I should have posted this on Valentine’s Day. (Or not.)

So in my SF Novelists post, I made a mention of how a lot of romance novels don’t work for me because they’re often too focused on the hero and heroine, to the exclusion (or at least sidelining) of other characters. And that reminded me that I had some thoughts I’d meant to post, about why, despite giving it a good shot, I don’t think I’ll ever be a romance reader.

Before I get into those thoughts, however, let me say up front: the tl;dr version of this is not “romance novels suck.” Anyone using the comment thread to bash the genre wholesale will be invited to do their bashing elsewhere. This is about why I’m the wrong reader for the genre.

The reason, in short form, is this: I don’t find them all that romantic.

It has to do with where my own personal buttons are. I do not, for example, have much interest in the hornypants model of romance, where the connection between the hero and heroine (or hero and hero, heroine and heroine, or other combinations — this isn’t only a heterosexual or even monogamous thing) manifests first and foremost through their hormones. This is why the Imriel/Sidonie relationship in the second Kushiel trilogy didn’t do much for me, because they were so much about lust, and that just doesn’t engage my interest. Or, to pick a genre romance example rather than a fantasy-with-romance one, I eventually stopped reading Butterfly Swords because two pages after the main characters met, all they could think about when they looked at each other was physical attraction. That’s an important component, of course, but when it’s the chief signifier of compatability and connection, I’m not persuaded. It doesn’t make me believe in their relationship, not in the way I’m looking for.

So what do I find romantic? Shared interests and goals. Characters who have something in common (besides lust), something really important to them both. Then their relationship becomes a partnership, working together for something outside themselves. To put it in visual terms, I don’t want them to be standing face-to-face, looking only at each other; I want them standing side-by-side, looking at something else. I used to say that I like romance when it’s the B plot of a novel, rather than the A plot, but lately I’ve come to realize that’s a symptom of my personal inclinations, not the cause. The truth is that when the romance is the B plot, I find it more romantic.

The A plot, you see, gives me context and meaning for the romance. It shows me different sides of the characters, so that when they come together I have a better sense of who they are and why they matter to each other. This is why Phèdre and Joscelin work for me, and Imriel and Sidonie don’t; the foundation of that first partnership goes down to bedrock. When they dislike each other, it’s for well-grounded cultural reasons. When Joscelin hates Phèdre, it’s because he has reason to think she’s a traitor. When they begin working together, it’s for survival, and to strike back at their enemies, and their trust and inter-reliance grows out of that. As a result, when the really dramatic moments roll around — the moments where they decide to put each other ahead of something else — those moments hit harder because that something else? Really matters. To them both. And I therefore care about it a lot more.

I’ve read romances where one or both protagonists have the attitude of “you are the only thing in the world that matters to me.” That? Is not a button that works for me. I like characters who care about multiple things, and those things intertwine. It doesn’t always have to be fate-of-the-world level, either (though admittedly, as a fantasy reader I’m accustomed to plots with fairly high stakes). I very much like the Lydia/Wickham byplot in Pride and Prejudice, for example, and would love it even more if it was resolved by joint action between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. (Which, if I recall correctly, is the case in the Bride and Prejudice adaptation.) The higher the percentage of that kind of thing in the story, the more I’m likely to get invested in the romance — at least until you tip over the edge of “this is actually just about the A plot, and we’ve shoved a romance in there because we feel obligated to do so.”

I know romance novels do include that kind of thing. But it’s been a running dissatisfaction of mine, with virtually all the ones I’ve read, that I want more plot-plot to ground the romance-plot. I picked up Butterfly Swords because it was set in Tang Dynasty China, which, you know, awesome! But then it was all about the hornypants, and I’m sitting there going, “MOAR TANG CHINA NAO PLZ.” If the political side had been the plot, rather than a very neglected subplot, and the hero had been somebody invested in that plot rather than a random European outsider shoehorned into the setting (seriously, wtf), then, well, it would have been the book I was hoping to read. As it was, though, it was not for me.

I’m posting this because it’s been very enlightening for me to think through my expectations and the conventions of the genre (as seen through friends’ reviews, the Smart Bitches website, and the twenty or so romance novels I’ve read). The more I understand what I’m looking for in a story, the better I’m able to find stories I will like.

But I am definitely willing to take recommendations from those of you who are romance readers, of books you think are likely to supply what I’m looking for. Short form is, more plot = more good (though I will roll my eyes right out of my head if the characters are running for their lives from the bad guys and then stop in a stairwell or broom closet for random nookie). Also, I like stories where the protagonists have known each other for a while, rather than just having met; this, to me, is one of the big romantic selling points in pameladean‘s Tam Lin. My ideal of romance grows out of friendship and partnership, which both fare better when they’re given lots of context. Finally, because of my interests, I tend to gravitate more towards historicals or things with speculative elements, rather than contemporary realistic romance. But they’d better do their history or speculation well, or I’ll be kicked right out of the story.

Yeah, I know. I’m not asking for much at all. <g>

0 Responses to “I should have posted this on Valentine’s Day. (Or not.)”

  1. rj_anderson

    I’m tracking this post because I want to see what others recommend! I too have a hard time getting into a lot of books in the romance genre, because I want the lovers to care about something else as much as or even more than they care about each other.

    In the past I’ve often found that my favorite romances come from other genres — in fact in my twenties I read mysteries predominantly for the romance, with only the vaguest interest in whodunnit and much more interest in how the discovery of the murderer and the subsequent confrontation would affect the MC and his/her love interest. (The most obvious example being Lord Peter and Harriet, but I also followed Anne Perry’s Inspector Monk series for about twelve books practically for the romance element alone.)

