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Is the guardian/ward trope an incest fantasy in disguise?

Last summer, I ran a poll about the brother in law trope, one that I like a lot. Many readers were turned off by this trope because, for them, it rang a little too much of incest for them. This got me thinking about incest in romance and what other tropes have that feel to them. Two that I can think off the top of my head are guardian/ward stories and stepsibling romances. Romance has a long history of coded incest stories, the most overt being the menages involving brothers perhaps started by Lora Leigh and her disturbing* Men of August series.

The Men of August series starts out with Marly’s Choice, wherein Marly

She had loved him forever. Since she was fourteen, thrown on him by her mother, his stepsister, in a desperate bid to hide Marly from her stepfather, Jack Jennings.

Cade, the man Marly loves/lusts for, is her stepbrother.   According to Cade,

He had raised her, loved her, but he had always known she wasn't a blood relation.

Note here that it is not the familial relationship that Cade is concerned with but the blood relationship.   This point is made again in a discussion between Cade and his brother, Brock:

"She's a grown woman, Cade. You can't keep her a baby all her life," Brock told him quietly. "And the way she looks, if that boy ain't having sex with her now, he will be soon."

"How can you talk about her like that?" Cade turned on his brother wrathfully. "We raised her, Brock."

Brock was silent for long moments, then Cade heard the deep breath he drew into his lungs.

"Yeah, we raised her, but she's no blood of ours, Cade. If I didn't know how hard you got every time you looked at her, then I'd have already tried to get her into my bed."

Central to the conflict is Cade’s disgust for his own sexuality and his fear that it will taint Marly.

He looked the same as he always had. The same gray eyes, the same overly long black hair and tanned features. But he knew what lurked just beneath the surface. The monster he fought on a daily basis.

Regardless of whether a reader likes the Men of August series, the fact is that these are accepted texts within the romance genre.   Lora Leigh is a perennial bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list.   She has never disclaimed these books nor has the concept of incest kept her away from approving of the Men of August in her bestselling Nauti series.

But Leigh is not the first to write about the guardian/ward trope.   This is a long and historied tradition.   In Forbidden Fire by Charlotte Lamb, Daniel has raised Louise since her mother and his father died when Louise was eight.   After their parents death, Daniel promised to himself to Louise:

From the very first she had been the centre of the household. An only child, Daniel had been amused and touched by her openly expressed; adoration of him. Her frail beauty as a child had made him protective. The three years of marriage between their parents had passed in a whirl of golden happiness.

The storm of tears which shook her had shaken him, too. He had kissed her wet little face, his mouth warm on her wet eyelids, closing the wild blue eyes, ‘Don’t, darling,’ he had whispered. ‘I’ll always be here . . . you belong to me now.’

She had gone to sleep with that promise as her com fort, her face worn to a white glaze by tears, and as the long years of her childhood passed in the sleepy security of Queen’s Dower Daniel’s whispered words had taken on for her the proportions of an oath.

But Daniel resists and not necessarily for the reasons you may think:

‘It’s madness,’ he said huskily. ‘I’m twice your age . . . you’re too innocent to realise . . . We’ve been so close for so long. I’ve taught you to ride and swim and drive a car, I’ve been your whole family for so many years. I can’t take advantage of your affection for me. It would be criminal!’ He ended almost bitterly, then spun on his heel and strode out of the room.

Later thirty-five year old Daniel tells seventeen year old Louise that he has been waiting four years for her to grow up, implying that his guardian love for her transformed into a more adult feeling when Louise was about thirteen. Admittedly, the text doesn’t really indicate that Louise is a seventeen year old like today’s seventeen year old.

In The Rebellious Ward by Joan Wolf, Catriona goes to live with Edmund, the Duke of Burford’s family, at the age of nine.   Edmund is her guardian and plays the paternal role for 6 months out of the year.   They fall in love:

Catriona laughed softly and dizzily. “Oh, Edmund,” she said. “I love you so much.”

“I didn”t know.” His long fingers traced the line of her cheekbone with delicate precision. “I thought you regarded me as a big brother and I have been trying for months quite desperately to keep you from seeing that my own feelings were not brotherly at all.”

“Well, you succeeded only too well.” She flashed a brilliant smile. “I”ve been utterly miserable. I thought you loved Sophia Heatherstone.”

“I was trying to cloud the waters.” He looked down into her upturned face. “I”ve been in love with you since you were ten years old. Isn”t that a disgraceful thing to admit? Only I didn”t realize it until I returned from France in November. You threw yourself into my arms, and it hit me then quite catastrophically that you weren”t a little girl any more. I wanted never to let you go.

From respected and accepted publisher Loose Id came the story of The Punishment of Nicollet, the incest overtones so strong I could not finish the book. In researching the book for the post, I noticed that the publisher has added a warning:

Publisher's Note: While Jack and Nicollet have no blood ties and their relationship is fully consensual, some readers, particularly those with a history of sexual abuse or incest, may find this story disturbing.

As one goodreads reader noted, it didn’t matter that there was no blood ties. What mattered is the way in which the hero viewed himself vis a vis his “niece.” The constant personal angst was excused, in the end, by the lack of blood ties. Like Cade, in Marly’s Choice, the hero believed it was wrong for them to be together. This is an NSFW excerpt so I’ll put it under the spoiler tag:

Jack's thrusting was getting more urgent but just as she was bracing herself for the thick, salty blast at the back of her throat that she knew must be coming, he suddenly pulled away.

"No." His chest was heaving like a bellows and the look in his eyes made her shiver. "No, God damn it," he repeated, his deep voice little more than a growl.

"Why not? Please, Jack, wasn't I doing it right?" Nicky looked up at him, still on her knees, as he shoved his still hard cock back into his jeans with some difficulty.

"We can't do this, Nicollet, I'm like an uncle to you." He reached down and hauled her roughly to her feet. "I fucking raised you, Nicky." His eyes were tortured but the bulge in his jeans hadn't gone down a bit, she noted.


Finally, who can forget Shades of Twilight by Linda Howard. There is so much incest going on in this book, that it might as well be the canon for Literotica. First all, there was the bad incest wherein the villains have sex with each other knowing that they are father/daughter. Then there is the good incest wherein cousins, Roe and Webb, fall in love and live happily ever after. Roe and Webb’s blood relationship is somewhat convoluted. Roe is the granddaughter of Lucinda and Webb is the nephew of Lucinda. I think that makes Webb and Roe first cousins once removed.

This is not meant to be a judgment on individuals or their reading preferences. I am not a fan of the overt daddy/daughter play that took place in the Punishment of Nicollet and the Lora Leigh Men of August series disturbed me because of how it was portrayed.

The issue of incestual relations seems to be separated by the blood bond. So long as the individuals aren’t bonded by blood, it isn’t morally wrong. Yet, family bonds are created by far more than blood although adoption does seem to be verboten at times in romance (all these stories of fertility problems in contemporary romances yet no thought given to adoption). Some readers indicated that the brother-in-law trope bothered them because it seemed incestuous.

My point here is that I wonder if some of these tropes don’t play, even mildly, with the forbidden concept of incest. Certainly all the characters except those in Howard’s book, believe that there is some “wrongness” associated with their coupling and that is often what provides the emotional conflict. Some of the most powerful romances involve the forbidden.

*Disturbing less because they involve brother sharing and more the justification for sharing which I always thought sounded like the justifications of a sexual predator.   “My daddy issues made me do it.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. KB/KT Grant
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 05:42:59

    The one important thing is the ward and guardian are not related by blood. I’m fine with that, although a man falling in love with the person they raised since birth may be on of those uncomfortable situations.

    But then if say the guardian thinks of his ward as a daughter and is attracted to her and still thinks of her as his daughter, that’s were is gets sticky for me.

    How romantic in the middle of lovemaking for the hero to be vocal in thinking of their lover as their niece. O.o

  2. blodeuedd
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 06:05:56

    The brother in law trope would not have bothered me…ok it would feel weird, but still no.

    I am more disturbed with a man who has raised a woman almost like a daughter and then falls in love with her when she is all grown up. There is a difference if he has hid her away in the country and never sees her. But when there relationship is father-daughter, no thanks. But hey I will make excuses for that too, perhaps those fatherly feeling just got thrown out of the window when he understand she is a woman, lol

  3. Kbrum
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 06:36:23

    I loathe the ward guardian trope.

    Why can’t the older guardian find someone closer in age? These books seem to include totally overbearing bully-boy alphaplus control freak whose behaviour would not be tolerated by anyone with half a brain . The power balance in these relationships are too one-sided . The only person he could form a relationship was some he could control – a child.
    Ward/guardian books = pedophila

  4. FiaQ
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 06:48:08

    The ward and guardian trope is my least favourite, but admittedly not for all reasons stated here. My main concerns are the legal and responsibility issues. Not that far from my aversion towards employer/employee and master of the house/servant.

    I dislike the ward/guardian the most because, as Kbrum mentions above, most books with this trope I read had a distinctive shade of paedophilia. Even more so when these now-adult heroines still act child-like and so innocent. Too disturbing for my taste.

    There was one with hero who actually said to heroine (whom he raised after her mother was killed in a car accident) “Come to Daddy” during a sex scene. It was an instant DNF.

  5. Missy Ann
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 06:53:27

    Guardian/ward: (btw doesn’t bother me)

    Isn’t it insulting that in these relationships that the woman wants the sexual/marriage relationship but the man resists because it’s “wrong” and the attitude is damn right it’s wrong! Aren’t we infantilizing the woman by saying her thought/emotions aren’t valid. That she doesn’t know her own mind, that she isn’t making informed consent because…

    If you want to argue it from the point some of these heroines are 17 & have no world experience maybe I can go along with that, but it’s upsetting to me that we can’t say she’s throwing away society’s rules because of what she knows in her heart is true.

    Also (and wow – everything is on the internet)

    Not porn! Don’t freak. Shows which states ban and which don’t & etc. There is actually very little biological reason to prohibit first cousin marriage. And there are actually very good family/social reasons to encourage cousin marriage. More close family support etc.

    As a probably meaningless aside, two of my cousins (the wife is my 1st cousin) married each other and have two children together. Granted their last common relative was around 1830 – but still cousins. And I think if more people dug around in their genealogy more, they’d find relations they didn’t know they had.

  6. Sarah Frantz
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 07:06:43

    The one I remember is Heyer’s Regency Buck, but Judith becomes Worth’s ward when she’s 20, until she’s 21. He’s very careful about letting anyone know he loves her until her birthday, including her. But there it’s mostly a legal issue. The power if much more clearly balanced between them.

