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Am I Cheating on Romance?

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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?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She 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

56 Comments

  1. Jia
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 05:24:38

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head as to why many fantasy romances fail to work for me. I’m predominantly a fantasy reader so I’m very demanding about worldbuilding because that’s the foundation of the genre. This isn’t to say that the fantasy genre doesn’t have books with weak worldbuilding, however. It certainly does.

    I try to keep an open mind, though, because I know the fantasy tropes that I consider cliche and unoriginal are often fresh and different to the average romance reader. If there’s something else going on in the book — a strong plot, interesting characters, etc — I’ll forgive weak worldbuilding.

    This might be why the last J.R. Ward book did not bother me as much as it did most other readers because I never considered her good at worldbuilding. At all. I thought she was inconsistent from the very beginning, that the Scribe Virgin has always been a walking deus ex machina, and that her mythos changed from book to book. Unfortunately, I seem to be addicted to her particular brand of kool aid and can’t seem to stop reading her books despite knowing all this.

  2. Lee Benoit
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 07:06:44

    It’s funny: when I read romances, I feel a guilty little frisson because I’m cheating on my main genres, fantasy and gay fiction. The thing is, a lot of the most compelling new writing that melds homoerotic and fantasy elements is being written and marketed to romance audiences, a savvy move if there ever was one. So for me, the conventions that many seem chestnutty or cliche to romance readers often delight me. The other thing I’ve had to learn is that much of the best stuff in my tripod of crossovers is electronically published (popular fantasy authors and fantastic world builders like Lynn Flewelling often don’t take the gay romance far enough to please me, which I don’t mean in a prurient way, honestly!). But non-traditionally published works like Ann Somerville’s Pindone Files and Manna Francis’ Administration series have the whole package: incredibly imaginative and consistent world building, a believable gay sensibility, and a romance that enhances and enlivens (but doesn’t derail) the plot. The extra work of finding these and other works online is more than worth it in satisfying reading. Just don’t tell the mainstream fantasies gathering dust on my bookshelf!

  3. Charlene Teglia
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 07:17:30

    I read fantasy and SF before I read romance. Right now I’m reading more urban fantasy and manga (Bleach!) not just for the worlds, but for the conflicts and stakes. Honestly, I think I gravitated to erotic romance because of the melding with fantasy and SF and UF elements.

  4. DS
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 07:28:51

    SFF was my first love. And I think that I fell in love with Heyer because she did write about a coherent alternate world. Dorothy Dunnett dragged me into her world of the 16th century. Then there was Roberta Gellis’ Medieval world. I haven’t actually managed to get to Gabaldon’s Outlander series although I really like the Lord John books. But I rarely even try anything labeled paranormal or futuristic romance these days. My walls are pockmarked due to my reaction to earlier examples.

    I’ve always liked the books I read to have a strong romantic element but I want the romance to be as fresh and interesting and intregal as the rest of the book not just tacked on to satisfy some sort of genre requirement.

  5. Mallika
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 07:35:13

    I have to mention that — similar to DS — fantasy (and to a lesser extent, science fiction) is my first love. However, I have loved and enjoyed romances ever since I stumbled upon my first one: Maggie Osborne’s book, THE WIVES OF BOWIE STONE (I could not have asked for a better introduction to the genre!).

    I’m also in the same place you are. I find myself much more critical of romances these days, especially those with any kind of fantastical element, due to the surge of extremely good urban fantasies. There are several books that would have garnered praise from me in the past but that now seem to fall quite flat. Sometimes when I’m reading a traditional romance (i.e., one that doesn’t have any kind of magic or fantasy attached to it), I find myself getting distracted and wishing there was something more.

    I measure romances to a different set of standards than I used to do. I think perhaps the bar has been raised significantly in certain portions, and things that I didn’t really expect from a romance novel (i.e., great world building) are now seemingly the norm and thus something that I DO expect. As time passes, I find myself judging romances with more and more of the same rulers that I use for science fiction/fantasy.

    Then again, I haven’t really picked up a non-fantasy-type romance in quite a long time, having become so addicted to urban fantasies and the like, so I guess it’s not that much of a surprise.

  6. GrowlyCub
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 07:45:42

    Interesting essay. I think the only UF I’ve read have been Wen Spencer’s Ukiah books and I really liked the first 3 but never read number 4 even though I bought it as soon as it came out.

    Paranormal (and I include UF in that) just doesn’t do it for me. Too much outside plot, not enough inside character development, so to me the rise of UF/Paranormal/Suspense, etc. in romance is really regrettable because they take away slots from straight contemps that give me the kind of read I’m looking for.

    I’ve always read widely in SF, some Fantasy, and Romance and I go to each genre for different things. I guess I’m atypical as cross-over really does not appeal to me at all, matter of fact turns me off mightly.

  7. Lorelie
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 07:54:13

    Man, this is why I lurve you Jane. You pluck the mish-mash of swirling opions from my head and lay them out orderly.

