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.
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
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 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
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.
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,
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.
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.
Undoubtedly, if you’ve been in any of the recommendation request posts in the RFS Facebook group, you’ve heard of Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, and for good reason. In case you haven’t heard of it, let me give you a treat because this week I have the pleasure of reviewing it. I’ll try to keep my review from spoiling the entire story, but give you enough to whet your appetite about it.
Kushiel’s Dart came out in 2001, at a time when I was bright eyed and college bound for the first time. I grew up on fantasy books like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books and Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, with a smattering of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels as companions. I love these stories, but I eventually wandered away from the genre as a whole because the books were satisfying in their adventures but didn’t give me a real sense of fulfillment. Part of that had to do with the stations and genders of the protagonists, but the most glaring lack was that the emotional journey in the books was often boiled down to the bare necessities to augment the fantasy or adventure plot, and I wasn’t given enough interaction between the leads for the romantic aspects to seem realistic. I understood having the sexy bits behind closed doors or faded out, but it often felt like the sweet bits were being locked away as well.
So I came to the purchase of Kushiel’s Dart on a whim, needing something to distract me from the frustrations of freshman year, and was rewarded with a love for a genre I hadn’t even realized existed. As RFS defines the terms fantasy romance and romantic fantasy, Kushiel’s Dart is in the romantic fantasy category, meaning that there is a romantic subplot that plays a significant role in the novel. (For a more in-depth discussion of the two genres, check out the blog posts: “The Place of Romantic Fantasy,” and “Falling In Love With Fantasy Romance.”)
Kushiel’s Dart is the first book of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series, and also the first of the trilogy about Phèdre no Delaunay.
The book begins with Phèdre telling the tale of her birth and departure from her parents. This serves to explain several of the important aspects of Jacqueline Carey’s fictional world, which is what I like to call a not-Europe, in that the landmasses on the map are familiar but the names of the countries are changed. You learn at once that the D’Angelines of Terre d’Ange are known for and value beauty, that there is an acknowledged and non-stigmatized system of sexual companionship known as being a Servant of Naamah, that the Night Court (or Court of Night Blooming Flowers) is an esteemed system of brothels, and that Phèdre is the child of a former Servant of Naamah who went on to marry a merchant’s son with questionable business acumen.
A Little Background on Terre D’Ange
With this book, it’s hard to balance a review between plot and worldbuilding, so allow me to interject some explanation here.
According to D’Angeline lore, the head of their pantheon of gods, Blessed Elua, was an angel conceived by Yeshua ben Yosef, the son of the One God, and Magdelene at the crucifixion. The story of Elua’s conception is told to a very young Phèdre, and makes reference to Magdelene’s tears and Yeshua’s blood, and that it was from this union that “the grieving earth engendered her most precious son,” which is a bit confusing. But the salient point is that Elua is the One God’s angelic, half-mortal grandson. Elua was scorned by the One God and Yeshua’s followers for his mortal conception and his open beliefs regarding love. (Blessed Elua’s slogan is Love as thou wilt, which is the basis of the D’Angeline faith.) As he wanders, the tale of his persecutions reaches heaven, and some of the hierarchy of the One God’s angels feel compassion for him and flout the will of the One God and come to earth to become Elua’s Companions. Even with a retinue of angels, Elua isn’t welcomed to stay anywhere, so he spends a long while as a nomad.
Terre d’Ange is the land where Elua and his Companions were finally welcomed. Not only do D’Angelines worship Blessed Elua and his Companions, they are also said to be their descendants. (Elua and most of his Companions practice what he preaches.) Among the Companions, Naamah, the elder sister, is said to have lain with strangers in the street for coin to keep Elua and the Companions fed. It is from her sacrifice that Naamah’s Service derives, and those who take up Naamah’s Service are called, appropriately, Servants of Naamah. They pledge themselves until they can make their mark – a full back tattoo that supposedly originates in the marks Naamah herself would have acquired from bedding people against unforgiving surfaces – in stages as they ply their trade. Patrons can leave gifts above the price they pay for the service, and from there come the funds to pay the tattooist to fill out the mark. Most Servants of Naamah within the City of Elua (the capital of Terre d’Ange) choose to operate within the Night Court, where there are contracts and safeguards and standards. The Night Court is made up of thirteen houses that all cater to a particular aesthetic both visually and in terms of sexual desire.
