Here’s what I love most about romance books: at their core, they are stories about people learning how to connect with each other. It sounds like such a simple thing, and yet it lies at the heart of almost every tale that truly moves us. Fantasy books take us to foreign, unfamiliar worlds, stretching even the farthest boundaries of our imaginations – and yet, so much of what calls to us in these stories are those seeds of human connection.
Watching characters learn how to connect with each other is only more satisfying when they start from a place of major personal, cultural, linguistic, or ideological divide. You see this all the time across all types of romance books – and even books of other genres! In contemporary romance, maybe it’s the working class girl and the billionaire, or the workplace rivals, or the Romeo-and-Juliet pairings across enemy gangs.
And in fantasy? In fantasy, those divides can get even more extreme.
Free from the constraints of the world we know, our protagonists can connect across chasms totally incomprehensible to us in the “real world.” That is, after all, one of the greatest joys of romantic fantasy – the fact that it offers unlimited possibility.
One of my favorite types of divides in romantic fantasy is the cultural or language divide, in which both characters come from very different worlds and need to learn how to connect with each other despite their major differences in background.
This trope is especially juicy for a few reasons:
- In the case of a fantasy world, it gives us two different lenses – in the form of the two main characters – through which we can learn about the world. Instead of looking at a single static picture of the story’s universe, we’re examining it from multiple angles.
- It forces the characters to evolve. They need to actively find new ways to bridge their gaps and reach common ground. Oftentimes, this also means re-examining the way they look at their own backgrounds.
- It is, frankly, just plain fun to watch the plethora of different situations the characters can find themselves in due to their cultural and language barriers – ranging from humorous, to heartwarming, to sad, and every shade in between.
So many of the best romances start off by making the reader think to themselves, “Yikes, so how is this going to work?” – and cultural, language, or communication divides are “how is this going to work?” at its very finest!
But let’s get more specific. There are so many incredible romantic fantasy or fantasy romance books that dive into exactly what I’m talking about, but here are just a few of my favorites:
Radiance by Grace Draven
How can I talk about cultural divides and not talk about Radiance?! You’ve probably already heard of this one, and if not, I’m honored to be the first to tell you about it. This is a classic fantasy romance that, nearly a decade after publication, is still talked about constantly – and with good reason! It is utterly delightful. When Ildiko and Brishen, “spare heirs” from two extremely different societies, are forced into an arranged marriage, at first it seems like their cultural differences are simply too great to overcome. But over time, as we, along with Ildilko, start to learn more about Brishen’s culture, they slowly bridge the gap.
I’m normally a big fan of darkness and capital-A-ANGST, but unlike some of the other books I’ll discuss, Radiance is a lovely feel-good read. Ildilko and Brishen build their love on a foundation of genuine respect and friendship, and it’s a delight to see them using that foundation to overcome their cultural divides.
The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon
Whew, boy, this book, my friends. This book. Amy Harmon is a master at prose, and from the moment I picked this one up, I was in love with it. In The Bird and the Sword, Lark and Tiras face a very different sort of divide than the cultural divide in Radiance: Lark is mute, thanks to a spell cast upon her by her mother. When she is taken hostage by King Tiras as a result of her father’s power-hungry machinations, she is thrust into a new world of political intrigue, forbidden magic, and of course, reluctant romance. Not only is Lark mute, but she also starts the book illiterate. So much of Lark and Tiras’s bonding happens as they mutually learn how to bridge communication divides, and it’s beautiful to watch Lark finding a voice for herself over the course of this dreamy fairytale of a book.
No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur
Another fabulous example of culture clash, Miranda Honfleur’s No Man Can Tame follows the controversial political marriage between Princess Alessandra (Aless), a human, and Prince Veron, a dark elf. The cultural divide between these two is a chasm – their backgrounds and societies could not possibly be any more different, and the vivid, well-rounded world building only makes that gap feel more insurmountably vivid.
Yet, both Aless and Veron, despite their mistrust of each other’s backgrounds, are refreshingly willing to meet each other halfway. It’s a joy to follow on their journey of slowly understanding each other, and to learn so much about the vivid world that surrounds them as they do it.
The Captive Prince by C.S Pascat
One of my favorites! Damen is a prince, but when his half-brother launches a coup, he is kidnapped and sold overseas as a slave to the inscrutable prince of Vere, Laurent. Pascat builds an incredibly intricate world, brimming with dark shadows and political intrigue, and places each of her two main protagonists on opposite sides of it. Damen struggles to learn about the strange world society of Vere, which is just as complicated and difficult to understand as his cold, unreadable imprisoner.
Remember how earlier, I mentioned how many of the best romances make you go, “How is this going to work?” The Captive Prince books certainly made me do just that. Actually, when I read the first book in this trilogy, I found it nearly impossible to believe that the two romantic leads would or could ever end up together (by which I mean, prepare for a slow burn). By the end, however, they became one of my favorite book couples of all time.
Fair warning, this trilogy is very dark and includes a number of triggers, including rape, sexual assault, slavery, and torture, so please look up content warnings if these topics may be sensitive for you.
Pestilence by Laura Thalassa (Plus, the rest of the Four Horsemen series!)
In Laura Thalassa’s Four Horsemen Series, the Four Horsemen come to our world – and fall in love with scrappy, fiery-tempered human women. Yes, those Four Horsemen. The “of the Apocalypse” variety.
Uh, right, talk about a cultural divide!
All four books of this now-completed series feature pretty intense cultural and communication gaps. What I really enjoy about these books is that Thalassa really leans into those gaps, rather than glossing over them as many books that feature out-of-this-world paranormal heroes do.
It’s always interesting to see how each “brother” falls in love with humanity alongside their chosen partner. In particular, Pestilence and Death stick out as especially interesting arcs, as they slowly come to appreciate human society with the help of their respective love interests.
While these five stories stick out as just a few of my favorites with this trope, I have no doubt that the list will continue to grow. Cultural and communication gaps are a mainstay in so many romantic fantasy books — and I’ll continue lapping it up as long as authors keep serving it!
What about you? Do you have any favorite books featuring cultural, societal, or language barriers?
About the Author
Carissa Broadbent has been concerning teachers and parents with mercilessly grim tales since she was roughly nine years old. Since then, her stories have gotten (slightly) less depressing and (hopefully a lot?) more readable. Today, she writes fantasy novels with a heaping dose of badass ladies and a big pinch of romance. She lives with her husband, one very well behaved rabbit, one very poorly behaved rabbit, and one perpetually skeptical cat in Rhode Island.
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