    I prefer when they’re closer in age. For hints of incest, I prefer Best Friend of the Brother stories, wherein the hero grows up with the heroine, seeing her like a sister, until she “develops,” then gets the hots for her, but is all angsty about it. The father/daughter thing in guardian/ward stories is a little strange.

    And that Nicollet story: O.O Nothing like a hard blowjob to make you remember she’s your niece.

    Then again, first cousins getting it on and/or marrying just don’t bother me at all, maybe because I’m English. But my students can’t imagine even 2nd or 3rd cousins getting together, maybe because they belong to large extended families.

  7. library addict
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 07:06:48

    As I commented in the BIL thread my main problem with the BIL scenario is that I wonder why the woman chose to marry brother A if brother B is the hero of the story. But I have the same problem when it involves the heroine falling for her ex or deceased husband's BFF. It's awkward to me, but something a good writer can overcome.

    I have much bigger issues with the ward/guardianship trope, the main one being the adoption-type relationship between the characters. I have a HUGE problem with it if the guardian has raised the ward from the time she was a baby or little kid. And I cannot think of even one instance where that type of scenario worked for me in a romance.

    I could see where it might work if the guardian/ward relationship did not start until the ward was already a teenager, though again I cannot think of specific book where is does work.

    And if the guardian/ward relationship is the “on paper only” type where the guardian never or only very rarely saw the ward as she was growing up, I could be more forgiving.

    As Kbrum mentioned, the whole control issue is a huge ick factor. Usually the heroine has never been allowed to date others, so it's as if she has no choice in the matter.

  8. Hydecat
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 07:09:32

    The guardian/ward trope bothers me for a combination of reasons. One is the legal/responsibility issues FiaQ mentioned. The other is the idea that if this person has raised you from a child and the played the role of a parent who always knows what’s best, then by marrying you they’re essentially saying that they’ll always know what’s best and their ward will never be able to make a better decision. I think I could only accept it if the ward went away for awhile and seriously got to know some other people. This is why my favorite guardian/ward books are the accidental kind, like Regency Buck by Heyer. Also, I have to give some credit to Charles Dickens — he plays with the guardian/ward trope in Bleak House


    but the guardian lets his ward go when he realizes she’s agreed to marry him out of obligation, not love. At the time she agreed, she thought it was love, but when she got older she discovered the difference between the feelings.

  9. Angie
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 07:27:49

    I don’t have an issue if there’s no close blood relation. If it’s a step relationship or in-laws or even adoption, there’s no blood and no rational reason for people not to get together, all else being equal.

    By which I mean, if there’s undue influence, if one person is using a familial or family-like relationship and history to pressure someone else into having sex when they don’t really want to on their own, that’s no different IMO from a boss pressuring an employee or a teacher pressuring a student. The fact that there’s specifically a family relationship being used in the pressure doesn’t make it any worse in my view. And if there’s no undue pressure, then IMO they’re not doing anything wrong.


  10. Chelsea
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 07:33:19

    At some point I would like to read a good, non-icky gaurdian/ward book in which the herioine acts like an adult (and is at least 18 or older), and the relationship was not so expressly father/daughter as so many I’ve encountered are. I’ll admit on the surface I find this trope somewhat appealing, but I have yet to read a book with it that didn’t disapoint me.

  11. jayhjay
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 07:45:00

    I think in addition to incest, the ward relationship often smacks of pedophilia. What are these grown men doing being attracted to young girls? How does a man love a 10 year old in a romantic, sexual way, even if he doesn’t act on it until she is older?

    I think the ward romance can be done well if they are not related (or distantly related, especially in historicals). And if the romantic relationship/attraction doesn’t start until she is a grown up (b/c of course it is always older man/younger woman!). I have read some that I enjoyed with older heroines, although I agree with a previous poster about the often paternalistic nature of the relationship.

    But whenever we have adult men attracted to their child wards it is just gross. And blood relation or not, if you think of someone as your family member, then don’t have sex with them!

  12. Darlene Marshall
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 07:49:29

    I’m intrigued by the people squicked out by first cousin match-ups, which you see more in Brit romance than American. To me, it’s a cultural difference. I’ve lived in the South most of my life and while we may make jokes about “marrying your cousin”, it’s not so uncommon nor is it frowned upon, depending on family custom. You also find it more accepted in non-European societies.

    I believe Heyer’s The Grand Sophy was a cousin/cousin match, but I’d have to go back and check.

    Oh, and guardian/ward stories don’t bother me, if they’re done right. Also, Charlaine Harris has a step-sib relationship in her “Grave” books and that didn’t bother me either.

  13. Kati
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 07:57:20

    I love, love, love Shades of Twilight. It is consistently in my Top 100 romance novels. And yes, I totally get that it doesn’t work for a lot of people. But I love the southern gothic feel of the story, and truly never had a moment’s pause over Webb and Roanna’s relationship.

    I also don’t mind the BIL scenario.

    Then again, I’m starting to think that I’m a relatively clueless romance reader. I’m just kind of inured to many of the tropes that can really set other readers off. *shrug*

  14. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 08:09:33

    I’m curious for those people who draw the line at blood relation as to why. I mean, let’s assume that two kids are given up for adoption and raised by different families and at a later date find each other and fall in love or even if a father never knew he had a kid and the kid and father fall in love with each other as adults.

    The blood line makes this unacceptable yet non blood related sibling interaction or adopted parent/kid is okay?

  15. LG
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 08:26:01

    There are a few things that determine whether I like this trope or not. How old is the ward when she (is there even a book out there where the ward is a boy?) becomes the ward? Are they related by blood? Do the ward and guardian think of each other as family in a way where labels like “daughter,” “uncle,” or “father” can be applied?

    If the answer to the second question is yes, the book is an automatic “ick” for me. If the answer to the third question is yes, the book is probably an automatic ick. I don’t think I have a firm age in mind for the first question, but older is probably better.

    I don’t think I’ve actually read much with this trope. The first thing that popped into my head was a short story in the manga King of the Lamp by Takako Shigematsu. I think the reason that one didn’t land automatically in the “ick” category for me was because it didn’t actually show the girl being raised the guardian she fell in love with. There was a scene with her as a child, and then jump forward in time to the point where she’s in love with him. I, the reader, wasn’t made to feel like this was a family, so it didn’t feel as icky as it could have.

    That was a “meh” story for me, though. I’m trying to think of one I genuinely liked, and I’m coming up blank…

  16. Jill Sorenson
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 08:35:07

    Interesting post! I’ve read some ward/guardian books but none in which the hero had a relationship with the heroine as parent and *child*. That crosses the line for me.

    I can think of a couple of old school Sandra Brown contemporaries that skirt along this theme. In one, the hero is undercover, pretending to be the heroine’s long-lost brother. In another, the hero and heroine meet and fall in love at ages 25 and 15. I enjoyed both, but they are 80s books and I don’t judge them by modern standards. I feel the same way about the Linda Howard mentioned above.

  17. Lori
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 08:38:14

    This post makes me think of Woody Allen marrying Mia Farrow’s child, whom he was a father figure for, and the uproar surrounding it.

    Related by blood means nothing to me. Family is family whether there is blood shared or not. My mother was an adopted child, my sister was and my daughter is. The bond is just as strong (and was made of choice) so blood defining relatives is nonsense to me.

    I like the brother’s friend trope. But the guardian? Makes me want to call Child Protective Services.

  18. Isabel Cooper
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 09:02:35

    This sort of thing has a long and “glorious” history: hello, The Tale of Genji. (Discussing that particular subplot at 9 AM Freshman year was…interesting.)

    I think part of the allure is that breaking taboos is hot for a lot of people, and the not-entirely-incest trope is *acceptably* taboo-breaking for many. (Jane: Rightly or wrongly, I’d say that a lot of people associate bloodline incest with gross birth defects and similar, which…yeah, the prospect of someone giving birth to Charles II of Spain is kind of a turnoff.) Plus, narratively…well, forbidden love/lust lets you draw out the unresolved sexual tension, which is great, but you need a reason for it to be forbidden, so…

    All of that said, guardian/ward romances squick me unless either the ward is relatively old when it begins (a la Heyer), or there’s some other circumstance that sets them on a more even and less parent-child power dynamic. And yeah, if he’s raised her from a child, I get the jibblies.

  19. sula
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 09:07:42

    In books, I’m fine with the ward/guardian trope if the ward hasn’t been living with the guardian in his household as a child.

    On a cross-cultural note, my husband’s grandmother was married to her father’s best friend who was certainly old enough to be her father. (This was in West Africa in the early 1900s.) In his culture, this was seen as perfectly acceptable and a good way to bind the two families together.

  20. gwynnyd
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 09:17:02

    – How old is the ward when she (is there even a book out there where the ward is a boy?) becomes the ward? –

    I thought I remembered one in “Gaywyck” because it had every other trapping of Gothick, but no. According to the summary on Amazon, the boy was merely hired to catalog the collection of the older man. There is so much M/M out there these days, I can’t believe that trope has been neglected.

  21. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 09:27:21

    It’s not the blood bond for me. I have around fifty cousins, and some of them I don’t know well, and even more second and third cousins, so that never concerned me. And I’m British, and it’s considered nothing out of the ordinary.

    The thing that really disturbs me is the grown man falling in love with the child and waiting for her to grow up. That really smacks of stalkerish behaviour, even if the man behaves perfectly properly.

    It’s the visceral shudder, not whether it is right or wrong in the law. I’ve read stories where the hero has met her once in her childhood and fallen for her, but done his best to forget her, and I’ve read stories where the hero and heroine have known each other most of their lives, but haven’t fallen in love until they’re adults. I can cope with that one, too. But the waiting for someone to grow up before they pounce, erghhhhhh!

    Not too keen on brothers sharing a woman, either. Just icky.

  22. Isobel Carr
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 09:41:00

    Guardian/Ward only works for me if the girl is not a CHILD when she becomes his ward, or if they never had a father/daughter or uncle/niece relationship (for example he packed her off to school or to his aunt and didn’t set eyes on her for the next 10 years).

    It's about power dynamics for me (as so many things are, esp in romance). I have no problem with a book like Heyer’s Regency Buck. Judith is nearly of age (20) when they meet and Worth is forced to do the honorable thing and wait out his year of guardianship. Love that book.

  23. LoriK
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 09:45:32

    Speaking as an adoptee, it really bothers me when people act as if the blood tie is all that matters*. That attitude inplies that my family is necessarily “less than” blood families. I won’t say exactly what I think of that idea, because it’s rude. I will say that people who believe that need to rethink it, or at the very least keep it to themselves.