The Fate of a Child: “A Whore’s Unwanted Get”
As Phèdre tells it, her parents probably intended to apprentice her into the Night Court, and thus she could pay for her own upkeep and eventually they would be given a portion of her income, but the plan hits a fatal snag because both by D’Angeline and Night Court standards, Phèdre is flawed. She was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye, and that imperfection makes her unfit for service. Her parents, who she explains have more love for each other than sense, failed to make profit from a trading caravan and desperately need money enough to survive. Her father is the least capable of the trader’s sons, so though the trader has offered them a second chance, it comes with a price. They must back the goods with their own coin. As Phèdre’s father is too proud to share his wife’s talents to earn coin to make up the difference, and without Phèdre’s entry into the Night Court they are in dire straits. In desperation, her mother turns to the first house, Cereus House, for a way out. You get, in Jacqueline Carey’s beautiful prose, the scene thusly:
I remember standing in the courtyard upon marble flagstones, holding my mother’s hand as she stammered forth her plight. The advent of true love, the elopement, her own Dowayne’s decree, the failure of the caravan and my grandfather’s bargain. I remember how she spoke of my father still with love and admiration, sure that the next purse, the next sojourn, would make his fortune. I remember how she cited, voice bold and trembling, her years of service, the exhortation of Blessed Elua: Love as thou wilt. And I remember, at last, how the fountain of her voice ran dry, and the Dowayne moved one hand. Not lifted, not quite; a pair of fingers, perhaps, laden with rings.
“Bring the child here.”
So we approached the chair, my mother trembling and I oddly fearless, as children are wont to be at the least apt of times. The Dowayne lifted my chin with one ring-laden finger and took survey of my features.
Did a flicker of something, some uncertainty, cross her mien when her gaze fell on my left eye? Even now, I am not sure; and if it did, it passed swiftly. She withdrew her hand and returned her gaze to my mother, stern and abiding.
“Jehan spoke truly,” she said. “The child is unfit to serve the Thirteen Houses. Yet she is comely, and being raised to the Court, may fetch a considerable bond price. In recognition of your years of service, I will make you this offer.”
(Kushiel’s Dart, page 7-8)
Kushiel’s Dart is told in first person, with a limited omniscience. The Phèdre narrating the story is a much older version than the Phèdre in the action of the story, so logically, I know that she’ll overcome this, but the feels when the Dowayne of Cereus House goes on to name Phèdre “a whore’s unwanted get” aren’t lessened by knowing she carries on. Phèdre’s situation feels so real to me that I choke up every time I read that scene.
An Imperfection Turned Mark of Destiny: “I remember the moment when I discovered pain.”
The second chapter of the book, which is quite short, begins thusly. And this gives the first glimpse of Phèdre’s story with her attraction to pain. She scores her hand with a pin and is caught enjoying the pain of it by the Dowayne, who starts to send her off to Valerian House, where they specialize in that sort of fascination, but stops herself. The Dowayne is a shrewd one, and has an inkling that there is more to Phèdre than just her parentage. She sends for Anafiel Delaunay, who is not a member of the Night Court, but something of a noble and a scholar.
Kushiel’s Dart is not a fantasy book containing magic, exactly, but there are moments of divine guidance and intervention. Delaunay recognizes instantly that the scarlet mote in Phèdre’s eye is not a mark of imperfection, but the mark of the god Kushiel, who was a bestower of punishments, and whose followers have a special relationship with the experience of pain. The scarlet mote in her eye is the Kushiel’s dart of the title. Phèdre also feels Kushiel’s call to action on more than one occasion, and her tolerance for pain helps her to carry out Kushiel’s wishes. What’s more, Phèdre’s pleasure in pain is not common, but the trait of an anguissette. Delaunay, after giving a name to her gifts, buys her mark so that once she has reached the age of ten she will join his household as one of his apprentices.
