J.M. Butler: Review of A Thief and a Gentlewoman (RFS Book Club Winner – March 2019)

For the month of March, 2019, the readers of Romantic Fantasy Shelf voted for two books: A Thief and a Gentlewoman by Clare Sage and Okami by Nicolette Andrews. And today, we’re going to be discuss A Thief and a Gentlewoman.

This story is the first book in the Counterfeit Contessa series. Book two will be coming out in June of this year if everything goes according to schedule, but let me give you a little spoiler and tell you that even if I had to wait two or more years to get the sequel, I would be more than willing to wait. A Thief and a Gentlewoman is a story very much its own while working beautifully within the genre conventions and immersing the reader into an incredible world.

Quin, short for Quinta, is a special sort of thief. She’s trained in many respects and most definitely a bit of a rogue with a skill for cards, seduction, flirtation, locks, and escape. But her life begins to change as she encounters a Pasha who is more than he appears and who is not content with her feigned appearances of demure femininity. This Pasha, Atesh, is far more than meets the eye, and though she has set him as her next mark, both are falling for one another, even though that will create even more consequences. Not only that, but Atesh is the cousin of the Sultana, an individual with whom Quin has some family history.

A Thief and a Gentlewoman is the first book in the Counterfeit Countessa Series.

Type of Story

A Thief and a Gentlewoman is an immersive romantic fantasy epic. Clare weaves together a complex and beautiful world rich with details that draw heavily on Turkish influences as well as some English with a strong infusion of magic and fantasy (my favorite distinct element being the sabre cats which are large enough to ride).

Arianople is a fascinating city, similar to Istanbul but without the dominant Christian and Muslim influences.

This is a slow burn romance with intrigue and doom looming over the couple as they are perpetually drawn together. This story also features mysteries and political intrigue in a way that is well balanced. While I did find myself accurately guessing some of the twists and turns, they were laid out in such a way that my enjoyment was not diminished. This is the sort of story where the journey and the unfolding and development of the characters is far more important.

This story is set within a distinct world from our own. Arianople is perhaps best described as Instanbul without the prominent Christian or Muslim influences. A distinct religion/spiritual tradition which serves the Hundred and draws on altered tarot cards takes their places.  

The Romance Between the Characters

As I have begun to realize is one of my favorite elements of romantic fantasy, this features a slow burn romance. Here the characters run into one another early on in the story, and matters build from there along with respect and affection amid vital questions.

Indeed there is a spark and an intimacy between these two, even from their first encounter. And despite all of the concerns that develop between the two, I absolutely wanted them to get together and yet found myself content with the more gradual connection, especially as Quin’s thoughts and emotions transform. Her attitude and growth throughout is the most complex and the most fascinating.

And while this section is intended to be about the romance of the two leads, I have to speak about another point of romance within this story that charmed and surprised me: the romance of the cards. It’s not often that an author weaves together a scene regarding games of chance and cards that makes you feel like the cards are seducing you. Don’t get me wrong. The romance between Atesh and Quin is incredible as well, but I really wasn’t prepared for how seductive the cards were going to be.

The cards play a significant role through, providing culture, context, and clues for Quin’s quest as well as serving as a source of magical influence.

The Characters and Their Relationships Beyond the Romantic

The scope of the characters’ worlds go far beyond their relationships with one another. Both not only have friends but also family who exist in different circles with distinct motivations and desires. While both are well developed, I feel that Quin’s POV is the best utilized to expand both the world and ground her motivations and observations. She notices many things, drawing conclusions that reveal the world and yet are natural to her. In particular, I’d note that the specific body language references and notations are excellent, not only for developing the characters but creating clear images.

Robin Hood faced many challenges but none quite like Quin’s.

Additionally the plight of many within Quin’s life make her a sympathetic character. Like the famed Robin Hood, her thieving is not to enrich herself. But she has to navigate a far more complex web than the cunning archer ever did since she is trying to care for a diseased and dying family member and protect old friends from a dangerous life while also remaining presentable and intriguing to the nobility. Numerous interests and concerns pull on Quin, and almost everyone in her life represents someone who has a need which she can in some way fulfill.

Of all the non-romantic relationships within the story, I most enjoyed the ones between Quin and her family. It is especially refreshing to see it developed between female members of the family and addressing certain conclusions that flow from the events of the family’s history.