    For a long while, I’ve believed I didn’t like magic in my reading material. It bugged the hell out of me, often seemed like an easy out for a situation. Or something added just for the hell of it. If the magic was attached to paranormal creatures, I could usually choke it down. But a random person, with no explanation of *why* this person was speshul? Couldn’t stand it. My friends learned not to hand me books that were heavy on the magic.

    But lately I’ve been hopping from the Romance pool into the Urban Fantasy hot tub. And several times I’ve found myself thinking “This is so magic-y! But it works!” I don’t think of this as cheating, per se. While Romance and I have been involved in a significant relationsip for a while, neither of us have been completely faithful to each other. After all, Romance ran off and started dallying with those Vampires first.

  8. LizJ
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:04:49

    I also read SF&F long before romance, so a jump into urban fantasy/paranormals didn’t seem to be such a big thing.

    The problem I’m running into now is the overload. Too many people doing books with far too similar world building, characters and plots. I’m to the point where I want to avoid any vampire stories that aren’t by Stephenie Meyer, Charlaine Harris, J.R. Ward (at least for a book or two more, and I hated the ghost-thing), and a few others. And the shape-shifter/werewolf stories are not too far behind.

    I was surprised that Marjorie M. Liu hasn’t been mentioned yet. Despite her world building similarity to that of the X-Men (for which she used to write fan fiction and has written one series novel), she is one urban fantasy author whose work continues to pull me in. Perhaps it is because the story in each of her novels seems very different from the last, despite the common plot elements and style. Maybe it’s because vampires don’t exist (at least so far) in her world, and while shape-shifters do, they’re presented very differently than in most paranormals.

  9. Jill Myles
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:11:06

    It’s weird because I seem to be heading in the opposite direction. I used to read equal parts of SFF and Romance, and lately I find the scale skewing heavily towards more romance. Of course, I used to thrive on a LONG doorstop of a read, and now I lean toward much shorter books. So I think on my end, it’s a general impatience. I don’t want the book to take 100 pages to set up the world and the conflict. Drop me into it right away. UF is mostly successful with this, and I honestly feel like romance *always* is.

  10. Barbara B.
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:13:36

    GrowlyCub said-
    “I've always read widely in SF, some Fantasy, and Romance and I go to each genre for different things. I guess I'm atypical as cross-over really does not appeal to me at all, matter of fact turns me off mightly.”

    This is almost my exact same experience and feelings, GrowlyCub, with the exception that I never enjoyed fantasy much.

    LizJ said-
    “The problem I'm running into now is the overload. Too many people doing books with far too similar world building, characters and plots.”

    I’ve had the same problem with paranormals and UF. Loved them both initially but within 6 months it all started feeling like the same story written over and over again but by different authors.

  11. Mireya
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:26:25

    Well, I don’t like urban fantasy at all. I do like paranormal romance. Go figure.

    I don’t appreciate it when an urban fantasy is mixed with the paranormals in the romance section. There are substantial differences between one and the other and frankly, it pisses the Hell out of me when I pick a book being touted as “paranormal” only to find out once I get home that the book is in reality urban fantasy. I can’t even stand urban fantasy with some romance in it. Nowadays I am forced to do in depth research before I purchase anything paranormal for that reason. Ironically, I’ve read complaints from fantasy and science fiction readers online about all the “romance” paranormals now found in the fantasy/science-fiction section of their favorite bookstores. I’ve found myself doing quite a bit of “enlightening” on that regard. Non romance lovers tend to call urban fantasy “romance paranormals”. *shrug*

    I don’t think you are cheating, btw. We are readers. We like different sorts of fiction. That being said, compared to you, I am wearing diapers (figuratively speaking) as it pertains to reading romance. I have only been reading romance since 2003, so that means I would have to read, non-stop, for the next decade or so, to be able to catch up with most of you ;) I do have a lot of ground to cover, hence, I still find romance that truly appeals to me. Additionally, I am not much of a fan of detailed “world creation”. “World creation” has to be fed to me gently and in small doses at a time or I feel that I am being cheated from having a love story that I expect to be the central part of the book. Though I’ve learned to appreciate “world creation” a bit more as of late, as I’ve gotten hooked on Emma Holly’s Demon World series, or Robin D. Owens Heart Quest series. Yes, they are definitely romance, but each book adds a bit to the worlds the authors started in those series, without overwhelming me with information that distracts me from the actual romantic plot. I can deal with that.

    Anyway, maybe a few years from now, I’ll get hooked on urban fantasy. At this point, I just don’t care about it. All I want is romance.

    I do have friends, though, that are reading more and more urban fantasy because, just like you, they feel that romance is not giving them what they want from their reading material… which is basically what we all seek in our reading material after all: a well written engrossing read.

  12. GrowlyCub
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:28:14

    Barbara,

    while I read quite a bit of Fantasy as a teen/young adult, the only Fantasy I read nowadays is Bujold’s and even so it’s not a favorite genre, more following this particular author wherever she goes.

    The Sharing Knife: Legacy had one of the most fabulous love scenes I’ve read in a long time. Just fabulous. It made me laugh and left this warm fuzzy, glowy feeling that I crave.