From here the story grows into a masterfully crafted, War of the Roses style political intrigue. Delaunay is loyal to the main royal house of Terre d’Ange, the de la Courcels, and his two apprentices – Phèdre and a lad named Alcuin, who is, honestly, too pure for words – are his tools for securing the line of succession in favor of Ysandre de la Courcel (who happens to be the daughter of his former lover, the late Crown Prince). He seeks to accomplish this by using the pair of his apprentices, who pledge to become Servants of Naamah in an independent fashion, as honey pots.
Having started and put down a lot of books with political intrigue, Kushiel’s Dart might have died on my endless TBR pile at this point, because considerable time is spent on Phèdre and Alcuin’s apprenticeship in which they are learning to observe and think, which is great and makes a case for the dramatis personae section in the front of the book, but also contains a lot of details about the political movers and shakers of Terre d’Ange. That the book did not molder in the annals of my college shelves or become a very thick table leg replacement is where credit is due to Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous prose, lush worldbuilding, and Phèdre’s relatable narration. That’s what kept me going through all ninety-five chapters of the book. Alongside Phèdre I fell in love with Delaunay, wept at his misfortune, was frustrated with not being told the aim of his schemes, and despite my own tastes in intimacy, I found myself looking forward to Phèdre’s eventual assignations.
ABOUT THOSE ASSIGNATIONS
You get a hint early in the book that Phèdre’s not going to be a vanilla-sex sort of romance heroine. Being an anguissette means that it is in Phèdre’s nature to derive pleasure from pain, but during her apprenticeship we slog through what Phèdre calls the “dumb torment of virginity.” In chapter fourteen we are further educated about what sexploits we can look forward to as, alongside Phèdre, we journey to Valerian house and are introduced to “the tools of algolania,” or the implements of pain we can expect her clients to use on her. She’s somewhat familiar with most of them, at least in an academic fashion, but she is nonetheless excited by the show and tell. For someone on the outside of these desires, it was nice to be introduced to the ways of Phèdre’s art. The sex scenes themselves are handled as masterfully as the rest of the prose in the novel, without an excess of detail but with a true connection to Phèdre’s feelings in these moments. Her experiences and pleasure are vividly portrayed. So, while I couldn’t sympathize with her excitement over the specifics of her assignations, I was on the edge of my seat because she was going to experience what she’d been craving for chapters upon chapters. That I could understand, and Phèdre’s fulfillment makes the read that much better.
Piece by piece, assignation by assignation, we move through the story, and along the way we meet Melisande Shahrizai. If Delaunay is Sherlock, with an immense intellect, a keen eye for detail, and a mission for the greater good (as he sees it), then Melisande is his Moriarty in the sense that the two of them are equally clever and motivated towards their own goals. Melisande is beautiful, dangerous, and a noble of Kushiel’s line, which makes her a flame to Phèdre’s moth. Kushiel’s chosen and a scion of Kushiel’s line have an undeniable chemistry between them that could make them perfect for each other, but while Melisande appreciates Phèdre as a singular creature, they are not entirely on the same side. Melisande has as many schemes as Delaunay, and both are playing a very long game with the succession of Terre d’Ange as the prize. While Delaunay seeks to secure Ysandre de la Courcel, it takes the whole book to learn Melisande’s true aim, and she damn near razes the country in pursuit of it. I enjoy Melisande for her ruthless ambition and her intelligence. Like so many of the characters in the novel, she’s real, vibrant, and alluring enough that even I can understand Phèdre’s instant infatuation with her.
As with all good stories involving political intrigue, the tête-à-tête regarding the succession involves a rather stunning betrayal, and as our narrator and protagonist, Phèdre is caught in the middle of it, finding herself shipped off to the barbarians of Skaldia in chapter thirty-nine. She has the good fortune not to be sent alone, which brings me to one of my favorite things about this novel.
I’ve been saving possibly the best part of this story, because Joscelin Verreuil is probably every reader’s best fictional boyfriend, and he deserves to be done justice. If you’re wondering what I mean, I think a case could be made that Joscelin is to romantic fantasy what Mr. Darcy is to regency romance.
