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.
Among romance readers, there is a strong belief that the main couple of a (non-poly) book must show balance.
This can mean the characters are parallel in some way: childhood sweethearts, second-chance romances, and friends-to-lovers tropes all start by establishing the characters as a pair. Two equivalent weights on the story-scales. A matched set, even before our couple have worked out the issues standing between them.
Other times, balance means means contrast. This is where a lot of your archetypes come in: the billionaire and the waif, the ray of sunshine and the grump, Beauty and the Beast, demigod paranormal hero and physically fragile mortal heroine with a reservoir of emotional resilience. Contrast is good because it generates conflict, and tension, and these are the engines that turn a mere series of events into a proper living story.
Some of the most consistently popular romance tropes use both coordination and contrast. Fated mates and marriage of convenience/fake dating plots usually take two wildly different character types and handcuff them together with some just-believable-enough excuse. And then we sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
Once in a workshop I heard romance author Gerri Russell sum up this romance theory by saying: “If your hero is a firefighter, your heroine had better be an arsonist.” But while there’s definitely a few firefighter romance heroes out there, I have yet to find a single one with an arsonist heroine — not because that wouldn’t be amazing (writers with arsonist heroines: email me!), but because romance as a genre tends to privilege some kinds of opposites over others.
For instance: cops are almost never paired with criminals, especially in m/f romance — shoutout to rare gems like Faking It by Jennifer Crusie, with its art-forging heroine — they’re paired with victims in need of rescue, or occasionally amateur sleuths. Military main characters are much more often given romance arcs with civilians and not with, say, enemy soldiers (Courtney Milan’s In the Pursuit Of… being, again, the rare exception that proves the rule — can you tell I’m inordinately fond of exceptions in romance?).
Which brings me to my least favorite trope of all time: the Battle of the Sexes. Your heroine is a feminist, so your hero must be, oh how clever, and ANTI-feminist! Because the correct resolution to any conflict must lie in the precise middle between two passionate points of view! And it’s important to behave as though trans, intersex, and nonbinary people don’t exist!
Very few authors can pull off the kind of creativity a truly satisfying compromise ending requires. Even fewer can do it on subjects where the both-sides framework is a lazy cliché — Courtney Milan spoke about this once when discussing the time she spent plotting The Suffragette Scandal: she assumed when she created a suffragette heroine that the hero would be the opposite, and would have to be convinced about women’s worth, and then it transpired that… she just didn’t really want to have to write that man as a hero. So she wrote an entirely different kind of scoundrel instead — and ever since I’ve been noticing just how irritating it is when two characters are expected to meet in the middle on questions about, say, the humanity of women. Or people of color, because you bet there’s a ton of romances out there with Green Book-style white saviour narratives that follow a similar pattern.
As if what really matters about feminism is convincing men it’s important. As if what matters about racism is how white people feel about it.
Sometimes, the consequences of contrasted character types means that one character ends up doing all the changing. Or all the forgiving. Take the magical monster/emotionally resilient mortal pairing that happens so often in paranormals. The weaker character is often kidnapped, imprisoned, controlled, or limited by the stronger, for Very Important Reasons. Inevitably they fall in love, and the mortal forgives the monster’s actions. Because romance is about characters learning how to use their strengths for good. So the monster gets to use those powers, albeit more judiciously. The mortal… gets to forgive the monster for abuse of powers. Which doesn’t sound like nearly as much fun.
Are we meant to read this as balanced? As equal? It feels more like a lesson in becoming resigned to power imbalances, rather than a means of correcting them.
What if, instead, a misuse of a paranormal hero’s power was punished in some way by the narrative? What if abusing power got that power taken away?
One of this month’s books actually tries to answer that question: a young mage who has been using his magic to harm others has that same magic locked away when he decides to stop hurting people; what follows is tender and terrifying by turns, and one of the strongest and strangest fantasy romances of the year. Also featured below: a strong Beauty and the Beast variant, a romance between a woman who loves durian and a man who loathes it (the kind of topic on which compromise is actually possible!), a Ren Faire-set story with a priggish English teacher/pirate king and a wench who’s come home to help her family recover, and finally, a historical fantasy romance featuring a Malaysian woman with no magic and no memory, and a highborn British witch under too much familial pressure to wed a fortune.
It’s an excellent mix of contrast and coordinating pairs, just right for the month when summer is poised to transform into fall.
Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson (Carina Press: fantasy m/non-binary m):
This book? This book. Reading it is like — the feeling you get when you’re going about your everyday business and somehow come face-to-face with a wild creature in the middle of a city.
This book is really fucking good, is what I’m trying to tell you.
