R. A. Steffan: Reverse Harem and the Rise of Polyamorous Fantasy Romance

One of the hottest trends in fantasy romance these days is “reverse harem,” in which the female main character ends up with several romantic interests rather than just one. But that, dear readers, is not the beginning of the story…

Once upon a time, back when dinosaurs roamed the aisles of Waldenbooks, an author decided that love triangles in romance novels were silly and frustrating. “Why can’t my heroine ride off into the sunset with BOTH of the sexy hunks?” she grumbled… and so the genre of ménage romance was born.

For decades, avid ménage readers sought out covers with the female main character swooning in the arms of multiple hot (and usually bare-chested) guys. In addition to the large publishing houses that ran niche romance imprints specializing in ménage, a handful of boutique publishers also sprang up to cater to the small but voracious readership.

Somewhat ironically for a genre that’s all about not having to choose, the existence of this limited number of gatekeepers resulted in ménage books that were almost laughably formulaic, in many cases. Publishers—I kid you not—issued guidelines on everything from plot structure to book length to the content of the story’s climactic (heh!) group sex scene. Double penetration or bust, baby!

Enter: Self-Publishing!

But then, something huge happened in the book world—enter the e-book self-publishing revolution. Almost overnight, new authors flooded into the marketplace on the back of Amazon’s groundbreaking Kindle publishing platform. And many of these self-published authors were writing in niche romance categories, like ménage.

While still influential within the genre, the publishing houses no longer controlled ménage exclusively. Formulaic plots grew less formulaic, LGBT content flourished, and a complex system of code came into common usage to describe the central relationship in ménage books. MMMF? That’s three bisexual guys with a woman. MFM? Two straight guys with a woman (the Ms don’t touch!). FFFF? Four lesbian or bi women in a relationship. MMM? Three gay or bi guys.

Even so, the vast majority of ménage still stayed within certain guidelines. It was almost exclusively either contemporary romance or paranormal romance, for one thing. (Fantasy and historical ménage does exist, but it’s rare, not to mention a very hard sell for authors. Go on… ask me how I know!) The genre also leaned heavily toward erotic romance or outright erotica, with much of the emphasis being placed on the buildup to group sex and the eventual payoff.

Reverse Harem: From Japanese Manga & Anime to Ebooks

Ouran High School Host Club (2006), a Japanese “reverse harem” anime TV show

Meanwhile, another book-related phenomenon was quietly bubbling in the background. Borrowing from a type of Japanese manga in which the female main character is surrounded by a number of male love (and friendship) interests vying for her attention, a handful of Western authors were writing books in which the YA (young adult) heroine openly cultivated a number of romantic partners. These partners were aware of each other and generally okay with sharing the girl. Often they were already friends, or they were otherwise connected in some sort of previously existing group.

Introductions: The Ghost Bird Series: #1 (2012) by C. L. Stone

The focus was in these books was less on sex and more on emotional relationship building. C. L. Stone, author of the Ghost Bird series, was the first to borrow the Japanese manga term “reverse harem” to describe this new book genre. Unlike the manga stories, however, in Western-style reverse harem books, the main character never chooses one partner over the others.

But what is reverse harem?

The genre took off with readers in 2017, becoming one of the hottest trends of the year in self-publishing. Reverse harem readers were voracious and knew exactly what they wanted. Woe betide any author who tried to pass off a ménage book with—gasp!—two men (instead of three or more) as reverse harem. It was even worse if the main character ended up with one love interest at the end, instead of all of them—that way lay author career suicide. Additionally, readers wanted the men of the harem to be exclusively focused on the woman; the prevailing opinion at the time was that as soon as any of the guys went bisexual and started getting it on with each other as well as the girl, it was no longer reverse harem.

There were heated exchanges on social media groups related to the proper definition of a harem, arguing that since the women in historical harems weren’t having sex with each other, obviously the men in a reverse harem shouldn’t be having sex with each other. (Of course, some of the women in historical, real-world harems were having sex with each other—and it happened commonly enough that there were laws in place outlining how to deal with them when they were caught. But, anyhoo…)

Another interesting phenomenon around the same time was the amount of friction arising between ménage readers and RH (reverse harem) readers. RH readers decided at some point that ménage (in book terms) referred exclusively to ménage à trois—three people in a relationship—while RH was three or more men with one woman. Since the most widely known and commercially successful ménage series of all time was about three brothers with one woman, this came as a bit of a surprise to ménage readers and authors, to put it mildly.

As RH branding began to creep into the wider book-buying consciousness, some well-known reviewers and authors in the ménage world began to publicly chafe at “ménage books being relabeled reverse harem for no reason.” There was a fair amount of vitriol over ménage writers allegedly “jumping ship” into RH-land to make a quick buck, as well as irritation at the chaste, young-adult nature of many of the early RH books. Some people also took serious exception to the use of the word harem itself, because of the negative connotations of real, historical harems when it came to women’s rights.

Reverse Harem takes fantasy by storm

Trickery (Curse of the Gods Book 1) by Jaymin Eve and Jane Washington

Predictably, as the two genres began to overlap more and more, the inevitable creativity of authors threw even more new questions into the mix: “Why is there no fantasy romance RH (or ménage) to speak of? Why is it all contemporary and paranormal romance? Let’s fix that right now!” And suddenly, second-world fantasy reverse harem books like Jaymin Eve and Jane Washington’s Curse of The Gods series began topping the Amazon charts.

“Why aren’t the guys in a reverse harem allowed to get it on with each other, as long as the main focus is still on the main female character and she thinks it’s hot?” And suddenly M/M (male/male sex) started popping up more and more often in commercially successful reverse harem series, despite the early resistance to it.

“What if the female main character is bisexual, and there’s a woman in the harem along with the men?” And… yeah, okay, that one’s still ongoing. The current consensus seems to be that as long as the woman in the harem is lesbian (and thereby doesn’t constitute a temptation for the harem’s men), you can technically still call it a reverse harem… but you’ll turn away quite a few readers by doing so.

What about polyamory?

At this point, someone will almost always pop in to say, “Hey, it sounds like you’re getting into polyamorous romance territory here, rather than reverse harem.” (Often, it’s me saying that. Hey, it’s my thing, all right?)

Because the reality is that all of these book-related terms are completely arbitrary. Not only that, but they evolve over time. Still, at least in my opinion, poly romance can be considered the overarching umbrella term for these sorts of books. The only restriction on poly romance is that 1) it must contain more than two people in a consensual romantic relationship, 2) everyone must know about everyone else, and 3) there must not be any cheating (see #2).

That’s it.

All reverse harem—and all ménage—is by definition also poly romance. Some reverse harem books are also ménage. Other reverse harem books, such as young adult RH and RH in which there is no group sex, are not ménage. Conversely, MFMM+ ménage can accurately be labeled RH, but MMM ménage (for instance) could not be.

Captive: Beautiful Monsters Vol. 1 by Jex Lane

Additionally, there are series like Jex Lane’s Beautiful Monsters. It’s poly romance, but with a male main character and no group sex, it doesn’t fit in either the ménage or the RH box. Basically, these days, whatever you’re after when it comes to multiple people in a fantasy romance relationship, it’s probably out there somewhere. The challenge can be finding it—and that’s where reader groups and clear book descriptions by authors and publishers come in.

But, wait! Enter a final wrinkle—call it a final plot twist, if you will.

As an author of fantasy poly romance books with strong LGBT content and explicit sex—combined with what I hope is strong world-building and external plotting—I’ve pretty much fallen into the position of having no clear audience for my work over the years. Frankly, I couldn’t even tell you if my books are romantic fantasy or fantasy romance. If I’ve accomplished what I set out to do, then taking away the romance elements from my books would leave you with exactly fifty percent of a story. Similarly, taking away the external plot elements would leave you with the other fifty percent of a story.

As both an author and a reader, the little boxes of RH/ménage/poly romance/LGBT/no LGBT have always been frustrating for me. In the past few months, though, I’ve watched something new bubbling up in the bibliosphere.

In response to ever more draconian crackdowns by major book advertising platforms regarding anything that even hints at alternative lifestyles, poly romance authors have started getting creative in a truly lovely way. Amazon, for instance, no longer allows the term “reverse harem” or “RH” in any of its advertising. Ménage romance and any mention of LGBT content is also a no-go for advertising. This has become a huge problem for authors who rely on that kind of advertising to drive book sales and make their living.

Something had to change, and fast.

#WhyChoose

Fortunately, some time ago the social media hashtag #whychoose started popping up for books where—you guessed it—the main character doesn’t have to choose between love interests. While not as well known as the term “reverse harem,” readers were at least somewhat familiar with #whychoose as a genre description.