How? Well, let’s start with how he enters our story.
As much as they are Delaunay’s apprentices, Alcuin and Phèdre are also part of Delaunay’s household and, despite the brewing adoration in them for their master, they are like family to him. Delaunay is a veteran soldier (along with being a poet and a nobleman), but it isn’t his station to escort them to their every appointment, so he keeps an unofficial man-at-arms in his household for that purpose. We see a glimpse of the danger he has set his apprentices to courting when Alcuin comes riding pell-mell back from an assignation on horseback after his carriage was attacked and the man-at-arms, Guy, perishes facing off against the attackers to defend Alcuin’s escape.
Guy is an older, chaperone-type figure during Phèdre’s younger years in the household. He doesn’t spend much time talking in the book. Like everyone else in Delaunay’s household, he knows when to keep his mouth shut, and he’s got a few secrets in his past. The only real tidbit we’re given is one that Phèdre discovers during the torment of her virginity, that Guy is a disgraced Cassiline Brother.
Much like Naamah and Kushiel, Cassiel was one of Eula’s Companions, and he alone among them remained chaste, disdaining the open, loving ways of the others. The Cassiline Brotherhood are not descendents of Cassiel, but an order of bodyguards pledged from noble houses that are considered to be the ultimate protectors. Usually they are only in service to those born of the Great Houses (i.e., nobility). They dress in grey and carry two daggers and a sword, though mostly they fight with unmatched skill with the two daggers, as their swords are only drawn to kill. But it’s rare for them to draw their swords. Cassilines won’t even draw their daggers except in defense of their charges.
Delaunay secures a Cassiline to replace Guy in accompanying Phèdre on her missions, which she thinks a disaster in the making as she anticipates a prudishly chaste, old, wrinkled guardian that will be off-putting and unsuitable.
What she gets is Joscelin Verreuil.
The young man standing in the shadows behind me bowed in the traditional manner of the Cassiline Brotherhood, hands crossed before him at chest level. Warm sunlight gleamed on the steel of his vambraces and the chain-mail that gauntleted the backs of his hands. His twin daggers hung low on his belt and the cruciform hilt of his sword, always worn at the back, rose above his shoulders. He straightened and met my eyes.
“Phèdre no Delaunay,” he said formally, “I am Joscelin Verreuil of the Cassiline Brotherhood. It is my privilege to attend.”
He neither looked nor sounded as though he meant it; I saw the line of his jaw harden as he closed his mouth on the words.
It was a beautiful mouth.
Indeed, there was very little about Joscelin Verreuil that was not beautiful. He had the old-fashioned, noble features of a provincial lord and the somber, ash-grey garb of a Cassiline Brother adorned a tall, well-proportioned form, like the statues of the old Hellene athletes. His eyes were a clear blue, the color of a summer sky, and his hair, caught back in a club at the nape of his neck, was the color of a wheatfield at harvesttime.
At this moment, his blue eyes considered me with ill-concealed dislike.
Kushiel’s Dart, pg 254-255
Joscelin enters the story at a tumultuous time. Alcuin has made his mark, leaving Phèdre as the only active spy for Delaunay, and the waters she’s diving into are getting turbulent. A trained, chaste protector, Joscelin is affronted by her “service.” Phèdre equally resents Joscelin for his rigidity. But they are of a similar age, and he is assigned to be her protector at a time when she is becoming isolated from those she cares for by their shared mission. Their similar age and exclusion from Delaunay’s greatest secrets gives them common ground. He becomes a fixture in the household, and a steady companion to her, despite not having Phèdre’s training at political intrigue. There’s something of a role-reversal in their dynamic from the more standard male-warrior/female-damsel relationships in the fantasy I read prior to this book. Phèdre faces danger even without carrying a sword, and she lacks a sense of caution about her work. Joscelin, who is much more careful, is a good foil for her, and proves himself a stalwart companion when the chips are down.
What draws me to Joscelin is similar to what draws me to Phèdre. Despite his impressive skills with a sword, he’s not perfect. He messes up and needs help finding his way, and has some growing up to do when we meet him in the book, but he never stops trying and he never abandons Phèdre despite their differences and disagreements. And they have some serious disagreements along the way, but even to at the worst of them, he remains a constant in the turbulence she’s embroiled in.