Fascinating Influences Within the Story

The very first line of the story is a delightful reference to Pride and Prejudice. Other literary references and influences apparent within the story are 1001 Arabian Nights and Robin Hood. Clare’s overall style and tone is coy and artful throughout. The story is quite luxurious and calm in its pacing, allowing you time to be fully immersed in the world and live with the characters rather than a rapid page turner that skims the surface.

Though A Thief and a Gentlewoman is distinctly its own, the playful nods and allusions to Pride and Prejudice are a delight.

The very first line of the story is a delightful reference to Pride and Prejudice. Other literary references and influences apparent within the story are 1001 Arabian Nights and Robin Hood. Clare’s overall style and tone is coy and artful throughout. The story is quite luxurious and calm in its pacing, allowing you time to be fully immersed in the world and live with the characters rather than a rapid page turner that skims the surface.

The depth of the characters and their interactions reminds me most of Jane Austen with the wit of Pride and Prejudice and the gradual intertangling of the two loves. I didn’t feel as much concern about the ultimate conclusion of Atesh and Quin as Darcy and Elizabeth, but I enjoyed it immensely and felt very much that they were suited for one another, even if they had not yet reached that same conclusion. In this case, it was very much about how will they come together and how will they be changed in this journey rather than relying only on the tension of will they, won’t they.

For those who love Robin Hood stories but want a more feminine focus with political intrigue or seekers of a more modern Austen voice in fantasy setting, I certainly recommend A Thief and a Gentlewoman. It will also appeal to those who want a non-European focused romantic fantasy or simply an excursion into an immersive fantasy world with a rich romance and complex characters and a relaxing pace.

Have you read this one? What did you think? 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, Enemy Known, and Princess Reviled. 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:

Check out her romantic epic fantasy Tue-Rah Chronicles:

Though her brutal husband is imprisoned, Amelia must navigate the hostile political climate or else face banishment or execution. 

Despite saving the nation, Amelia remains incapable of satisfying the demands of the Libyshan leadership. Amelia fights to stand firm in her calling and her convictions while struggling to find a solution that leaves Libysha whole, restores the interdimensional portals, and removes Naatos and his shapeshifting brothers to a place where they can do no harm. The Machat warn that these shapeshifters can only be held for a brief period, but an enraged populace and spiteful elder commander desire vengeance and block Amelia at every turn. Her bond to Naatos and his family makes her a traitor unless she does precisely as they say.

Time counts down, and soon Naatos and his brothers will be free to wreak bloody vengeance on Libysha before resuming their plans of universal dominance. Amelia must embrace being a traitor in the eyes of her own people to save them while also untangle her feelings for the man who has claimed her as his wife.


Get your copy on Amazon today!

J.M. Butler: Review of Heart of the Fae by Emma Hamm (RFS Book Club Winner – February 2019)

For the month of February 2019, the readers of Romantic Fantasy Shelf voted for two books to read: No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur and Heart of the Fae by Emma Hamm. We’ve already reviewed No Man Can Tame, and as we are wrapping up our Night of the Beasts month, today we talk about Heart of the Fae by Emma Hamm.

This story is the first book in The Otherland Series, and it is also a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. And aptly so as that was our theme for the month.

Type of Story

Heart of the Fae is a high fantasy romance that takes its time getting to the romance. Emma tackles a lot of unpleasant and difficult subjects and themes within this book, making it live up to its description as a Beauty and the Beast with more adult themes.

It too is a retelling that maintains key elements of the original fairy tale while offering its own twists and spins. Here the beast is a cursed fae prince who has been disfigured and cursed in such a way that whenever he is wounded, geodes and crystals appear where the wound was. The beauty is Sorcha, a midwife trying to save her father who runs the family brothel. She goes on a great and confusing quest in an effort to save him.

Sorcha and Eamonn’s story continues in Veins of Magic

Though comparatively, the story starts out slow, picking up substantially after the first third when our primary protagonist Sorcha reaches the island. Emma favors a more descriptive telling approach to the story throughout.

It is important to note that this is not a standalone story nor does the first book in the series end in a satisfying place. The cliffhanger makes sense for the point where it ends, and for readers invested in Sorcha’s journey, picking up the sequel will be an easy decision.