    And I too find that the “love at first sight” idea, and relationships based on being mystical soulmates and/or mutually gorgeous to one another, leave me cold. The marriage of true minds well acquainted with one another appeals to me far more. Sure, I want to see some physical attraction too, but I’d like it to be based on attributes much more singular and interesting than a chiseled jaw or pouty red lips.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m tracking this post because I want to see what others recommend!

      Yeah, I’m hoping for some good recs. The thing is, I adore a strong romance; it’s just that the approach I prefer is more often found in other genres. (I’ve only just dipped my toes into the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane storyline, but I’m looking forward to more. I might have to check out Perry, too — I’ve read a couple of hers and enjoyed them, but not the ones with the romance, I think.)

      • alecaustin

        Sayers is awesome, and Gaudy Night is brilliant, being a story about intellectual and emotional maturation of people and relationships rather than (say) discovering the hawtness of someone introduced from stage left. I’ll also ditto the reader who mentions Komarr and A Civil Campaign below – the romance plotline in those books really does it for me, and is a good part of why I keep on coming back to them.

        I think you’re also speaking to why I tend to like shojo manga that have, if not a strong A-plot (I don’t think one can reasonably contend that even Fruits Basket or His and Her Circumstances have that), room for the male characters to be more than just adornments (this is obviously relevant with the genders reversed in other media), and credible reasons for the primary characters to interact and be interested in each other. I’m clearly not the target audience for stuff like Fushigi Yugi, and even some purportedly male-friendly works like Tsubasa leave me cold, but I like the increased emotional depth of works like The Twelve Kingdoms over parallel male-targeted stuff. (The Berzerk manga, for instance, can just crawl in a hole and die.)

        • Marie Brennan

          I’ve read Strong Poison, but then backed up to take the series in order, because I liked the start of the business with Harriet well enough that I wanted it to get its proper foundation before I dove into the books everybody says are brilliant.

          Vorkosigan-wise, I’m up to the beginning of Mirror Dance (by internal chronology), so the “Miles in Love” omnibus lies not far ahead.

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  3. zellandyne

    It’s not speculative at all, but my favorite romance novel is Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me. Lots of humor, lots of supporting characters with their own plots (some of which the main characters get involved in, some of which they don’t).

    For spec fic romance, I recommend the Liaden books by Lee and Miller. Each book in the main series has a central romance, but the two leads are always working together to accomplish something: to stay alive, to fight off a planetary attack, to unearth a conspiracy that’s been targeting their family for decades, to find lost members of their clan, to rebuild on another world. It’s fun. The final book of the series brings all of primary characters together and requires them to coordinate with each other in order to save themselves and their planet.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that the romance happens on the way to the goal. And is important. But is not, in itself, the goal. Also, there are other equally important relationships (between siblings, mostly) that take center stage at times in the books.

    • Marie Brennan

      Both Bet Me (really, Crusie more generally) and the Liaden books were suggested over on my SF Novelists posts about ensemble casts; I’ll definitely have to put them on my list. (Especially since I am a sucker for interesting sibling relationships.)

      • jennifergale

        I have to say…I’m consistently entertained by Crusie. I think the most plotty of hers might be Faking It, which isn’t really about what the title suggests. The heroine is from a family of con artists. The other relationships are important to the story so…it’s not historical, but it fits the bill otherwise.

        And rather than make a separate post… Mary Stewart wrote numerous fantastic gothic romances. Madam, Will You Talk (1954) is my favorite…it involves characters who previously knew each other (boy howdy). Stewart’s novels are older, usually set somewhere in Europe, and involve bits of local history… Her plots almost always some sort of mystery that throws the characters together. They’re very…er. Clean.

        • rj_anderson

          Oh my word, how COULD I have forgotten the awesomeness that is Mary Stewart?! Yes, very yes. Love Madam, Will You Talk, This Rough Magic, The Gabriel Hounds and The Ivy Tree (which blows me away every time) especially.

        • galeni

          Madam Will You Talk is my favorite Stewart! Strong heroine, properly convoluted but understandable misunderstandings to drive part of the plot. I also liked Airs Above the Ground and Moon-Spinners enormously. I’ve lost track how many times I’ve reread them. Although I think I have Airs memorized now.

        • Marie Brennan

          Is that the same Mary Stewart who did an Arthurian series? I read the first few of those when I was much younger, until the sex in (I believe) the third book made my not-yet-mature self run screaming for the hills.

          I think the only reason I haven’t picked up Crusie before now is that her stuff is contemporary, and I’m such a hard sell on that. But I’ve seen lots of people praise her, and I read a post on her blog about what makes a relationship spark that had me nodding a lot, so I should give her a try.

          • jennifergale

            Yes it is the same Mary Stewart…her Arthurian series came later (I think). Like you, I was too young for that third book and never did return to that series. But! Her early work is just plain fantastic. (Also, no sex that I recall…) The only Stewart book I didn’t really care for was Thunder on the Right, which I read during the flight home from Sirens. Man, I spent DECADES looking for that book. So disappointing.

            I’m pretty picky when it comes to contemporary romances…I have to be in a very specific mood to push through some of the books I’ve tried. (I started an Evanovich this morning and I’ve been marking it up.) But Crusie’s something different… Guh. The humor and secondary characters alone…

          • Marie Brennan

            Well, I remember quite liking The Crystal Cave, so I’ll put Stewart on my list. I didn’t know about her other books, but the enthusiasm people have been showing for them is a good point in their favor.