“You don’t know.” He bowed his head, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, despairing. “You don’t understand. It has naught to do with thrones and crowns. Cassiel betrayed God because God Himself had forgotten the duty of love and abandoned Elua ben Yeshua to the whims of Fate. To the point of damnation and beyond, he is the Perfect Companion. If you are true, if you are true… I cannot abandon you,Phèdre nó Delaunay!”
Kushiel’s Dart, page 388
The two of them are such a slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance that I could write an entire epic saga in honor to it. They both support each other and grow to be capable individuals that fit together. There’s a lack of narrative focused on how they feel about each other, but with Jacqueline Carey’s gorgeous prose and Phèdre’s insightful narration, you know how close they grow without needing purple prose descriptions or long-winded confessions to explain it. And Carey doesn’t rush into their pairing, or ignore or avoid their individual truths or situations. Their affection for each other doesn’t magically erase the impediments to it – Phèdre remains a Servant of Naamah and Kushiel’s Chosen; Joscelin remains a Cassiline with his oaths. Joscelin can’t supply for all Phèdre’s sexual desires, and she can’t give them up for him. Likewise, there’s the pesky issue of his vow of celibacy to consider.
In another story this might lead to a relationship doomed for failure or only lasting a single novel, but the main tenet of the d’Angeline faith is Blessed Elua’s decree to “Love as thou wilt,” and thankfully their relationship proves that love will find a way despite the struggles it must endure. Their growth as a couple and the progression of their love make Phèdre and Joscelin one of my favorite literary couples.
LOVE AS THOU WILT
I can’t write this book review without further exploring the open-mindedness of Elua’s teachings. The acceptance of sexuality, desire, and love in this world (I would say book, but remember, this series continues on for more than just this one) are another reason I love it so. There’s an absence of shaming of desires in the book. Even Joscelin, who doesn’t agree with or understand Phèdre’s assignations or desires, comes across more like he’s asking “Are you sure the answer to this calamity is sex?” than throwing stones about how she finds her pleasure when the matter comes up. (Remember, he starts off a chaste guardian that errs towards restraint rather than passion.)
That D’Angelines keep certain things private, but don’t stigmatize an individual’s desires, has been refreshing to me since I first read this book almost twenty years ago, and remains a message that’s relevant today. I like that sort of inclusion in my fantasy stories, and in Kushiel’s Dart, Phèdre not only understands her desires, she expresses them, and isn’t rebuked for it. Because the narrative voice always makes me feel one with Phèdre when reading the book, that transfers a powerful feeling of validation to me as the reader.
It’s pretty obvious at this point that I love Phèdre’s story, and I love the emotional roller coaster it takes me on. But as a responsible reviewer, I can’t conclude without an honest assessment of a few potential distractions from the book’s glory.
Some Possible Cons…
I mentioned before the flavor of most of the sex in the book, which won’t be to everyone’s taste despite being handled tastefully. The book is also long, nine-hundred-and-one pages long, which puts the paperback in the category of self-defense brick. The story is gorgeously written, but with so much of it, I find that every time I read the book new details come to my attention. Also, there’s the pesky problem of not being able to put it down, and my poor wrists trying to hold open this mass-market paperbrick.
None of the above is reason not to pick the book up, as there’s so much to the story to enjoy, but you have been warned.
Now, because this review has been lengthy (and hopefully without too many spoilers), I’ll give a bit of a summary.
Kushiel’s Dart is the story of Phèdre, who was marked at birth by the god Kushiel in Terre d’Ange. This romantic epic fantasy:
involves political intrigue;
includes sexytimes in which pain brings the protagonist pleasure and sexytimes in which sex brings the protagonist pleasure;
is told from the protagonist’s point of view in first person narration;
has a well-detailed and fleshed out fantasy setting;
has a bright and interesting cast of characters; and
has a swoon-worthy, slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance within it.
(Also, you could defend yourself in a dark alley with the paperback version.)