So, after seeing their advertising opportunities shrivel away to almost nothing, poly romance authors of all flavors have gradually started to label their books “Why-Choose Romance.” And as far as I’m concerned, this is good news for readers as well as authors. With awareness of the new label increasing among fantasy readers, the options for finding books that might not fit neatly into the strict definitions of RH or ménage grow, too.

Because, after all… when it comes to book romance in all its beautiful and interesting permutations, why would you ever want to choose in the first place?

What is your all-time favorite #whychoose fantasy romance and why? Share in the comments!

About the Author

USA Today bestselling author R. A. Steffan lives in a very boring (but pretty) part of flyover country in the Midwestern US. When she’s not busy writing stories about people loving each other in all sorts of different and interesting ways, she can be found taking care of her small menagerie of critters.
A rebel to the core, she is currently sticking it to the man by illegally harboring ducks within the city limits, where only chickens are allowed. This fearless disregard for societal norms extends to her writing, as well. There, you will find polyamory along with straight, gay, bisexual, and non-gender conforming love of all flavors. You will also find families of choice, profound friendships, adventure, danger, and good triumphing over evil.

That, and sex. Lots of sex. Most of which is not the vanilla variety.

Reach her at:

R. A. Steffan’s recent release is The Dragon Mistress: Book 2:

The survival of the last living dragons rests with me and my misfit friends.
So… yeah. No pressure.

Mind you, this whole thing would be easier if two of our number weren’t hell-bent on killing each other. Rayth and Nyx have both been hiding secrets for a very long time, but now they face a choice. Let go of their ugly pasts, or watch the future burn to the ground.

We won’t be able to hide five hungry, growing dragons in the mountains forever. As soon as someone catches sight of them, every soldier in Utrea will be after us. And there’s no way we can fight for our dragons’ survival when we’re this busy fighting amongst ourselves.

I’ve always been the queen of questionable life choices, but falling for four proud, stubborn, damaged men at the same time is a new benchmark even for me. What we’re building with the dragons—and each other—could be amazing beyond belief. It could also end in tragedy beyond measure.

If I want it to be the former, it looks like I need to start banging some heads together. Otherwise, our hopes and dreams could well go down in flames.

* * *

The Dragon Mistress by USA Today bestseller R. A. Steffan is a medium-burn fantasy romance series where the heroine doesn’t have to choose one person at the end. It is part of the Eburosi Chronicles, along with The Horse Mistress and The Lion Mistress. It’s not necessary to have read any of the other books in the series before starting The Dragon Mistress.

A special note for Fantasy readers: herein, you will find explicit love scenes in several interesting and unconventional permutations. If your gut reaction to that is “Eww” or even “Meh,” you probably won’t enjoy this series.

Catharine Glen: The Path To Reverse Harem Romance

Fushigi Yuugi: Miaka Yuki (center) and her Celestial Warriors

A young woman tumbles into a magical book and discovers she’s the savior of the “fictional” country she’s landed in. To save the country and return to her own world, she must find her seven celestial warriors, who are all bound to aid her on her quest. Along the way, the relationships among them grow, strengthen, and evolve. There’s romance and friendship, humor and heartache, angst and suffering, all as they face a dangerous adversary who will stop at nothing to prevent their success – and ensure his own.

This is the basic plot to Fushigi Yuugi (Mysterious Play), my favorite anime and manga series as well as my original introduction to the reverse harem genre. Fushigi Yuugi is a hallmark example. You’ve got a strong-spirited young woman, a Chosen One portal fantasy adventure, an array of handsome men destined to join her quest, romantic tension and angst, and the exploration of the relationships that grow among and between them. All the good stuff!

So when I learned from a fellow author that people are writing reverse harem romances in Western fiction, I was stunned and super excited! Being a longtime anime fan as well as a reader of fantasy (and romantic fantasy when I could find it), it was choirs singing and birds soaring. Now, I absolutely love a traditional romance between two people, but seeing reverse harem romances – something I always associated with being unique to anime – appear in my beloved fantasy, it changed things for me, both as a writer and a reader.

REVERSE HAREM: WHAT IS IT?

A reverse harem (often abbreviated as RH) refers to the “one woman, multiple men” romance dynamic – the literal flipside of the more recognized and historical traditional harem (many women kept by one polygamous male). A more modern and descriptive term is “why choose,” as the female protagonist (or “center”) is not required to choose one – she can have them all! The harems themselves include three or more members and can have both genders within (i.e. not always a male harem).

In the context of a story, the harem can either be the focal point of the plot (the center must find or connect to her harem in order to defeat the big bad), or could be the subplot (the center must defeat the big bad but also gathers a harem along the way). This can be paralleled with fantasy romance (romance/harem is the plot) and romantic fantasy (romance/harem is subplot), which author Miranda Honfleur distinguishes very well here. Epic fantasy lends itself very well to the idea of reverse harems, though just as in anime, RH stories span genres from contemporary to paranormal to science fiction. It is a boundless dynamic, and readers can pretty much find any “flavor” that they are keen on reading.

The genre mainly appeals to female readers. Though varying degrees of sexual relations and explicitness are present, the focus is mainly on the relationships. Specifically, those the center has with her harem: how they first come together, the means of attraction, the resulting emotions and feelings, how the guys relate to one another, and of course how they work together in the end. This romantic dynamic is in a sense itself fantasy, as it is not commonplace in the real world. And what could be more exciting than being loved and supported by more than one partner?

REVERSE HAREM: EAST VS. WEST

Akatsuki no Yona: Yona (center) and her Dragon Warriors

There is no doubt that the idea of reverse harems has been present and popular in Eastern media for a long time. Despite many similarities (female protagonist, multiple guys with different personalities, focus on the relationships, etc.) the one main difference is Choice.

In Eastern media (anime, manga, dramas, etc.), the girl either chooses one mate by the end, or does not choose anyone. There is either a canon pairing as defined by the story, or it is left ambiguous. This can be both fun and unsatisfying to a fan, especially if you’re really hoping the girl picks the guy you like! Otome or dating games are a balm for this, where as the player you can control who the protagonist chooses and watch the relationship develop. But in the end, the protagonist still chooses one mate.

Blood Lust by Auryn Hadley – Epic Fantasy Reverse Harem

In Western fiction, on the other hand, the girl can have them all! Fans have adopted the hashtag #whychoose, which means exactly that: why should the protagonist choose just one partner from her bevy of attractive potential mates? And what makes this dynamic particularly compelling goes back again to the relationships between her and her harem. Who are they? What is their connection to her?  How do they each fulfill her, support her, care for her? How do their different personalities complement and clash with each other? How do they resolve their feelings for her, as well as towards each other? If they are all romantically involved with her, then there is going to be tension, jealousy, and hopefully acceptance and love in the end.

WHAT REVERSE HAREM MEANS TO ME: EXPLORING OTHER FORMS OF LOVE

There’s no doubt I love a good, solid romance between two monogamous characters, and have for as long as I can remember. There’s something special there, reading about two characters who come together while they face adversity, or solve a mystery, and find love in the process. The attraction, the first kiss, the “will they / won’t they,” the forces keeping them apart, and the final resolution. Those elements are vital to me as a reader – I want to experience all those stages along with the characters, to feel the blossoming of love from their very first meeting. Blend that with my beloved fantasy, and I couldn’t be more content.

But there’s something exciting, complicated, and tantalizing about an intelligent, sexually independent woman who has not just one but a whole group devoted to her, supporting, protecting, and loving her. It’s a chance to explore how she relates to each potential mate, as well as the harem as a whole. How she interacts with one member of the group may be totally different than another. It’s not all about sex, though that may certainly be an element with some or even all. To me, it’s the discovery of how their relationships develop, how they each fulfill her and contribute to her growth, how the harem members grow, and how the group as a whole evolves together.

It’s a different kind of romance. A different kind of love. And for me, as both a writer and reader, it’s a path worth exploring.

What do you love most about the reverse harem fantasy genre?  What was the last reverse harem fantasy book that you read?  Share in the comments!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catharine Glen is an independent fantasy author residing in New England. As a child, she loved creating stories about distant lands filled with adventure and mystery. She was probably one of the only students who actually liked writing academic reports, and as an adult discovered she had a knack for technical writing. Returning to her first passion—fiction—is like reliving a part of her childhood.

Reach her at:

Catharine’s forthcoming reverse harem romantic fantasy series, The Shadowed World Saga, is anticipated in late 2019.

Catharine is also the author of the romantic fantasy novel The Rose Crown.

Elite soldier Marian serves and protects the royal family—a responsibility she does not take lightly. But when she thwarts an assassination attempt on the king, she unwittingly becomes a prime suspect. Worse, she is left with a terrible, pulsing wound and vile, intrusive thoughts that are not her own. Now, the mysterious cult behind the attack has targeted her, and Marian soon learns of their goal to restore a devastating relic: the legendary Rose Crown.

