Kissing Books: They can't both win, but we do

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.

It is a consummate romance plot move to pit the two main characters against one another.

If the heroine runs a small vintage hotel, the hero will certainly be the manager for the new corporate chain trying to put her out of business. If one heroine is a chaos goddess, the other is a paladin whose job is to banish chaos deities back to the astral plane (see below!). In my head I call this trope They Can’t Both Win and it is fantastic narrative glue: it connects our two leads long enough for the romance to begin to blossom, then puts the happy ending in suspense once they’ve fallen for one another.

They Can’t Both Win presents a zero-sum game, but it’s a rare story that lets one character completely triumph over the other. (You’ve Got Mail being a notorious example.) More often, what ends up happening is that one or both characters realize that there’s a third way to move forward: an idea sparks that lets them work together toward a shared goal, or they realize that their beliefs have been flawed and correcting them opens up new possibilities. Someone realizes there’s something more important at stake—hearts or home or happiness—and the plot goes from a cutthroat competition to something more creative and ultimately much more fulfilling.

Because a zero-sum game is still a game, and games have to have rules—rules with premises we can reconfigure, or edicts we can rebel against should we find it necessary. This is the job I’ve been hired to do only holds until there’s something more valuable than wages at stake. The twist in this plot arc requires careful balancing by an author. You need the initial conflict to be substantial, lest the reader think the main characters are unduly obsessing over something petty. But you also need there to be a loophole—not an obvious one, not a trite, rules-lawyering, bargain-basement Shyamalan kind of twist, but a real sense of something being unlocked and released. Freed. You want to find the kind of pulse-pounding, imaginative solution that appears at the end of a good mystery, when the reader sucks in a gasp of surprise and then breathes out a long, admiring Of course…

Humans crave structure, but we loathe being restricted. The same goes for love, and especially for romance: its expression between individuals depends on patterns and rituals and repetition (courtship, dating, proposals, weddings, the phrase I love you) even as the experience of being in love causes people to want to tear down boundaries we put up around other parts of human experience (race, gender, class, wealth, health, family, society, geography). Romance is both personal, because it is a feeling, and social, because it involves two (or more) people. It’s an inherent paradox. Perhaps this is why so many romances work to subvert expectations, but not too much, because otherwise we lose the cultural heft and meaning of love as a social force. We want to transform, but not to break. To shift the world a little, not to burn it down. This is not to say that romance cannot be revolutionary—merely that romance is far more likely to celebrate the kind of revolution that leaves women alive and happy and better off than they were at the beginning.

This is a particularly feminine-coded kind of dance: be pretty, but not too pretty. Smart but not too smart, and so on. No wonder romance novels so often frustrate academic feminists: who can make grand and authoritative pronouncements about such a fickle, multi-vocal genre, which continually contradicts itself on every level and seems impossible to pin down as either feminist or anti-feminist? Why, it’s almost like every romance novel has a different take on what it means to be in love! It’s almost like being forced to choose whether or not a single romance novel is feminist or anti-feminist is some kind of, I don’t know, zero-sum game!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from romance novels, it’s this: we don’t always have to play by the rules laid down for us. Feminism is not a finite resource, to be rationed out in careful and doctor-approved doses. We’ve got to learn to be comfortable with a little chaos. We have to take chances, and make changes, and occasionally push back against all the rules regulations that keep us from moving forward into a better future. Romance is there to tell us that we can take those risks, and be rewarded for it.

Okay, maybe we can make some grand pronouncements.

This month’s books feature a host of couples resisting the rules that would limit them to misery: rules laid down by governments, religions, society, and the characters’ own pasts. Some of their releases are more revolutionary than others. All of them get us a little closer to happiness. And isn’t that what we need, heading into a brand new year?

Recent Romances:

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole (Avon Impulse: contemporary f/bi f):

First I have to break out the all-caps: this is AVON’S FIRST EVER F/F ROMANCE! I have searched and scoured old catalogue listings and asked everyone who’s in a position to know, and yep, this is a brand-new, big-time step forward from a major romance publisher into a woefully neglected and thirsty market—and it’s f/f written by a black author, no less, with two gorgeous black queer women on the gorgeous cover. Avon isn’t stopping at this one story either: there’s a few more pairs of heroines coming down the line (including—good news!—an upcoming three-book f/f historical series from yours truly). There are going to be a ton of happy readers feeling like they’ve found the gold at the end of the romance rainbow.