Best Parts of the Story

Without a doubt, the best scenes within the story are between Sorcha and some of the fae inhabitants such as the boggart/brownie and the pixie, Oona. It is particularly within the hag’s hovel that the story shines. It seems as if Emma has a particular affection here because there’s a special tenderness within these scenes that makes them charming and memorable.

Additionally her descriptions can be grippingly memorable and vivid. Descriptions of the castle and the grounds, for instance, were quite charming. The incorporation of the other senses makes the scenes even more compelling.

And, while I never thought I’d be saying this, I have to point to the prologue as well. It marries an old folkloric and mythic voice to a semi-modern rhythm with beautiful descriptions. The rhythm and poetry of the final lines sold me on the story. I may just have to pop back over and read it again.

Worldbuilding Overall

The best part within this story is the infusion of mythology and folklore within the world. While it is not entirely clear whether this is an actual Ireland or a uchronic Ireland, it is a fun world to imagine. I lean toward it being another place entirely, particularly given the blood beetles, which sound truly terrifying. I especially liked the appearance of Macha throughout the story and her representation. Even if one is not particularly familiar with Irish mythology or folklore, it is easy to follow along.

Additionally, Emma’s decision to give the beast such a creative disease with intense repercussions was an excellent choice. It adds to the dark mysteriousness of the story.

I applaud Emma’s desire and efforts at addressing darker subject matter. But I would have liked more nuance to lead to balanced and less confusing situations, and greater consistency within the worldbuilding and character development. Some of these issues may in fact be resolved later as the characters develop or as the world is further explained in the second book. But these elements might take away from the story’s positive elements for the reader.  

The Romance and the Characters

In a sense, The Heart of the Fae is at a disadvantage for discussing the romance because the characters do not meet until a third of the way into the book. And then they make up for lost time, reaching their first romantic connection before the first half ends. The initial meeting is terse, brusque, and aggressive, but they soon find their way to attraction and connection. The characters can sometimes feel erratic in their activities and driving forces as well as memories, but both Sorcha and Eamonn remain drawn to one another in the romantic climax that the reader is waiting for.

Bran returns in the series’ fourth book, The Faceless Woman

Other secondary characters also steal the show. Bran, in particular, takes the focus whenever he is on the page. I won’t share more about him since he goes through some rather interesting developments as a character, but he is one you’ll want to look out for. He feels like a good choice for further stories and focus. Oona and the boggart/brownie also steal the stage, and the Unseelie Queen presents an intriguing character.

Effectiveness as a Retelling

Aside from the cliffhanger ending, The Heart of the Fae does do well at hitting all the beats of a traditional Beauty and the Beast retelling while making them creatively its own. The sacrificial element here plays a needed prominent role, and there are many nods to the Disney Beauty and the Beast as well.  

For those who enjoy Beauty and the Beast retellings with a darker and grimmer edge or Irish mythical retellings, this book is likely a good match.

Have you read this one? What did you think? 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:

Check out J.M.’s prequel to her romantic epic fantasy series the Tue-Rah Chronicles:

Dozens of children have gone missing…

Naatos, a shapeshifter, suspects a devious mindreader named Salanca of abducting children. Salanca has hidden her vicious schemes because, though the other Neyeb can read minds, she knows how to shroud her thoughts deeply.

Naatos must act swiftly and covertly to avert the murder of the stolen children even as he has been rejected yet again for receiving a Neyeb bride.

Not all is as it seems, and a wounded but cursed infant changes Naatos’s plans and life forever…
___

This is a prequel novella to The Tue-Rah Chronicles. It is not necessary to have read The Tue-Rah Chronicles, and it does not contain spoilers.

Get it on Amazon today!

J.M. Butler: Review of No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur (RFS Book Club Winner – February 2019)

For the month of February 2019, the readers of Romantic Fantasy Shelf voted for two books to read: No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur and Heart of the Fae by Emma Hamm. We’ll be reviewing both on the blog, and today we’re talking about No Man Can Tame.

This story is the first book the Dark-Elves of Nightbloom Series, and it retells one of my favorite fairy tales: Beauty and the Beast. Now don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy reading some of the lesser-known fairy tales retold as well as some of the other popular ones. Really, I love seeing all of them. But Beauty and the Beast is my favorite. I have read many retellings of it over the years—some I loved, others were meh, and a few I hated. But No Man Can Tame is now one of my favorite Beauty and the Beast retellings.

