Maybe it’s a cliché to write a romance-themed blog post for Valentine’s Day, but the celebration is rife with clichés so I thought, why not?
In medieval and Renaissance times, a romance was not a love story but “a long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place” (freedictionary.com). Sounds awfully like the modern-day definition of the fantasy genre, doesn’t it? However when it comes to the modern definition of romance, you tend to find readers divided on the subject.
On the one hand you have the “girl cooties” school of fantasy, inspired by the work of Tolkien, who spent most of his life in the male-dominated circles of the early twentieth century English education system. Such books seem designed to appeal to the adolescent male, with female characters who are at best an idealised Other, and at worst a collection of sexist stereotypes. This is a gross generalisation of course, and there have been lots of fantasy novels with strong female characters, but there are nonetheless still plenty of readers who dislike any hint of romance sullying their heroes’ testosterone-soaked adventures.
In the opposite corner you have the new kid on the block, paranormal romance, which seems designed to appeal mainly to female readers. Owing more to the Gothic novels of the early nineteenth century, these are love stories first and foremost, with the fantasy elements typically providing the obstacles between the lovers. I suspect that part of their rise in popularity, as with m/m romance, lies in the fact that modern Western couples face few obstacles in their relationships compared to previous generations. “(S)he’s a vampire/werewolf/angel/zombie” has replaced “our parents would never allow it” as the star-crossed lovers’ angst du jour.
But what of the middle ground? What are the fantasy novels that fall between these extremes, and where do you draw the line? This question occurred to me after reading Ten Ruby Trick by my friend Julia Knight. For the most part this is a fun swashbuckling adventure, like the old movies I used to watch on Sunday afternoons. Sure, there’s a romance between the hero, Van Gast, and the tricksy pirate captain Josie, but the love scenes are fairly infrequent and not terribly steamy.
In many respects, therefore, it’s not that dissimilar from my own novel The Alchemist of Souls – and yet Ten Ruby Trick is published by Carina, an ebook imprint of Harlequin, whereas I’m published by SFF imprint Angry Robot. So what makes Julia’s book romance and mine not? I pondered this for a while and realised it was all down to the characters’ motivation. In Ten Ruby Trick, both Van Gast and his enemy Holden are motivated by their love for Josie; if it wasn’t for their feelings, there would be no plot. In The Alchemist of Souls, the romance is confined to a subplot. Take it away, and you would still be left with Mal’s main storyline, which has nothing to do with romance (though it is ultimately concerned with love, loyalty and responsibility). It’s a subtle distinction, but one that makes all the difference in how the book is marketed.
What about you? Do you like romance in your fantasy, fantasy in your romance, or do you prefer the two genres to stay separate?