          • pameladean

            Stewart was a BIG influence on me. She fails in the feminism department from time to time, sometimes seeming to go out of her way to do so (“I know, it’s a man’s world. I don’t resent it,” says one heroine, to which I actually yelled at the book, “AND WHY NOT!” This is annoying and was annoying when I was fifteen, too; but her feel for setting is amazing, she’s funny, and in one book a defining moment involves the hero standing at the theater at Delphi and reciting in Greek.


          • rj_anderson

            Oh, yes, Thunder on the Right is awful compared to the others. Definitely skip that one. To me it reads as though some crazed editor yanked the original manuscript out of Stewart’s hands and rewrote it to their idea of what a gothic should be like, complete with bestial villain psychologically and sexually dominating the poor innocent girl (not the heroine, but still).

            I think Touch Not The Cat could be a great entry point for , though. A historical mystery with a light helping of the paranormal, a smart and well-grounded romance, and some great action toward the end as the villainous plot is revealed and the lovers must fight for their lives. It’s not my absolute favorite Stewart, but it’s a good one.

          • Marie Brennan

            I must say, it’s got a pretty good title. 🙂

    • diatryma

      Bet Me is the book that made me realize I don’t have a crush on any specific Crusie hero, I have a crush on Jennifer Crusie.

  4. sola

    Than you for precisely articlating why i have so much trouble being intersted in romance novels. Th only way that the “pure romance” would work for me is when the charachters themselves are so fascinating that i care about absolutely everything that they do…. and i can’t think of the last time that happened without rather a lot of context.

    Funnily enough, this is why, despite not being interested in romance as a genre, i do find myself reading a lot of fanfic to the effect. That way, you can have a serving of romance with books and books (or hours and hours)’ worth of worldbuilding already extant and internalized.

    • Marie Brennan

      The funny part is, my major doorway into story (to borrow somebody’s phrase; I should find out whose theory that is and remember the name so I can credit them properly) is character, not plot. But apparently it needs to be character in the context of plot, because it’s hard to get me to really be fascinated by people if there’s nothing particularly interesting going on in their lives.

      Good enough prose can do it, though. There are some characters I could just sit there and watch be themselves, with nothing happening, for like a whole book before I start asking for a plot. 🙂

      I totally agree that’s one of the strong motifs in fanfic, though. The plot and tension and so on have already been provided in canon; now you can wander around endlessly exploring the relationships.

  5. dsmoen

    I recently read an erotica novel (hey, I don’t mind the lust at all and it usually works for me even if it’s not my thing lust-wise), but I found myself distracted: MOAR SURFING PLZ.

    So now I’m going back to my own damn erotica novel and add some more surfing.

    Edit: FWIW, this book. I started skipping over sex scenes because they bored me. That said, some of the Hawaii description was better than I expected, so win overall.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s not so much that I mind lust as, I get bored if that’s all that’s going on. So erotic novels are not likely to be my thing.

      But I’m putting MOAR SURFING PLZ into my critical lexicon alongside “too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby.” 🙂

      (And then there’s the “too much sodomy, not enough dinosaurs”/”too much dinosaurs, not enough sodomy” pairing — but I save that one for special occasions.)

      • alecaustin

        If hasn’t told you about it already, I should tell you the story behind “too much lava monster sex” at some point.

      • dsmoen

        “too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby” = Whip It? I liked that movie a lot and glad she dumped the dude.

        I like the dinosaurs one.

        I think your distinction is one of the reasons why DUPLICITY worked for me as a movie and, say, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD did not work as well.

        EASY A — that’s a special case, as any movie with the line “I fake rocked your world!” would be. It’s not really about the romantic plot nor about lust — though it is about using other people’s desire.

        • Marie Brennan

          “Too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby” predates the movie; I don’t know where it came from. I think I picked the line up from .

          I never saw Duplicity or Easy A; they’re both in my (neverending) Netflix queue. I liked Scott Pilgrim well enough, but that one definitely skated by on its kineticism and visual charm; without those, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the romance a tenth so much.

  6. jehane_writes

    For me, it’s the /overselling/ of the romance that makes the romance novel genre not work for me. I mean, billowing curtains, sweeping someone off their feet, passionate conversation – it’s hard to do subtly, IMO, and easy to make overdramatic overselling that takes credibility out of things. I mean, it’s hard to feel romantic when you’ve moved into the realm of eye-rolling 🙂

    I hear you on story-driven, B-plot romances; I have a weakness for romances where there’s some personality conflict, like the Gabe/Gracie snarking, or initial misdirect, like Phedre’s crush on Delauney and Joscelin’s initial feelings toward her.

    Of course, many romance novels don’t aim to tug at your /heartstrings/ exactly, ahem.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I often feel the emotion is oversold — but then again, I think that has more to do with the foundation (at least for me) than anything else. I mean, my god does Dorothy Dunnett crank up the angst and drama in the later books of the Lymond Chronicles; however, by then most readers feel she has absolutely earned it, with the conflict and development that has gone before. It’s when that stuff starts happening on page fifty of a stand-alone book that I check out.

    • dsmoen

      Yeah, I like the personality conflict thing, and I don’t like the overselling of either romance or lust.