    True connection, which is so sadly absent in many ‘modern’ romance novels that concentrate on appealing to cross over audiences.

  13. BevQB
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:44:07

    Interesting and eerie. Much of what you said seems pulled right out of my own mind, Jane. My reading has become predominantly paranormal/urban fantasy or historical with almost nothing in between. And, like you, I read very few books featuring witches, ghosts, and psychics. Or demons. Please, PLEASE spare me from more demons. I also find that many paranormal romances seem like urban fantasy-lite, but, for me, they can make up for the lack of 3-dimensional world building by creating memorable characters and erotic scenes.

    Lately though, I’ve found that I’m growing bored with paranormal/urban fantasy, even series I’ve enjoyed in the past. I’ve even begun cutting out some previously auto-buy authors because I buy their books then leave them to collect dust in my TBR mountain. They are starting to seem too similar and I’m starting to weary of finding something different and unique within those genres. So, eventually this weeding out process should leave me with just the best of best in paranormal/urban fantasy, the ones I truly enjoy and have booklust for.

    I am still enjoying the fantasy stories though. Like LKH’s Merry Gentry series. KMM’s Fever series. Maybe I should explain that I think of paranormal/urban fantasy as the more traditional vampires, werewolves, witches, etc. and I place the modern fae stories under the genre of fantasy even though they could also qualify as urban fantasy under most definitions of the genre.

    Anyhow, I’m enjoying many of these books that combine the complex world building of urban fantasy with all the complex fae lore. There’s a lot of potential there, particularly since fae legends are so contradictory that there is little reason for any two authors to write the same stories.

  14. Belinda
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:46:42

    “When people talk about the wallpaper historical, I think that they mean that the book doesn't present a fully realized world.”

    I’ve always used that term to mean modern people with contemporary language and ideas in long dresses (or tailcoats, depending upon gender and cross-dressing predilections) riding in carriages. In other words, characters who don’t react believably within the setting provided them, rather than an incomplete setting. Wallpaper fantasy sounds as though it’s the other way ’round.

  15. Leah
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:49:00

    With a few clinch-covered exceptions in the ’80′s, I was introduced to romance via chick lit about 6 yrs ago, and have been branching out a little this past year. Still, unless you count Harry Potter and the Susan Cooper Dark is Rising Series I read as a kid, I have never really gotten into SF/F…. I tried, I really did, ’cause all the geeks are supposed to dig it, but I can’t do Tolkein, or dragons, or vampires or UF. I do love ghost stories, and romances involving ghosts, so long as they are at least a little creepy (I’ve been rereading some old Barbara Michaels, and she’s hit-or-miss). But reading is a journey–our tastes changes and evolve and devolve over and over again in our lifetimes. Or maybe it’s a supermarket where, if you spend all of your money in one aisle, you can end up bored and a little malnourished. Whatever it is, you shouldn’t feel guilty for following your reading bliss!

  16. Sherry Thomas
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 08:50:05

    Good Lord, what is all this talk of cheating?

    I think of it more as going out to eat. I might eat Italian one day, Chinese next, Tex-Mex the third. I’m not cheating on anybody. I’m spreading my love around! :-)

  17. (Jān)
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 09:00:24

    Yay, it’s all my fault!

    And wasn’t this just clearly illustrated by Luna’s first year of books? The better ones were all by fantasy writers, and the lesser by romance writers. The romance writers’ talents didn’t translate into that crossover area. But too, the fantasy writers didn’t always provide a satisfying romance.

    It’s not all that unexpected really. Every writer has her strengths, and most won’t be able to do both well. But I too long for those who do.

  18. Keishon
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 09:49:49

    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

    I find this true for me, too. I am really exicted about urban fantasy today. I just added Charlaine Harris to my list of favorites.

  19. Maura
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:06:07

    I read romantic fiction. I read science fiction and fantasy. Twenty years ago, urban fantasy was called science fiction.

    I have to argue with anyone who makes sweeping statements about loving romance and urban fantasy but has now decided that fantasy, magic and ghosts stories are no longer thier tastes. Your augument being that thier world building is not on a par to the other urban fantasies. You are generalizing some bad world building to every author that may write with those particualar story lines.

    There are authors who have not, do not and can not build realistic worlds. Many of them write bad romance and bad urban fantasy. I love vampire and shifter novels, but I have read some absolute tripe in my foray in the search for the cream of those genres. I started reading Laurell K when she was a new author, and followed her. Just as I continue to find new authors who write wonderful stories.

    Using your analogy of what is palatable, I believe you have set aside what can be a dark and decandent dishes or richly developed flavors as a main course.

    When a reader begins to slush pile based on a plot line that was poorly explored or developed by a book they’ve read and didn’t like, then they may never find the one story that defines what is best about the genre.

    If the great percentage of reviews for a debut author are excellent, do you continue to refuse to read the book because it is a fantasy or ghost story? Do you simply say it’s not your taste, when you may not have tried this particular dish. how do you know the texture, the spices or the potential addiction to that author.