    There are a lot of adoptees in the world, many of whom never make a big deal about being adopted. You almost certainly know someone who is not biologically related to his/her family, even if you aren’t aware of it. Think twice before you imply that those ties don’t really count.

    The emotional ties and power dynamics in adopted families are pretty much the same as those in blood families and the incest “rules” most definitely do apply. Almost all versions of the guardian/ward trope strike me as nasty & wrong for the same reason.

    ^Marly’s Choice both grossed me out a & ticked me off, ANd the guardian/ward issue was far from the other icky thing in that story. It’s on my personal Top 10 Most F’ed Up Books I’ve Ever Read list.

    For the record, I don’t like the BIL trope, but it’s not an incest issue. When the h/h are written as each other’s Greatest Love Ever it tends to feel to me as if they’re glad that the brother/1st husband is dead. Not my idea of an HEA.

  24. lazaraspaste
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 10:19:21

    @Isobel Carr–Yes! Thank you! It’s about power dynamics

    I started out writing a really long post about this but it immediately got super-convoluted. So I’m going to go with pithy.

    I don’t mind guardian/ward stories as long as I don’t feel like there is an abuse of power going on. That, to me, is the primary problem. Usually, that power abuse is signified by a vast difference in age, status, money, etc. and a familial relationship, even if it is one that is not defined by blood-ties.

    The brother-in-law thing would only bother me in so far as I didn’t believe the circumstances surrounding the relationship, if that makes sense.

    Wasn’t there a Megan Follows movie where she and her step-brother fall in love? But they meet in their late-teens? And they don’t consider themselves brother and sister? I’m fine with that. That’s a little unusual but there’s nothing inherently power abuse-y about it.

    Being an American, I would not marry one of my first cousins. ;) but I realize this is a cultural thing and since literary characters are always marrying their cousins, it doesn’t seem weird to me.

    Erotica-land is a strange place. Not only do I not understand the trope of brothers sharing the same woman (and doesn’t that just seem cheap, I mean not like in the tawdry sense but in the sense of your mom being like, I could only afford one cupcake so you’re going to have to share it kind of cheap. I mean isn’t that the sort of thing siblings grow to resent?), but many, many other tropes of erotic romance that are just mind boggling.

    I will leave you with this. I saw a really interesting documentary about GSA (genetic sexual attraction) on either PBS or BBC called “Brothers and Sisters In Love” about siblings separated at birth who fall in love when they meet as adults. It was interesting, to say the least.

    Plus, you know, that Megan Follows movie.

  25. TKF
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 10:25:37

    The thing that really disturbs me is the grown man falling in love with the child and waiting for her to grow up.

    Yes, this! This was the reason I just couldn't enjoy Julia Ann Long's debut The Runaway Duke. I think the heroine is twelve when they meet? And then he spends years waiting for her to grow up. *shudder* I have no problem with the scenario of someone you've known for years making the transition from child to adult and a light blub going off: Hey, I've known her for years, and I think I might love her. , but the I love that child and will wait for her to old enough to have sex with is just gross.

  26. SAo
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 10:30:14

    While the guardian may be merely a trustee, in charge of money when the actual raising is done by someone else, a guardian/ward trope almost always features and very young heroine and a much older man. Neither does much for me.

    If the guardian is shown guarding, then he’s acting paternal, which is just not romantic.

    When a teen chooses the guy she knows the best and feels most comfortable with, I usually take that as a sign that she’s not quite ready to be independent and should wait a few years before marrying.

    In fact, the ward/guardian trope is one where I most often think, No! Don’t marry him!

  27. knstrick
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 10:33:30

    This post reminded me of a much loved Tamora Pierce series that apparently featured the ward/guardian trope and I never realized it until now.

    Daine from the Immortals quartet eventually gains Numair as her teacher/mentor in the development of her magical powers. By the last book, Numair reveals he loves Daine (unintentionally) and Daine decides she loves him back. As it was a YA novel, the most they did was kiss, so it didn’t really squick me at the time.

    I remember I read another series set later in time in the same world, and one of the characters was actually disgusted by Daine’s and Numair’s relationship. Again, I didn’t think it was a big deal.

    The examples you gave were definitely more squicky for me, but they featured much more graphic physical activity. Now I have to think about my childhood character-friends having possibly incestual sex and it’s a little odd, lol.

  28. evie byrne
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 10:40:59

    Here’s an interesting exercise: switch the genders in all of these cases and see how much the squick factor rises.

    Older sisters sharing the teenage boy they brought up? O.o A female guardian falling in love with the 12 year old boy she’s raising, and patiently waiting he comes of age?

    I’m no fan of the trope anyway, and agree with Jane that it’s not so much blood ties as issues of family, power and trust on the line. But for me, switching out the genders somehow strips bare those dynamics and shows how squicky they really are.

    Now, why we seem to be somehow more tolerant of menfolk crossing these lines is an interesting question indeed. I doubt any of these gender-reversed storylines would ever get published. Except perhaps in the crime section.

  29. nitnot
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 10:51:48

    @evie byrne:

    Dear god, Evie Byrne! Do tell us when is your next vamp book is coming out, I love it too much for words to express.

  30. Jody W.
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:12:44

    What Evie said. Switch the genders and have the older guardian be the female and then think about it. Does it change anything?

  31. LG
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:14:23

    @evie byrne: Actually, if titles exist where the ward/guardian trope is something other than girl = ward, man = guardian, I’d love to hear about them. Woman and girl? Man and boy? Woman and boy? Is it possible that this trope really only exists in the man and girl variety?

  32. Christine M.
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:19:55

    @evie byrne:

    Didn’t something very similar happened in the States many years ago? A female teacher fell for her student and vice versa? They had a first child together then she was sent to prison and she got pregnant again on one of his visits? Or something.

    Anyway, the “powerplay” is what bothers me most here, no matter if the guardian is male or female.

  33. Faye
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:22:09

    @Darlene Marshall: Heyer also had two cousins get together in “Behold, Here’s Poison,” one of her mysteries.
    Also, Louisa May Alcott had cousin romances in Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, as an American example.

  34. evie byrne
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:26:16


    Aww…thanks! I know it’s been a while. I’m writing right now. Or…er…not writing right now. ;)

  35. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:29:53

    @knstrick Ah, I am sure all they ever did was hold hands!

  36. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:35:04

    @lazaraspaste There seems to be an interest in incest from a YA point of view. Apparently Cassandra Clare’s bestselling series have a brother and sister who fall in love and actually have physical contact even after they discover their familial relationship. Forbidden was a critically acclaimed YA book about a brother & sister in love. I posited that it was a bunch of only children who were reading these because anyone who had a sibling could never see the fantasy there. Aren’t you always trying to kill off your sibling?

  37. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:37:41

    @Isabel Cooper I don’t disagree that many associate incest with gross birth defects, but is that really the source of the virulent outrage that you often see when incest comes up? It seems more emotional than “oh no, what about birth defects.”

  38. KMont
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:39:14

    One historical romance using the guardian/ward trope that immediately came to mind for me was Forbidden Love by Karen Robards (interesting title, considering).

    You can still get it, you lucky readers:

    But I remember reading it when I was, oh, let’s say ten years younger, maybe more. At that time, sure, it was kind of an exciting title for all its forbidden-ness. I reread it a few more times, though, and the more I did the more it squicked me out. I think it’s that there was that power imbalance that some have already mentioned. It wasn’t a case where he raised the 16-year-old heroine from birth (he was an absentee kind of guardian), but he was much, much older and quite an a-hole to her once there “romantic” relationship ensued. As young as she was and given the historical times, she was definitely at his mercy. Not good, really. Not to me anymore, anyway, but I think being a mom with a young daughter has seriously changed my outlook on a lot of things. I don’t think I realized how much so about this trope until I saw this post. As to whether other gaurdian/ward books would squick me out, not way to know unless I read a blurb/excerpt or the book itself.

    Still- I bet I’d reread that book now if I could get my hands on it, to see how I feel ten years later. Considering how little tolerance I have these days for alpha jerks, probably wouldn’t like it much.

    I’d definitely have a problem if the male guardian was an active, parent-like presence in the girl’s life, then suddenly wants to sexxor things up. That’s just…nasty.

    Has anyone not read the Men of August series? When I first read those, I just knew all that angsting and justification was wrong, but I’m still not sure that the books were really meant to address social, sexual or any kind of issues, but rather just be posed in way that is hawt for hawt’s sake. Even if that is the case, they are definitely an interesting choice to examine in this kind of thing. I still have my copies. I can’t quite figure out how to get rid of them. Why oh why didn’t I just go ebook back then? People don’t seem to feel as indignant over deleting an ebook file as we would about throwing a paperback in the trash. Maybe I need to hold another giveaway.

  39. cara
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 11:57:56

    This is not meant to be a judgment on individuals or their reading preferences.

    Except that… this whole post IS judgmental about individuals and their reading preferences. Seriously, that’s like saying, ‘no offense, but…’ and wailing on someone’s favorite outfit or something.

    Yes, incest is wrong in real life. But it’s a valid kink for some people in their erotic reading materials, and I do think there are authors that like to play with that whole ‘this is so wrong it’s hot’ trope by dancing close to that area. Does it turn me on personally? Not that it’s anyone’s business, but not particularly. At the same time, posts like this irritate me because I could just as easily see this judgment transferring over to May/December stories, which I do enjoy.

    The point is that it’s fiction, and in the case of the Loose Id book, the ‘possibly unpopular undertones’ were more than adequately warned for in the summary. Most of the time, a story summary will give a reader a pretty good idea of whether or not this ‘almost-forbidden’ trope is present. Which leads me to, don’t like -> don’t read. Just because it’s not your cup of tea doesn’t make it poor writing.

  40. Angela/Lazaraspaste
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 12:07:20

    @jane_l I know I am! That ho stole my shirt!

  41. MB
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 12:44:30

    I don’t think that I’ve read many books with Guardian/Ward tropes except Heyer’s Regency Buck. (Which I love and admire the way she handles it.)

    Frankly, this trope would only bother me IF 1) they were closely related by blood, and bigger IF 2) I felt that the power-differential was far out-of-balance to the advantage/disadvantage of the individuals. I.e. the man remained the father figure/controller/sugar daddy/authoritarian whatever and the female character remained infantilized and under his control–emotionally, financially, sexually, romantically. Domination comes awfully close to abuse IMO. And there’s a fine line. I need to know that she can walk away at any time and that SHE CHOOSES HIM over all others. It needs to be her choice and what she believes is best for her.

