happy For Now. (HEA and HFN for short — and now you’re in the know.) Many of these romances will be historicals; many will be LGBTQ; many will have a paranormal or SFF setting. Sometimes we’ll have all those things in one book, because I like all those things and romance is generous and full of gifts. Some books will be sugar-sweet with a single delicate kiss at the end; others will be hot enough that just cracking the cover will set off all the smoke alarms in a three-block radius.
No children will be imperilled, no women assaulted simply for shock value. The dogs will always live.
It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve loved this genre all my life. I stole my first romance novel from my mom’s shelf at the age of five – a kinky space opera romp by Johanna Lindsey. Imagine Jupiter Ascending starring Slave Leia and Conan the Barbarian, and you’ll have the general idea. Mom, appalled, took the book away when I was only halfway through. It took me ten pre-internet years to find another copy and get to that happy ending, but I did it. Romance readers: we’re unstoppable.
And I kept going. I read Julie Garwood in high school, Julia Quinn in college, and Jeannie Lin in grad school. I sold my first romance manuscript a year after graduating, watched my publisher go down in flames five years later, and started self-publishing my backlist in between writing longread analyses of individual books. You know, for fun. I have more romances on my shelves than I can possibly ever read, and more ideas for romance novels than I can ever write.
A mystery is at heart about justice, just as a science fiction story is about envisioning the future and fantasy is about imagining worlds profoundly different than the one we inhabit. Romance is the only genre whose formula is specifically and exclusively about people: the characters are strangers at the beginning and lovers at the end.
Romance novels are important because people are important.
And romance novels are at the center of a lot of people’s lives. Last week, on the farther coast, two thousand romance authors and industry professionals gathered for the Romance Writers of America’s annual national conference. This is not a fan event, but a professional one. Authors bought old friends rounds at the bar and swapped marketing tips with editors and self-publishers. They are mostly women, and along with all the craft and business workshops, they talked about feminism, about race and systemic bias in publishing, about disability and queerness and gender and religion. They have a great deal to say about women’s place in history, in literary culture, in the modern world and in the future.
Romance novels are good fun, and romance novels are big business. It’s a fascinating tangle of passion and money and meaning, and I’m so happy to be here to talk about it.
The Ruin of a Rake by Cat Sebastian (Avon Impulse: m/m historical)
Lord Courtenay is appallingly gorgeous, shockingly lewd, and socially outcast. Julian Medlock is upright, prim, and polished within an inch of his life. Each man openly loathes what the other stands for — so it’s a good thing for the romance that they’re both such frauds. This is a story about peeling back layers, about the walls people put up to defend their too-squishy hearts, about taking risks and making mistakes and trying again. Also the best example of sex-scenes-as-character-twist I’ve seen recently. If you like discovering the nurturing side of a Byronic hero, or watching a priggish accountant-type verbally cut someone to ribbons in his lover’s defense, this is your book.
Julian felt about Courtenay’s looks the way radicals thought about money: that it was deeply unfair and problematic for one person to possess such a disproportionate share.
Rogue Desire anthology by Adriana Anders, Dakota Gray, Amy Jo Cousins, Emma Barry, Stacy Agdern, Jane Lee Blair, Ainsley Booth, and Tamsen Parker (self-published: contemporary, various heat levels).
If you’re looking for escapist fluff you won’t find it here — the tone of this resistance-themed anthology is unsubtle, raw, anxious, and fierce by turns. Future historians and critics of romance fiction will make much of the way a certain orange malevolence lurks unnamed in the subtext. At times this book, so viscerally of-the-moment, poked too hard at wounds that are still raw and tender. At other times, though, the sublime gleams through. High points include Jane Lee Blair’s true-hearted pastor hero who cusses with sailor fluency, and Tamsen Parker’s sharp-sweet final story featuring a Jewish heroine whose working title was, no joke, “Hate-Pegging Conservative Josh Lyman.” Anthologies are always useful for testing out new-to-you authors, whether you like your books heavy on the sizzle (Dakota Gray) or populated by policy nerds (Emma Barry, who provided the advance copy. She knows my weaknesses far too well).