Did I miss your favorite part? Have you been in love with it as long as I have, or is this your first introduction to it? Let’s chat in the comments about it!
Roz has a degree in both theater and comic books from different ends of the country, and has been telling stories since she was chasing fireflies barefoot at dusk and tormenting her cousins by enforcing a storyline on summer games of tag. She enjoys video games that rival epic sagas in length, writing books with heroines that require her to spar through her fight scenes with friends, and a good cup of tea.
No amount of coin will convince Belisare to use her magic, but that never stops her lover Gio from trying to change her mind.
With hard times thinning the ranks of her pack of mercenaries, Belisare doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to romance, and even less on making the coin to keep them all going. Rather than spend her nights cold and alone, she’s hung on to her erstwhile lover, Gio. Rather than disband, she’s taken one last, desperate contract before winter to try and make ends meet.
When convincing the lads of the plan goes poorly and Gio shows up in her tent, Belisare is more than happy for a few hours of distraction. But are Gio’s nighttime attentions meant to help her unwind or are they yet another attempt at convincing her to use the magical ability she keeps firmly suppressed?
Appropriate for fans of KUSHIEL’S DART and OGLAF, the SHIELDSISTER series is for mature readers only, and is certainly NSFW.
Content Warning: Steamy love scenes, occasionally naughty language, and busty ladies in armor wielding swords. Intended for mature audiences.
My first crush was on Aladdin. As far as eight-year-old me was concerned, he was the perfect man. Of course, back when I was eight, having a pet monkey and a magic carpet were higher on my “perfect man” checklist (ok, I admit—they’re still pretty high). My penchant for Disney rogues has even followed me into adulthood—the period of time in which my three-year-old made me watch Tangled on repeat for weeks on end was made slightly more tolerable by the presence of Flynn Rider.
My first boyfriend was a rogue too; the Rogue in fact. When I read The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce for the first time back when I was twelve, I was rooting for George from the beginning. The witty King of Thieves seemed far more appealing to me than Prince Jon.
As a teenager, I had many more book boyfriends—and they weren’t all rogues. In the end, I did fall in love with a few princes, but there were also crooks, warlords and pirates. I was romanced by nineteenth-century English gentlemen, assassins from Ixia and elves from Mirkwood, while safe in the knowledge that if things got too intense, I could close the book and walk away. As an awkward, gangly, bespectacled teenager, that appealed to me, and the boys in those books seemed far more interesting than the awkward, gangly, be-spotted boys I went to school with.
Young Adult Book Relationships: Unrealistic Expectations or High Standards?
The universal theme in
YA stories is coming of age, and it’s a theme we can all identify with, whether
we’re going through it ourselves or reminiscing about a time when we were. It’s
also usually around that age that most people fall in love for the first time,
and I’m glad I got to dip my toes in and fall in love a few times between the
pages of a book before I handed my heart over to a real-life human.
The romance genre as a whole is often accused of setting unrealistic expectations of relationships, and while that might be the case sometimes, for me, those book boyfriends didn’t set unrealistic expectations—they set standards. I wasn’t searching for someone who would shower me with flowery declarations of love when I found my husband (which is fortunate as the last text he sent me read “pick up milk x”), but I did expect honesty, loyalty and integrity. I wanted someone I could depend on in a crisis, and someone who knew they could depend on me. I wanted warmth, and humour and intelligence. If people think those expectations are unrealistic, that’s their problem, not mine.
Because let’s face it, it wasn’t really the fact that Aladdin was a rogue that made me fall for him all those years ago. It wasn’t even that he had a pet monkey and a magic carpet (though that really did work in his favour). I fell for Aladdin the moment he handed his loaf of bread over to those two street children after going to so much effort to get it in the first place. That love was solidified when he kept his promise to the genie at the end, using his last wish to free him, and in doing so potentially sacrificing his own happiness. It wasn’t Flynn Rider’s, “Hi, how you doing?” that made me swoon, but the moment he hands Rapunzel’s crown over to The Stabbington Brothers, realising that he’s found something far more precious. I didn’t fall for George Cooper of Pirate’s Swoop because he was the King of Thieves, and it certainly wasn’t because he liked to collect ears—if anything that would be a bit of a red flag in a relationship—it was when he sold Alanna Moonlight, her horse, for pennies, commenting that he’d give it to her outright if he thought she’d take it. I fell for Mr. Darcy’s honour, for Valek Icefaren’s strength, and for Legolas Greenleaf’s intelligence and wit; Red of Harrowfield taught me gentleness and Argul of the Hulta showed me humour.