I am so excited to review this, and not just for the social and historical value. Because oh, my friends, this book is so beautiful! Even more beautiful than I was expecting going in, and I always have high hopes for Alyssa Cole’s work. Likotsi Adelele was a standout side character in A Princess in Theory and it’s so gratifying to see her take her turn the spotlight, in her impeccably tailored suits and starched white shirts. I could write a whole thesis about her shoes alone. Fabiola offers a wonderful foil, both for her pin-up femme aesthetic and for the way she pivots and dodges verbally and emotionally, in contrast to Likotsi’s measured, carefully considered progress. Structurally we flash back and forth between two timelines, winter and spring, and this refracted perspective adds an aura of mystery and opulence like the bevels in an antique windowpane. The voice is insightful but playful, surprising but clear, with all the power and the effortless depth of good poetry—even old words feel new and shiny, the rhythm of dialogue and description a little slantwise from the mundane prose of the ordinary world. The setting is a New Yorker’s New York: good global cuisine, old buildings repurposed for modern generations, popup art installations, vintage carousels, and hidden pocket parks. It felt like there was a new delight on every page: a perfect sentence, a brilliant metaphor, a heartbreaking realization, the rekindling of a hope that seemed to be past reviving. It has haunted me since finishing, and it’s all I can do not to flip right back to the first page and start it all over again for the second time. This book is a marvel—it is a delectable amuse-bouche made of love and hope and healing—it is a perfect example of the romance author’s art of building whole worlds out of subjective, un-pin-downable feelings. Don’t let this one slip by you.

Likotsi’s dark brown eyes were warm with desire and with love, even if it was an impulsive love. If they both felt it, if they’d both been stomped by it, how was it different from love that grew slowly and with careful cultivation? Maybe this love was a beanstalk, sprouting up overnight and reaching for the sky.

Dance All Night by Alexis Daria (self-published: contemporary m/f):

I still cannot believe there are only 2.5 books in this excellent contemporary series based around a reality dance competition. I could easily read a full baker’s dozen of these stories and still crave more. A third novel is fortunately in the works and let me tell you this holiday novella does its level best to keep us satisfied until then.

Nik Kovalenko (younger brother of the hero from Dance With Me) wants adventure—he’s searching for something more, even if he doesn’t know what. A New Year’s kiss shared almost by chance gives him a hint of what he’s looking for, though it takes him nearly a full year to realize it (and start dropping hearts in the lady’s Instagram feed). Jess Davenport is a professional dancer and self-confessed Scrooge who thinks the only thing more ephemeral than a Merry Christmas is a promise from a sexy, ambitious man like all the ones who’ve loved and left her in the past. She’d love to kiss Nik again—the man has one hell of a mouth—but she’s skeptical about his promises to stick around long-term. He bets that three holiday-themed dates can change her mind about his intentions, and about the value of Christmas. What follows is a gorgeous emotional pas de deux: Nik leads them forward, forward, forward, but when Jess begins to take small steps of her own he panics he’s pushed too hard and retreats. It’s a perfect conflict for a pair of dancers. They have to learn to trust the rhythm between them—and not just physically. I thought Nik was just a shade too fantasy-perfect even as I wanted to wrap him in bubble wrap and protect him from ever getting his pure little heart so much as bruised. I also wanted Jess to put a little more on the line than we got, though I know even small steps are hard for her. These are, though, the same kind of criticisms as “I think I’ll try to add more vanilla next time”: small matters of taste, rather than actual flaws. On the whole this book, though shorter than its predecessors, packs one hell of a punch; it should warm your curmudgeonly cockles even after all the tinsel’s been boxed up.

Jess couldn’t have wiped the grin off her face if her life depended on it. His enthusiasm was infectious, like a disease borne on the smell of pine and Christmas cheer.

The Prince’s Mistress by Sandra Marton, illustrated by Yo Kohaku/Trial by Seduction by Kathleen O’Brien, illustrated by Karin Miyamoto

On the one hand, I had a great time reading these two swift little manga-inspired adaptations of vintage Harlequin category romances. On the other hand, the more I think about them, the stranger they seem.

Let’s take the first point first: The Prince’s Mistress never met a trope it didn’t love. We have Greeks who are also sheikhs: both our hero and heroine are secret royals, fleeing from political marriages and disguising themselves as a billionare and a fashion model because that’s how you keep secret identities hidden, with fame and fortune and every ounce of limelight. I’d tell you the rest—it’s bonkers—but I’m afraid I’ve used up all my italics for this review. Trial by Seduction is more focused, a classic category Gothic-lite: our heroine falls in love with the owner of an island hotel but he and his brothers are the three main suspects in her sister’s death on this same coast ten years ago. Oh no, what if the killer is the brother our heroine is falling in love with? This one was honestly somewhat suspenseful (I mean, no, it’s not the hero, of course, but otherwise it did manage to surprise me!) and there was more texture to the story and to the art. Both books are refreshingly straightforward about the sex scenes without being jarringly graphic—which is a long way of saying there are actual nipples when nipples are warranted but everything below the waist is tastefully obscured. Teen me would have read these over and over in the wee hours or on summer break until the pages fell right out the bindings.

