Talk to fantasy authors who write books aimed at women readers, and you’ll often hear a similar story. Growing up, they were voracious readers, but all the books they came across were written about male heroes, and women were often only objects that were taken and reacquired by the hero, or broken to make him suffer, or perhaps trophies at the end when the hero had gone through all his trials and tribulations.
But then, suddenly amid piles of those books, came a game-changer: THE BOOK.
THE BOOK might have been The Blue Sword or The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. Or it might have been Alanna: The First Adventure or maybe Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce. Or maybe Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey. Regardless of which title it was, THE BOOK was a game-changer because for once, the woman wasn’t an item or a trophy–she was the hero, and finally there was this aha! moment of feeling validated, that your entire gender wasn’t just fodder to advance a male character’s narrative, but you too could be a hero.
These books often contained romance–and why shouldn’t they? It’s as much a part of life as battles, if not a much bigger one–and suddenly an audience that had been quietly searching for representation in fantasy found it in these few, now growing in number, books. THE BOOK may have led you to Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, or Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters, or perhaps Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series, and eventually here.
“Great!” you say, and so do I. In an ideal world, any reader should be able to find a book that represents them. We all want to feel like we could be the hero, and we all want to relate. And we squee at heroines finding love, and we reread the books with the best romantic subplots because, well, why wouldn’t you?! If other readers can search out and enjoy books with extreme violence or the darkest of themes, you can surely appreciate female-led fantasy with some love, right?
There’s a joy in finding the magic lamp of books perfect for you in the huge Cave of Wonders. And you finding fantasy books starring female heroes and including a swoon-worthy romance doesn’t take away from anyone else, does it? There are still books with male heroes. Still books with little or no romance. Your magic lamp does not contain the evil genie out to scorch the earth.
The existence of your perfect books isn’t mutually exclusive with the existence of others’ perfect books. No harm done.
If only everyone felt that way.
Recently, I was reading the reviews of a book I enjoyed, and I came across one that sort of unified a collection of thoughts that had been stirring in my head. (Title omitted for the author’s privacy.) The review accused the author of “Female Author Syndrome.” (Let that sink in for a moment.)
Apparently, “Female Author Syndrome” in a fantasy novel means the book has “too many” romantic scenes, making the reader feel like he’s “reading a romance novel” (and that’s a bad thing, you know, because ugh, romance, amirite? *eye roll*). But that’s not all… the author also dared to describe male physical attributes (!), like eye color and hair color. (Where’s my fainting couch, y’all? Jessica, Catharine, Clare, do you guys have my smelling salts?) And “enough already” about the heroine loving the hero! Ugh! The reader could hardly bear “these annoyances.”
The best part: the book’s blurb clearly indicated a romance.
So, dear friends, what lessons are we to glean from this review? Let’s play:
- Firstly, that female authors suffer from a syndrome! (I hope it’s not fatal?!)
- Secondly, a syndrome implies it’s a problem. And problems need fixing.
- Thirdly, romance is unacceptable. (Too bad for you, readers. You’re not allowed to like romance in your fantasy. No books for you!)
- Fourthly, how dare a book employ a female gaze, describing male love interests’ physical (and even non-sexual) attributes! (Books are “MGO,” didn’t you know? Male Gaze Only. *Z snap*)
- Finally, books written for us are annoying. (Poor guy, someone forced him to read it. How sad.)
I’m singling out this review, but there are countless just like this, that:
- call fantasy books written for women by women “garbage” for containing romance or “not real fantasy,” or
- complain about the female gaze describing male heroes, or
- dub the heroine a “whore” or “slut” for romantic/love scenes, breaking up with the first love interest and finding a new one, or having multiple love interests as in reverse-harem fantasy.
(Let’s not think too heavily about the real-world implications of those complaints… unless you have a good bottle of wine and a friend handy.)
There are many, many readers and reviewers out there who see a fantasy cover targeted at you and a blurb indicating romance, who still believe every fantasy book should be written for a romance-hating (and predominantly male) audience and judge it by that sorely, willfully mistaken belief. And then say female fantasy authors have a “syndrome” because they dare to write with a different target audience in mind.
It doesn’t matter that you finding fantasy books that star female heroes and include romance doesn’t take away from anyone else. It doesn’t matter that there are still books out there with male heroes. That there are still books with little or no romance. Your favorite books, the authors who write for you, and YOU are an annoyance to those willfully mistaken readers and authors.
“Romantic fantasy isn’t real fantasy” is a dog whistle. What it means is sexism. Misogyny. Hating women. What it means is what you like is dumb.
Authors who write romantic fantasy books are often personae non gratae in general fantasy communities, or in this case that they have a “syndrome,” and aren’t writing “real fantasy” but “romance” (which, you know, to them isn’t a respectable genre of fiction to begin with). If we want to earn their respect, we should stop writing what we write, fix it, remove love scenes because they are “porn” or “disgusting” or “not clean” simply for being on the page. Readers who love these books are made to feel ashamed and like they should go away or stay quiet.
But we won’t be silenced, readers and authors alike. There is room out there for all kinds of fantasy books–books that include love scenes, books that don’t, books about heroes, books about heroines, books that describe male love interests, books that describe female love interests, etc. They are all “real fantasy.” There’s room for everything and everyone, and I’m so glad to be part of a readership at Romantic Fantasy Shelf that supports tolerance through leading by example. We don’t condemn books that clearly target a different audience, and hopefully someday there won’t be readers and authors calling romantic fantasy books the product of a “syndrome.”