Type of Story

No Man Can Tame is a high-fantasy romance, and it lives up to all my expectations for a book in this genre. The romance is front and center, but there is a great deal of rich worldbuilding. The world itself is set in the same universe as Miranda’s Blade and Rose series, though unlike Blade and Rose this has an Italian rather than a French influence. The story is told through the perspectives of both Aless and Veron.

“This Cinderella is far from a victim. Much to her stepmother’s dismay, Danielle’s independence and intelligence attract the love of the prince.” – Amazon

The retelling itself maintains key elements of the original fairy tale but offers a number of original twists and spins. It is also, to a degree, a double Beauty and the Beast story. In a sense, both protagonists are beauties and beasts, both having to learn key lessons and understand how to be more selfless for this relationship to work. In a sense, this retelling reminds me also of the movie Ever After in its tone and style, as if it would be shot in a similar style.

The story reads quickly with good pacing. While it is a slow-burn romance, it does pay off, and it fits solidly within the genre expectations. Aless and Veron’s story is wrapped up in such a way that, while I wouldn’t object to more stories featuring their perspectives, I won’t feel cheated if I don’t get to read more about them.

One of My Favorite Tropes Represented

Aless, the Beast princess, must wed Veron, an Immortali and prince of the dark elves to assure peace and secure the alliance between their nations. Arranged marriages are one of my favorite tropes simply because of the guarantee of conflict and how it tends to escalate the romantic tension, along with the unknown aspects that come from being in a relationship with a stranger who may not share your same values.

Miranda plays with this trope very well, understanding the implications that arranged marriages have and their impact on individuals while still recognizing that readers want a little bit of fantasy and indulgence with these sorts of stories. So she creates a mixture of conflict and challenges with plenty of build up, attraction, and eventually consummation. More importantly, the contrasting cultures are not there simply as trappings or window dressings. There are consequences and impacts because of these beliefs on both sides.

The Most Crucial Element of a Beauty and the Beast Retelling

In my opinion, the sacrificial element is one of the most important elements of a Beauty and the Beast retelling. In some way, the beauty must sacrifice herself or some part of herself to preserve the safety or happiness of another. It offers a key element of insight into the characters and a connecting point for later events within the book as well as the concept of inner beauty.

In this case, Miranda delivers a particularly strong interpretation. While it is a little spoiler, it takes place near the beginning of the story, so I won’t feel as bad about it. Aless agrees to marry Veron to allow her sister the chance to marry the man she loves and thus preserve her sister’s happiness. This turns out to be part of a rather cunning trick on someone else’s part, but the sacrifice is still there.

Similarly other characters demonstrate sacrifice, sometimes in small ways such as Veron sharing his rations with a fellow starving soldier, despite then having nothing for himself. It is woven throughout the story and plays into the finale in a satisfying way.

The Romance Between the Characters

Aless and Veron’s chemistry is a slow build with a fair bit of tension to begin. They are kept apart not merely because they have different physical standards for beauty but because of cultural expectations and challenges that their relationship brings about. Veron is firm but calm and resolute, utterly loyal to the commands of his queen, his mother. Aless, on the other hand, is more headstrong and impetuous, determined to make the most of things and to create her own solutions even when others attempt to deny her this.

While initially she finds the dark elves’ appearances off putting and even a little frightening (Veron’s claws physically hurt her more than once), Aless in particular grows in her appreciation of the dark elves and their culture, even coming to value their standards. There’s a fascinating scene with the dark elf queen which showcases this in particular.

The romantic relationship works the traditional issues within any relationship: trust and honesty. Both characters have reasons for their particular perspectives, and their motivations and histories sometimes come into conflict, creating persuasive reasons for the delays in their consummation.

As both Veron and Aless become close and work through violations of trust and expectations (indeed some deep emotional wounds are inflicted at a few points), the attraction does develop between them until it reaches the much anticipated exploration of the romantic relationship. Miranda handles this artfully. There are sex scenes with a decent bit of heat and a strong focus on the emotions, and they do contain important information for the plot and character developments.

The Characters and Their Relationships Beyond the Romantic

In Warhammer lore, “few can match the Dark Elves in sheer cruelty, sadism and hubris.”

Another strength of this story is the breadth of the cast of characters. Veron and Aless both have families who play key roles within the story. One of my favorite relationships in this is Aless’s relationship with her sister Bianca. Both sisters are beautiful and admired, but Bianca is their father’s favorite. Yet both remain close. The impact of a third sister is also felt as well as a brother.