    I am a long time reader and the big lesson I learned was to be open to the written word. It can transport you almost anywhere if the writing is good enough. It’s the writer,not the genre that determines a novels worth.

    I understand your frustration, ten years ago, I found very little of what I considered worthy books. The infux of urban fantasy has overwhelmed the usual romance. Perhaps the reason you are finding so little in the way of straight romance right now is because publishers are choosing urban fantasy to put on the shelves.

    On the amazon reader loops, they are complaining about the amount of poorly written urban fantasy on the shelves. It’s funny how everyone has thier opinions. Thanks for listening to mine.

  20. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:14:53

    SFF was my first love. And I think that I fell in love with Heyer because she did write about a coherent alternate world.

    I too started as a SFF reader, and I have to admit that most paranormal romances don’t seem to work for me, and it’s usually due to poor (or lack of) world-building. Makes me crazy when the world/magic/etc. just doesn’t make any damn sense, or when book one contradicts book two, and then the whole premise gets twisted around to make the storyline in book three work.

    One of the reasons I’m drawn to historical romance, however, is the world-building that the subgenre requires (clearly DS and I are alike in this aspect). So I don’t think it’s an either-or issue, unless you’re saying you’re only drawn to SSF/paranormal-based story lines.

    And I can't say I'm always satisfied with UF, either. McKinley's Sunshine is a brilliant 3/4′s of a book. Sadly, that's all it is: 3/4′s of a damn book! And, having been a long-time McKinley fan, I know it's highly unlikely that she's going to go back to the world and give us another book that ties up all the dangling plot threads . . .

  21. Jennifer Estep
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:15:53

    I started out reading epic fantasy by Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and Tolkien. Reading them led me to want to write, to create my own worlds and characters. So fantasy has always been a love of mine.

    I didn’t really discover urban fantasy or paranormal romance until I got serious about writing/publishing and joined RWA a few years back. Now, I’m quizzing my significant other about the difference between the two!

    I’ve been really pleased with the increasing popularity of both UF and PR. I love visiting other people’s worlds and seeing their interpretations of archetypes and mythology, no matter what level of romance there is.

    I recently finished writing two urban fantasy books that I hope to turn into two series. One thing I like about writing the UF books is they give me the opportunity to stay with a single character longer and watch her grow and change and kick butt. Branching out into a related genre from PR has also really helped me stretch and improve as a writer. Dig deeper, as it were.

    And I agree with Liz — I consider Marjorie Liu more UF than PR. She’s just a great writer, no matter what tag you put on her.

    And I don’t consider it cheating at all. A good book is a good book. Give me more, more, more, no matter the genre! :-)

  22. shuzluva
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:16:55

    Jane, I’m thrilled to see that you’ve delved into one of my favorite topics. Like DS, scifi/fantasy was a first love of mine, and I’ve only fallen deeper in love with that particular genre. When I began to read cross overs (urban/scifi with romance), I was so happy I thought the squee could be heard in space.

    I won’t repeat the quote Keishon pulled above, but please note that I third her statement. Fantasy lite feels like a diet cookie; ultimately it is totally unsatisfying and I realize I would have been happier with one of the full fat ooey-gooey cookies rather than ten of the diet ones. I ended up reading Lara Adrian’s series because of your review, and am totally hooked on Nalini Singh’s series as well. I still read JR Ward with the fervent hope that something will click, but I know in my heart of hearts I’ve been let down.

    Being a lover of strong urban fantasy (meaning hardcore worldbuilding and evocative conflict), I’ve found that there are times when I enjoy pure historical and contemporary romance all the better because of this. Would you consider that cheating?

  23. DS
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:22:55

    I love a good creepy ghost story but a story has to be extraordinary when the hero/heroine is the ghost. (OK, I adored Elswyth Thane’s novel Tryst but I’m having trouble coming up with another one– and Tryst was written way before Romance was a genre.)

  24. Mel
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 10:26:44

    I actually had the opposite experience with UF. I took a ten-year hiatus from the romance genre and read mostly SFF and mystery. And then I stumbled across all these great authors who were crossing and blending genres like Tanya Huff and Charlaine Harris and early Laurell K Hamilton. Those ladies brought me back.

    (Oh, and LizJ, I love Marjorie Liu too!)

  25. Peyton
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 11:04:14

    I’ve been reading both SFF and Romance for over 30 years and I was initially excited when Romance first delved into SF and then later Paranormal. I soon learned to regret the day I ever thought SF/Paranormal Romance was a good idea.

    Thank you for expressing so clearly my problem with PR. It seemed to me, very early on, that when it comes to Romance the paranormal aspect seemed tacked on. As if the very same book could have been written in any sub-genre with a few changes in the details.

    Today I devour Urban Fantasy, and I’d like to put a word in for Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden and Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series. I’m also still avidly reading Romance. I need something to read between UR books since they aren’t published nearly fast enough for me. I’m sticking to Regency, as you said, for the world building.