      That said, arguably most of the books I’ve finished in the last two years (including the entire Twilight series, umm, five times) were romance or erotica. Part of that is due to it being a viable escape from medical badness in the family, though. Sometimes, that’s enough to change one’s reading tastes for a time.

      • jehane_writes

        Ah, I also read fiction to escape and entertain rather than Educate Myself, so I am totally sympathetic to the romance and erotica reading 🙂 What else are you enjoying, and why do you like it?

  7. sistabro

    I am very much in the same boat with preferring relationships that have a little more.. backing I suppose? Shared goals and trials, friendship, respect and trust that was earned. Also.. I just don’t really respect characters who are only wrapped up in each other above all else, and who make deep commitments to one another based on lust, which, one I lose respect for the character, I’m pretty much done.

    • Marie Brennan

      I definitely want the romantic partner to be one of the most important things in a character’s life, at least by the time the romance has hit its full flower. But yeah, if the entire world revolves around that person, then it isn’t much like my experience of love, and therefore doesn’t mean much to me.

  8. teleidoplex

    Heh. We’ve discussed this at length, so I’m mostly posting this to give you an others my romance rec list. As a reader of romances who can no longer find romances she likes (and blames a change in what is being published rather than a refining of her own tastes. REALLY!), I hear you on the A-plot/B-plot issue. My problem tends to be that in the romance genre, the (mystery/thriller/horror/fantastic) B-plot tends to be dull and predictable, and in the fantasy/sci-fi genres… the (romantic) B-plot tends to be… yeah. Dull and predictable.

    That being said, here are my romances that trump all others:

    1. The Silver-Metal Lover, by Tanith Lee. This is pure romance. It makes me cry, it’s so good. She wrote a… companion book, that I hear is critically amazing and a very hard read for most of the people who love the first book because it strips away a lot of the illusions of romance that the first book establishes. I own the companion, but haven’t read it yet because… I’m scared.

    2. Temeraire, et. al., by Naomi Novak. Love ’em, and the romantic epiphany Lawrence has at the end of the fourth book makes all the boring travel in the earlier books completely worthwhile. That being said… boring travel.

    3. The Ship who Searched, by Mercedes Lackey (and Anne McCaffery, but really… they just slapped her name on it). Tia may be the most awesome shipembodied heroine I’ve ever read, and Alex is pretty kick-ass too.

    4. Restoree, by Anne McCaffery. God… her gender stuff hurts my soul, but… this is one of the first romance novels I ever read, and I still love the _romance_ between Sarah and Harlan. And I may or may not have penned some Mary-Sue fanfic regarding Jokan when I was a teenager. Just sayin’ >.>

    5. The Darkangel Trilogy, by Meredith Ann Pierce. Forget Irrylath. Keep an eye on the romance with Erin. Something I really couldn’t appreciate until I was older and wiser.


    The Fool Trilogy, by Robin Hobb. This would be my number one winner with a bullet, because I *adore* Fitz and the Fool. But… Hobb chickens out at the last second and gives us a totally unsatisfying resolution on what has essentially been the main pairing for… nine books (if you count the Assassin trilogy and the Mad Ship trilogy – both also good). *And* she doesn’t allow fanfic. To quote Ladyhawke: “[She] didn’t even leave us that. Not even that.”

    The Time-Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Another one that *almost* is my number one, except… the ending leaves me very ambivalent (in the best possible way) about whether this relationship was an enriching and constructive kind of love, or a horrific and constricting kind of co-dependency. I haven’t seen the movie and don’t wish to, because I can’t imagine it will leave me as intellectually energized as the book. So, amazing book… but I’m still not sure it’s a romance.

    I’d write more, but I’m probably over my word limit as is. And you’ll notice that, sadly, none of these is from the romance section. I keep hoping…

    • Marie Brennan

      My problem tends to be that in the romance genre, the (mystery/thriller/horror/fantastic) B-plot tends to be dull and predictable, and in the fantasy/sci-fi genres… the (romantic) B-plot tends to be… yeah. Dull and predictable.

      I read Compass Rose because it was a) polyamorous (I’m in favor of more romantic diversity) and b) a fantasy — this was one of the books put out by Harlequin’s Luna imprint — but yeah, one of the things that disappointed me about it was the way the fantasy plot got put on autopilot for about half the book while the romance was developed. (Plus it tried to shoehorn too many people into the marriage in too quick succession; given that this was the first book of the series, I would have liked it to take a slower approach, and develop each new character more thoroughly.) But I think I’m more willing to forgive predictability in a romance B plot, because the emotions can feel real to me even if they’re a lot like something I’ve read before. So long as I care about the characters — which is usually accomplished by the A plot — I care about their happiness.

      Anyway, I don’t much expect recs from the romance section, because the whole point of this post is that I don’t think what most of the romance section is doing is the kind of thing I’m looking for. Which is fine; clearly it is the kind of thing a great many other people are looking for, because that stuff sells like mad. But I no longer feel like my lack of interest in romance is due to uninformed prejudice, as it was before.

  9. galeni

    Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me is one of my favorite romances. I recommend it to try. (I like all of hers, some slightly more than others.)

    Simple romances don’t do it for me, either, unless I’m totally stressed and need a predictable but not yet read world to visit. I adore the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes stories by Laurie R. King, but most people would call those Detective Stories with Romantic Intermissions, to misquote Dorothy Sayers. And I don’t like Detective stories generally, unless I like the main character(s) a lot. Otherwise: boring.