Former mercenary Henryk has vowed to prevent the restoration of the Rose Crown at any cost. When he encounters Marian, he discovers the terrifying truth of her involvement—and the mortal danger they both face. Drawn together by the very thing that could destroy them, Henryk and Marian must forge a bond of trust—before it’s too late.

Can Marian battle against the ancient darkness consuming her soul, or will it utterly destroy them both?

J.M. Butler: Why Does Romance Belong in Epic Fantasy?

“Romance does not belong in epic fantasy.”

–Man in Writing group

That flat statement, followed by an explanation about how my infusing an otherwise “semi-intriguing world” with a “childish love story,” was the first bit of feedback I received in a particular writing group.

I dared to follow up with my own question: “Why not?”

The speaker was an older fellow who patterned himself after–at the very least appearing like–a literary great, complete with tweed jacket and artful arching of his thick grey eyebrow. All he lacked was the pipe, but he often tapped his chin as he stared at me through the computer screen. With a weary sigh, he rubbed his bald head and then stared at me as if I were the thickest person he had spoken to in a long while. “Romance is for women, epic fantasy is not.” He then referred to the notes he had sent me and read from the screen, “You have simply flipped, at best, the C plot for the A plot. No one will want to know about a cursed woman who realizes that she’s married to her greatest enemy due to an age-activated arranged marriage. Epic fantasy is about war. Battle strategies. Cunning maneuvers. A heroine who winds up married to a villain, no matter how charismatic he may be, simply isn’t interesting, no matter how many challenges she faces in reconciling her heart, her will, and her duty.”

I wish I could say I was surprised. This particular author, despite only having a couple books independently published himself (none of which were ranking especially high), insisted that my Tue-Rah Chronicles was doomed to failure unless I made it paranormal romance or urban fantasy, completely ignoring the many other elements that clashed with the preferences of those markets. “Those are more suitable for a woman with your… tastes.” (Yes, he did include those ellipses in the email he sent afterward.)

Book 1 of the Tue-Rah Chronicles

Sadly I’ve found that this attitude is fairly prevalent, though decreasing as time passes. Back when I started frequenting Yahoo Groups as a hopeful teenage writer, romance authors were mocked intensely within the fantasy communities. Stories focusing on “greater” issues did better in the critique groups (“greater issues” seeming to mean saving the world, fighting in vicious gritty battle, only engaging with others for sexual pleasure, and keeping love interests on hand only to kill off or provide increase in motivation). Any in-depth romantic relationships that existed within the pages were brutally critiqued in all caps that typically noted the story would be stronger if the romance was exorcised from the pages. There was one critiquer who regularly said that if such authors wanted to write romance, they should “get the f*ck out of epic fantasy.” It wasn’t a place for “soft writing” or “mushy topics.” The general belief seemed to be that romance readers were not intelligent enough to appreciate epic fantasy and fantasy readers were not patient enough to tolerate romance.

Epic fantasy (as viewed by some)

My own attempts were often met with harsh derision. Later, a mentor pointed out that the bigger issue was that I was a woman who wrote about “womanly issues” in a “male space” in an epic fantasy setting. That was not particularly acceptable within those groups.

The landscape of the genre, along with the writing world in general, has changed significantly in the past eighteen years. And overall, romance within epic fantasy is a little more accepted (not to mention it’s easier for me to find epic fantasy romance authors with amazing stories to read). But at least once a month, often more frequently, I have to explain why these epics can and perhaps even should have romance in them.

For some folks, it’s the shock of realizing that there is a subgenre out there that meets what they’re looking for (often deep worldbuilding with secondary worlds as well as complex characters and forefront romantic and personal relationships). For others, it’s an oddly aggressive reaction that suggests that somehow romance itself is an inferior focus and a genre for talentless women who want to write cheap and trite stories that don’t “mean” anything.

Sadly this general disdain of romance authors and readers is far from new (and far from gone). I have been removed from a few Facebook epic fantasy and secondary-fantasy groups because there was too much romance in my stories. In one case, I was told that there simply wasn’t room for “lesser fantasy stories.” In another, the owner of the group explained that, while he had not said “no romance as a dominant focus within the stories,” he felt it was best to keep it targeted to “serious epics” to improve his and others’ Also-Boughts.

But my argument then and now is the same: romance within fantasy epics can and should be included whenever the author desires. Let’s chat about the whys.

Readers Like It

This point is such an obvious one, but I want to make it anyway. Some readers love–no, adore–romance in their secondary-world epic fantasies. Even if that were limited only to women, that would be sufficient (especially since women make up the majority of active readers). Besides, women enjoying a genre does not make it inferior nor does it weaken the value in any respect. (Frankly the suggestion that romance as a top plot point in an epic makes it for women and also weakens the plot annoys me on so many levels I must be careful not to turn this into a rant.)

Fantasy epics are for everyone who enjoys reading a good epic. Everyone can certainly have their preferences, but one preference is not superior to the other. An epic without romance is not inherently stronger because of its lack of romance. And while we’re on the subject, romance is not an inferior genre nor are those stories less important simply for being romances.

The Epic Itself Does Not Require An Absence of Romance

In its simplest form, an epic is just a very large and long story often with world high stakes. It is typically broken into multiple books.

Arwen and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

In the genre itself, epic fantasies frequently include larger-than-life characters with larger-than-life explorations of themes and challenges. The fate of the world or all mankind or even a kingdom often come into play. Battles and epic deeds of derring-do or dastardliness often make an appearance.

Now there are additional elements and factors that one can consider. But for brevity’s sake, I’ll assure you that “not having romance as a focus” is not one of them. Fantasy epic is more of a descriptor regarding length, stakes, and setup, and it lends itself naturally to the inclusion of romance.

(In fact, I would go so far as to say that fantasy has always had an element of romance to it, but that’s another conversation for another day.)

Romance and Love Are a Part of All Lives

We are all defined by our relationships. Even the lack of relationships makes a difference in the way we experience the world. Romance and love of all types from platonic to erotic are key to our existence.

I have never managed to escape any significant relationship without being altered in some way, and characters are much the same. A bright shiny-eyed idealist who has never had her heart broken or a powerful hardened warrior who is daring to hope that there may yet be some good in the world are both distinct in part because of the relationships that have entered their lives or haven’t. Even the way people walk can be impacted by their relationships as well as their health and demeanor.

A well-known example of this would be the transformation of Westley from Princess Bride. In the beginning, he is a longsuffering, self-possessed farm boy who discovers true love. He is something of an idealist. His return after becoming the Dread Pirate Roberts marks someone who is initially bitter and resentful, believing that his true love has betrayed him. But even during his time on the ship of the Dread Pirate Roberts, he persists and appeals for life, based on his love for Buttercup. And more than once, that love gives him the strength to keep going.

In Phantastes, Anodos’s lack of a romantic relationship and desperation for one drives him almost to madness and to making a critical error that actually deprives him of the happiness he seeks. In fact, both this and the loss of his shadow are two vital elements of his character development and journey.

Though not really a fantasy epic, Disney’s Mulan includes a song titled “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” which is all about how these men are risking their lives for these hypothetical women they deem worth fighting for and hope to one day meet. Objectification issues aside, the song encapsulates some of the older perspectives many held for epics, in that true love, romance, and peace are for after the adventure is completed, rather than being part of the adventure itself. Yet life itself is rarely so easily categorized.

Feelings Matter

We readers experience the story’s world through the characters, and we feel what they feel, which makes the journey so important. If it weren’t about experiencing those emotions, then we might as well read only history books. But good storytelling is far more than a recounting of facts or a statement of what makes things dangerous. It’s the journey that these characters take and who they become. Feelings are a huge component of making that journey matter to us as readers.

Éowyn and Aragorn from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

In Lord of the Rings, Eowyn fears being trapped in a cage and becoming useless, fears I not only shared but found extremely compelling, even from a young age. The heartbreak within her confession of love for Aragorn and her subsequent rebuffment, both as a love interest and as a warrior fit for battle, is made all the more potent because of what she feels and the fears that drive her. Her subsequent connection with Faramir is all the sweeter because of what she endured previously. And this is from Lord of the Rings, a fantasy epic often cited as proof that romance should not exist within a fantasy epic. The story of Eowyn and Faramir made the story much stronger as a whole and added to the richness of the narrative.

Romance within a fantasy epic adds more feelings and motivations to the incredible feast epic fantasy offers. Incorporating romance, especially from multiple perspectives and stages within the relationship journeys, simply adds to the host of possibilities of emotional engagements readers experience. Women are allowed to participate in this space, not simply as objects to be won or admired, but as fully developed characters with agency and journeys of their own.