  26. GrowlyCub
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 11:09:18

    Maura,

    I see what you are saying, but I don’t necessarily agree. For example, I know I don’t like certain spices, so I do not eat certain cuisines that favor them. Am I perhaps missing out on some great menu items, sure, but the chances of finding the few things I might like totally do not make up for the high likelihood that I will not enjoy pretty much everything I sample.

    Going back to books. I’ve tried a few PR/paranormal erotica, UF, and other cross-over titles like women’s fiction and chick lit, and the non romance elements always turned me off and not because the writing was bad. Just not my cup of tea. I’d keep thinking what a great story it could have been if it hadn’t had all that extraneous stuff in it.

    At some point I decided it was just not worth it. Only so much time, which doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally stray. :)

    As a general rule I also do not read historicals any longer (I really disliked the dumbing down/fluff that started happening in the mid- to late 90s and pretty much bowed out of (new) romance reading for about 6-7 years until last June).

    Interestingly enough, I did just read a historical romance (Balogh’s Web of Love, because a discussion on RRA-l made me curious) and had a rip-roaring time with it. Good stuff and I’ll be looking for some more, but I should probably mention that it was originally published in 1990 and while I have picked up a bunch of new to me authors and current releases, I find the romance books that appeal most to me are more often than not older backlist titles.

    Now, on the erotica/erotic romance side of things I’ve found some real treasures (Jules Jones, Anne Douglas, J.L. Langley) and to a degree it seems that the things I crave (emotional connection, character development) can be found more easily in well-written erotica nowadays than in romance.

  27. Jan
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 11:58:38

    I’ve been thinking many of the same things others have mentioned here–especially regarding paranormal romance and urban fantasy. I grew up reading mostly SFF and mysteries. I only began reading romance a few years ago and for awhile read nothing else. However, even then I stayed away from the paranormals because they were so frustrating.

    Today I’m reading lots of UF and fewer and fewer romances. Most of my favorite authors right now are SFF–Charlaine Harris, Patricia Briggs, Elizabeth Moon, Tanya Huff, Rachel Caine, C. L. Wilson, Emma Bull (War for the Oaks), Stephanie Meyer, Keri Arthur, Steve Miller & Sharon Lee, early LKH with a few romance authors sprinkled in (Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, Lisa Kleypas, Jennifer Crusie). What I do look for in the books I read besides a great story is a relationship between the characters.

  28. Shannon C.
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 12:33:00

    Like a lot of otherws here, my first love was fantasy and science fiction. I came to urban fantasy via Charles de Lint, and only after *that* did I start reading more romance. I, too, am a fairly new romance reader, and at the moment I’m not bored by any genre yet. I am sad, though, that I don’t have time to get into those huge doorstopper epic fantasies, though. I miss them, but given the rest of the stuff on my plate, I just don’t have time.

  29. Jordan Summers
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 12:33:01

    I just blogged about this very thing on RTB. I felt like I was cheating on romance, but realized there’s no going back now. UF/YA has hooked me and everything else pales by comparison. Maybe I’ll eventually burn myself out on the genre, but it’ll be a while. I’m enjoying myself too much, which means I’m reading very little romance these days.

  30. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 12:43:55

    I admit I haven’t read much urban fantasy, and have yet to find a book I absolutely adore in that genre. I liked, but didn’t love Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark. Couldn’t get into Harris’s Living Dead in Dallas. I did very much enjoy Patricia Briggs’ Moon Called. Maybe I just need to read more in this genre than I have.

    But in the days before I discovered romance review sites, I did get jaded where romances were concerned for a while there, and I did do some cheating myself. Urban fantasy wasn’t big yet in those days, but a lot of my reading at that time was its cousin, liteary fantasy, also known as “magical realism.” A lot of my reading then was of short stories, and I would read authors like Italo Calvino, Alan Lightman, Judy Budnitz, and George Saunders. I don’t think I’ve read anything that has better world-building than Saunders’ hilarious and poignant short story “Sea Oak,” (the story can be found, free of charge, here), or a more vivid evocation of a different reality than Budnitz’s powerful, Twilight Zone like, “Dog Days” (which is also available free on the web, here).

    Eventually I found my way back to romance, though, and now that I review for DA, I’m as faithful as I’ve ever been.

    Here are my thoughts on world-building. While I think consistent rules are certainly more helpful to suspending disbelief than inconsistencies in the world-building, I also don’t think it’s the explanations for the superpowers or the mythology that makes a world more convincing — to me as one reader, at least. You can poke holes in any world’s mythology and any character’s parnormal abilities, including Shakespeare’s.

    So I think it’s the use of detail, and the mixing of realism amidst the fantasy. For example, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s YA fantasy novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, which I love to bits, she creates a seafaring world. And for me, it was the little details of the physical labor of sailing, the physical strain of the main character’s muscles, the sweat that formed on his skin, that made me believe in that world as much as anything.

    I think that any writing requires world-building, in the sense that every book has its world. And I would postulate that whether it is urban fantasy or paranomal romance or historical fiction or contemporary mystery, the writer has to mix elements of the fantastical (whatever it is they are making up), with elements of a reality that makes the world and the characters recognizable to readers. That balance between fantasy and reality is the part that has to work for the reader, and doesn’t always.