    I need to believe that they are both adults whose strengths and weaknesses complement each other, that they are better together, and that their relationship will remain positive and last throughout the years.

    Frankly, I hate the imbalance of power in any partnership–this trope or any other. I realize, IRL, especially historicals, that choice wasn’t always possible. But for the book to be ‘romantic’ for me, I need to see the relationship grow, develop, and strenghten in order to ‘get satisfaction’ as a reader.

    (I’m also a reader who chooses books for the relationship building to a happy ending rather than one who reads for the sex. So, please, take my opinion for whatever that means.)

  42. Christine M.
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 12:44:44

    @KMont: I haven’t read them, but then I read a whole lot of one Lora Leigh novella (I don’t remember in which antho though) in my lifetime and I was sufficiently unimpressed not to pick her up again. What’s so special about that series? It ain’t the first time I hear about it.

  43. MB
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 12:55:00

    Oooh, ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ by Jean Webster. I forgot that one! It works for me, because (SPOILER ALERT) she fell in love with him without ever meeting him, and she is almost ‘of age’ during the wardship.

  44. Isabel Cooper
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:04:35

    Jane: It’s more emotional, yeah, but I think at least some of the “ew, gross” reaction comes from or is reinforced by the presumed consequences. There are a lot of jokes about Deliverance and “kids with flippers who play the banjo with their teeth,” or however the Hot Shots line goes.

    Some of it, obviously, is also instinctive creeped-outness for most of us: the Westermark effect is a thing, for sure, and God knows I find the idea of my relatives having sex at all to be extremely icky. And I think it’d be the same for anyone adopted when they were young enough to fall under that effect.

    Actually, that’s one of the reasons I never dug Mansfield Park or Emma as much as the other Austens: the much-older love interest who’s been around since you were tiny and is still kind of a mentor figure is squicky. (It doesn’t bug me in Hero and the Crown , and I think that’s because Aerin and Tor don’t really have that kind of power dynamic.)

    Still, I’m creeped out by the adult-stepsiblings deal too. (Greg and Marsha: ew. Hee. Ew.) So it quite possibly just doesn’t have that much to do with actual genetic stuff.

  45. EmilyW
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:06:45

    This example doesn’t completely equate with the ward/guardian trope, but I think the movie The Professional with Natalie Portman shows how a love between a younger girl and an older man can start developing when it’s “forbidden.” I was fascinated with the subtle sexual tension between the two characters and I think it was smartly done. I never thought the growing love would ever culminate in sexual contact, but I always had the feeling that given time and maturity, they’d end up together. I think some skilled authors are able to achieve this “tone” and therefore no squick factor.

  46. SandyO
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:14:35

    The guardian/ward romance is usually too much an imbalance of power (as someone else stated).

    The brother in law, 1st cousin, step brother, etc, that hits the icky concept for me. My rule on those relationships is how comfortable would everyone be at Thanksgiving dinner?

  47. Perry
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:15:26

    I guess for me the guardian/ward trope isn’t incest – I guess I have a narrow definition of incest – sex between people who are closely related by blood.
    I see it more as a power trope. It works if the power is balance, or capable of being balanced, between them when the romance starts. It doesn’t work when one is weaker than the other.

  48. Angie
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:17:23

    When people argue that non-blood relations just as much family, or that the relationship is just as strong, it makes me think we’re talking about two different things here. Sure, you can feel just as strong a “relative” bond with someone to whom you’re not related by blood, but that’s not the point. The whole purpose of making incest into a taboo is to minimize the likelihood of deformed children being born. Anything beyond that is just cultural.

    If the idea of step-siblings (for example) having sex makes you go ick, that’s fine as an individual reaction. But if both people are emotionally healthy about the relationship then there’s nothing objectively wrong with it, as in, Something Bad Might Happen. When close relatives make a habit of marrying, eventually you start getting a noticeable percentage of birth defects within the group, and people back when interpreted that as their deities of choice expressing disapproval. Spreading the taboo to include relatives by marriage, by adoption, or any other non-blood relatives was just a matter of fallible humans who didn’t know exactly what was going on lumping non-like (in the critical, relevant sense) things together and making the rule/law/taboo cover all of them. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s not necessary, either.

    First cousins are on the borderline — a lot of cultures say no first cousins can marry, and a lot of cultures say there’s nothing wrong with it. The chances of any unfortunate births between first cousins is extremely remote, but some people stick it under the incest umbrella anyway. I think that depends where you grew up and where your family’s from. Beyond first cousins, though, the difference in birth defect numbers (say, between the likelihood of a child of second cousins having a birth defect and the likelihood of a child of complete strangers having the same defect) is minute. Beyond first cousins, it’s purely cultural.

    No one’s saying (or at least, I’m not saying) that your adopted kid or your brother-in-law is any less dear to you, nor that they’re not “real” family. But yes, there is a significant difference between blood family and non when you’re talking about incest and its possible consequences. For me, those possible consequences are the primary factor in whether I have no problem with a relationship or whether I think maybe the people involved aren’t making the greatest choice.

    Others obviously disagree, and that’s fine. But this is where I’m coming from when I talk about blood family making a difference.


  49. Isobel Carr
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:18:09

    It doesn't bug me in Hero and the Crown , and I think that's because Aerin and Tor don't really have that kind of power dynamic.

    I love that book and don’t think that the relationship there has anything to do with guardian/mentor/ward. Tor isn't her mentor (that's one of his men) and their relationship was always one adult to another (though since it's a YA book their both quite young).

  50. Isobel Carr
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:19:53

    They’re both quite young (not their). *sigh* Why do I only see my brain-fart typos after I’ve hit submit?

  51. Cara
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:23:14

    This is not meant to be a judgment on individuals or their reading preferences.

    Except that it definitely is judgmental about people’s reading preferences. It’s fiction, and incest is a valid kink for some people in fiction. It doesn’t mean they’d go out and boink their actual living relatives or condone that behavior in real life. But it’s the allure of the forbidden. The way you’re posing the overall question of “is the guardian trope actually incest fantasy” is almost rhetorical. In the examples you’re giving, there’s no question of it – the authors are pretty clearly using that “this is so wrong it’s hot” element by dancing closely to at least an incest parallel. I think if you asked the authors outright, most of them would admit to that. Hell, just reading the blurbs for the books usually makes it pretty darned clear what’s going on, and in the case of the Loose Id example, there was even a clear warning for content. Pretty obvious case of “don’t like, don’t read.” Which again leads me to believe your leading question isn’t the issue at all.

    The problem is, you ARE judging people who enjoy the “incest fantasy”. Both in your blog and in your comments (the one about how people who enjoy those sorts of things must all be only children was particularly rich). Which, hey, it’s your blog. But it’s kind of like saying, “No offense, but…” and then offending the hell out of someone. It doesn’t make it any less judgy.

    For the record, I don’t even care for this trope – usually the alpha dumba$$ male + “precious widdle girl” aspect of it is enough to make me hurl. But I do love a good May/December romance, and I could see something like that just as easily falling under these guns as “ewww May/December is just a Daddy-incest fantasy in disguise.” Maybe it is in some places. Maybe you shouldn’t judge it (even while saying you’re not judging), because that’s OKAY for some people to enjoy that fantasy in their erotica or romance FICTION. And maybe NOT ALL May/December or, in this case Guardian/Ward stories are incest fantasy in disguise.

  52. Angie
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:28:01

    Well, I had a much longer post typed up, but the blog seems to have eaten it. :/

    Bottom line, I’m one of those people whose only real concern — assuming the power dynamics are healthy — is “Wait, what about possible birth defects?” And I’ll admit that if they’re using a condom AND the pill (or something similar — sterilization surgery, whatever), then I don’t consider it any of my business what consenting adults do in bed. Same with an m/m or f/f relationship. So long as they’re two emotionally healthy adults in a consenting relationship, and they’re not going to produce a third party who has to live with the negative consequences of their decisions, I’m not going to squawk about it. [shrug]


  53. Isabel Cooper
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:31:08

    Yep, pretty much: there’s the somewhat-older love interest who knew you really well as a kid, but as you say, Tor never really taught her anything except basic swordsmanship, and he doesn’t really take an interest in her at all until she’s in her late teens, IIRC. (There’s a passage where he does, sort of bitterly, describe himself as “the ideal older brother”, but more because he didn’t want to be.)

  54. KMont
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:45:57

    @Christine M.:

    Honestly, I think it is that forbidden factor. The angst Cade feels is such a huge part of what keeps him and Marly apart at all, not to mention those daddy issues Jane mentioned. The books play heavily off that forbidden aspect, and to me, that just says it’s meant to use the idea of possible incest to titillate. I think at first that might seem exciting to some, and maybe it always would. That definitely wore off for me, though. Now the books are more like some kind of freak show tent event. But that’s just to me. I’m not judging anyone in real life, just commenting on those particular books and how the idea of incest in them was presented.

  55. srs
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 13:57:35

    @MB: I just read Daddy Long Legs recently (thanks to the review at Book Smugglers) and the love story there really bothered me. Not enough to completely ruin the book for me, but enough to give me serious pause. I mean, one of the stipulations of the bequest is that she write monthly letters, so he is learning all about her life, her dreams etc. He finds a way to interact with her w/out her knowing who he really is and so gets to know her opinion of him via her letters. He also does his best to discourage the heroine’s growing (mostly, but not exclusively financial) independence from him. The whole thing seemed really manipulative to me and, instead of marriage as a HEA, I kinda wanted her to tell him off for being a domineering puppet-master.

  56. Laura
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:17:13

    The guardian/ward trope bothers me. I think of Celine Dion and her husband as a good example. Her husband/manager took her on when she was 14. I don’t know how old she was when they fell in love, but with a relationship like that I just wonder how many men Celine got to meet over the years.

    When Rene was only her manager, he probably guarded her pretty closely to make sure her career soared and he probably took very good care of her. I doubt she had a lot of tiem to date, so he was really the only man in her life. At a young age, Celine probably looked up to him, something that can easily be mistaken for love. So I guess I have to wonder how much of this is love and how much of it is admiration, and then wonder if the guardian is taking advantage of that.

  57. Isobel Carr
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:24:57

    @Isabel Cooper: I didn’t read your first comment closely enough. I was mixing up The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. I was thinking of/talking about The Blue Sword (where the king kidnaps the teenaged heroine because his magic makes him to it). Clearly I need more caffeine. But even in The Hero and the Crown, I never thought of it as a guardian/ward relationship. It was more two people who'd grown up together to me (he wasn't that much older as I remember it).

