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As was reported last week, urban fantasy is on the rise. More and more UF books are being published and these books are increasingly being marketed toward the romance reader. These books are commonly referred to as part of the cross over genre. There is a boon and a curse for romance readers with the rise of urban fantasy. The boon is that we are getting rich, fully developed other world stories. The curse is that fantasy/magic/ghost romance books that would have been acceptable in the past no longer are palatable. I find myself searching out more and more urban fantasy / fantasy stories from non traditional romance publishers like EOS, Tor, Roc/Ace (the latter being my favorite). I admit it, I am cheating on the romance genre.
My early straying
Perhaps one of the earliest cross over books was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series which melded time travel, romance, and historical fiction and gained readers who appreciated each aspect. One of the mothers of the cross over genre would have to be Laurell K Hamilton. She spawned a whole sub genre of books that were narrated in the first person by an action heroine and seeded the urban fantasy roots in the romance genre.
I found Laurell K Hamilton via a review at All About Romance of Blue Moon in 2002. I glommed the backlist of LKH which had the lurid dark carnival covers as I referred to them. (Hamilton’s new books have a weird thriller like look to them. I laugh at the response that some of the fans of thrillers are going to give upon reading the gang banging that is inside the new tepid covers).
Jan fed my newfound addiction.
Laurell K Hamilton led me to ask Jan for more recommendations. She gave me Robin McKinley’s Sunshine and Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. Jan, my fantasy guide, finally led me to Patricia Briggs’ Hurog series (Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood). She also encouraged me to read George RR Martin which I did and I loved but he’s not really cross over material. I found Kelley Armstrong, Charlaine Harris, Ilona Andrews, Laura Resnick and I couldn’t go back.
It was clear to me that I had only two choices and that was to follow Jan into a complete abandonment of romance or to continue to keep romance as my main gal but see urban fantasy/fantasy as my furtive secret date. I choose the latter. But like any affair, the struggle to keep my loves separate was as futile as refraining from dipping my oreos in milk.
My season of discontent
Since I have become more fully immersed in the urban fantasy and cross over books, I find myself becoming increasingly impatient with books directed toward the romance reader that are really fantasy-lite. My least favorite stories are those with witches, ghosts, and psychics. These are traditional romance staples but I find them to be unsatisfying because their worlds are not fully realized. Too often, I see an author giving her character a psychic power that no one else has but providing no explanation for that power. Or perhaps the character is a witch and can do special things, like twitch her nose and transform her loved one into a newt. But when other authors are creating full worlds bound by myths and belief systems and power structures, the mere magic maker falls flat for me.
I think my love for the drama and the otherworld is the reason that historicals are my favorite romances. For me, the Ton, the Scottish Highlands, and all that went with those books are otherworlds. When people talk about the wallpaper historical, I think that they mean that the book doesn’t present a fully realized world. The ghost, magician, psychic stories all too often read like wallpaper fantasy stories where the outward trappings might be there for one character but there is little use of the fantastic to move the story.
I know that if I hadn’t read these cross over books, if I hadn’t been exposed to those who can seamlessly blend romance tropes with fantastic otherworld visions, I wouldn’t be so uber critical of these old style romance fantasy stories. But I can’t turn back the page. I’ve been exposed and I’ve caught the cross over genre fever. I’ve drunk the kool aid and now regular romance fantasy themes do not move me. The best recipe for success for me is a) a fully realized world and b) an emotional conflict that arises out of that world.
I’m not ready to leave romance behind but in this one area, I’m not sure if the traditional romance genre is keeping pace with me. C.L. Wilson is definitely a step in the right direction. I thought JR Ward was until she totally blew up her myth building with the last book (how can Jane be a ghost and no one else aka Wellsie? Why does John get reborn and no one else ala Jane or Wellsie? Why does the Scribe Virgin have to solve every frickin’ problem? Where’s the mystery there? //rant off). Lara Adrian has a fully realized story. I love her use of the dermaglyphs (tattoos) to show the moods of the vampires (their skin, it’s a mood ring). Ursula Bauer, an author for Samhain, is noted by Keishon to have great world building.
Who else in the romance genre has the world building skillz? Do you find yourself more picky about the fantasy romances than you have in the past? Why or why not? Is romance keeping pace with your tastes? Or are you satisfying your reading desires elsewhere? Are you cheating like me?