    • Marie Brennan

      Mysteries may be my next Genre To Explore. Once upon a time, I thought of myself as a mystery reader (this was before I discovered fantasy), but mostly I was just a Nancy Drew reader. Nowadays, I think I’m in a similar situation as with romance, except a little flipped: I’m guaranteed plot, so what I’m looking for is a character I really enjoy, and then preferably a historical setting to scratch my fantasy-reader itch.

  10. aliettedb

    He. Mostly, I don’t like romances for reasons like yours: physical attraction is given pride of place (and while I do recognise the place of physical attraction in a budding romance, I’m firmly in the “common interests” camp for building any meaningful relationships between people. Including romance).

    Year of the Unicorn by Andre Norton is probably my favourite book involving a romance, which (arguably) is central to the plot. Except that it’s Andre Norton, so old-fashioned YA, and physical attraction is pretty much absent. So not sure whether it counts.

    If it doesn’t, then it’s back to Dunnett–but there’s plenty in those books to keep you busy that’s not the romance.

    • Marie Brennan

      It seems, from what I can tell, that physical attraction as a foundation for the relationship has become a lot more common in the genre recently; older books were (at least sometimes) more circumspect about that. Unfortunately, that circumspection often went hand-in-hand with things like “the heroine isn’t allowed to want it,” semi-rapist heroes, and other problematic tropes; plus they didn’t necessarily uphold my ideals of inter-gender respect. So, neither classic nor recent romance hits the right buttons for me.

    • dsmoen

      I think my favorite fantasy-romance is Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy, but my recollection is that romance is fairly light there.

      Also War for the Oaks by Emma Bull.

  11. Marie Brennan

    See, that sounds good — except that I wish it weren’t two separate things they’re doing, her movie and his election; I wish they were working toward a common goal.

    • diatryma

      The two are somewhat opposed: the movie turns out to be porn and the town objects.

      • Marie Brennan

        Reading this comment without looking at what it was responding to led to a moment of o_O confusion on my part. <g>

        Anyway, yes, I should hope the two aren’t completely unrelated. But I like things even more connected than that, when I can get them.

  12. green_knight

    Not much to say because despite reccommendations what works for Romance readers does not work for me. I came to the realisation that it’s Not My Genre, that I don’t find them romantic, and that’s that. There are too many books in the world that I want to read to make more of an effort.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m more or less in the same boat. I read a good half-dozen books that got excellent reviews on Smart Bitches, and my reactions ranged from “meh” to “this is one of the most morally offensive books I’ve ever read” (seriously, the means by which that particular HEA was earned made me absolutely ripshit), and then I figured out the stuff in the above post, so now I’m more or less done. However, I am still willing to entertain recommendations directed more specifically at me; a number of the people here have a very good idea of what I like, so if they say a particular thing might work for me, I will listen.

      • green_knight

        Part of me and Romance not getting on is that there is a reading protocol that I don’t grok. If a stranger sits on the heroine’s porch after dark, she asks them to leave, and he says ‘no, I have things to discuss with you’ then I don’t see ‘hero showing his masculine qualities and asserting himself’ I see ‘at best, a jerk who has no respect for her wishes; not boyfriend material’. And I’d be typing 999 on my mobile phone, just in case.

        I’m a little annoyed at how difficult it has become to find Fantasy novels without a Romance subplot, as if Hero/heroine not getting together is a prerequisite for any story – I love, love LOVE Juliet McKenna’s () relationships (very romantic, but not central to the plot; she writes a good mixture of adventure and mystery plots: characters might be in love, but they don’t drop the rest of their lives.)

        • Marie Brennan

          My impression, from discussions I’ve seen among romance readers, is that “alphole” heroes (a nice little portmanteau of “alpha asshole”) are on the decline, and good riddance.

      • diatryma

        Which book had the bad ending?

  13. rj_anderson

    Have you read Megan Whalen Turner’s pseudo-historical fantasy series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings)? They’re not romances by any means — far more concerned with cunning double-bluffs, political tensions, the psychological aftermath of violence, and what happens when the gods you always thought were myths start interfering in your life — but the romantic subplots in books 2-4 worked for me like gangbusters.

    I came into the series expecting a bog-standard quasi-medieval European setting featuring a dauntless young street urchin who becomes a thief with the help of some white-bearded mentor. I could not have been proven more thoroughly wrong, or more delighted to be so.

  14. mrissa

    I find a lot of people’s actual romances baffling and implausible, so it’s no surprise that I have this problem with literature. “What on earth do you have in common?” is a question one really oughtn’t to ask; when the answer is “we are of similar age and class and would both like to have regular heterosexual sex and children, while keeping our main emotional life and interests for our same-sex friends,” I get depressed, even if it’s not stated in so many words. It doesn’t get better when they don’t have same-sex friends for their main emotional life and interests, either.

    I also have a stylistic focus problem with genre romance. A lot of genre romance tends to want far, far more visual description than I care about. I get bored long before the central pair gets to bantering, because do I care what the room looks like in cinematic detail? I do not.

    Another thing is, I am a plausibility junkie. One of the romance novels I read had the hero tying the heroine up (fine) and suspending her by the wrists from a hotel curtain rod. What follows that in my mind is 1) heroine tangled in nasty dusty-smelling hotel curtains after the rod has been pulled down and bonked one or more of them on the head and 2) embarrassed attempts to jointly explain the situation to hotel staff upon checkout. So I’m giggling in anticipation of the comedy about to ensue, and…the hero is ravishing the heroine smoothly, glibly, no problems. I take technical implausibility as foreshadowing data rather than an idealized world. You’d think I’d be able to switch into physicist mode, but it turns out that muttering to myself, “Assume a massless frictionless pulley,” in the middle of reading a sex scene does not help.