There was no excuse not to hold on with both hands when you found love. They’d work the rest out. First, though, they had to get through the sedition.
Haven by Rebekah Weatherspoon (self-published: erotic contemporary).
Rebekah Weatherspoon writes some of the best sex scenes around (and now has the Lambda Award to prove it). Her latest is the story of a smart-mouthed Manhattan fashion buyer and a surly, bearded tree of a mountain man: bonded by a shocking tragedy, they try to work out their tangled emotions through dark, beautifully nasty sex. It’s a terrible idea and everyone knows it, including our hero and heroine. This is BDSM romance for the advanced set, by an absolute mistress of the genre — the sex is certainly kinky, but the real danger is in the feelings. This couple’s story is like watching an avalanche in slow-motion: grand, strangely beautiful, and terrifying. I have read more extreme scenarios (Tiffany Reisz, anyone?) but never had my heart in my mouth quite this much. Readers in search of what slinks in the shadowy corners of the heart (and associated organs) will find this memorable and satisfying; those in search of less-intense fare should check out the candy-coated Sugar Baby novella trilogy or the juicy, queer-centric, pulpy fun of the Vampire Sorority Sisters series. (Rebekah created WOCinRomance to promote books written by women of color; I am both a Patreon supporter and a member of the monthly book club.)
“Push back turning you on?” she says as she slips on her bra. “A little bit.” “I mean, I can make today a living hell for you, you just say the word, Master Shep.”
Hoodwinked Hearts by Ainslie Paton (Carina Press: contemporary)
Everything in this heist romance is dialed up to eleven. Imagine a thousand Leverage fanfics piled up high, covered in glitter and set on fire. Hero Cleve Jones is a master burglar and lifelong conman. Heroine Aria Harp is the one person he’s never lied to: his mentor’s rebellious daughter, a shaved-headed, scorpion-tattooed identity thief (!) with a mile-high chip on her shoulder. The story is brief and fiery and rough as a striking match. The prose is hyperbolic and luxurious with occasional sharp shocks of electric truth. At one point there is an extended theft-and-fart-joke scene that does for flatulence what Wodehouse does for hangovers. Ainslie Paton may well be allergic to literary restraint, but let’s not offer to cure her until she’s written a few more books.
Cleve didn’t duck. He said the words Aria warned him not to say, “I love you,” then he stood there like a stone monument to men too smart to know better, so she swung at him and connected with his jaw.
Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase
This was the first Loretta Chase I read and it upended all my thoughts on what heroines could be/do in a Regency romance.
Even if she’s embroiled in some light scandal, the typical Regency heroine is virginal, earnest, and morally above reproach. Francesca Bonnard is none of those things. Not since her titled husband broke her heart, ruined her name, and divorced her by act of Parliament. Now Francesca is a notorious courtesan in Venice, seducing the crowned heads of the Continent and wearing spectacular jewelry and low-cut gowns to the opera five nights a week. Her first POV line is a showstopper: “Penises. Everywhere.”
Due to the scandal of divorce, Francesca is an exile, and she pines for the glitter and social whirl of London lost. It’s as though she’s grieving the loss of the romance-novel story of her first marriage — the ballrooms, the aristocratic suitor, the dazzling courtship. Francesca is an ex-heroine as much as she is an ex-wife.
Nevertheless, at the novel’s end, Francesca is once again wedded, wealthy, titled, and planning parties for the height of the Season. She is, after all, still the heroine of this romance novel. The text never punishes her for her sins or forces her into a humiliating repentance: instead, everything that British society holds against her (manipulating callow young royals, seducing the hot jewel thief next door, refusing to let men boss her around) helps her get to this second, better HEA. She may be a fallen women, but she’s neither broken nor weak.
It’s downright inspiring.