And it’s that last part that niggles at me, because aside from me at that one age at that one particular time of day/year in that one particular frame of mind and with that very particular taste, I can’t image who these books are for. (Whoops, guess I had one more set of italics in the bottom of the drawer!) How big can the Venn diagram possibly be between “English-language manga market” and “vintage Violet Winspear fans”? They’ve been putting these out for at least ten years, and they show up on OverDrive and ComiXology and even the advance review sites, so clearly something about them is working, but I am absolutely baffled about how, and who, and where, and why. Delighted, amused—but baffled.

Daughter of the Sun by Effie Calvin (Ninestar Press: fantasy f/bi f):

Our first heroine Orsina is a paladin on the road in a fantasy world, destined to conquer a great evil and writing unanswered letters to a girlhood love back home. She is capable, observant, and forbidden to tell any lies. I sigh! I swoon!

And then she up and beheads our other heroine.

Now, our other heroine is Aelia, immortal goddess of caprice, so no permanent harm is done. And Aelia does have a village full of people in thrall, so clearly she’s in some pretty grey territory, morally speaking. She winds up less dead than Orsina thinks—but unfortunately she’s also trapped in this ugh organic mortal body and the god of wrath wanted her to do something for him but she wasn’t really paying attention at the time, and now the same paladin who tried to kill her is offering to protect her while they travel so now Aelia has to pretend to be human and definitely not wonder too much about her paladin’s lonely past and what it might be like to kiss her…

And thus begins the stunning sequel to one of the most memorable fantasy romances I read last year.

Allow me to be smug about this for a moment: after Queen of Ieflaria I pointed out Effie Calvin was a writer to watch, and hoo boy does she pick this story up and knock it right out of the park. There are monster fights, and small-town art clubs, and sinister priestesses, and imperial politics, and godly conspiracies, and a beautiful, impossible romance tying it all together like a golden ribbon. If you’re looking for romance in the same vein as Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, but queer- and nonbinary-friendly, you are in luck and this will completely be your jam. This second volume stands perfectly well on its own, too, so if you want to skip book one for the moment and dive straight into this one, well, I heartily encourage you. Book one was plenty good, but this book? This book is fucking perfect. Holler-from-the-rooftops, all-caps-tweeting, squee-about-it-to-your-friends kind of perfect.

As a girl, Orsina had been certain that she would never commit any of the crimes that might cause one’s paladin status to be revoked: murder, theft, extortion, kidnapping. She did not know if kissing a chaos goddess was on that list. Perhaps the Justices had not foreseen a need to state it explicitly. It was certainly in violation of the spirit of the code, if not the letter.

This Month’s Example of Exquisite Romance Prose:

The Infamous Miss Rodriguez by Lydia San Andres (self-published: historical m/f):

There is no better book vacation than a Cuidad Real story: this series of short romances set on a fictional Caribbean island at the turn of the twentieth century are invariably charming, and feature strong heroines taking chances in a world festooned with white linen, tropical blooms, and guava jam. I am a trifle sad that I have now read all of them, and eager for whenever the next volume comes out. (Or the next anything else by this author.)

This story features a wealthy bride-to-be determined to destroy her own prospects, and a former thief trying to make it in the world of honest labor. Graciela’s happiness depends on not being married off to a cold rich industrialist, and Vicente’s been hired to make sure the marriage takes place. She’s doing everything she’s not supposed to—strip-tease dancing, nude photos, visits to gambling dens—and he has to haul her back to respectability time after time after time, even as he starts to suspect there’s a very solid reason why she courts trouble so assiduously.

And now I’d like to show you this paragraph:

Vicente knew plenty of ways to keep a woman satisfied and only one of them involved grasping her by that stubborn chin and plying her lips with kisses. It was obvious from watching her that she was in serious want of affection, but perhaps part of her unhappiness stemmed from the lack of something to turn that sharp mind to—an occupation of sorts, though he knew it was unseemly for women of her station to work. To feel like her thoughts were being heard, her ideas taken into consideration… the very thing he himself lacked and was trying desperately to get.

This is a complete romance arc in three lovely sentences. It beings with attraction—Vicente is dreaming about kissing her. It moves on to say Graciela needs kissing, but not only kissing: she needs “something to turn that sharp mind to,” a purpose beyond love/marriage/sex things even if class expectations limit her potential. Lastly we get the realization that her needs are similar to Vicente’s own: he’s also “trying desperately to get” an occupation, a purpose. Infatuation, understanding, union—these are the three most significant beats in any romance, repeated in miniature as an echo of the larger arc. It’s a small but satisfying bit of filligree, in a series that manages to be both delicate and deeply moving.