My book boyfriends were all very different. They weren’t perfect, but then I wasn’t looking for perfection, and each one of them taught me something about myself and what I’d want from a relationship when I finally (hopefully!) found a boyfriend that wasn’t trapped inside the pages of a novel. They also taught me about love, and who might be worthy of mine.
Sprinkled Among the Romance, Lessons
On the flip side, they showed me what I didn’t want. Prince Nemian from Tanith Lee’s Law of Wolf Tower taught me that dashing saviours may not be all they’re cracked up to be, and while Darcy taught me about honourable men, George Wickham was a reminder that honour is not a quality all men possess. More recently, Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse and Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series have shown that it is sometimes wise to guard your heart.
I have had my heart broken of course, and I’m glad of it. I wouldn’t want to hide behind the pages of a book forever without experiencing love firsthand, but my book boyfriends gave me a good foundation, and without them, I think I would have kissed a lot more frogs before I found my prince rogue.
Those book boyfriends
were very special to me during my own coming of age, and I think they’re part
of the reason I write YA Romantic Fantasy now. I want to create book
boyfriends readers can fall in love with, and I’d like to think Lok has a few
traits that make him a worthy first love.
So tell me, who was your first book boyfriend? Let me know in the comments.
About the Author
Oleander lives in Lancashire, England, and is mother to a dire wolf and two
tiny humans. Growing up, she spent more time immersed in fantasy worlds than
she did in the real one. Now, writing fantasy allows her to create worlds or
her own and spend lots of time in them.
studied English Literature and Journalism at university, and worked as an
English teacher before pursuing a career in writing.
When she’s not writing or reading, she enjoys travelling to different corners of the world to gather inspiration for her stories. You can reach her at:
You can fall in love with Lok in The Syphon’s Song, which will be available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited this spring.
Cali killed for the first time when she was four.
Since then, she’s
committed countless murders for The Order. Imprisoned since she was born, she
is their most dangerous weapon: a magical assassin who visits people as they
sleep—ensuring that they never wake up. Cali would give almost anything for her
freedom, but not when the punishment for any disobedience means death for her
Lok knows two things;
magic is evil and so are those who wield it. Becoming a member of The Order has
been his dream since boyhood, but once he is stationed at the prison, he starts
to see the corruption at its core. When children are used as offerings, he
knows he can stay silent no longer.
Lok decides to leave, unwittingly taking Cali with him, and events are set in motion that cannot be reversed. As The Order grows more powerful, spreading darkness through the land, Cali and Lok must break free of their chains if they are to have any hope of putting an end to the evil for good.
I can’t say that I write romantic fantasy without addressing the romantic part of the genre. And there’s a lot to be said about romance and fantasy, because I feel there’s a lot of room here… other races, multiple loves, exploring sexuality in the safety of foreign worlds and cultures. I don’t hope to ever come across an orc warrior that I have to blast with a fireball, so if I can safely read about myself as the character incinerating other people to death, then I definitely can dip my toes in relationships and scary romances I wouldn’t naturally explore in the real world. This, in and of itself, is probably the best argument for romance in fantasy.
For the most part, romance in stories gets boiled down to Person
A falling in love with Person B and vice versa. Maybe they hate each other at
first, maybe they barely know each other, and maybe it’s the slowest of slow
burns humanly possible. We tend to all agree, even though we may have
preferences, HOW the characters fall in love doesn’t seem to be so taboo…
But what we can’t seem to agree on is whether sex on the page is
necessary or not.