  58. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:32:56

    @Angie I think the use of incest pushes the posts right into spam.

  59. Zola
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:37:21

    I don’t get the whole it’s ok attitude so long as “they’re not blood relations.” I think it’s super creepy for two people who were raised together as children–basically brother and sister-or father and daughter, or whatever combo is in the works, develop and act on sexual feelings. Totally hits my squick button. More so than say, if two people who are related by blood but who never knew of each other meet and fall in love. That doesn’t count as incest to me because I view a shared family experience, history and dynamic as integral to any sense of family bond. Blood alone is not enough to do it for me. Although, I readily admit that my thinking is based on the fact that I was raised in a step-parent/mixed family.

  60. Zola
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:41:00

    Speaking of Loose-id incest titles, Evangeline Anderson’s new release Forbidden is about two angels who are forced out of heaven by the the devil and into human brother and sister bodies. The pair grow up knowing nothing about their true identities and are conflicted by their lust for each other.

  61. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:42:31

    @Cara Actually, if you read my post, I admitted to liking all of the books I used except for the Nicollet book and wasn’t necessarily bothered by the guardian/ward parts of the Lora Leigh book but rather the constant justification for the sexual need as presented by Leigh (these brothers have to share because they were abused as children).

    And my question was meant to be rhetorical. I do think that the line between guardian and ward and incest is a very close one and thus I think the concept of incest is not only referenced in many romances but maybe a core trope used in the genre. Thus to be up in arms about incest as has been the case in the romance blogging community seems to strike a bit of a hypocritical note. I recall one instance where a prominent romance blogger was excoriated by other bloggers for hosting a web ad on her site that linked to a book that may or may not have featured incest. Other bloggers called this romance blogger unethical, among other things in hosting such an ad. Amazon has removed some content containing incest erotica.

    I don’t believe I am judging people who enjoy the incest fantasy. On the contrary, I am saying that the incest fantasy, the taboo fantasy of getting together with a very forbidden member of one’s circle, is one that is written either overtly or in disguise in many, many romance books. Thus we, as a community of readers and authors, have accepted this within our genre even if we don’t call it as such.

    I’m sorry that you read it as judging. It wasn’t my intent. In fact, my intent was the exact opposite.

  62. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:46:08

    @Angie But do you think that the incest as taboo is one that is driven, now, because of genetic issues versus emotional bonds? I ask that because what about older women having kids and an increased risk of down’s syndrome or perhaps an individual having a genetic disease that could result in a genetic disorder in any progeny? There doesn’t seem to be the same social taboo associated with those individuals having a romance. What if the blood relations, as written, promised only to adopt children so as to avoid genetic issues?

    I guess I disagree that incest is taboo because of genetic issues. That might have been the initial to push to make the intermarriage of blood relations taboo but I don’t think it is the current driving force behind that taboo.

  63. Zola
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:52:19

    Aargh, wrote two posts and both seem to have been lost in the ether. Anyhoo, I’ll condense my thinking.

    The whole disclaimer based on the two people not being related by blood doesn’t fly with me. What I find objectionable, and irrationally disgusting, is the fact that the people involved in in**st (to avoid the spam cycle) stories and overcome their entire familial background and become involved in a sexual relationship. That’s what hits my squick button.

    If the scenario were two blood related people who never knew of each other, meeting and falling in love, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. I think its because I view the shared history, experience and dynamic of growing up with someone or raising someone as integral to developing a family bond–blood means less than nothing in my book when it comes to bonding with another person.

    Brothers sharing the same woman or man is just asking for trouble in my book.

  64. Author On Vacation
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 14:56:58

    I actually get annoyed by the excessive angst in “kinda-sorta-incest” books.

    I mean, if you’re gonna go for it with a relative or almost-relative, I’d rather read about the dynamics of the relationship itself, not chronic angst and guilt surrounding it. If it’s interesting and well-written, I’ll suspend my disbelief and go with it.

    I suppose the romantic potential of incest or semi-incest revolves around the idea that romantic love/lust between the two is “forbidden” and condemned by society.

    I’ve never liked the erotic romances featuring a heroine taking on two or more brothers. I still don’t understand how these stories make it past the “no incest” restrictions many e-publishers enforce. Even if there’s no “real” sexual contact between the brothers, they’re still co-participants in a sexual relationship. How can that not be incest?

    I’ve read several books where incestuous love affairs are handled without all the guilty angst. “Aztec,” Rice’s Mayflower Witches Saga, and the “Dune” series explore incestuous relationships. These aren’t romances and the relationships aren’t portrayed in a titillating light, but they don’t repel and annoy me.

    I’ve never been able to “buy into” the “emotional incest” trope. I just can’t believe that if a couple really regards themselves as a parent/child, sibling, or other comparable relationship, persuing the romantic interests wouldn’t be possible. I think it’s more realistic for Big Brother’s Best Friend to have a moment or two of realization (“Whoa! I’m in love with BF’s sister!”) get over it, and move forward with the romance.

  65. Sylvia Sybil
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 15:05:49

    Guardian/ward usually reads like child grooming to me. Yeah, there’s ways around it, if the guardian is only in charge of her money or lives on a different estate or something. But most of the examples raised here concern people who actually raise their ward and act like a parent/uncle/older sibling to them. The power differential in that, years of emotions and family dynamics, is too large to let me believe the ward is choosing of her own free will. And yes, I’d still feel the same way if it was a female guardian and a male ward.

    Blood doesn’t bother me. I have half a dozen cousins adopted in three branches and they are each and every one of them my family. On the other hand, I have blood relations I would happily ship to Timbuktu if I didn’t think it might be construed as an act of war. ^_~ My family is not defined by genetics, but by choice and by love. Even the possibility of conceiving a child with a blood relation doesn’t bother me as the chances of birth defects are incredibly low for the first generation.

    I also find the cousin discussion interesting. I have a large network of family, triple digits in my state alone and there are more scattered across the country. It’s funny to me when people count “cousin, 2nd cousin, 3rd cousin” because in my family anything from 1st cousin to 5th cousin thrice removed is a “cousin”. I can’t imagine dating any of them. (I’m American if it matters.)

  66. Isobel Carr
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 15:22:50

    For me (as for many others on the blog), *family* is more of an emotional issue than it one defined by a blood relationship.

    I have cousins I grew up with, and they *feel* like siblings. The idea of dating them is gross. But I also have cousins I only met as teen/adult, and they do NOT inspire the same squick feeling. In fact, there’s one I’d totally date if he wasn’t already married, LOL! They just aren't really family, because I don't know them.

    I also have good friends I grew up with who *feel* like siblings and are utterly off limits because of that emotional response/relationship.

  67. g_lavo
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 15:29:36

    The guardian/ward trope doesn’t bother me. I think it’s because I have only read this in historicals where the power is never balanced – so my relationship dynamic expectations are very different from what I would expect in a contemporary story. Same goes for cousin romances, only in historicals can I handle them.

    I am bothered by any family relationship turning sexual if the relationship started when either person was a child. Grosses me out. I think I would also be a little bothered by close blood relatives (i.e. siblings or parent/child) getting together even if they were not aware of the blood relationship. I want to believe that the biology would prevent a person from being attracted to someone so closely related to them. Phermones or something like that?

  68. meoskop
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 15:32:45


    Oh wait, am I supposed to expand on that? This trope, except when it is used to bring together people of a similar age who have never met, almost never works for me. It’s not just the Daddy issues, it’s the child grooming issues. Children are not sexy, full stop. Being raised to someone’s personal taste is not sexy, full stop.

  69. Author On Vacation
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 15:35:33

    In “My Sergei,” Ekaterina Gordeeva recounts the details of her relationship with Sergei Grinkov. The two skaters were first paired as youngsters (ages 11 and 14.) As they matured into world-class Olympic champions, they eventually fell in love, married, and had one child prior to Grinkov’s tragic sudden death at age 28.

    One thing I recall about the memoirs was Ekaterina’s frank admission that Sergei was more or less a “big brother type” to her early in their partnership. During her mid-teens, they went through a brief “awkward phase” where she felt emotionally rejected and ignored by him before he finally opened his heart to her and they became lovers when she was almost seventeen.

    Sergei’s sister later confided to Ekaterina that she’d noted Sergei’s moodiness and withdrawal. After calling him on it, Sergei admitted, “I think I love Katuh.”

    I think this is probably how those types of relationships work out. There’s probably some awkwardness, a “moment of truth,” and then the couple dynamics more or less “reformulate” (from friends to love interests.)

    Although Sergei and Ekaterina were not blood relations, they were certainly partners who worked very closely together in a very physical sport and had lengthy history. Not a huge age difference for adults, that three year gap was HUGE when Ekaterina was a young girl and Sergei neared his twenties.

    My point: it happens, regardless of what we as a society think of it, and the people involved adjust to take it in stride.

  70. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 15:36:12

    @g_lavo: Actually there are studies to the opposite. See “genetic sexual attraction”.

    This reminds me of an article I read long ago in Time magazine about the chemistry of love which is, I guess, the Westermarck effect. In the article it talked about how events can imprint on you. For example, if you were saved by a fireman, you might always look for someone tall and strong. If you had a great relationship with your grandfather and he was a pipe smoker, you would look for someone who smoked a pipe because of the positive feelings that would be generated by your past experience.

    Another thing, isn’t it said that if you have a good relationship with your mother/father, you end up marrying their likeness?

  71. Sylvia Sybil
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 15:54:48


    The Westermarck effect is that you will almost never feel attracted to someone who was raised with you before the age of five (ish). It’s why people don’t usually feel attracted to children raised in the same home as them (siblings, step-siblings and half-siblings all included) and why in small villages people usually marry an outsider. It’s hypothesized this is why incest doesn’t occur more often since the person you usually have the most access to is your sibling.

    tl;dr The Westermarck effect is reverse sexual imprinting.

  72. Sylvia Sybil
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 16:04:30

    I had a useful and relevant comment, but I think it disappeared into the spam folder. =(

  73. g_lavo
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 16:17:28

    @jane: no, no, no, no…..I don’t want to know that I might have been attracted to my relatives if I had not grown up with them. The Westermarck effect must have been extremely effective with me because that article has me seriously disturbed!

    I agree that your father (or brother or grandfather or other male relative) can shape the kind of man you are attracted to but that is a LONG way from dating your actual father. It’s difficult for me to separate the biological relationship from the emotional relationship – the father who donated his swimmer vs. the father who raised the child. To me they are the same and therefore neither could be sexually attractive. I just can’t go there, not even for a great love story.