Epic Fantasy Is About The Fullness of Life

One of my favorite parts of epic fantasy is getting to see the ordinary lives of people within this fictional world. Sure, the massive battles, political intrigues, and daring encounters are delightful. The monsters, whether they are original creations, familiar beasts, or the ever-incredible dragons, are also a plus. But what is the protagonist fighting for? Is it only for power and possession? It’s amazing how quickly a story falls flat when a protagonist is only interested in monetary gain or fame, with no other purpose besides desire.

But when a seemingly hard character turns out to have some sort of a soft spot–and that soft spot almost always equals love of some kind–oh how quickly readers become invested! Whether dealing with noblebright or grimdark, the relationships are vital for making the story and the stakes count. Relationships, the people the characters love, the ones they are willing to live and die for, can make it all worth experiencing.

Book 1 of A Song of Ice and Fire

A Song of Ice and Fire is well known for its many conflicts, and yet comparatively, it does not have quite as many battles as one might expect. In fact, a fair bit of time is spent setting out the different elements of characters’ lives. Tyrion’s loneliness and the tragedy of what happened to his first love are not only defining elements to his character but a reason many readers hope he will find some happily ever after. Sansa might seem silly to some, but her desire to be loved, valued, and protected are understandable. And the nature of some romantic relationships form the core of certain conflicts within the epic itself. (But I’ll avoid spoilers here.) Watching these characters explore, experience, and even lose out on chances to find those individuals that understand, cherish, and accept them for who they are can be fulfilling, agonizing, and completely worth the effort.

A good epic should include the fullness of life to create fully developed characters from a variety of backgrounds. This inevitably includes love, and given that the romantic relationships within our own lives can be some of the most definitive and often form the core of the lives we create for ourselves, why should they be any less important to the characters we read about? Not everyone has to have a happy ending, of course. That’s never been the way of things. But the relationships will always be an element of that character’s life in some way or another.

So What Changes When Romance Is a More Dominant Element?

Often the greatest addition that comes about through making romance a larger issue or the A plot rather than the C plot, if you will, is that the protagonist’s success does not simply mean that he receives his love as a reward. (A common trope, especially in older fantasies and military and adventure stories as a whole, is that of the adventurer returning home, retiring and seeking comfort, understanding, and relaxation in the arms of a kind, understanding woman. She is likely to be killed off in the event of a sequel or spinoff.) Instead, the resolution or development of the romance as a whole becomes an important component to the story, and oftentimes the typical love interest may even be the protagonist and have her own say and agency in things rather than only being an item to be won.

Including more romance within an epic does not make the epic less serious by any means. It doesn’t mean that the entire story will be filled with passionate serenades or petty arguments or lopsided love triangles even if those elements may in fact appear. A stronger focus on romance does not spread cooties or some other virulent pox to be avoided. All a stronger focus on romance does is add additional elements to explore.

A fantasy epic that includes a dominant romance plot does not have to lose any of the things that make fantasy epics great. There can be just as many dragons, monsters, quests, banters, traps, ordeals, and trials as with any other. It’s just that some of the characters may feel a little more passionately about one another. There may not be as many passive persons waiting to be wooed or saved. And there may be many more stages of the relationship explored, ranging from the first meeting to the rekindling of the flame to the loss of a beloved to the ones who never missed a step and fought back to back with one another on the battlefield and through numerous adventures.

Fantasy epics with a focus on romance or that have strong romantic themes throughout them tell stories that matter. They’re about characters who feel much the way that we do and who experience great adventures and face tremendous trials, whether because of, in pursuit of, or in spite of the ones they love. Maybe these fantasy epics do feature a protagonist or two at one point trapped in a tower, hoping to be reunited with someone she loves. But in a well-told epic, all the protagonists will have their own agency, meaning that this woman too will have her own feelings and her journey will matter just as much whether she picks up a sword to jump into the fray or discovers other means for growing as a character and a person.

So why does romance belong in epic fantasy? I suppose I’ll just rephrase my first question: Why wouldn’t romance belong in epic fantasy?

How do you think romance enhances an epic fantasy story? What was your last epic fantasy read with romance, and what did you think about it? Share in the comments!

About the Author

J.M. Butler is an adventurer, author, and attorney who never outgrew her love for telling stories or playing in imaginary worlds. She is the author of The Tue-Rah Chronicles, which includes Identity Revealed and Enemy Known. Independent novellas set in the same world include Locked, Alone, and Cursed. She has also written a number of other stories including Mermaid Bride, Through the Paintings Dimly, and more. She writes primarily speculative fiction with a focus on multicultural high fantasy and suspenseful adventures with intriguing romances. And on top of that, she lives with her husband and law partner, James Fry, in rural Indiana where they enjoy creating fun memories, challenging each other, and playing with their three cats.

Reach her at:

J.M.’s romantic epic fantasy series The Tue-Rah Chronicles begins with Identity Revealed:

What if you prepared for the wrong destiny? 

Cursed by her devious mother, Amelia, a young mindreader is driven by a deadly destiny. Only she can defeat Naatos, the shapeshifting warlord, in his march of terror across the thirty-six worlds. But Naatos conquers her home in a murderous midnight ambush before she has even learned how to throw a knife. She flees to Earth where she dedicates her life to training, fearing the curse will make her a monster if she does not succeed in defeating Naatos. 

Naatos understands that with choice comes tragedy. He seeks to gather the worlds beneath his rule, righting the errors of previous monarchs and eliminating the complications of ignorant inhabitants. His only weakness is a young mindreader, the last living Neyeb. She doesn’t know who she really is, let alone what she will become, allowing him to twist both her destiny and curse to his advantage.

When Amelia finally returns to her home, the land of the bruin riders, she discovers her family captured, the royal court slaughtered, and her people imprisoned. She launches a rescue only to discover Naatos’s savagery and abilities exceed all reports. Even worse, the truth behind the curse and her identity eviscerates her resolve, forcing her to question everything from her beliefs to her priorities to her character. 

Outmatched and outflanked, Amelia must defend her nation and take control of her true destiny or condemn the worlds to Naatos’s rule and millions to death.

Get it here.

Ryan Muree: Validating Strong Women in Fantasy

Obvious Disclaimer is Obvious: This is not to say there aren’t issues with how we validate strong men in fiction.

Wonder Woman (2017)

We’ve heard it before. Women don’t make profitable decent leads in action movies (clasps barrel o’ popcorn while watching Wonder Woman). They don’t make convincing warriors (cautiously nods to Brienne of Tarth). And young women are not capable of wrapping their tiny emotional minds around bigger issues (fist bumps Katniss Everdeen). If you’re anything like me, I usually greet these opinions with a healthy eye roll and a sip of my basic Starbucks pumpkin spice. As one does.

To be honest, there’s too much here to unpack. So, let’s just focus on one piece: Not only do those characters prove the naysayers wrong, but all of those women are strong. And I mean physically strong.

It’s almost like… in order to prove that female characters are just as viable as male characters in fantasy, we have to make them less stereotypically female…

Am I saying I want physically weaker women and damsels in distress?

Uh, yes, actually… And not exactly to that second part.

Michonne from The Walking Dead

I’m grateful we see fewer stories with helpless damsels in distress. However, I would argue while fewer women are being chained to a rock with their cleavage bursting out of their tops as they scream for help, they’ve sort of morphed into a different kind of damsel in a different sort of distress. Often times, we see our damsel has the audacity to think she’s smart, to think she’s doing something right for herself with all the confidence of an F5 tornado, and then, something happens (usually sexually) to slam her right back down in her place. You can’t see it, but I’m staring down the writer(s) of Julia Wicker in The Magicians right now. My eyebrow is even twitching.

So, while a lot of women in fiction and some of their creators have forged ahead to be something… better… than damsel in distress, we get back to the original point. If we don’t want damsels in distress, then we must want the opposite, right?

Enters: Physically strong kick-ass women!

We all love kick-ass women. One of my favorite tropes of all time is the Femme Fatale. And I agree that putting some literal kick-ass women into fiction pushes the clueless damsel in distress into the past. There are so many good examples: Buffy, Michonne, Beatrix Kiddo, She-Ra, Black Widow, Letty Ortiz… They’re strong women in their own right, outside and in.

But are they viewed as such merely because they’re steeped in stereotypical masculine traits—muscle, speed, agility, a love of cars, swords, and gore?

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Media would suggest so. Movie posters and book covers love to feature kick-ass ladies holding weapons. Video games tend to highlight the physical female fighters over their counterparts.

Strong but feminine women taking the lead seem hard to find. The physically weak or stereotypically feminine characters are often viewed as an afterthought. They’re often a support role, a side-kick.

And if there’s no hiding a “strong but weak” leading lady, the entire product often gets shifted to “chick flick” or “romance/drama” or “not really a real thing people (read: men) are interested in.”