    I also have terminology problems. This started when I was reading the sex scenes in my mom’s Jean Auel novels as an adolescent and going, “I don’t believe I was issued the equipment described. Orchid? Seriously? No orchids here.”

    I am cranky and have eccentric standards, is what.

  15. puddleshark

    I’d second the Megan Whalen Turner recommendation – the romance is inextricably bound up in politics, distinctly chancy, and oddly touching.

    ‘Freedom and Necessity’ by Emma Bull and Steven Brust has a very slowly developing romantic subplot. Includes one of my favourite seduction scenes in the genre (and I usually skim over seduction scenes as all-much-of-a-muchness).

    Martha Wells often has a romantic element threaded through some very entertaining light adventure fantasy. I love her dry sense of humour.

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s later Vorkosigan books – ‘Komarr’ and ‘A civil campaign’ – are an entertaining mix of politics and romance. Her Sharing Knife books are romantic fantasy.

    • scribble_myname

      I primarily read Christian, but I’m a very picky romance reader, so here are some that the romance is not slambang over the head and pure physical:

      The Apothecary’s Daughter (kept me guessing, actually)
      The Acts of Faith series by Davis Bunn and Janette Oke

      and on the nonChristian side:
      I like Julie Garwood

    • Marie Brennan

      Yay dry senses of humour!

      I’ll keep those in mind.

  16. princess_allura

    It’s not a romance novel per sae but V.B. Rose might be in your zone for romance and character investment. It’s Manga so take that with a grain of salt. 🙂

  17. stakebait

    Georgette Heyer’s Venetia might do — it’s not massively plotty but it is all about having things in common that are important to you besides/in addition to lust, and I give it massive bonus points for turning the reformed rake idea on its ear. She’s got plottier stories, but IMO they can take a turn at madcap; none in which the couple are so convincingly right for each other and equals.

    Otherwise my best offerings are not Actual Romances — Tommy and Tuppence in Christie; Miles and — virtually everyone he’s ever dated — in the Vorkosiganverse.

    And Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered books. Totally fits on knowing each other a long time and having a shared project.

    I adore the romance in Kay’s Tigana, but they are definitely not standing together looking in the same direction — they are standing together looking in opposite directions, and therein lies the tragedy.

    • Marie Brennan

      Heyer is one of those authors (like Bujold) who’s been on my “I really ought to read some or all of her stuff” list for a while now. Once I get done overdosing on Bujold, she won’t be far behind.

      • elaine_thom

        Heyer had at least a couple very non-traditional romance novels, one, my favorite as I age, _Civil Contract_ about the slow growth of caring in an arranged marriage, and another – title escapes me but it might have been _Cotillion_ – wherein the heroine learns not to go for the hero-type, but for the fellow who is caring and has good color sense. His name was Freddie, and his father is suprised when he shows competence. I thought it was a charming story.

        You mentioned Tang Dynasty China, and someone above just mentioned GG Kay. His latest _Under Heaven_ is based on Tang China. And people fall in love and get married, but it isn’t the main plot by any means.

        To the person who mentioned Tigana, was it Dianora you were talking about? Because there is Alessan and what’s her name, too. And Brand and his lady friend. I haven’t read it in too long, must dig it out.

        Elaine T.

        • Marie Brennan

          I sort of feel like I should read A Civil Contract before I read A Civil Campaign, as I’m given to understand Bujold borrows heavily from Heyer in that one. (As the title rather suggests.)

          • snickelish

            As someone who read the Miles books long ago and just got around to reading A Civil Contract, I can’t see that they have anything remotely to do with one another except in name. The Bujold is primarily a comedy with politics; the Heyer is neither political nor, alas, particularly funny. Certainly I don’t think you need to read the Heyer to appreciate the Bujold.

            However, I second the recommendation for Cotillion. It’s by far my favorite Heyer and is one of very few books I’ve read where I actively cared about the romance. Freddy Standen is marvelous, and there’s a strong supporting cast of interesting characters with side romances.

    • jehane_writes

      Chiming in with the Tigana adoration. Love GGK, and his take on romance overall.

  18. Anonymous

    Georgette Heyer

    Ms. Heyer wrote a huge number of Regency romances in the mid-20th century, before Hornypants scenes became acceptable (and eventually de riguer–yawn). Since I also abhor overreliance on at-first-sight nonsense, I prefer those of her novels that focus on characters who knew each other –or at least a reputation thereof– prior to the story’s beginning, such as in *Venetia* or *Sylvester*.

    While the A plots are pretty much romance, the B plots concern finances, scandals, foolish youngsters, and other issues that are small stakes by “save the world” genre standards, but huge stakes by any individual character’s standards. The result: lots of snappy dialogue and that comfy feeling that you’re well-settled in a historical period.

    So while she’s neither Dunnett nor Austen, she’s a lot more satisfying than anyone I’ve read on the modern romance shelves. Plus I don’t have to worry about leaving her novels out where the Short Voracious Readers will pick them up; I have no intention of explaining that particular use of the term “Orchid” to the Pre-K crowd.

    Oh, and I know what you mean about Dean’s *Tam Lin*; something similar goes in on *Snow White and Rose Red* from the Fairy Tale series, where Blanche gets the dreamy A-plot romance but you know the cooler romance is the B-plot one. But yeah, not a lot of really good love stories in literature by my standards. I will go find *Bet Me* now.