    I couldn’t finish the first Wideacre book because of the brother/sister sexual relationship. My biggest problem was that the physical description of the brother sounded like my own brother so I had to stop reading the book when they took the relationship to the next level, so to speak. I am still bothered by the small part that I did read.

  74. hapax
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 16:22:54

    Interesting discussion. One of the first romances I ever read and loved (LOVE LESSONS by Elizabeth Mansfield) was very much of this trope. The heroine was thirteen before she ever met her cousin/guardian, but there is no question that their relationship starts out very much of a child / parent one.

    Like I said, I loved this book, but it always bothered me, even though I was too naive to be able to articulate my squick.

    However, I am fairly accepting of the trope *in historicals*, partially because these cannot be free of power imbalance anyway, but also because there a frankly very few alternative ways to get a man and a woman in prolonged contact long enough for them to forge a genuine emotional connection other than raising them in the same family or a marriage of convenience.

    And as squicky as I find pseudo-incest, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as “I danced with him twice and then had sex in a carriage — I guess I love him forever!”

  75. Jane
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 16:24:33

    @Sylvia Sybil Thanks for clarifying.

  76. Connie
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 16:36:08

    I actually feel like the biggest issue with the incest taboo is the potential for abuse when members of family is involved. Genetic issues are more concerns of a reproduction issue so would a taboo relationship (aka father/daughter etc.) be okay as long as they don’t reproduce?
    But cases I’ve seen on news about the taboo is almost always involving some kind of abuse…which is something I can’t stand (note I say abuse is when whatever act is non-consensual…not people who have given their consent…though that might have been trained~ Ahh it’s too weird).
    Obviously then is the taboo okay as long as it’s not abusive? It’s hard for me to imagine that both sides were completely willing right at the beginning (or anytime!) of the “relationship”…which then borders on abuse in my head.

  77. Isobel Carr
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 16:38:21

    @g_lavo: I have trouble reading books where the hero shares my father or brother’s name, LOL!

  78. Connie
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 16:39:20

    I actually feel like the biggest issue with the inc*st taboo is the potential for abuse when members of family is involved. Genetic issues are more concerns of a reproduction issue so would a taboo relationship (aka father/daughter etc.) be okay as long as they don’t reproduce?
    But cases I’ve seen on news about the taboo is almost always involving some kind of abuse…which is something I can’t stand (note I say abuse is when whatever act is non-consensual…not people who have given their consent…though that might have been trained~ Ahh it’s too weird).
    Obviously then is the taboo okay as long as it’s not abusive? It’s hard for me to imagine that both sides were completely willing right at the beginning (or anytime!) of the “relationship”…which then borders on abuse in my head.

  79. g_lavo
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 16:49:01

    @Isobel Carr: I do TOO!! My father and brother have the same name, which makes it easier to avoid, but it’s a really common name – Jack. The other names that bother me in books are my children’s names. My daughter in particular has a fairly common name in historical romances so when the hero is getting all hot and heavy and panting the heroine’s name and it’s my daughter’s name…….ewwwww. Sometimes I change the character’s name in my head. It helps.

  80. Isabel Cooper
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 17:01:24

    Hee! Thirded.

    My folks also have the really common names, so that cuts out a fair amount of potential material. Because: eeeew.

  81. cs
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 17:57:30

    @Jane: I read a book where the main characters [a twenty-two yr. old] was in a relationship with his godfather who was the same age as his dad. That creeped me out, even more so because the author made reference to his childhood and all that.

    I’m not put off by incest stories or stories or with “I grew up with you like a brother/sister and now I suddenly want to get it on with you” — as hypocritical as this may sound, for me if they’re near enough the same age and don’t have a parent-type relationship then I’m cool. I can do the sibling thing, but not the I raised you, or I changed you nappy and now you’re big, I’m going to shag you.

    I know it sounds weird, but it is what it is.

  82. Jennifer
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 18:17:42


    Daine and Numair actually have sex in the books. I never viewed their relationship as gaurdian and ward. Her parents while not around, weren’t techinically dead as they were living in the realms of the gods. When Daine and Numair do hook up, it’s practically in her parents front yard…

    I haven’t thought about those books in a long time!! I was obsessed with them back in the day though!

  83. AB
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 18:30:45

    @knstrick: OMG this is exactly the book I thought of when I read this post.

    The Numair/Daine still feels icky to me. I mean, in hindsight the foreshadowing was there, but she was only twelve when they met, and he was firmly in the guardian/family/mentor category to me when I read it. Really since he was all the family she had, it grosses me out a little still that this 30 year old man got together with a 16 year old by the last book. I might have felt differently if she’d had any sort of meaningful romantic experience prior to hooking up with Numair, but she didn’t. Meanwhile, he’d had several lovers throughout the series, so that was THAT power differential as well.

    But people seem to love this coupling, so what do I know?

    There’s also the Marlelon/Kim coupling of The Magician’s Ward by Patricia C Wrede; but Kim is around the same age as he is, they met when they were both adults, and although she’s also his student in that book, he doesn’t raise her. And he’s only her guardian because she needs some financial stability to learn magic. So it can be done without me squicking out, but I think the power dynamics have to be almost equal.

  84. Author On Vacation
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 18:46:58


    “I couldn't finish the first Wideacre book because of the brother/sister sexual relationship. My biggest problem was that the physical description of the brother sounded like my own brother so I had to stop reading the book when they took the relationship to the next level, so to speak. I am still bothered by the small part that I did read … ”

    I’d forgotten about “Wideacre” featuring incest. You know, it’s odd but I never was so put off over Beatrice/Harry incest because it was clear to me from the get-go how disturbed and obsessed Beatrice was. I honestly never thought Beatrice experienced genuine love or erotic attraction for Harry beyond his capacity as the squire/landowner. By the time she cultivated the relationship, Beatrice’s sociopathy was already so obvious. I was more appalled by her conspiring with Ralph to murder her father and then tricking Ralph into a cruel accident intended to kill him. By the time she got around to Harry, the sex-play and domination seemed pretty minor on her list of sins and vices.

  85. Merrian
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 19:07:47

    For me the issue lies in the power dynamics as Isobel Carr and Angela/Lazaraspaste have so ably said and this makes the Guardian/Ward trope the most iffy one as far as I am concerned.

    In my real life family I have a great aunt who married brothers (one after the other!)and a first cousin who had a relationship with a second cousin. In both situations I can see what brought the couples together as people in love. I think life and love can be quite complicated.

    Someone above has already said this but I want to read stories where the h/h choose each other and are better together than apart. This means that the power dynamics of the relationship in the situations discussed on this thread have to be addressed as part of the just resolution of the story.

    One final thought, polyandry – a woman marrying a set of brothers is a cultural practice in certain parts of the Himalayas and we wouldn’t have a word for it if it didn’t happen elsewhere.

  86. Luce
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 19:13:49

    I find guardian/ward romances to be slightly weird because the age difference is usually rather big. This, imho, creates too much of a power imbalance. I can buy the scenario in a historical (up to World War I) rather than a contemporary.

    Yet, family bonds are created by far more than blood […]
    As someone whose both parents have divorced and remarried to other people, I’m super squicked by stepsibling romances. Sure, there’s no blood relation but that doesn’t mean I’m beyond creeped out at the thought of kissing or sexin’ my stepsister. So, in this case, that kind of romance is too close to home for me to enjoy it.

  87. Annabel
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 19:31:18

    As soon as I read this post I thought of Fabio’s “Pirate”. Yes, I admit it! I read it and I liked it! Of course this was years ago–and I remember being made slightly uncomfortable by his attraction to his ward. However, that attraction didn’t start to develop until the girl was mature and voluptuous (and of age). He thought of her more as a pest until she reached maturity, and then his feelings changed. To me, that’s fine. There was enough of a frisson of incest to titillate, but not enough to gross out. That’s the balance I think authors have to find with this trope.

    But I will echo other readers and say that a guardian falling in love with a ward when she is still a child and waiting for her to be of age–NO. Blech.

  88. Kaetrin
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 20:07:09

    @ KMont. I’m with you on the Men of August series. They were one of the first ER’s I read and I think I spent most of my reading time with my mouth hanging open in stunned amazement. My tastes have become a little more… refined (?) since then.

    @ Jane. I too found the “why” of the brother’s need to share disturbing – and a little incomprehensible frankly. When I read the books, I kind of mentally glossed over the fact that they were brothers but I just can’t now. I cannot for the life of me think why brothers would actually want to have sex with the same woman at the same time (although I understand others may have a differing view) so the “fantasy” falls a bit flat for me these days.

    I don’t mind the guardian/ward trope. It’s pretty common in regency historicals – although the ones I mostly remember (not that I can think of any of the titles ATM of course) were when the girl was older or had not had much relationship with the guardian. Often too, it’s the heroine who’s decided she wants her guardian and goes after him, which seems to dilute the power issues involved which may be a problem. I think the falling-in-love-with-you-when-you-were-a-child-and-I-was-an-adult would squick me out big time. It would squick me out if the genders were reversed just as much.

  89. John
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 20:13:57

    @Jane: Ooh, you mention some YA here! I’ve read the first two Mortal Instruments books (fun reads IMO, but the writing quality is pretty blah – think J.R.Wardish) and I knew from book one that SPOILER something would change. I have yet to read book 3, but apparently the SPOILER is something that keeps it from getting majorly squick.

    Still. I actually really want to read Forbidden because of the relationship – I want to see how it’s written. I’ve seen news reports and stuff about the ‘oddity’ of cousins marrying and I’m open to the idea that psychological issues/feelings could cause relatives to be romantically involved in a consensual relationship. It’s squick by modern standards, but it used to be more common.

    Then again, I have a fairly high tolerance as a reader. :p

  90. Jan
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 20:33:21

    Such a fascinating post. I had to rush to the decrepit books section of the bookcase to grab my coverless, tatty Harlequin Presents from 1985, Vanessa James – “The Object of the Game”. Hero, 30-something Alexis is an academic at Cambridge, the (former) guardian of 22 yr old Natasha. Her parents were killed when she was a babe, and he and his sister & family have raised her – they all live in the same house. He and Natasha are also second cousins. And the hero’s nemesis is a trashy (male) author who is in love with Alexis, but who goes after Natasha because she is the next best thing to having Alexis. Oh My Gosh. Love it!!!!!

  91. Carin
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 20:42:01

    After reading the post and comments I can finally articulate my feelings on this. I think there are two different tropes going on.