I don’t mean in that terrible story where the author thought
adding a few racy pages would up people’s interest. Forced chemistry isn’t good
for anyone involved. And I’m definitely not talking about those pieces that
earned the Bad
Sex Award. I’m talking about… totally probable, sex-having characters…
where audiences can’t agree whether or not the deed needs to be shared.
…[I]f I can safely read about myself as the character incinerating other people to death, then I definitely can dip my toes in relationships and scary romances I wouldn’t naturally explore in the real world.
Maybe the reader isn’t comfortable reading consensual sex on the
page. Maybe the reader doesn’t find sex necessary to tell the story, like it’s
a peek into the two people’s private lives or even that of the author’s. And
maybe it’s cultural. Point is, it’s almost a fear or viewed as a plague rather
than a simple preference. People are offended it’s even included, rather than
offended when it’s not.
And for those of us who want a decent sex scene in our stories,
there tends to be a few other problems.
Maybe you don’t know this, but behind the scenes, there are battles being fought daily between “clean” authors and “not-so-clean”(?) authors. Fights for promos, swaps, ad spots, etc. And it typically tends to land… “clean over here” vs. “everyone else over there.” If your books don’t meet a specific requirement about sexual relationships between characters, you might find yourself swimming in circles with no advertising. And good luck if you write romantic YA where teens have sex. (Guess what? Teens have sex y’all.)
Side-story: Veronica Roth (YA author) was approached by several
parents who questioned if her books included sex. When she said no, but they
include murder and fighting and killing, the parents shrugged it off and said
that was fine. Still think we don’t have issues with sex?
Also, authors who put sex on the pages of their stories in
genres OTHER than romance tend to run into another interesting obstacle. If a
book is deemed “clean,” you don’t typically see a lower rating or criticism for
that specific trait in the book even if readers wouldn’t have minded it.
However, if a book is deemed “not clean,” and the reader somehow missed the
disclaimer or missed that it’s in the adult category, you’ll see books rated
down PURELY because it includes sex.
So, what can we do?
First, can we do away with clean vs dirty or even
clean vs not clean?
Can we just say… “no sexual interactions” or yes, “sexual relationships included”? Can that be a thing?
“Clean” reads can never be perfectly defined, just like sexual metaphors with baseball bases can’t be clearly defined across all audiences. “Clean” to me means no penetration. “Clean” to someone else might mean no heavy petting or foreplay. We’re setting up authors to fail and audiences to be disappointed.
And denoting “clean” vs “not clean” is pretty negative in and of itself. The opposite of “clean” is… “dirty,” duh, and it clearly has negative connotations. “Clean” is a very puritanical way of looking at it—pure, orderly, logical… as if to say stories that include sex, and dare I say actual relationships, are not those things and that there’s something wrong with them.
Except there’s not?
It’s okay to have a preference, but reviews that seem distracted
by the sex, at least look to me like the same people griping that vampires
don’t sparkle. What? (oh yeah, I went
“Clean” is a very puritanical way of looking at it—pure, orderly, logical… as if to say stories that include sex, and dare I say actual relationships, are not those things and that there’s something wrong with them.
Second, can we lift stories that have sex in them?
If you read books with sex in them, and LIKE IT, then spread that good stuff around like your tub o’ buttah. I’m definitely not a fan of people feeling like they can’t voice when they like human experiences, so we shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed about sharing these stories.
I’m guilty of this, too. I feel inclined to warn people who haven’t read something I like that it includes sex. Not like *nudge nudge wink wink* it has sex. More like an aside so they don’t judge *me*… And that’s weird, right? I need to work on that, and I’m willing to bet some of you do, too.
Truth is we need to share if we like sex in our stories, because it’s okay and totally human to want sex in stories. It’s not putting down stories without sexual interactions, it’s just giving the other team a voice to say… “Hey! Sometimes I need to read about the main character sleeping with every male character to pick the one she truly loves, okay? You do you… I’ll do… me?” 😉
Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! <3
So, out with it! What stories do you remember for their good sex scenes?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Disclaimer is Obvious: This is not to say there aren’t issues with how we validate
strong men in fiction.
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
Am I saying I want physically weaker women and damsels in
Uh, yes, actually… And not exactly to that second part.
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.)
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.
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:
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…