    By the way, sorry to post Anonymously, but I don’t subscribe to, um, anything, so I don’t have an LJ handle. –Reaux, Minister of Love Emerita

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Georgette Heyer

      No problem with posting anonymously; I’ve been doing the tedious work of rooting out spam comments (of which there have been a recent flood) because I’d like people to be able to do just that.

      Heyer I am definitely intending to try; I just haven’t had the time yet.

      • lenora_rose

        Re: Georgette Heyer

        Just remember when it comes to Heyer that she has some truly undeniable duds; for early attempts, stick with ones people recommend, and you’ll avoid most of her worst. (I liked Venetia and Cotillion of the recs here, and I’d add the Talisman Ring, which has a gothicesque plot, but the characters know it and the more common-sense pairing are annoyed at having to negotiate its sillier elements. TOH, it gives them common cause a-plenty.)

        • lenora_rose

          Re: Georgette Heyer

          Oops. Linked here from Yuki_onna, and didn’t check the time stamp…

          • Marie Brennan

            Re: Georgette Heyer

            No worries! I still get comment notifications, and as long as things aren’t spam, I don’t mind them being delayed. 🙂

            As for Heyer, yes — I intend to pick her up at some point, but I’m going to ask for recs before I dive in.

  19. Anonymous

    Some of Judith Tarr’s work (I’m thinking specifically Throne of Isis, Lord of the Two Lands, and The Eagel’s Daughter) are good amalgams of historical, romance, and a sprinkling of fantasy.

    • Marie Brennan

      Noted! I’ve got one of her books on my shelf that I haven’t read yet, but I can’t recall which one, and at the moment I’m too lazy to go check. 🙂

  20. diatryma

    I do not know much about what you like specifically, but you might look for connected romances– like the Wallflowers books or the Bridgertons. I like romances because the side characters eventually get their own books; it’s like having a group protagonist in some ways. And for a while it seemed like romance was the only place I found really strong bonds between women.

    I may be close to another Nora Roberts binge, probably starting with the Quinn books– Sea Swept, Rising Tide, Inner Harbor, and there is no fourth book, no seriously, it never happened. Those have three brothers coming together to protect a fourth, figure out how he fits into the family’s history, and also kind of grow into the people they will be via love and ambition. It’s Nora Roberts World, which takes its own suspension of disbelief, but still. The Born In books, maybe, depending on your tolerance for Nora Roberts World.

    Some of the Nora Roberts thrillers might be what you’re looking for; they are generally standalones but have, you know, dead people in them. And her heroines generally save themselves. I could go on about this for days.

    Crusie, yes, Heyer, yes, but really, what I like is to read a bunch of connected books so I see everything. Sometimes I run into the nonepilogue version of the epilogue with a baby in it, but most of it’s good.

    (althogh I warn you: I have a thing for brothers and families in general.)

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ve never read any Nora Roberts; if I did, I would probably start with her thrillers, as they are more likely to supply my desire for plot.

      I did read three or maybe four of the Wallflowers books, and liked ’em okay; the one that started with the marriage of convenience was my favorite of the lot, precisely because it had more in the way of non-romance plot to it (I think they were trying to make a go of a business together — a gambling den or something? — and then there was her family being out to get her, too). Also, the hero was probably the only “rake” with actual rakish qualities I’ve yet seen in romance. That was one of the things that annoyed me about the one Bridgerton book I read, that the hero supposedly had this reputation as a big ol’ rake, and did absolutely nothing to deserve it: no gambling, no womanizing, nothing of the sort.

      • diatryma

        Oh, the Bridgertons. “I am a rake because I am male.” Total rakefail.

        Kleypas is pretty good for families and sets, but she has twice missed the last book– the last Wallflower and the last Hathaway are both out-of-nowhere and not as satisfying. I think Sabrina Jeffries is another good one for sets.

        Nora Roberts: I started with Tribute, which is unfortunately exactly wrong in every way except that I like it. Maybe the In Deaths, at least the first three. Blue Smoke is really good, and High Noon made me realize that she is just willing to do things I would never think of.

        • Marie Brennan

          I don’t remember if I read the last Wallflower book. If I did, I totally forgot it afterwards. Which, by your description, is possible.

          • diatryma

            Daisy meets a guy connected to her family, rather than to Wallflower society. Something might happen, but he wasn’t foreshadowed at all– couldn’t be, unless there was a mention of the guy her father wants her to marry back in America, who is a surrogate son. It isn’t signaled as sequelbait at all.

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  22. shanna_s

    I came to a similar epiphany a couple of years ago when I realized that I didn’t find romance novels romantic, which is kind of embarrassing, considering I’ve had romance novels published. Part of it was the hornypants thing, which gets more ridiculous the more external plot there is. When a serial killer has just grabbed his latest victim and the two FBI agents have only a few hours to track him down and save the victim and they’re mostly thinking about what they want to do to each other, I’m thinking, “Priorities, people!”

    I also don’t like the way the conflict has to be between the hero and heroine, which leads to a lot of “I hate him and everything he stands for, but he’s so hot, and I hate that I want him so much” stuff. Maybe I’m weird, but if I think a guy is a jerk, then he becomes less attractive to me, not more. And then even if the heroine doesn’t think the hero is Satan incarnate, she’s irked by his very existence. Like, don’t you just hate it when the perfect man waltzes into your life and falls madly in love with you, and it’s really inconvenient because you chose that day to assert your independence and he’s ruining your plans. I prefer a relationship to grow out of people working together, not working against each other.