It wil snare you in the second paragraph, with her red witch’s eye a glowing carbuncle in the sun. For a time you will have no idea what is going on, but it is dark and it is poetic and you are enchanted. Mio, our young and fragile soul who sings out people’s hidden secrets. Wry and aristocratic Rhody, dead and resurrected with the moonlit soul of a bear, who fights a constant battle with a great curse. Priests in azure chasubles, a war that left thousands of ghosts to trouble the living, a kind of magic that is fluid and artistic and deadly dangerous — to the soul as well as the body. Mio has done terrible things, and he carries that knowledge around like a burden. This is not an easy book, for all its beauty.
Nor is this book an unbalance of powers, as discussed above. Normally the character with greater power has committed the greater crime: your dragon shifters, your vampire lords, your immortal demigods and dethroned princes of Faerie. But it’s sensitive, artistic Mio who has sinned greatly, and is asking to be contained. To be killed, even, at least at the start. The rest of the book is a lengthy exploration of sins and revelations, and when we start revealing that the things wrong in Bedefyr are not precisely what the secret-keepers think, it was pure exhilaration. I could spend months teasing out all the thoughts I have about this. I could spend another thousand words talking about this book — how it’s a Gothic and a Little Mermaid variant and a shatteringly unique fantasy world with not one but two strong, distinctive character voices.
But you don’t need those thousand words. You just need the book itself. This eerie, lovely, wondrous gift of a story. It’s the dark full-fantasy full-romance we’ve dreamed of for years.
My bear-mind was always strangely vivid, emphasizing the environment with a series of scent strokes and heat. I wished I could figure out how to smoke as a bear so I could delicately tap off ashes as I crushed things. Since I couldn’t be so dainty, I released a wave of roars, making the night flash. The soldiers abandoned their positions — loyalty could not suspend their mortality, or ward off the giant black bear that was reminding them of it.
Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean (Avon Books: historical m/f):
This is the book that got me thinking about balance in romance in the first place: it is one of the most exquisitely balanced pairings I have read in quite some time. A woman protecting her brother challenges and falls for a man protecting his sister; Hattie was raised on the docks before her father acquired a title, while Whit was trained as a duke’s heir before taking to the streets of Covent Garden. They’re both of neither world, which lets them find a middle ground together. It’s truly wonderful to see the Beauty and the Beast trope finessed — Hattie is irresistable to Whit, but in her own eyes she’s no beauty, always too much: too tall, too fat, too intelligent, too ambitious. Feeling hurt or vulnerable makes her angry which in turn makes her stand tall and defend herself, and it’s such a damn relief. More heroines blazing with righteous anger, please and thank you!
I only wish… There needs to be a better critical language for this kind of book, when you see something that’s a beautiful, near-perfect success at what it’s trying to do — that aim is totally Someone Else’s Catnip, but not mine. This will be a very useful book to have read, because it is an excellent alpha hero and those are worth remembering. I’m going to be recommending it all over the place. It is not in any way the book’s fault that at the moment I am singularly tired of alpha heroes who are the Mostiest Most In Every Way (biggest, meanest, handsomest, etc). Perhaps it’s only my author-brain getting in the way, as sometimes happens: there are choices made in this book and this series that are precisely the opposite of what I would have done, and my inner critic just will not shut up about it.
When the third book comes out I will be keeping a close eye on others’ reviews, because there are hints about where it will be going and people are going to Have Opinions. I am excited about that in a very nerdy romance kind of way.
Man Versus Durian by Jackie Lau (self-published: contemporary m/f):
“Show, don’t tell” is probably one of the most misused pieces of writing advice out there. Every good writer I know breaks it on the regular — and not just romance writers, but sff, mystery, and your favorite lit-fic darling, too. Telling is efficient. Telling is clear. Writers who think they can’t just tell you something end up wasting words being more opaque than they have to be, and both the book and the reader often suffer.
Jackie Lau’s books tell you straight-up what the characters are feeling: what they fear, what they’re avoiding thinking about, what they want. So we have all that information in mind while we watch them dance through her high-concept situations: fake dating, party planning, the great and always-loveable Only One Bed trope.
And, as here, a classic Opposites Attract. Peter has declared durian his nemesis after it spoiled a tryst of his in college. Valerie not only works in a shop that sells durian ice cream, but durian is her favorite food. He’s happy in his low-key job; she’s missing the intensity and problem-solving opportunities of the software development career that her terrible ex-boss torpedoed a year ago. She’s prickly, he’s soft; together, they’re adorable. This is an emotional romance, but a very low-stakes one — a gentle, easy hug of a book with people you wish you could hang out with in real life. It’s so inviting and pleasant and wholesome that it makes me want to give durian another shot.
She bites into the bun, closing her eyes. I’ve noticed that Valerie likes to close her eyes when she eats, as though it allows her to truly savor food.
“Good?” I ask. For some reason, it’s extremely important that she like it.
“Yeah.” She sighs in bliss.
The extra stop before going to Ginger Scoops was definitely worth it. There’s a tiny bit of custard on her lip, and I want to lick it off. Then I remind myself that it’s durian-flavored and must taste like absolute shit. Still, I would happily lick her lip if she’d let me.