Veron likewise has his own family who play not only a key role in his life but in his development. One of the most intriguing is his mother, who has little screen time but is just as refreshing a change-of-pace character as Bianca. The subterranean and ferocious dark elves come from a matriarchal culture, which is reflected throughout the world building in general.

Veron’s mother herself is a strong, stern, and resolute woman, but not cruel or evil or capricious as dark elf queens are often portrayed. She keeps her confidences close, and there is much that is hinted at that suggests she could very easily have her own story. At a key point within the story, she must serve as a queen and determine appropriate consequences for direct disobedience. While she is not as kind as some might like, she is just in her determinations and provides sound reasoning for her decisions.

From Forgotten Realms, the cruel and evil Malice Do’Urden by Dwight “Arkangel” Angelito

Veron’s mother herself is a strong, stern, and resolute woman, but not cruel or evil or capricious as dark elf queens are often portrayed. She keeps her confidences close, and there is much that is hinted at that suggests she could very easily have her own story. At a key point within the story, she must serve as a queen and determine appropriate consequences for direct disobedience. While she is not as kind as some might like, she is just in her determinations and provides sound reasoning for her decisions.

Indeed, all of the secondary characters feel strong enough to carry their own stories. I am excited that there will be more stories within this series that will hopefully explore these. What makes this all the more exciting is that the characters, from the protagonists to the antagonists, are all mixtures of good and bad with understandable motivations, weaknesses, and aspirations.

Fascinating Influences Within the Story

As a fellow epic fantasy author, I find worldbuilding to be one of the most fascinating aspects of stories like this. One of the things I spotted that brought me a great deal of joy was the influence of the Eddas in Miranda’s development of the dark elf culture. Norse mythology is one of my favorites, and seeing how well it was woven in without being overbearing was a delight.

Svartálfar in Norse myth are “black elves,” who dwell in Svartalfheim or the “world of black elves.”

Additionally, at points, I recognized some allusions to William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Though “allusions” might not be as good a word as “subversions.” Aless has a formidable and indomitable spirit. Despite her mistakes, she cannot be tamed (thus, I think, the title). She and Veron are equals within their marriage, and while he does not try to keep her from being that, he does have to learn what it is for her to be who she is, just as much as she has to learn how to truly see beyond her own interests.

A Couple Minor Beauty and the Beast Elements

While certainly not essential to the Beauty and the Beast retelling, Miranda did incorporate a couple other facets of the story. The library’s inclusion and its cultivation throughout the story is one of my favorites. Not simply because I love libraries but because of what it reveals about Aless, her past, her family, and her culture.

Additionally, magic roses appear as well. They are present for only a little bit, but if my authorial senses are correct, I suspect we may see more of them in future books.

For those who enjoy Beauty and the Beast retellings or high-fantasy romance stories, I definitely recommend No Man Can Tame. It has all the appeal of both the genres beautifully woven together in a satisfying and charming package.

Have you read this one? What did you think about the spin on Beauty and the Beast? 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 recent release is Enemy Known, the second book in her romantic epic fantasy series the Tue-Rah Chronicles:

Trapped between warring forces, Amelia must own her destiny before her heart splits in two.

Although cursed to be unable to kill, Amelia must still fulfill her prophetic duty to end her unwanted husband’s march of terror. Already Naatos, a world conquering warlord, and his brothers have conquered Libysha. Her people demand she vanquish them to prove her loyalty and save them. To refuse is to lose the trust of her own family and friends, the people whom she always longed to protect.

But Amelia’s enemies aren’t only on the outside. When betrayal threatens the refuge of her allies, Amelia must return to Naatos in order to distract him from further bloodshed, all while fighting her growing affection for him and his family. Yet the more she learns of tragic history, the murkier the truth becomes. The very people Amelia defends have committed their own atrocities, including linking Amelia to a human soldier who holds half her soul in a life-threatening bond.

Attacked by her allies and cared for by her enemies, Amelia struggles on, more disillusioned with her destiny. A massive army of deadly shapeshifters looms on the other side of the Tue-Rah, an interdimensional portal. With the fate of worlds resting on her shoulders, she must walk the balance between hero and villain before she is torn in two. 

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.