It’s 20-freaking-21. Aren’t we past “blue is cool, and pink is dumb”? Aren’t we past “Action figures are awesome, and Barbies suck”? There should be no place for putting down femininity in our society or in the book community. But the “no romance in fantasy” sign is a coded “No girls allowed” sign (except, you know, the “cool” girls who only like the boy stuff, just like “strong female characters,” right?).
Let me share a secret with you: the #1 reason for “No girls allowed” is insecurity. It is fear. The success of the feminine threatens the default. By closing spaces to women and femininity, they think they can slow down or stop us from rising and “taking over.” But all it takes is to crack open one eye to see that there’s no stopping us. Look at Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of SIlver Flames. Look at Jennifer L. Armentrout’s From Blood and Ash. Look at all the fantasy authors who include romance who’ve come before: Jacqueline Carey, Juliet Marillier, Diana Gabaldon, Mercedes Lackey, Catherine Asaro, Tamora Pierce, Lois McMaster Bujold, and so many more. Look at their fans, count them, and see that the fantasy readership doesn’t agree that fantasy with romance doesn’t belong.
Anyone trying to exclude romantic fantasy from the fantasy genre as a whole should ask themselves if they’re okay with being a misogynist and a sexist, and excluding brilliant and successful fantasy authors like N.K. Jemisin, Jacqueline Carey, and Sarah J. Maas along with their legions of fans. They should ask themselves whether they would also exclude Patrick Rothfuss, Guy Gavriel Kay, Andrzej Sapkowski, Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher, and a growing number of indie male authors whose books also feature romance… or is it still “real fantasy” because it’s written by men? There’s a lot to unpack there, but it can be unpacked. People’s views can change.
Even if they don’t, though, we’re not going away. 🙂 Romantic fantasy readers will continue to grow in number, and more of them are coming forward to proudly recommend the books they adore and to share their love of them. Romantic fantasy authors are continuing to do well, and the success of Sarah J. Maas, Holly Black, and others continuing to blaze the trail means traditional publishers are looking for more, and more indie authors are entering the genre, too. Words have power, but “syndrome,” “real fantasy,” and “no romance allowed” aren’t even close to stopping the power of these authors’ stories and the readers enjoying them. We love romance in our fantasy. And any lover of romance knows love conquers all, right? 😉
Take heart. Although those reviews, posts, and messages might make you feel singled out, when they try to shame you, embarass you, or tell you that you don’t deserve the books that you love, it is because they are threatened by you. They are scared. They are insecure. They will try to make you feel small and singled out, but you are not alone. There is a legion of readers who love the same books you do. And we will not be shamed, embarrassed, or diminished into giving up what we love.
What was the first fantasy book you came across that you felt represented you? When did you find it, and how did it make you feel? Share in the comments!
Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series was my first dive into the fantasy book world. I still remember the first time I picked up Kushiel’s Dart. I was visiting my cousins in Michigan and on the counter was little fat fantasy book with a blue cover and beautiful woman with a pretty rose tattoo. I knew it was my cousin Dan’s book because he (at that time anyway) only read fantasy books and he devoured them. He could read a book a day, he loved (still loves) to read. Anyway, I picked up the book and stared at the cover for a bit and read the back. I’d never seen a book description like that. I assumed, based on my limited interactions with my male fantasy book obsessed cousin, that all fantasy books had dragons and were mostly male-centric. So to see this book with a woman on the cover, with a description that she was the main character and was going to save the realm well that stuff was completely foreign and AWESOME to me. I was in high school at the time I found that book on the counter. I bought it when I got home. I read it in a couple days, which for me at the time was very fast. I didn’t read later in high school. Let’s face it the stuff we’re forced to read in school is mostly boring garbage and 9 times out of 10 written mostly by men about men for men. In my opinion anyway. Reading Kushiel’s Dart was like getting admittance to a secret club. I didn’t know books like that existed with non-cheesy romance storylines, and BDSM themes, and I definitely hadn’t read anything with the woman being the super smart character, that doesn’t always need the guy to rescue her, that consistently learns and evolves throughout the book. When the first was finished I had my mom take me to the book store and bought everything available in the series, and over the years I bought the extended books in that series. Finding that book on the kitchen counter changed my reading life.
Long ago, Lessa of Pern taught me that a woman can be strong, defy tradition and be a complete hero on her own. With dragons.
Wow, didn’t realise bashing romantic fantasy with a female hero was a thing! Best I get a thick skin. My hero is female and no shrinking violet. She’s an amateur kickboxer who falls through a hidden time portal with a fellow student and then falls for him. She later kinda falls for a boy born in 1904 as well… And yes, there’s a sex scene at the end of Book 2 – that will be published in the autumn.
I agree with everything in this article. Female heroes rock.
Oh, and the dog in my series is also female, and utterly fearless.
Sarah J Maas is my favourite author. I love both of her series. When I was done reading both of those series, I wanted to read more books like that. I read a bunch of YA fantasy but I found that in all those other books something was missing. I enjoyed them but there wasn’t enough romance for me. It took me a while to figure out that what I was really looking for were some good fantasy books but with lots of romance in them. Now my favourite genre is Fantasy Romance and Romantic Fantasy. I’m so glad that this website has helped me discover some really amazing books within this genre. And it makes me really happy that there is a whole community of people who enjoy reading and writing in this genre. It’s sad that even in this day people have prejudices against the romance genre and what’s even worse is that people who love reading these books are made to feel bad and guilty. But I’m proud to say that I love a good steamy romance in my fantasy.