Or it’s not fantasy at all, and it takes decades to tell a story about a woman everyone should’ve known about since the ‘60s.

Katherine G. Johnson from Hidden Figures (2016)

I get it. Kick-ass characters make money. It gets people (read: men) in the door to watch and read. And of course, physically strong, kick-ass women exist in real life and deserve their space.

But we don’t have to have it one way or the other—damsel in distress or weapon-wielding killer. We don’t have to accept or define the strength of women by their sole ability to physically hold their own against men or by how much they do “dude-like” things.

But, Ryan… racing cars or using a katana shouldn’t be a DUDE thing.

Yeah, exactly! So, we shouldn’t allow one woman to be labeled strong just for liking cars and kicking ass on the streets, while labeling another woman weak for liking nail polish and baking cupcakes.

The 21st century is about inclusion and raising voices. We’re making strides in featuring all sorts of strength and interests in leading women. They’re out there, but we need more, and we do that by supporting women of all ages and lifestyles, facing the problems of their worlds head on in their own way, be it by pen or sword.

What are some of your favorite fantasy stories featuring strong leading ladies? Share in the comments. 🙂

About the Author

Ryan grew up a military brat, managed to teach middle school in Texas for a spell, and finally settled in the southeastern US with her husband, their daughter, and two black cats. She loves writing determined heroines who answer the call for wild adventures across rich lands with grit and smarts. When she’s not inventing worlds for her characters, she games, draws, paints, and uses too many exclamation points.

Reach her at:

Ryan’s upcoming release is the first book in her new romantic epic fantasy Kingdoms of Ether series, Kingdoms of Ether:

Emeryss is stuck in a library with the wrong destiny.

As the first Scribe born to the non-magical people of northern Revel, Emeryss was hauled off to the Great Library to spend the rest of her life translating ether into grimoires for her nation’s Casters. When her plan for freedom—to become a Caster—seems hopeless, Emeryss partners with a thieving illusionist for the perfect getaway: an airship, a full crew, and the promise to train Emeryss into the Caster she was meant to be. But the escape is not easy.

Grier—Emeryss’s assigned guard—is prepared to risk his life to protect her against any enemy who would hunt her for her gift. Keeping her safe and close is all he’s ever wanted. Keeping her alive is merely a stepping stone to the greatness his family expects. Letting the love he can never have walk out of the library—not an option.

As Emeryss fights for her freedom, the war between the Casters of Revel and the devastating ether-tech of the enemy nation of Ingini draws near. With the fate of her country at the brink of ruin, Emeryss must either save her people by keeping her old destiny or pay the price for a new one.

Get Kingdoms of Ether on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited and be swept away on a fantastical journey across an expansive world full of magic, politics, love, and duty!

Nicolette Andrews: Book Review of Blade & Rose by Miranda Honfleur

I am an admittedly picky reader who loses interest very quick. Maybe it’s because I have a short attention span, or maybe it’s because I can never turn off my reader brain, but 2018 was littered with the remains of half-read books and in a few instances partially consumed series that I gave up on. I actually went through a period where I wasn’t reading much of anything at all. I couldn’t quite focus on any books, and there were a lot of extenuating circumstances that I won’t go into on this blog.

I actually started Blade & Rose during the height of my 2018 Slump, which it shall forevermore be called. While I loved Rielle and Honfleur’s writing is on par with my favorite authors, the beginning was a bit slow for me and the plot didn’t grab me right away, and when I set it down, it sat unread for a very long time. Why did I come back, you may ask? Well to be honest, part of it was the HYPE around this book. In the reader circles I follow, everyone was raving about it. I had actually planned on reading another book by Honfleur, called No Man Can Tame, but I thought I would finish Blade & Rose first since I was already a quarter of the way through this massive tome.

This book cured my reading slump.

Let me tell you, the hype didn’t lie. This book is phenomenal. Almost as soon as I picked the book back up, I was hooked. Apparently I stopped just before it got really, really good. As I mentioned, the prose is mastery level. Honfleur’s style is rich in detail and her style immersive. And the sensual scenes will leave you squirming.

The kingdom is in the midst of a coup, and Rielle is tasked with escorting Jon back to his monastery. She’s caught between two impossible choices: do her duty and potentially get a promotion that can free her from an unwanted engagement or go and rescue her best friend imprisoned in the palace. Along the way they fight against fierce magic wielders and Rielle’s dangerous and jealous fiance. To further complicate matters, she starts falling in love with Jon, who seems to be a target.

What stands out the most in this book is the characters. Honfleur creates vivid, realistic characters with surprising complexity and depths. Rielle is not your average virginal heroine. She’s a powerful mage, who embraces her sexuality without shame. It was such a refreshing change from the usual heroine of the genre.

Court of Shadows cover featuring Brennan

The supporting cast is superb as well. I’m known for my love of love triangles, and this book by far tops the charts on my favorites. The two competing suitors are Jon, a celibate paladin (which fans of Joscelin from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series will appreciate!), and then there’s Brennan. I’m not always one to go for the bad boy, but Brennan is one of those rare exceptions. Despite his questionable methods and wicked tendencies, you find yourself rooting for him because of his hidden insecurities, which makes him the perfect third in this love triangle. Not only that, but the antagonist chemistry between these two men left me cackling with glee.

The end of the book seemed to come upon me in a whirlwind, leaving me breathless and eager to dive into book 2. Fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses, and Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels will love this book.

I earnestly regret waiting so long to finish this book, and I am currently devouring the rest of the published installments.

What about you, have you read Blade & Rose? What did you think about it?

Full disclosure: Miranda and I will be publishing a series together beginning in August, but I started Blade & Rose long before we broached working together. What is written above is my honest, unbiased opinion.

About the Author

Nicolette is a native San Diegan with a passion for the world of make-believe. From a young age, Nicolette was telling stories, whether it be writing plays for her friends to act out or a series of children’s books (which her mother still likes drag out to embarrass her with in front of company). 

She still lives in her imagination, but in reality she resides in San Diego with her husband, children, a couple cats, and an old dog.  She loves reading, attempting arts and crafts, and cooking.

Reach her at:

Nicolette Andrews: Falling in Love with Fantasy Romance

Who doesn’t want to fall in love?  That hopeful expectation, the sweet torture of uncertainty, the rush of that first kiss…

I’ve always enjoyed the escape of a good romance. There’s something about the angst, the passion, the happily ever after. It reminds me of when I first met my husband—everything was new and exciting. It feels like every glance, and the briefest touch sends a shiver down your spine.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that I’m a hopeless romantic. Though my husband still gives me butterflies and surprises me even after over a decade together, there’s a certain rush to a new romance that’s different. It’s the not knowing what will happen next.  

Book One of the romantic fantasy series Sevenwaters

Before I ever met my husband, I was a pretty awkward teen. I loved the idea of falling in love, but I’d only ever experienced one-sided crushes. And as any sensible bookworm would do, I lost myself in stories of love to educate myself.  

I’d always been a fantasy fan. I devoured The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe and the Harry Potter books as soon as they came out. Then sometime in my teens, I stumbled upon Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. I’d never found a book that so perfectly encompassed all my interests, magic and kissing. It was my gateway drug, and I was hooked. From there through my early adult years, I found myself exclusively drawn to stories of fantasy and romance.

What Is Fantasy Romance?

Book Three of the Otherworld series

Most people are aware of romance as a genre. You might even think of Harlequin novels, a man with his chest bared, his lady with her hair windswept and her face one of pure euphoria. But romance as a genre goes beyond the man chest. It’s a feeling.

Fantasy romance follows the classic romance tropes. It’s about two people falling in love. Most importantly, the couple always has their happy ending (HEA)—no matter what trials they go through, the pair must end up together in the end.

Book One of the Dark-Elves of Nightbloom series

But unlike traditional romance, fantasy romance is set in a world of magic. And sometimes the heroes or heroines are not entirely human, such as in Lord of the Fading Lands by C.L. Wilson or Bride of the Seaby Emma Hamm.

And as for world building, fantasy romance doesn’t skimp on the complex living worlds. Books like No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur are set in a beautifully depicted world where you feel like you’re living inside the page.

Some People Like It Hot

Book One of the steamy Queen of the Sun Palace series

People give fantasy romance a bad rap (or romance in general). The uninformed assume it’s all about the sex, and it lacks the refinement or complex world building of traditional fantasy. To that I say, what are you, some sort of puritanical tightwad?!

All kidding aside, romance isn’t all about sex. There are varying levels. Some fantasy romances have no sex at all, while others really crank up the heat. It’s about the emotions that go into it. We as fantasy romance readers are looking to escape, not only into an alternate world but into falling in love right with the characters.