    To answer your question of who else in the romance genre (besides the authors that you named) writes paranormal romances with good world-building — I thought Meljean Brook’s world-building was good, and I love the world that Shana Abe has created in her historical paranormal drakon series.

  31. (Jān)
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 13:34:53

    Janine, I agree with much of what you say about world building. But what I see as the problem that many romance writers have with building a fantasy world is that they don’t really think about it. They pull from this book and that movie because they like various elements, and don’t stop to think if it truly meshes. And then when I sit down and start slogging through it, I just get thrown by the incongruity of it all.

    It’s like someone putting a medieval warrior in a Regency drawing room. Sure, a writer can do that if she wants. But if she doesn’t want readers to throw the book, she’d best be writing a story that makes that entirely plausible.

  32. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 14:08:34

    Jan, I do see your point. It’s true that some parnormal romances just seem like a mish mash of stuff that doesn’t mesh very well. So yes, it helps if the writer thinks through the rules of their world and makes sure that it is consistent.

    But by the same token, I’ve also seen books where the world is put together fairly well from a consistency standpoint but something else is missing, and that that spell is broken for me. And I also think it is possible to overdo the explanations of superpowers and the mythologies, to a point where the characters drown in all that stuff and I don’t feel much emotional connection with them.

    So I guess that like everything else in life, it is all about balance.

  33. (Jān)
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 14:16:05

    I don’t think world building is about explanations either. It’s about, as you say, adding the right amount of detail. But crucial to that detail is consistency. Writers don’t need to put the system of religion on a page unless it’s necessary for the reader to understand the story. But if a writer refers to anything religious, they’d darn well better think of the repercussions of the choice they’ve made.

  34. Kalen Hughes
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 14:20:55

    But what I see as the problem that many romance writers have with building a fantasy world is that they don't really think about it. They pull from this book and that movie because they like various elements, and don't stop to think if it truly meshes. And then when I sit down and start slogging through it, I just get thrown by the incongruity of it all.

    That’s what I was trying to say, but Jan said it SO MUCH BETTER!

  35. Janine
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 14:44:24

    I don't think world building is about explanations either. It's about, as you say, adding the right amount of detail. But crucial to that detail is consistency. Writers don't need to put the system of religion on a page unless it's necessary for the reader to understand the story. But if a writer refers to anything religious, they'd darn well better think of the repercussions of the choice they've made.

    I can certainly agree with that.

  36. Rachel
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 14:50:20

    Loved this post, Jane! Like you, I started out with romance and have found myself increasingly getting into SFF. I think LKH was the starting point for me (but not anymore, because- blech), but now Anne Bishop, Kelley Armstrong, Lois McMaster-Bujold, and George R.R. Martin are now all on my Keeper’s Shelf, although I agree that Martin is not much of a crossover. He is, however, AWESOME.

    As far as world-building goes, I’m always awed by Meljean Brooks’s stuff. I think her world-building is damn near flawless, namely because it makes sense but never feels like an info dump. That’s a tall order!

  37. B
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 15:09:02

    You know, I only noticed the classification “romantic” on certain fantasy books a short time ago. My first reaction to it was to be worried. After all, I thought, I was seeing this word applied to books that I wouldn’t have for a moment thought of as romances. And when I write fantasy, relationships are an important (but far from primary) element of my work. I thought, what if my stories end up classified as “romantic” fantasy someday? That wasn’t what they were.

    I admit, I still have yet to see a real cohesiveness as to what is termed “romantic” (as an example, Moira J. Moore’s Resenting the Hero was termed a romantic fantasy, which is so inaccurate it’s not even funny–try satire, marketing peeps). But seeing this, I’m way less worried now. In fact, I’m kind of jealous of the romance genre. Readers of the fantasy genre can be very…well, closed-minded, as something a fellow reviewer of mine said today evidenced.

    It seems that the people here, who have made the cross-over (either from romance to fantasy or vice versa) care about their genres. They don’t want them to get stagnant. So my apologies…it seems I’ve really underestimated you all.

  38. MCHalliday
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 15:12:55

    [The] balance between fantasy and reality is the part that has to work for the reader, and doesn't always.

    This is exactly the premise I held when I outlined my medieval fantasy romance, THE KING’S DAUGHTER. I was compelled to create a world that was historically accurate but also woven with recorded myth. To be further accurate, I decided not to use words beyond Middle English unless spelling or phrasing might confuse a reader.

    I began by researching society in Ireland at the time of the novel, 997 AD and discovered Brehon law. I came to admire the Brehon principles, devised many centuries before the era of the book and knew they played a valid role in my world building.

    Beyond scouring old maps and reading about shelters, food, clothing and clans, I delved into herbs and potions, trees and names of the months as they were in that place and time. I attempted to remain as true to history as possible while creating a world according to my imagination.

    As The King's Daughter is based on the luscious myth and glorious chronicles of Ireland, I therefore mentioned in my author’s note the main resources and acknowledged many historical facts were invaluable in creating my tale.