    First, there’s the inc*st thing, which for me doesn’t really have to do with blood ties at all, but with familial ties. And anything having to do with someone in a parental role over another person. No romance there for me. At all.

    Second, there’s the uneven balance of power. I enjoy this when it’s well done. It certainly can overlap with the forbidden inc*st trope, but I view them separately.

    And for the record, as an adoptive mom, I fall in the camp of family being oh so much more than blood ties.

    Also, I hadn’t heard of the Westermark effect before, but it makes sense to me. Kids who became sibs at a young age (step/adoption/whatever) turning into lovers would squick me out. Older kids (teens and up) wouldn’t have the same squick factor at all. Which brings me to…

    The Megan Follows step-sibs movie! I remember LOVING that. Oh, wow! I didn’t realize anyone else had ever seen it. I’d watch that again just remember it better. Here’s the IMDB entry – I believe it’s “Sin of Innocence.” Thank you Lazaruspaste for that stroll down memory lane!

  92. Sylvia Sybil
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 22:09:03

    I didn’t read the Daine/Numair relationship as guardian/ward. Yes, the lines get blurred when you’re an orphan at a boarding school, but I always thought of him as her teacher. That said, their relationship does bother me. In the first book, when her heart stops beating and he’s afraid for her, I read that as fatherly worry and was deeply touched. On subsequent rereads, his reaction squicks me. She’s 12 and he’s early thirties, for cryin’ out loud.

    There’s the power differentials everyone else has pointed out, the age difference, the sexual experience difference, the mentor/student dynamic. The only thing that makes it at all palatable for me is Daine’s strong will and opinionatedness in later books. Still, I’d be much happier if Ms. Pierce had developed a love interest for her instead of pairing her off with the father figure.

  93. Maria
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 22:24:10

    I’ve read a couple books with this trope.

    One that didn’t squick me out, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Just Imagine. I think that I wasn’t squicked by that relationship because there was never a familial bond between them. He inherited her guardianship with the death of his mother (her step mother) when she was either 18 or nearly so. Then he ships her off to finishing school. She hates his guts because, A: he’s a yellow-bellied yankee; and B: he’s the number one obstacle between her and her one true love, the plantation she grew up on. (Yeah, yeah, a gone with the wind trope too!).

    The one I read that did squick me out was a sci-fi/fantasy series. Admittedly, the people who have the telekinetic powers that the books are about are really long lived, but I was completely squicked when the man who raised the female lead fell in love with her daughter. A daughter her cared for as a child. It’s been a really long time since I read the series, but I want to say that he briefly loved the mother in his own way, but she loved someone else.

    I think the key to the squick factor here is not only the crazy age difference, but the relationship too. The man in the sci-fi series is practically her surrogate father, regardless of any blood ties.

  94. eliz
    Jan 25, 2011 @ 22:33:10

    In 1990, I knew a husband and wife who had been married over 60 years. They were step sibs, both youngest in large families. Each had a parent die. Remarrige was an economic necessity for this Swedish farming commmunity, since day care was not an option. This couple did grow up together from a young age — and their older siblingings never approved of the marriage — but as their pastor, what I saw of the relationship seemed healthy.

  95. Robin
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 00:23:19

    Regarding the issue of the men initiating these guardian/ward relationships, Emma Holly’s Personal Assets features a young woman pursuing a sexual relationship with her step=father following her mother’s death. The book was initially released as erotica under Black Lace, but when it was re-issued by Berkley, along with other earlier Holly titles, it was tagged as erotic romance, IIRC. As good-natured as Holly’s books usually are, the step-daughter pursuing the step-father just never worked for me. That the step-daughter initiates things did not feel at all empowering to me.

    I also disagree with the idea that inc*st stories in Romance have to be about blood ties. All literature and mythology deals with issues symbolically, especially taboo issues, and IMO Romance is no exception. In fact, I think Romance is particularly engaged with many social taboos, including inc*st, and I’ve never understood why, for example, Lora Leigh’s books are not viewed through that lens while other books are.

    In fact, what fascinates me is how the symbolic and direct inc*st motif is used in the genre, and how it’s not used — namely in the cultural and historical situations where it was common and accepted as a norm (e.g. Ancient Egypt, European nobility, extremely close knit, isolated communities). It’s fascinating to me that it’s often those contexts in which relationships we would readily consider inc*stuous are not, in Romance, portrayed that way, while others we would not consider as such are (i.e. a rom that takes place in Ancient Egypt v. Lora Leigh’s Men of August series). Why is that, I wonder?

  96. Mala
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 06:12:14

    I think it’s definitely a factor of just HOW much the characters were raised together or one was raised by the other. Obviously in soap operas, this happens constantly. The Bold and the Beautiful has characters dating their former step-siblings, the children of their stepbrothers, etc. On As the World Turns, Lily Walsh married her uncle, Holden Snyder (her biological mother was his adopted sister), but they weren’t raised together. However, years later, Holden’s teen daughter, Faith, got involved with her (adopted) cousin Parker, and that was a different story for many viewers. They grew up attending family dinners and Christmases…how do you wrap your brain around “pass the salt” turning into “I love you”?

    Kasey Michaels’ Romney Marsh books have a similar conundrum, except I found it all much more problematic. The basic set-up is that Ainsley Becket has gathered all these orphans together and raised them after a tragedy. They all go off and fall and love, etc.

    At one point, Fanny and Rian, who aren’t related by blood and are six years apart in age, expressly address that Fanny’s crush on Rian is wrongwrongwrong because they’re siblings. However, the series ENDS with the pairing of one of the oldest Becket kids, Courtland, and the youngest, Callie, whom he explicitly had a hand in raising. The reader even sees him playing with her as a baby. And the entire family is gung-ho for them to get together. They basically peer pressure Courtland into acknowledging his love for Callie, with her being the pursuer. (As is common in such stories: The man is all “no, no, I mustn’t!” but succumbs.) I couldn’t deal with that, particularly since Fanny/Rian were established as being taboo.

  97. Carin
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 08:10:28

    @Maria – I think your Sci-Fi/Fantasy series is the Rowan series by Anne MacCaffrey. Damia is born in book two and the man (I can’t remember his name, but I think he’s blue?) is bonded to her pretty much from birth. And yes, he did have a thing for Rowan, so I thought taking care of Damia for Rowan was wierd. But then in book 3 or 4 (called _Damia_) they turn into a couple. And no one blinks an eye! That was yucky.

  98. LG
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 08:37:27

    @Carin: I agree, it sounds like McCaffrey’s The Rowan and Damia. The guy, Afra, has unrequited love for the Rowan, and she ends up with someone else and has kids. One of those kids is Damia, who Afra babysits and bonds especially well with. After Damia grows up and goes through some traumatic stuff, she and Afra end up together.

    Not exactly guardian/ward, but close. I think I first read the books when I was in my late teens. If I remember correctly, this isn’t the only time when McCaffrey writes about a romance with a large age gap – she’s got another book in the same series where, if I remember correctly, the guy is older (20s? 30s? I can’t remember) and the girl is pretty young (my brain says 14, but it could be 16).

    In the series, this is all accepted as ok, because the characters are telepaths/telekinetics/telewhatevers, and the relationships are a “meeting of minds.” The physical bodies don’t matter, because the minds mesh, or something like that. And there’s emphasis put on the fact that the physical side of the relationships don’t happen until the characters are adults.

    Still, yes, a bit icky if you think about it. The one with Damia, in particular, since readers got to watch Damia grow up with Afra taking care of her. I do think there’s a period of a few years starting in her teens when Damia and Afra are apart, so I think that helped for me a bit.

  99. Sandra
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 08:44:31

    @Robin: Regarding the issue of the men initiating these guardian/ward relationships, Emma Holly's Personal Assets features a young woman pursuing a sexual relationship with her step=father following her mother's death.

    I didn’t care for this book as much as other Holly’s I’ve read, but not for that reason. It’s been a while, but as I recall, the daughter was an adult when her mother married; the marriage was a fairly recent one; and the step-father was much younger than the mother (basically a boy toy, at least early on). That set-up didn’t flip any of my switches.

    Older guardian / younger ward however does. But that’s as much a knee-jerk reaction to May / December, as anything else. My personal feeling is they both need to go out and find someone closer to their own age. It probably comes from reading too many Trad Regencies, where otherwise intelligent 30-something men fall for 17yo debutantes.

    First cousins don’t bother me either, depending on the circumstances. I wouldn’t marry any of mine, despite (or because of) being from the Southern US, and growing up with hillbilly / redneck “kissing cousins” jokes. However, I read both Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer at an early age, both of whom marry off cousins (Gabriel Hounds for Stewart and The Grand Sophy for Heyer). I came to realize that in the UK it wasn’t an issue; that in fact, cousins marrying was centuries-old way of consolidating power among aristocratic and royal families. The inter-relatonships between European royalty, especially Victoria’s descendants, frankly terrifies me. How do they keep it all straight?

  100. Bronte
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 09:06:26

    Its an interesting topic. For me personally its a (little) less about blood ties and more about familiarity and an uneven balance of power. I spent severals with a foster family. They had four boys of their own, and my sister and I lived with them. I would as soon fly to the moon than think of one of them in a sexual manner. Why? They’re my brothers. They’ve fought with me, laughed with me, and at times held me down and farted on me. So when I read romantic relationships from “close” family relationships without blood ties it makes me a little squicky.

    Conversely Linda Howards book made me a little uneasy with the cousin thing but I accepted it because the Hero left for several years while the heroine grew up. I felt that when they met again there was a more even balance between them. That time distance also gave them an unfamiliarity with each other – they both had changed, and I think that was why it didn’t bother me that much.

  101. Isobel Carr
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 09:21:54

    I can’t believe no one has brought up the utter squickfest that is Twilight . . . I haven’t read them, but my friend’s niece told me all about how gross it was that Jacob (I think that’s his name, the werewolf) ends up with Bella’s daughter.

  102. Maria
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 10:17:46

    @Carin and @LG Aha! That is the series. I searched through my collection last night to no avail trying to figure out what the series was. Thanks :)

    @Isobel I did think of Twilight and the Jacob/Renesme pairing, but I was unwilling to admit that I read the series due to my own morbid curiosity. That’s 4 days of my life that I’ll never get back. I was like REALLY! Jacob can’t have Bella but he can have Bella’s daughter? UGH.

  103. Bianca
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 10:20:05

    I don’t really mind the guardian/ward trope. Like everything else, it just has to be done right.

