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?

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!