  39. Michelle
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 15:57:40

    I think I tend to like fantasy with strong romance rather than Urban Fantasy. I do think Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is a classic. I also enjoy Jim Butcher’s Dresden series.

    I like the historical fantasy novels. Mercedes Lackeys and Roberta Gellis have their Elizabethan fantasy series. One of the best books that I don’t hear any buzz about is Patricia Wrede’s Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot. It is awesome-imagine Regency England with magic. It takes place between two cousins/friends who write letters to each other.

  40. GrowlyCub
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 17:35:18

    B brings up an excellent point. Labeling.

    I’ve been getting more and more concerned about the labeling of anything with even the smallest bit of romantic elements or a barely there relationship as ‘romance’.

    Obviously, more than 50% of mass market sold is romance, so the temptation of labeling things as ‘romance’ or ‘romantic’ is attractive to the marketing morons because the idea is that they can lure in all those tasty romance reader dollars. And because romance readers read widely for some of us that will not be a problem, or not much of one.

    However, you knew there had to be one, that’s not true for all of us and I think there might be a backlash after all while. Something to do with truth in advertising, creating expectations and then not fulfilling them.

    One thing that *really* concerns me is that I have lately seen quite a bit of variety in the definition of ‘romance’ and quite a few folks stating emphatically that only Harlequin romance novels are required to have a HEA/HFN. To which I went huh? I’ve read romance novels for over 25 years and I do not know any long time reader of the genre who does not equate the romance label with HEA (or possibly HFN in erotic romance).

    I really wish people wouldn’t label everything ‘romance’ just to make a quick buck.

    I have less of a problem with using ‘romantic’ because I’m smart enough to understand that romantic SF might have a HEA or might not, because the emphasis will probably be on the SF, but don’t label it SF romance and then do not deliver a HEA.

  41. Karen W.
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 18:48:38

    I also started off reading SF/F and was thrilled when time travel, paranormal romance, etc. became very popular and was easy to find. However, after reading a lot of it, it doesn’t satisfy me anymore (I’m not sure if it’s because they’re often simpler reads, less worldbuilding, etc.), and I’ve mostly gone back to urban fantasy (my first love!) and SF/F, so I’ve been cheating on romance too. :-) I still read some of my favorites in paranormal romance and will never completely abandon the genre (I like other kinds of romance too), however.

  42. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 19:04:28

    Anyone for urban gothic?

  43. Ann Somerville
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 19:34:44

    don't label it SF romance and then do not deliver a HEA

    The problem is the publishers, not the authors. I don’t consider my stories ‘traditional romances’ or ‘urban fantasies’ or anything of that kind. I just write about people, build my worlds, spin my ideas. Then I submit to publishers who go, okay, there’s a relationship between guys, no one dies in the end, must be a gay romance. It’s got telepaths and empaths and telekinetics, must be paranormal. And then I’d end up fighting for shelf space with werewolves and vampires screwing each other up and down New York City.

    I love HEA. Almost all my stories have HEA. Are the stories romantic? Hell yes. But I’m just as fascinated by the societies I create and the impact of the superpowers I give my characters. I don’t just want people to read them for the romance. I don’t want people reading just for the sexual content. I want people to find the entire package satisfying and I don’t want to adhere to some rigid idea of what is expected in a particular genre. But then most of my writing’s not intended for publication so I have the luxury of ignoring labels :)

  44. Shiloh Walker
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 20:59:00

    If you’re a cheater, so am I. But in all honestly, I was hooked on fantasy/urban fantasy even before I was hooked on romance.

    It was Bunnicula that did it. That evil little bunny. Followed by Mercedes Lacking in Children of the Night. Then her Valdemar books… But I strayed to romance. Now I happily indulge in both.

  45. Miki
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 21:47:20

    I’ve been reading a lot of urban fantasy, too, and I agree that the experience of what makes the books “magical” does seem to be richer in the urban fantasy books than the paranormal romance ones.

    But I will admit, I’m missing some of the romance aspects. I loved Patricia Brigg’s “Iron Kissed”, but I have to say I was majorly frustrated with how the romantic relationship was resolved – mostly off-screen! I’m certainly not looking for LHK-inspired sex on every other page, but sheesh!

    I do find it interesting, though, that my interest in historical (generally Regency) romance has increased at the same time as my interest in urban fantasy. I never really thought about how there’s as much world building in historicals than in fantasy!

  46. Jane
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 22:26:27

    My “cheating” is tongue in cheek, but I definitely am a more critical reader today than I was years ago. I do think that there are great new romance authors in the paranormal fantasy genre such as Meljean Brook, Nalini Singh. I think that Joey Hill does a great job of blending fantasy, eroticism and romance.

    What I really enjoy, in all of my books, is when the author uses the setting to create the conflict. I.e., when the background is fully integrated into the emotional arc. Judith Ivory was really a master at doing this, taking cultural mores and creating emotional conflict from that. It’s the essence, I think, of the duke/governness pairing or the demon/angel pairing. But to truly capture the tension that those pairings naturally give rise to requires, as Jan says, a thinking about the repercussions of each element that the writer chooses to insert into the story. I think of this as conscious writing, when a writer is fully aware of the word choices and makes conscious decisions as to the portrayal of a particular character from the rhythm of the dialect to the type of attire to the character’s mannerisms.