Well Met by Jen DeLuca (Jove Books: contemporary m/f):
Pro tip: when in Chapter One your heroine encounters a large, generically hot blond man whose muscles are explicitly compared to Gaston’s and who is happy to wear a kilt and be ogled by everyone at the Renaissance Faire… no way is that guy the hero.
No, the hero is the dark-haired, uptight, incredibly irritating man with the clipboard, who in the heroine’s words, “would be relatively attractive if he weren’t looking at me like he’d caught me cheating on my chemistry final.”
That’s because romantic comedies live and die on the specifics. The swooniest parts are always context-dependent: Kate Moseley and Doug Dorsey finally nailing the Pamchenko Twist; Harry’s New Year’s Eve list of Sally’s quirks; Lucy In her booth finding a wedding ring clinking down instead of a subway token, and looking up into the smiling faces of Jack and his family.
Or, in this case, a golden cord and a pirate earring at a small-town Renaissance Faire.
Jen DeLuca’s debut is sweet and snappy and light as a lemon tart: Emily Parker has moved to Willow Creek after a breakup to help her sister and niece recover from a serious car accident. Her niece is desperate to be involved in the local Faire with all her friends, and she can’t audition unless an adult volunteers along with her. Her mother is still recuperating, so Emily channels her unfinished English major and signs on as a tavern wench — and immediately has a run-in with the man running the Faire, a starchy, scowly English teacher named Simon, who has his own issues with family and the Faire.
This is the pure undiluted enemies-to-lovers stuff, and it packs a wallop. Reading this book made me feel like a teenager just discovering romance for the first time: the heroine’s hurt and self-doubt, the need to decipher the hero’s true feelings (we stay in Emily’s POV the whole book), the courage it takes Emily to realize she’s worthy of love, how it feels to be tangled in a social and familial web of obligation and loyalty that can either hold you back or hold you up.
It’s a whole functioning world in here, and I hope to get a chance to revisit.
He ran a hand over his jaw again, rubbing at the bristles on his cheek as though he could scrub them out. “This isn’t your community. You don’t live here.”
Those words were a dart, and they hit the bull’s-eye. To my horror, my eyes started to sting. “Excuse me?” I blinked hard. I was not going to let this asshole see he’d made me cry.
But he noticed. “I mean… ” He had the grace to look a little ashamed and started to backpedal. “You’re not staying, right? I thought you were only here short term to help out your sister.”
“Well, I hadn’t thought about it yet. I’m …” I put up a hand, stopping the thought. Stopping him from saying anything else. “You know what? My future isn’t any of your business. What is your business is I represent fifty percent of your wenches, and Faire starts in two weeks. Do you really not want me here?”
The True Queen by Zen Cho (Ace Books: historical fantasy f/f):
You might know Zen Cho’s name from her quirky and charming 1920s biracial retelling of Jane Eyre, her award-winning short story collection, her much-loved debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, or the glorious, heartrending f/f fantasy romance novelette “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again”, for which she won the Hugo this year, and which you can read for free immediately at that link. Good luck getting through it with a dry eye, though.
However you come to read Zen Cho, rejoice — for her writing is universally delightful.
We like to compare books to food, and say they nourish the soul, because this is true. Some books are steaks: thick and meaty and bloody in the mouth. But Zen Cho’s works are delicate, decorated, fanciful and wondrous — amuse-bouches, or hors d’oeuvres, or petit fours for the soul. Sweet and pleasing overall with the occasional darkness and bitterness of high-quality chocolate. They are small luxuries: “post-colonial fluff for book nerds,” she’s described it. You’ll find all the light humor and stiletto-sharp wit of Wodehouse and Heyer, both admitted influences, as well as an incisive kindness and sympathy that is all Cho’s.
The True Queen is a sequel to Sorcerer. Like a fugue, the book starts with a simple melody line: a storm, and two sisters cast out upon the shore. Slowly and steadily the figure repeats and builds and varies itself: sundering and reunion, memory and magic, family duty and love and betrayal. The romance is but one note among many, a flute piping above the rest of the orchestra. The plot is not surprising — not if you know anything at all about fairy tales — but it’s so beautifully done that the satisfaction resonates down to the bone. You know it’ll end with a major chord, but it still feels right when those last notes strike your ear. It’s recommended, but not necessary, to have read Sorcerer first, though ultimately I find I prefer this second book, and I cannot wait to see what she’ll write next.
“I take it very kind in Her Majesty to send us a warning,” said Prunella, ignoring this. “But what is the danger that threatens us?”
“Oh, did I not say?” said the Duke. “It is us.”
Prunella stared. “You?”
“Her Glorious Majesty the Fairy Queen desired me to send you her best compliments,” said the Duke, “and explain that she means to kill all English magicians, burn your spell books and sack your miserable country. Her hunger for revenge will only be sated by the wholesale destruction of English thaumaturgy.”