    Example: I remember reading an old school guardian/ward story once, where the hero was the guardian of the heroine. He’d raised her, sort of, but she went off and married someone else (and it was a loving marriage, the guy just died young). They met and fell in love later, when the heroine was a fully formed adult, which mitigated some of the power balance issues that I usually take issue with.

    Although, I don’t mind May/December romances, either. So, it’s just personal preferences. Honestly, the “I saw you from across the room and you’re MINE FOREVER, lemme watch you while you sleep” is more squicky to me than guardian/ward, age differences or close familial relationships.

  104. g_lavo
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 10:27:56

    @Isobel Carr: Oh, there is a whole set up for that relationship (not that it doesn’t still seem creepy). The story is that the wolves “imprint” on their mate when they first meet and it’s completely out of their control – both who the mate is and when it happens. Earlier in the books, I can’t remember which book exactly, one of the other wolves imprints on a toddler and then he hangs out with her all the time and basically plans to just wait for her to grow up (the more I describe it the more weirded out I get). Right before Bella has her baby she tells Jacob that they got off track at some point and that there must be another reason for them to be so close……so you kind of know what is coming. It didn’t bother me too much when I read the books because at that point I was so annoyed with the whole story but when you look at just that relationship by itself…[shudder]

  105. LG
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 11:33:34

    @Isobel Carr: Actually, when I was describing the relationship between Afra and Damia, it occurred to me that it’s a bit like the relationship between Jacob and Renesme. Strangely, I found Afra and Damia to be less repugnant, I think because you had time to see Afra develop something more like a friend relatioship with Damia’s mother. Plus, it wasn’t a given that he’d be Damia’s lover right from the start – he didn’t take care of her as a child knowing that they would fall in love later on. That would have just been…ick.

    The Jacob/Renesmee thing is ick because 1) it was literally like the day before he was still jealous in love with Bella, and then suddenly he was imprinted on her child and it was like the feelings he had for Bella had never happened (on everybody’s part – even Bella seemed to forget that she used to maybe be in love with Jacob), and 2) Jacob knows from the moment he meets Renesme that they will end up being lovers at some point. Sure, that’s not what the relationship is like right away, but everyone knows that’s what it will become. And the fact that Jacob’s feelings, wants, and personality could be changed practically like flipping a switch, and Renesme never even had a chance for anything else…all that is just sad to me. Well, a little. I never got to the point where I cared about Renesme, because she never even felt like a person to me, much less like a child, but I did at least kind of care about Jacob (despite his hints of potential abusiveness, explained away as “werewolf rage” – somehow I could never buy that).

  106. HollyY
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 11:52:50


    I don't mind guardian/ward stories as long as I don't feel like there is an abuse of power going on. That, to me, is the primary problem. Usually, that power abuse is signified by a vast difference in age, status, money, etc. and a familial relationship, even if it is one that is not defined by blood-ties.

    Okay – by this definition, most romances are problematic. How many romances have I read where the hero is older, wealthy, and higher class (duke stories anyone)? I’d say possibly 3/4 of them. It may only be 50% but there’s a borderline abuse of power in most historicals.

    Well, actually…all of them when you get right down to it. Until the 20th century most women in most cultures were chattal – to be bought and sold at the whim of their father or brother(s). There’s a huge abuse of power potential in any historical romance. It really is in how skilled the author is in telling her story.

    And frankly, I love this particular trope. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading romance since I was in my twenties and I’m now in my 40s. This was a major favorite for Harlequin Presents line from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. So perhaps that’s where my enjoyment for the trope happened. But then I like historicals and it’s often used in the Regency romances I read back then.

    One of my favorite movies is Gigi – and this is the trope for it…you know…thank heaven for little girls? I mean- whoa – by modern standards anyway. Yet what a HUGE hit this musical/movie has been through the years. Gaston has known Gigi for most of her life then suddenly she is growing into a woman and he falls in love and so does she. Her family is all for it – even though he’s only offering to be her protector not her husband.

    Granted how squicked out you are by this trope varies from reader to reader, but if the guy waits until she’s an “adult” (and in historicals the age of adulthood can vary), then I really don’t have a huge problem with it. And I really liked the Men of August series by Lora Leigh. Those guys were so tortured, they fascinated me.

  107. MB
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 12:18:00

    @srs: Yes, there is that. Frankly, I read it in my teens (and it was quite old then). I loved it then, but if I read it for the first time now, I would view it more critically.

    I tend to make allowances for books that are written with values and attitudes that I would find problematic in books written now. This is one of those books that ‘gets a pass’ for me.

    I do remember that controlling aspect made me feel angry and manipulated by him. So at least, I was aware enough at that age to realize that this was not behavior that ‘I’ would accept or appreciate in a man for myself.

  108. MB
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 12:35:12

    This is such an interesting discussion! I keep thinking of books that might qualify.

    This is an oldie: Elswyth Thane in her Williamsburg Series has a set of first cousins that fall in love, real true forever love, not just attraction. They are compelled by their families not to take it any further and to separate for life (if I remember correctly.) I think it is the one titled “Kissing Kin”. Frankly this book was totally an anti-romance for me. I was not really rooting for them getting together–first cousins are awfully close IMO, but it really was unpleasant as a reader having them left to accept someone lesser or live alone forever.

  109. kate Pearce
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 12:43:45

    I don’t mind Guardian/ward stories as long as the balance of power feels right to me, And to be honest, I’m reading ‘fiction’, and sometimes I want to read a good book by a good author who can write something I can enjoy without worrying about the real world.

    Being English, I don’t get the cousin marrying angst either and don’t even blink if I read it.

  110. Nicole
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 23:41:41

    I don’t mind the Guardian/Ward trope, so long as the relationship is never portrayed as familial (in that, he raised her and cared for her as a daughter).

    This one pops up a LOT in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction, and I find it disturbing there as it is *very* specifically pointed out in the series that Giles, the guardian figure, has “a father’s love for the girl.”

  111. Isabel Cooper
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 09:10:25

    Nicole: Back when I read more fanfic, I could deal with the Buffy/Giles pairing–not my favorite pairing, but I like het, like Giles, don’t like Joyce, so wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice–and I think the usual take on that line in the B/G fandom was to say that Travers was talking out of his ass. As he often did. ;)

  112. Karla
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 12:02:32

    I don’t mind the ward/guardian trope. Since I have a thing for May/December stuff anyway, I tend to read it through that prism. The “family feeling” angle usually doesn’t play that big a part in my enjoyment or lack thereof. But more than ward/guardian, I like mentor/protegee which also deals with control issues.

    As for the Men of August series, I read the first one recently and had a blast. It was practically MST3K material and I haven’t wiped away so many tears of laughter in my life as a reader. XD The only time I was O__o was at the end where Marly kinda got bullied into the threesome. Otherwise, I LMAO at the “brother dick rubbing” DP psychotherapy premise.

  113. Lindsay
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 13:42:14

    @Sylvia Sybil: I was never bothered by the Daine/Numair relationship, even though large age gaps usually squick me to no end. I think part of that was the relative mental age – Numair may know more than Daine, but behaviour-wise he’s very much a big kid, whereas Daine is quite grown-up for her age. It doesn’t carry the same “I know better than you, little one” tone than many stories with these age gaps seem to have. They are also partners as much as teacher and student by the time romantic feelings get involved. His worry for her in the first book didn’t strike me as having anything to do with romantic feelings, which I always saw as developing in the third book.

    Someone else mentioned that a character in a later series is squicked by the Daine/Numair relationship, but I think it’s worth noting that the person who feels this way is Neal, who fancies himself in love with Daine, and is speaking out of jealousy.

  114. Sherry Thomas
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 14:01:25

    I wonder if this is the reason my H/H are always close in age. They are never more than 5 years apart and sometimes a lot closer. Perhaps in my head I am equating closeness of age with parity of power, and therefore also equating great disparity in age with great imbalance of power.

  115. SS
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 15:08:05

    @Lindsay: I totally agree with you about Daine and Numair. In my eyes, they never had a parent-child relationship, or really a guardian-ward relationship, and he doesn’t become attracted to her until she is almost 17, (and she’s like 14 when they meet, not 12) which, as Pierce points out on her website, makes her an adult in, say, medieval standards. And I don’t think he’s actually in his 30s–I thought he was at first, but he’s actually in his late 20s, I think, according to some official timeline or something.

  116. AB
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 20:13:36

    @SS: I’m almost embarrassed that I know this but I was a huge huge Tamora Pierce fangirl.

    Numair himself states his exact age in The Realms of the Gods as 30. There is a 14 year difference between them, because she is 16 in the last book. In each book, she is one year older. This puts her at 12-13 in the first book.

    I think the squick factor really depends on whether you viewed their relationship as guardian-ward from the first book. Some, like yourself, did not, so it doesn’t bother you at all. In hindsight, I do mentally kick myself that I didn’t pick up the hints that were there in Emperor’s Mage, but I didn’t. I read their relationship as purely platonic/familial love, and though I know the arguments for it mentally (yes, this is probably how things worked in their times), it still bothers me.

    I am glad that Pierce didn’t marry them off right away. I think by the time that they do marry, Daine’s in her twenties, and that does sit better with me.

    But as always with shipping, YMMV.

  117. Patricia Briggs
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 22:25:55

    You know, there was a Dick Francis (he wrote horse racing mysteries with a dab of romance in most) novel, in which the hero was in love with his cousin, a classical singer. She wouldn’t look at him because he was her cousin and she felt they were too closely related — and that’s where the tension in the romance was. Terrific book, I’m pretty sure that it was NERVE.

    I’ve mostly run into the guardian/ward or close relative relationships with historical romances — in which there is a cultural disparity of power between men and women anyway. It only squicks me out when the characters view themselves as father/daughter or brother/sister and that is the source of their attraction. Ick.

    On the other hand, what might be my all-time favorite romance ever, Laura London’s The Gypsy Heiress, was a guardian romance. The werewolf hunt scene with laudanum-soaked meat was awesome.

    Mary Stewart used the cousin/cousin relationships in a lot of her gothic romances — The Ivy Tree, Touch Not the Cat, The Gabriel Hounds just off the top of my head. Some of her books really feel dated, but The Ivy Tree (the first adult romance I ever read) is still awesome.

    Totally agree with Lindsay in post 113. Numair and Daine really felt like they were mentally the same age and the emotional power between them was balanced. Romance worked for me. Tamora Pierce rocks. Another age imbalanced romance that worked for me in fantasy was in Barbara Hambly’s Time of the Dark trilogy.

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