What Fantasy Romance Means to Me

Fantasy romance to me is about the feelings and emotions that go into it. Falling in love is one of the best feelings in the world, and fantasy romance as a genre captures that lightning in a bottle and lets you experience it over and over again.

It’s an escape that helps us rekindle that flame in our gut. We get to feel those butterflies in our stomach again and pretend we’re the ones living like a princess inside the dragon king’s castle, and know there’s a happy ending by the final page. That promise and the fantastical, passionate escape define fantasy romance to me.

What was the last fantasy romance you read? And did it give you butterflies? Share in the comments!

About the Author

Nicolette is a native San Diegan with a passion for the world of make-believe. From a young age, Nicolette was telling stories, whether it be writing plays for her friends to act out or a series of children’s books (which her mother still likes drag out to embarrass her with in front of company). 

She still lives in her imagination, but in reality she resides in San Diego with her husband, children, a couple cats, and an old dog.  She loves reading, attempting arts and crafts, and cooking.

Reach her at:

Nicolette’s upcoming release is the third book in her fantasy romance Tales of Akatsuki series, Okami:

Book Three of the Tales of Akatsuki series

This wolf hunts for his freedom…

Okami Shin once gave up everything for love–and received nothing in return but enslavement for all time. Apathetic about life, he patrols his master’s land because he must, or else face swift and brutal punishment. And yet, when he catches a spy, he inexplicably lets her escape. Maybe it’s defiance, or maybe it’s something about her… He’s ready to face punishment, but his master promises something unexpected: capture her, or be locked away for eternity in darkness.

… but he finds a spy instead, as alluring as she is strong.

Akane is a spy, headstrong and determined to gather intelligence about a brutal lord, all to keep the temple and its priestesses safe. When one of his men captures her, the last thing she expects is that he frees her. Unable to get him out of her head, even the new arrival at the temple reminds her of him… Because it is him, in disguise, but why?

Drawn together by fate, they embark on a quest… and perhaps the love of a lifetime…

Sent to save a kidnapped girl, Akane begins to fall for the enemy… and Shin begins to fall for the spy he must return to his master. He brings out the wolf in her, and she brings out the man in him. Shin finds a new reason to live, but fail to bring her back to his master and he’ll never see the light of day again. Can they succeed in their quest and carve out a path to be together, or will a brutal lord sever their tie for all time?

Fans of fairy tale retellings, anime, and manga will love Okami: A Little Red Riding Hood Retelling, an old tale retold from a fresh perspective.

Dive into a rich world of intrigue and adventure, spirits and humans—get your copy of this heartfelt fantasy romance today!

You can get Okami: A Little Red Riding Hood Retelling here.

Helen Allan: Three Things I Learned Writing Scarab: Falling Through Time (Writer Edition!)

As a former journalist and high school English teacher, I thought I knew a bit about writing before I started penning novels, but like any creative endeavour, the more you practice, the better you become.

Looking back now, eighteen novels later, I can see I learned three major things while writing this book – the first about me, the second about audience, and the third about craft.

Lesson One: Know Yourself

About me: Scarab was the first ‘adult’ novel I wrote, but in its first iteration it was a young adult novel written for my students when I worked in a high school with low-socioeconomic students. I was looking to write an escapist fantasy with a little bit of something for everyone: danger, intrigue, romance, suspense, history, and most importantly, I wanted a heroine from a ‘trailer trash’ background rather than a white, middle-class girl.  I wanted someone my students could identify with – I wanted to encourage them to read and to dream big.

I wanted to be a ‘real literary author’ create the next War and Peace blah blah blah – but what did I love to read? Vampire romance, historical romance, fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal.

The novel was read to the students in instalments each week as I finished the chapters – they loved it. But for eight years after that, it languished in a drawer.

Until I pursued my dream to work full-time as an indie author.

Picking it up after leaving teaching, I tried to rewrite it, again and again, but I was fighting against something I didn’t want to admit: I wanted to be a ‘real literary author’ create the next War and Peace blah blah blah – but what did I love to read? Vampire romance, historical romance, fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal.

Admit it Helen – you want to write paranormal romance, you know you do, embrace it!

As soon as I did, the words flowed, the ideas raced each other to leave my fingers and kiss the keyboard.

So that was lesson one.

Lesson Two: Know Your Audience

Lesson two, about audience, came when I tried to rewrite Scarab for the umpteenth time.

I was worried about what people might think if they read sex scenes I had written, romance I had described…

I realised that in writing the story in the first place, a story that had originally come to me while backpacking around Egypt, I had deliberately self-censored, dumbed it down and cleaned it for the YA audience – but in doing so, I had not been true to the story that was in my head. And it wasn’t just this book; I was worried about what people might think if they read sex scenes I had written, romance I had described – I needed to learn not to think about audience at all.

I rewrote the book in the main, I wrote two more in the series, and then I started writing vampire romance. I have not looked back since.

If I wanted to write ‘fuck’, then I would write ‘fuck’. If I wanted to write an epic battle scene where entrails spill all over the ground, then dammit, I would. My audience would come, I would find my tribe – or I wouldn’t, but the stories would not be folded up like origami just so I could fit them into the shape someone else might want.

They might not be paper swans; they might be dragons.

So, writing without constraint became my next lesson, although you must write to market, everyone says so, hit the tropes, keep those happily ever afters, you must also be true to yourself and write the story you want to write.

Lesson Three: Know Your Craft

The third lesson I learned was about craft.

I wrote Scarab in third person limited past tense. It was the natural way for me to write, but subsequent books I have also written first person past and first person present tense. Studying the books I loved, like Twilight, helped me to understand what POV I enjoyed reading. I like many, but those most easily accessible do seem to be in first person.

Rules seem to come out of thin air, as most ideas do, but once in the book, they need to be adhered to.

The more you write, the more confident you become in your own voice, your own style and your own ideas. I don’t second-guess myself now: I am a swear-bear, my characters often are; I am sarcastic, my characters often are; I am romantic and fatalist, so are my plots. Your voice is you. Don’t try to imitate anyone – just be yourself and it will shine through. Your readers, even if they prefer fantasy to vampires or sci-fi to paranormal, will probably read your work anyway because they like the way you write, they like your voice.

I wrote a time-travel romance and the rules seemed to come out of thin air, as most ideas do, but once in the book, they needed to be adhered to. Because I had to go back several times and change things in previous books to match the rules, I rapid-released my Scarab novels, all three, on the same day.

If I was writing an intricate world again, I would do the same for continuity and also for sales – this was by far my best release, and I’ve tried all sorts of different ways now, one week apart, two weeks apart, thirty days apart, pre-order, no pre-order.

So, in summary, what did I learn?

About me: Be true to yourself, write what you love to read.

About audience: Write the book for what you want it to be, do not consider self-censorship, do not even think about audience until it is finished.

About craft: Study the books you love with a critical eye, write the best you can in an authentic voice.

Finally, I learned something else in 2018.  We are a small group, really; it’s a small world, it can seem like there are millions of people writing books and yet sometimes it can seem like you are alone in your endeavours.

I learned to join groups, to reach out and make contact with other authors in my genre, to help out those just starting and to seek help and advice from those enjoying success. The majority I have come in contact with have been professional, kind, helpful and in some cases, real kindred spirits – I would encourage other authors to reach out to each other.

As a writer, do you adhere to these same lessons? What are yours?

About the Author

Helen Allan’s work has been described as ‘ethereal’ and ‘edge of your seat.’ Specialising in fantasy and science fiction romance, Allan’s work has an edge that leaves the reader thinking about her books long after they put them down. Much of her work is underpinned by a love of the natural environment and a deep understanding of the depths of the human psyche.

Connect with Helen Allan online at:

Helen has a time-travel vampire romance series called Vampire Knights:

From modern life to medieval England, Lilly will journey across time in pursuit of the knight who stole her life, her memories and her heart.

From the jousting fields to the castle bedroom, Lilly searches for the answers to the sadness that lies at the centre of the life of Lancelot.

Can she solve the mystery surrounding his turning without becoming victim to the magic and dark arts of the women who took his life?

Will he thank her for returning the memories that were once stolen from him? Or will she face the ultimate death in the quest for something that was never meant to be?

Get Lancelot’s Lilly here.

Miranda Honfleur: The Place of Romantic Fantasy

When I first started reading romantic fantasy, it wasn’t even an official genre yet. There was no separate shelf at the bookstore or library, and no Amazon category for it (and no Amazon, for that matter), but I always knew how to find it. There would almost always be a heroine on the cover, oftentimes with a hero, or maybe a flower of some kind. And definitely some mention of both characters on the back cover. But the books were always just in the Fantasy section–because that’s what they are. Fantasy novels.

Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books were (and are) my treasure. *whispers My precioussss*

Teenage me would find these books in the Fantasy section that ticked both boxes–magic and kissing, as my friend Nicole likes to say–and devour them. I’d go to conventions and forums where the perpetual opinion du jour was that romance was ruining fantasy (and science fiction, for that matter) and any books with romance didn’t belong in Fantasy. Of course I’d laugh nervously and not mention my favorite books with magic and kissing. This opinion still seems to be prevalent, although now the battlegrounds have shifted more to POC in fantasy or LGBTQ+ characters and relationships. (I recently saw a one-star review on a fantasy book I read because a character was gay. Don’t bother checking your calendar–it really is 2019 somehow.) But these books are a part of the genre–a growing part. (And my TBR pile says thank you!)

Romantic Fantasy Defined: What It Is and What It Isn’t

Romantic fantasy is a genre of fantasy novels in which the romantic subplot plays a significant role. This means the main plot is fantasy–defeat the dark lord, find the ancient artifact, or rescue the imprisoned prince (it’s not always the princess, y’all)–and a significant subplot involves a romance.

This definition is important because it differentiates romantic fantasy from a sister genre, fantasy romance, which means romance novels in which fantasy plays a significant role (setting, etc.). This means the main plot of a fantasy romance is romance–heroine and hero overcome obstacles to be together. Usually they’re standalone books, each featuring one couple, such as Laura Thalassa’s Pestilence or Nicolette Andrews’ Kitsune, while other times the couple’s story unfolds through several books–as in Grace Draven’s Wraith Kings and C.L. Wilson’s Tairen Soul. But the promise of fantasy romance is that the story is reliably:

  • A hero and heroine*
  • Who should be together but aren’t
  • Because of problems
  • That are resolved
  • Leading to an emotionally satisfying ending. (*Variations of course for M/M, F/F, and reverse harem!)

With romantic fantasy, however, that promise can vary…

The Promise of Romantic Fantasy: To Love, To Hope, To Tremble

Book 1 of Kushiel’s Legacy

If you love books with magic and kissing, then you’ve probably already read some romantic fantasy books, such as Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey or A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. The heroine doesn’t necessarily fall for the hero right away (he might be the second, third, or nth love interest!), and the big “R” Romance rules might not be followed (such as no cheating, the hero and heroine only ever sleeping with each other, and the biggest one of all, the Happily Ever After, aka HEA). You don’t really know if the man the heroine falls for will be part of her HEA, or whether she’ll have her HEA at all. And while sometimes you might want the confidence that all will end well–and you should reach for a fantasy romance, in that case!–other times you might want “to love, to hope, to tremble” (to paraphrase Rodin). You want the suffering of not knowing how things will end, but holding out hope in your heart that the heroine will save the day and get her man (or men, if you’re reading reverse harem fantasy).

Book 1 of A Court of Thorns and Roses

And this is what romantic fantasy delivers.

Fantasy in general delivers a lot of enjoyment–fascinating magic, daring sword fights, tangled politics, and mythical creatures–but for me, it’s incomplete if I don’t feel my heart gripped in a vise. If I’m not worrying and hurting for the main characters to make it through and be happy, the book hasn’t clawed its way to the core of my heart. And that’s where you’ll find my favorite books, and most of them are romantic fantasy.

What Romantic Fantasy Means To Me: More Than a Genre… A Place

Amazon actually now has a Romantic Fantasy category (although it’s often cluttered with irrelevant titles). When I first saw that, there was a part of me (maybe the teen who used to dig through the fantasy section) that breathed a sigh of relief. Like a group of us fantasy readers who’d been secretly collecting these books with romance, when it was so often panned and made fun of, were now validated by the Book Powers That Be. Romantic fantasy is fantasy, and just because there’s “feelings” in a book does not strip it of its main genre. It has as much right to be there as sword and sorcery, dark fantasy, or Arthurian–and oftentimes overlaps. (As in Claire Luana and Jesikah Sundin’s Arthurian reverse-harem fantasy, The Fifth Knight, or Nicolette Andrews’ romantic epic fantasy, The Priestess and the Dragon.)

Book 1 of the Dragon Saga

Fifteen years ago, I never could have told you Kushiel’s Dart was a romantic fantasy book. I probably would have said it was a fantasy series with a female protagonist and swoon-worthy Joscelin and lots of intrigue, pain, drama, and romance. *cries* Once a thing has a name, it’s easier for us to communicate it to one another. The more we recognize and use that name, the less differánce there is between the words we use and what we mean them to signify. Today, if we both know the term “romantic fantasy,” we can immediately understand what the book is (and then we immediately understand we’re probably going to gush about said book for several hours and end up the best of friends!!!).

As a reader, I no longer hide what I enjoy. I recommend magic-and-kissing books on social media, I display them proudly on the bookshelves, and my Goodreads has enough of them on my Want To Read list to last me lifetimes, I’m sure. And as an author, I’m happy to claim romantic fantasy (and fantasy romance, for that matter) as my genre, because if you like my books already, you’ll find a whole genre like them, and if you like the genre, you’ll know my books might be what you’re looking for.

We fans of romantic fantasy have always been around, but the book market is supplying us with more and more books we love (yay!), and we have a name for our awesome genre. I and the other authors involved with Romantic Fantasy Shelf also hope this and our Facebook group will be a place where you can engage about it, along with its sister genres of fantasy romance and reverse-harem fantasy, and find new books or share the love of those you’ve read.

What romantic fantasy book are you most looking forward to? What’s the last romantic fantasy book you’ve read? Share in the comments. 🙂

About the Author

Miranda Honfleur is a born-and-raised Chicagoan living in Indianapolis. She grew up on fantasy and science fiction novels, spending nearly as much time in Valdemar, Pern, Tortall, Narnia, and Middle Earth as in reality. 

In another life, her J.D. and M.B.A. were meant to serve a career in law, but now she gets to live her dream job: writing speculative fiction starring fierce heroines and daring heroes who make difficult choices along their adventures and intrigues, all with a generous (over)dose of romance.

When she’s not snarking, writing, or reading her Kindle, she hangs out and watches Netflix with her English-teacher husband and plays board games with her friends.

Reach her at:

Miranda’s upcoming release is the fifth book in her romantic epic fantasy Blade and Rose series, The Dragon King. The series begins with Blade & Rose:

Book 1 of the Blade and Rose series

A kingdom in turmoil or the love of her life. Which one will she save?

Elemental mage Rielle hasn’t heard from her best friend in far too long. Yet no one at the Tower of Magic seems to care about Olivia’s silence, or the curtain of secrecy surrounding the distant capital. Before Rielle can investigate, she’s assigned a strange new mission: escort a knight named Jon across the kingdom.

When whispers reveal mercenaries have killed the king, taken the capital, and that no one is coming to help, Rielle can’t leave Olivia in peril. But as infamous mages and deadly assassins hunt Jon, she can’t leave him unprotected either–especially as she finds herself falling for his strength, his passion, and his uncompromising goodness. Her past returns to haunt her, a werewolf stalks their steps, and an ancient evil is gathering, yet the restraints forbidding their love strain and snap one by one.

Saving Olivia and the kingdom means defying orders and sacrificing her every ambition, and could mean losing the man who’s become so much more to her than a mission. Which will she choose: her best friend and the kingdom, or the love of her life?

If you like the fantasy romance of A Court of Thorns and Roses, the dark intrigue of the Black Jewels series, the epic adventure of Game of Thrones, and a heroine who never gives up, you’ll love this heart-wrenching romantic epic fantasy series.

Read Blade & Rose and dive into a medieval world sensual and dark, full of magic and greed, love and blades, where factions vie for influence and there are no easy choices…

You can get Blade & Rose here.

Helen Allan: Three Things I Learned Writing Scarab: Falling Through Time

When I was a teenager, I was determined I would be an archaeologist – so I studied how to read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics – as you do. (Did you know the hieroglyph for wine is ‘irp’? They must have had a sense of humour!)

Later I changed my mind and went into journalism, teaching and literary event management – strangely, none required hieroglyphics – but my interest in Egypt never diminished. I was intrigued by the mummification rites, the pyramids, Cleopatra – it all sounded so romantic and mysterious, and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Consequently, as soon as I could, I strapped on a backpack and headed over to check out the place – and this was the genesis for my book Scarab.

Egyptian Culture: Beyond the Tourist Veneer

Book 1 of the Scarab Series

Backpacking around the country on a shoestring budget with my husband gave me a real insight into aspects of the culture you might not see flitting from air-conditioned five-star hotels or ferries to air-conditioned tour buses.

I savoured and noted the heat, the insects, the noise, all interesting and authentic colour for my novel. I watched papyrus being made; I tasted dates straight off the tree, I ate local low-cost fare. I got sick, really sick, I was spat at by local women, threatened, assaulted, dumped in the middle of nowhere and robbed – and it all made for amazing experiences that I would later use in my novels.

