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.