    I’ll third (or fourth, or whatever) the Georgette Heyer recommendation. That’s about the only genre romance I read these days. There are also a few romantic adventures from the 70s and very early 80s by Madeleine Brent, which was a pen name for Peter O’Donnell, author of the Modesty Blaise books. They had a lot of the Gothic structure, with spooky houses, lots of family secrets, the guy who seemed good but turned out to be bad and the guy who seemed dark and dangerous but who turned out to be good. But they were a lot more action-oriented with the heroine more proactive than in the typical Gothic. Most of them involved an English girl brought up in some foreign place, where she learned some unique survival skills. Then fate brought her back to England, where her foreign upbringing made it hard for her to fit in with Victorian or Edwardian society. But then her unique skills enabled her to save the day (and quite often the hero). For instance, there was one where she was kidnapped as an infant and left to die in the Outback, where she was found by Aborigines and brought up by them until she was found by missionaries who brought her back to England, but then later she gets to put her expert tracking skills to use to catch the bad guys and save everyone. I think these are all out of print, but I’ve always found them in the library.

    The books Connie Willis co-wrote with Cynthia Felice work like romance novels for me, with the elements I want from a romance (in a science fiction setting) but without the stuff I don’t usually like.

    For more straightforward contemporary romance type stories without the romance elements that are annoying, I like some of Sarah Bird’s earlier books. They’re shelved in mainstream fiction, but she wrote category romance under another name and she knows the genre. Both The Boyfriend School and Alamo House have love stories, but they’re also kind of satirical about the genre, and they’re laugh-out-loud funny.

    • Marie Brennan

      When a serial killer has just grabbed his latest victim and the two FBI agents have only a few hours to track him down and save the victim and they’re mostly thinking about what they want to do to each other, I’m thinking, “Priorities, people!”

      Yeah, exactly. I lose a lot of respect for the characters if they can’t put their hormones aside long enough to focus on the job.

      I also don’t like the way the conflict has to be between the hero and heroine

      I like it if it’s the right kind of conflict. But it has to be grounded in something valid — unlike your latter example — and not be insurmountable in real life — unlike your former example. (Okay, maybe that’s not insurmountable, but it shouldn’t be surmounted; if the guy’s an ass, I don’t care how hot he is, stay away.)

  23. algelic

    Hi! I just found randomly while looking at someone’s F-list. And I’m very happy to have found you!

    This post seems like it came from my dreams! I could have written it myself!

    I agree with all the things you said about “Butterfly Swords”. I bought it the day it was released, because I’d read a very good review on Dear Author… and it was sooo boring. I was really interested in reading a story set in ancient China and starring a swordswoman, but in the end it was only a lame excuse for all the smut. Like a porn movie, it didn’t matter where it happened, all that mattered was the sex scenes. The “romance” was so unbelievable to me, all about lust and not really knowing the other person. The plot wasn’t much of a plot. — I really regretted spending my money on this book.

    I’ve always liked a bit of romance in the books I read, but I only truly entered the world of romance novels around a year ago. I needed some light reading to balance all the heavy college work. 90% of what I tried didn’t please me… it’s like looking for gold in a junkyard.

    I leave you some recommendations of books with very good romance (not lust):
    – Sevenwaters trilogy by Juliet Marillier (the second book was the best of all, in my opinion) — the story itself is bigger and more important that the romance, though the latter becomes one of the most unforgettable love stories you will ever see. Love it.
    – “The Tea Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly — amazing book, seriously. I can’t say much without spoiling anything, but the lead female character is a very strong woman whose spirit is never broken and she doesn’t rely on men. The romance is very touching, but secondary to the story.
    – “Mine to Possess” a book in the Psy/Changeling series by Nalini Singh. Childhood friends/sweethearts meet again as adults and rekindle their love.

    I could recommend many more books, but suddenly I can’t remember any! XD temporary amnesia…

    I’m going to check out the rest of your LJ! ^_^ it’s nice to find another book addict!

    • Marie Brennan

      Butterfly Swords was given to me as a Christmas present (off my wish-list); I feel guilty that a family member spent money on it for me. It was so not the book I wanted it to be.

      (Also, random side complaint: I can understand Anglicizing Ai Li’s name when seeing her from the hero’s pov. But calling her “Ailey” even when in her pov gives me the impression that the author isn’t as interested in Tang China as she ought to be.)

      Thanks for the recs; I’ll keep them in mind!

      • algelic

        (Also, random side complaint: I can understand Anglicizing Ai Li’s name when seeing her from the hero’s pov. But calling her “Ailey” even when in her pov gives me the impression that the author isn’t as interested in Tang China as she ought to be.)

        Urgh! It’s been a while since I read the book and I’ve read many others since then… but NOW you remind me of that! I kept thinking “Am I the only one annoyed by the Westernization of the girl’s name?!” — I mean, it’s not like it was a long and complicated name to shorten… it was seriously the last straw in a long series of “screw the foreign location!” references.

        And since I actually study modern and ancient China as part of my degree, I felt the insult much deeper than the average reader!

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  25. algelic

    I’m coming back to this post just to add a little something:
    – I wrote down what people suggested in the comments and took a leap of faith by buying 4 of those novels.

    So far I’ve read two, “Silver Metal Lover” by Tanith Lee and “Bet me” by Jennifer Crusie, and I loved them! Specially the first one.

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