Touring the pyramids, the guide held us up in the desert and told us he would ‘take us across the border to Libya to be murdered’ if we didn’t give him all our money. Looking back on it now it is funny, but at the time we were not laughing. Libya would feature later in my Scarab novel as an ominous place and a centre for the slave trade after I learned it was once part of ancient Egypt. Islands off the coast also were once ruled by the ancient land, and these too would play a part in my future novels.

Helen Allan and her husband in Egypt

Staying in hostels that sometimes cost as much as $3 a night I came into contact with locals and their pets, like little tortoises, their idiosyncrasies ‘we build door by door’ and their religious beliefs, which helped add detail to my book when the characters are in modern-day Egypt. We learned that the door handles are taken off taxis so you can’t get out until you pay (often a much higher fee than you agreed before entering the taxi) and that Cairo taxi drivers will not turn their headlights on at night in the false belief it flattens their batteries – making driving at night terrifying for passengers. All this and more I absorbed and remembered, writing a journal each night of our trip and pouring into it my experiences, fears and excitement.

Ancient Egypt: A Closer Look

The heart scarab

Entering tombs, I noted the artistry, the claustrophobia, the colours, the ambience, the stillness and the detailed ritual associated with death. I learned that the scarab was bound over the heart during mummification, to protect the secrets of the heart – this intrigued me.

Learning about the Book of the Dead, Pyramid Texts, and Coffin Texts really started to make me think ancient Egyptians believed they were heading to the stars, not to heaven as we know it, but to the actual stars, and this got me thinking… What if they were?

While travelling around, I was also very interested in how many animals were seen to be sacred and mummified for burial. Cats, known in hieroglyphics as ‘Miw’ were one of the major ones, as were cattle, crocodiles, birds, it just went on and on. Later I would write a cat into Scarab and call it Miw.

The gods too were depicted everywhere with animal characteristics. And this made me think, what if they could assume the guise of animals? Who is to say? So much has been lost, Egyptology is still really in its infancy. There is so much we don’t know, so much we assume.

The Terror and the Romance of Travel

Travelling independently through the country was not easy. In fact, it was downright fucking horrible in some places, but I couldn’t shake the romance of the idea of touring Egypt, and I looked for the best in even the worst of situations.

I found that romance in the ruins of Luxor, watching a coloured-light show at the Karnak Temple that lit up the ponds and the columns of hieroglyphs in amazing colours as they were read out by a presenter. One line from the hieroglyphs in particular resonated with me:

 “Your love is in my heart as the reeds are in the arms of the wind.”

For all the bloodshed and murder and intrigue we had learned about – there was also love, and I knew the novels I ended up writing from this trip would definitely be romance.

While visiting Luxor, I also found the rows of sphinxes leading up the temple intriguing, at the base of each one was a well which once contained a crocodile, ready to receive offerings. Later these wells would feature in a murder scene in Scarab – the perfect way to dispose of a body!

Book 2 of the Scarab series

Many of the hieroglyphs though had been defaced over time by various pharaohs and conquerors, and the French, of course, had stolen so many antiquities, most still grace the Louvre. They even had the twin of the obelisk that once stood at the front of the temple. I’d seen it in Paris, so I didn’t feel totally ripped off, but sad that it was not where it should be. This also would play a part in subsequent Scarab novels, which feature the French and Germans and the rare things they stole from Egypt.

Book 3 of the Scarab series

What three things did I take from Egypt that helped me with writing Scarab?  I took everything, everything that country and its people offered. 

I absorbed it into my skin, and it poured out as little black drops of ink on paper – the Scarab Trilogy.

Which of your favorite books ooze research from their pages? Does it make you love them even more? Share in the comments!

About the Author

Helen Allan’s work has been described as ‘ethereal’ and ‘edge of your seat.’ Specialising in fantasy and science fiction romance, Allan’s work has an edge that leaves the reader thinking about her books long after they put them down. Much of her work is underpinned by a love of the natural environment and a deep understanding of the depths of the human psyche.

Connect with Helen Allan online at:

Helen’s recent release is Gypsy Blood, a paranormal romance series:

An ancient power. A forbidden love.

Smart-mouthed journalism student Freely is not your average eighteen-year-old. Her best friend is a vampire, and they spend most weekends hiding bodies. But when she meets a handsome foreigner, Zan, a strange magic connects them that is older than time.

Bound to him, ancient lore decrees she must learn her gypsy powers in time to protect him from the vampires who seek immortality through his blood, and help him to hunt the creatures of the night.

Can she betray her friend? Will she learn to see Zan as a fighting partner only and ignore their mutual attraction? Can she allow him to continue his line, at the expense of her heart? Or will her love for him destroy them both?

Gypsy Blood is a vampire romance that will leave you clutching your neck and begging for more. Get it here.

Claire Luana: On Romance Tropes

Tropes often get a bad rap, especially tropes in romance novels. A trope is defined as a common or overused theme or device—which sounds negative—but I would argue that we see the same tropes showing up in book after book because we love to read them! Take the Happily Ever After (HEA), for example. This trope has become so integral to the genre of romance that experts will say a romance without a HEA doesn’t even qualify as a romance.

Many readers are split on whether they love or hate it when certain tropes show up in their latest read. I thought I’d weigh in on a few I see frequently, and give you a few recommendations, in case you love the particular trope, or would like to give it a second chance!

Enemies to Lovers

I have to admit, this is one of my favorite romance tropes! I can think of little more enjoyable to read than the fireworks between two people who loathe each other…until they realize what they thought was hate is actually love! There’s so much great emotion and chemistry behind this trope, and there’s a lot that an author can do with it. This one is solidly in my YES column!

Some great enemies-to-lover romances I recommend:  

Love Triangle

This one definitely gets a lot of heat from critics. I admit, it does seem a bit overused, and it’s not one of my favorites. I don’t like that someone gets left out and doesn’t get their HEA. (Maybe that’s why Reverse Harem has become so popular lately!) But if done well, it can be super compelling. For me, I’ll happily read a love triangle if there’s sufficient depth and character development.

If love triangles are your thing, try:

Soulmates/Mates

This trope is especially popular in shifter/wolf romance, as well as fae romance. I don’t like the mates trope when it is used as a stand-in for relationship building. I want to see the characters fall in love—I don’t like it when they realize they’re mates, and so *shrug*, decide to be together. On the other hand, the slow inevitable realization of soulmate status can be amazing to read. So this is another one that I’m mixed on!

Forbidden Love

I admit, I usually love this one! Is there anything better than two people who are so desperate to be together that they will overcome whatever obstacles and barriers are put in their way? To find love, whatever the cost? (Insert satisfied sigh here…)

Some great forbidden love reads are:

Alpha Male

With the crazy success of Fifty Shades of Grey, for a while there you couldn’t crack a romance without bumping into a controlling, possessive, alpha male hero. I find myself liking alpha males in context. If the society, time period, or fantasy setting they are in provides context for why they are acting all alpha, I’m way more likely to enjoy that type of read. If the book is in modern times and the hero is just a misogynistic jerk, no thanks!

What are your favorite or most loathed tropes in romance? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Claire Luana grew up reading everything she could get her hands on and writing every chance she could. Eventually, adulthood won out, and she turned her writing talents to more scholarly pursuits, going to work as a commercial litigation attorney. While continuing to practice law, Claire decided to return to her roots and try her hand once again at creative writing. She has written and published the Moonburner Cycle and is currently finishing a new trilogy about magical food, the Confectioner Chronicles.

She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and two dogs. In her (little) remaining spare time, she loves to hike, travel, binge-watch CW shows, and of course, fall into a good book. Connect with Claire Luana online at:

Her latest series is a reverse-harem fantasy that begins with The Fifth Knight, co-authored with Jesikah Sundin.

Four cursed knights. One warrior princess. A faerie sword that binds their lives together.

Fionna’s only hope to save her family lies across the Irish Sea. As a warrior princess of Ulster, the rival clann holding her father and sister for ransom knows she’ll pay any price to get them back. But even she couldn’t predict the task set before her—to steal a faerie sword from a king.

The Kingdom of Caerleon is dying under Morgan la Fay’s dark magic. Her vengeful curse has locked Excalibur in its scabbard, placing Arthur Pendragon’s kingship in jeopardy. Now Arthur and his sword brothers—Lancelot, Galahad, and Percival—have but one hope. The fifth knight. The one foretold by Merlin who will break the curse and heal the land.

But Arthur and his sword brothers didn’t expect the warrior to be a fierce and captivating woman. Or the legendary White Fay, prophesied by Morgan la Fay to destroy Caerleon by claiming the heart of a king and three sworn knights.

The Fifth Knight is a Reverse Harem tale of betrayal and fated love. Get it here!