Women to Read: Romance & Speculative Fiction

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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May 8, 2013

One of the best things I discovered last month amongst all the various conversations is #womentoread on Twitter –I added lots of new writers to my completely unruly list of books to read (someday). Then I got to thinking: some people might be interested in reading outside their usual genres. So I thought I’d put together a couple of lists of romance that I think speculative fiction readers will enjoy along with explanations as to why and vice versa. The only limit I put on my recommendations was that the author needed to be someone who identified as a woman since what got me thinking about this was #womentoread.

Romance for Speculative Fiction Readers

Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta ChaseA Lady Awakened, Cecilia GrantThe Duchess War, Courtney Milan

I’m sticking with historical authors for this batch of recommendations because I think historical romance has a certain affinity for speculative fiction. Historical romances are, in my opinion, very much like fantasy novels and much like fantasy novels, the setting can and does inform the plot and characterization.

As in speculative fiction, historical romance relies upon an interlocking sequence of research and extrapolation that the story must rest upon–a strong foundation can hold up just about any kind of story. There are so many fantastic books in the subgenre that I had a difficult time picking just three writers to recommend!.

Loretta Chase: Chase is probably my absolute favorite romance author and I’m always recommending her–her books are smart, well-constructed, and thoroughly researched. I’d recommend either Lord of Scoundrels or Mr. Impossible–or both, if you want an idea of Chase’s range as a writer.

Lord of Scoundrels is one of her earlier novels–it was published in 1995–and yet it still feels fresh and revolutionary in so many ways. I can’t even imagine reading it when it was first published.  It must have been mind-blowing.

Jessica Trent is an intelligent and thoroughly self-possessed young woman and Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain is a dissolute blackguard who has never been loved or loved anyone in his life. They have boatloads of chemistry together and it’s just fun to read their interactions. One of the key things about this book is that Dain is, on the surface, a stereotypical “alpha-hole” hero–but because the reader is given his backstory right at the beginning on the book, his alpha-hole-ness is subverted and the reader’s sympathy is gained. It’s a clever bit of storytelling and while it is a bit leaden, it’s also essential because otherwise Dain is essentially irredeemable. I’ve often been tempted to buy a copy of this book, remove the prologue, and hand it to someone who has never read it and see what they think. So much of the book’s success rests on the beginning.

Mr. Impossible is nearly the opposite: it’s funny and features a male protagonist who is basically a lovable and happy-go-lucky guy. Rupert Carsington is not book-smart, but he is emotionally intelligent and he basically falls in love with Daphne from the first moment he meets her. He is absolutely besotted with her intellect and he lets her take the lead on that front as they attempt to locate her kidnapped brother–the entire book is basically an extended rumination on how smart Daphne is and how very, very excellent that quality in her is. The villain of this book is, more or less, a standard issue British imperialist, but rest assured he does get his comeuppance in the end. There is also a completely ridiculous and over the top sex scene in a pyramid during a sand storm. It’s awesome. It’s also my very favorite romance novel of all time.

Cecilia Grant: A Lady Awakened was one of the best romances I read last year. There are many reasons for this but my favorite one is the truly epic bad sex and how it was absolutely right for the story and how, as the two protagonists came to care for each other their physical relationship transformed as well.

Martha is newly widowed and unless she is able to produce a boy child within the next 8 to 9 months, she will lose her home and become a poor relation. Theo is her new neighbor–the son of a minor nobleman, he’s been sent to the country to learn responsibility. Martha sees him as a possible solution to her problem and proposes that she pay him to try to get her pregnant in the next month–she knows this is unethical and it’s not what she wants to do but it is, literally, the only choice available to her. Watching Martha make this choice and still try to remain true to herself and her ideals is really something.

And Grant’s writing is simply gorgeous:

Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea. Or rather, one dead fish. The other still curled tight, like a brittle seashell with its soft sensate creature shrunk all the way inside.

That’s a sex scene. With dead fish. It’s wonderful. It’s such a perfect encapsulation of Martha at that point in the book–she is trying to be active but not being particularly successful at it–she hasn’t been taught how to be active in her own life: she’s all repressed and brittle and curled in upon herself. And the way she slowly, so slowly opens up is so very powerful. The ending is a bit rushed and didn’t quite work for me–there were too many coincidences–but for a debut novel, this was one hell of a book.

I also just love Grant’s take on romance as a whole, too.

Courtney Milan: I’m going to recommend the first two volumes in her current series, the Brothers Sinister. The first volume, “The Governess Affair” is a prequel novella that sets up the rest of the series–it’s not essential reading but it is useful background knowledge. The Duchess War is the first full-length book in the series and it’s fantastic. Milan is well aware of all the tropes in romance and she is explicitly playing with and exploding them while telling a compelling and moving story about people who feel so, so real.