    All of those are part of the setting, I think, that makes a story rich and real. The more conscious the decisions, the more thoughtful, the more I think that the book will come alive.

  47. Shiloh Walker
    Mar 18, 2008 @ 23:44:38

    Eek…. I just noticed something…

    Followed by Mercedes Lacking

    Cripes, that should have been Mercedes LACKEY

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  49. LizJ
    Mar 19, 2008 @ 09:03:26

    The labeling thing bothers me as well. I tend to try and pull together a list of prospective purchases for the month from AAR, and then find at the bookstore that I have to check out at least two different genre sections and occasionally general fiction to find the books I’m looking for.

    We’re now frequently seeing books in the romance section without HEA’s – and sometimes even without development of a romance within the book (mostly urban fantasy/paranormal series). And, on the other hand, authors like Linea Sinclair who do tend to heavily feature romance and HEAs are shelved in SFF instead of romance.

    I’m suspecting that it’s all about which publishing line an author is contracted to. If you’re contracted to a SFF label, the book will end up in SFF. IF you’re contracted to a romance label, the book will end up in romance. Am I right?

  50. B
    Mar 19, 2008 @ 09:37:22

    I'm suspecting that it's all about which publishing line an author is contracted to. If you're contracted to a SFF label, the book will end up in SFF. IF you're contracted to a romance label, the book will end up in romance. Am I right?

    I think that’s actually supposed to be due to the Library of Congress’ genre classifications, but it seems like these days, well, not so much.

    I’m actually reading a Linnea Sinclair book because I enjoyed Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace so much. I figured I’d give this whole “romantic” science fiction a try. Yet whereas Grimspace was definitely a sci fi novel with a relationship, Sinclair’s book is a romance novel with spaceships and laser rifles. But they’re both classified and shelved as science fiction. Go figure.

  51. Patricia Rice
    Mar 19, 2008 @ 18:25:51

    I think all experienced readers tend to migrate toward good books, and right now, UF has some of the best new writers in the business. Even though I’ve never been much on monsters and demons, I’ve been gobbling up some of these series simply because the world-building and characterization is so excellent.

    In romance, IMO, we’ve become slightly jaded. Our readership is huge. Publisher demands are often more for quantity than quality. And for years we’ve been getting by on skimming the surface. The UF authors had to beat down huge walls with their talents to get where they are. As their popularity increases, you’ll probably start seeing the same problems there as in romance, so the circle will come around.

    Part of the barrier, of course, is the expectations of each genre. A romance author is expected to concentrate on the relationship and sex, which leaves very little room for worldbuilding. I have a psychic contemporary I’d love to write, with an entire world of people there for a very specific reason. But to sell it to romance, I’d have to leave out most of that groundwork and concentrate on the relationships. To do urban fantasy, I’d have to build nasty monsters and cut back on relationships. Just writing it the way I want to write it doesn’t work for marketing. We need to break down more genre walls.

  52. Angela
    Mar 21, 2008 @ 05:02:42

    Ha Jane, UF is why I’ve been remiss in reviewing books for my website–I’m way too engrossed in reading to analyze the books! The main reason I’m attracted to UF is because the focus is on the heroine and her journey. I’m not adverse to a hero’s journey (a la Sharon Shinn’s “Wrapt In Crystal”), but there’s something about just being inside of the heroine’s head, of the genre not feeling compelled to view the protagonist through the eyes of a male protagonist, that is so very refreshing to me. IMO, the romance genre has become entirely too male-centric for me, and I do like the fact that the female protagonist has the option of picking who she wants to be with (the love interest isn’t set in stone from the blurb).

  53. Jane
    Mar 21, 2008 @ 07:54:17

    Angela, – you are so right that so many of these UFs are female centric. I think that is one reason that I love them too. Of course, I do like some certainty in the love interest so I suppose that is where we would divurge.

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  55. Radish
    Mar 25, 2008 @ 21:14:14

    Patricia Rice quoth:

    Part of the barrier, of course, is the expectations of each genre. A romance author is expected to concentrate on the relationship and sex, which leaves very little room for worldbuilding. I have a psychic contemporary I'd love to write, with an entire world of people there for a very specific reason. But to sell it to romance, I'd have to leave out most of that groundwork and concentrate on the relationships. To do urban fantasy, I'd have to build nasty monsters and cut back on relationships. Just writing it the way I want to write it doesn't work for marketing. We need to break down more genre walls.

    This is the issue I’ll be facing with a multi-volume story I’m working on — and I can’t say I’m looking forward to that challenge. When folks ask what genre my story is, I honestly cannot answer that in a single word. Nor am I willing to compromise the story for the sake of easier pigeon-holing.

    Is there a classification for bildungsroman-fantasy-adventure-love story?

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