Min is acutely conscious of her place in society–which is quite marginal, for reasons which are thoroughly explored within the text and which I don’t want to spoil here–and Clermont has bucketloads of unearned privilege that he’s very uncomfortable with. Milan is one of the few writers of historical fiction who is actively working within the restrictions on both women and those not of the upper classes–so often, characters in historical romances are able to move between social classes through the power of love (and buckets of money)–Milan’s body of work makes it evident that this oh-so-common genre convention is a fantasy and that while love is a powerful force, it cannot conquer all.

As for the trope-exploding, there are two very common things that occur in romance that drive a lot of readers up the wall. That would be the evil mother and the baby epilogue–Milan explodes both of them in The Duchess War, right down to the hushed dark room with a terrific amount of tension. And then when it becomes apparent what’s actually going on, it’s just a great ending to the book. And as for the evil mother–she has real motivations and isn’t just a cardboard character there for the purpose of causing trauma to her son.

There’s also a second novella in this series, “A Kiss for Midwinter” and it’s also wonderful–it’s about a couple of secondary characters and the theme of that one is knowledge and anger and horrifying Victorian medical practices. Good stuff. Can’t wait for the next one!

Speculative Fiction for Romance Readers

Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette KowalThe Sharking Knife: Beguilement, Lois McMaster BujoldIn the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker

My recommendations here have a certain something in common with my romance recommendations–these all have a strong thread of romance and they also have fully realized settings that the characters move within.

All three of these writers are firmly grounded in speculative fiction and it is mostly from these tropes these series spring–the romantic elements are essential but the stories wouldn’t be what they are without the speculative elements.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Her fantasy novels are Regency novels but with magic–they’re set during the Napoleonic Wars, a setting that should be very familiar to romance readers In the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, Jane Ellsworth has a rare talent with glamour–the manipulation of which is considered essential for any well-bred young lady. Along with her sister, Melody, Jane’s life revolves around eligible young men and hopes of marriage. Naturally, Jane’s skill with glamour plays an important role in this book–one thing I found very interesting was the way Kowal subverts the use of magic in her book. Typically, in fantasy novels, magic is a prestigious or desirable activity and yet, in this book it’s an activity fit only for women and men on the fringes of society.

These books are an explicit exploration of women’s roles in society both in and out of marriage and how, even when entering into a marriage that both partners have agreed will be egalitarian, there is still a lot of internalized expectations that need to be overcome.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Bujold is a favorite around these parts, but I’m going to be recommending a series we haven’t covered here and that’s the Sharing Knife quartet. These were written explicitly as an exploration of romance and, as such, the romantic element is explicitly foregrounded while the fantastical elements are much more subtle. There’s a lot going on in these books and I enjoyed them for what they were but many of Bujold’s core audience did not (warning: link contains a lot of “ew, girl cooties”) and wrote the series off after the first volume, Beguilement.

The heart of this book is the relationship between Fawn and Dag and how it develops while they are dealing with magical creatures called “malices”. These books take place in a society that’s trying to rebuild after some sort of magical apocalypse–the malices are a remnant of the catastrophe and the Lakewalkers, Dag’s people, are charged with dispatching them. Fawn comes from people who are more settled and there is a tremendous amount of tension and misinformation between the two groups–most of the tension and conflict in these books comes from the clash of these two (very essential) cultures, not from the fantastic elements.. These books are definitely an experiment on Bujold’s part and while I’m not sure they’re a completely successful experiment even a bad book from Bujold is head and shoulders above a good book from other authors.

Kage Baker: Baker’s Company series is about immortal time travelling cyborgs. Specifically, one named Mendoza who is bitter, prickly, and hates humanity (and for very good reason, i.e., the Spanish Inquisition). And yet they’re also gloriously romantic although it takes many books before Mendoza gets a happy ending. I will note here that the last few books do not work for everyone and even though they worked for me I can absolutely see how the ending is deeply unsatisfying and problematic for other readers. I’ll also note that Baker passed away in 2010 after a short and brutal battle with uterine cancer. She is, still, missed.

In the Garden of Iden is the first book and it’s wonderful–it’s a science fiction historical romance which ends badly (possible understatement of the year) but it’s such a compelling story and the way Baker writes a thoroughly unpleasant character like Mendoza in such a sympathetic way is incredible. Mendoza is made into a cyborg at the beginning of this book and she trains as a botanist–her hope is to be sent someplace far away from people for her first assignment but instead she’s sent to Elizabethan England where she meets Nicholas Harpole and falls in love. Note: things end badly here. There isn’t even a happy-for-now ending.

There is wonk and angst galore in these books and I can’t recommend them highly enough. There’s also a deep and evident authorial love for all the characters and the setting–these are books about California and secret histories and pop culture and nightmare dystopian futures. With immortal time traveling cyborgs.

So to summarize: there are awesome books in lots of different genres. It can’t hurt to try something new–at worst, it’s a DNF and at best you have a new favorite. I’m hoping to make this a regular feature here, so any and all suggestions will be considered for the future.

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