Are Romance and Adventure Incompatible?

The short answer: no.

The last few weeks have seen a lot of talk about sexism in the sci-fi/fantasy world—and no, I’m not just talking about sexism in fictional SFF worlds. I’m talking about out-and-out hate against women who write science fiction and fantasy. Published, even best-selling women like Ann Aguirre and Foz Meadows have spoken out about the rampant sexism faced by female authors in SFF publishing.

But let’s stick a pin in the overall topic for now and look at one of its bastard children: the question of romance works with a sci-fi and fantasy setting. Female authors who write strong, female protagonists who have dangerous, intense adventures, coupled with some romance, have been maligned for writing “romance novels with a few new sets and ideas thrown in to keep them interesting” instead of innovative, boundary-pushing works of SFF.

As if innovative, boundary-pushing science fiction or fantasy cannot contain romance. As if true adventure never has a sprinkling of sex (or, heaven forbid, love!) in the mix.

Luckily for those of us who include some romance in our spellbound works—and I know that includes some of my fellow Scribes!—that’s just not true.

I would like to submit for reader consideration five works of high-adventure, innovative, genre-blasting works of SFF that contain elements of romance:

1. Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay: Admittedly, this is one of my all-time favorite works of fantasy, so I’m a little biased, but I will say also that Kay’s work is often considered some of the best fantasy currently being written. One of the plotlines in Tigana features a gut-wrenching “love” story that features a woman who integrated herself into a conqueror’s harem so that she could assassinate him—only to fall in love with him. He loves her, too, and the book explores the moral shadings of a tyrant who has a human side. Love, in this book, is just one way to explore the many facets of the human condition.

2. The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson: When a young, male cousin comes to me asking for fantasy recommendations, I send him straight to Sanderson’s work. These are, to be a weird reverse-sexist, “boy books.” As one of Sanderson’s Writing Excuses co-hosts said of Sanderson’s earliest work, you can hear the dice rolling in the background. Fighting features prominently. And yet, these books explore the relationship between a former thief turned ninja girl called Vin, and a scholarly boy turned ninja turned emperor named Elend. It’s a sweet love story, and it’s wrapped up in a really cool (and kinda violent) magical system that works as a tool in a cataclysmic epic battle. And, oddly enough, my husband found these books via a Romantic Times book review.

3. The Kushiel’s Legacy (Phèdre) Trilogy, by Jacqueline Carey: Although as high-and-mighty of a writer as George R. R. Martin has described these books as “erotic fantasy,” that does not discount the high adventure held between the novels’ sexy covers. God-chosen Phèdre may be a high-priced prostitute, but she’s also a spy, ambassador, and all-around bad-ass who journeys to and from some of the worst places in her world. Threaded through her adventures is her love with formerly-chaste priest Jocelyn, and their story explores how love can change the people who experience it. These books are one part eroticism, one part political thriller, and two parts adventure. If ever there was an innovative fantasy, these books are it.

4. The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan: I’m not a fan of these books, and I actually find their portrayal of women rather sexist. But let’s stick a pin in that, too, and consider the books as most people see them: modern classic fantasy. This is one of the best-loved, longest-running epic fantasy series out there, and it features no fewer than six romantic stories. There’s the Rand-Elayne-Min-Aviendha, erm, quadrangle, the Nynaeve-Lan romance, the Egwene-Gawyn semi-romance, and the Perrin-Faile-Berelain awkwardness. And those are just the love stories I remember. Clearly, for Wheel of Time fans, romance is not an impediment to high fantasy adventure.

5. The Fever Series, by Karen Moning. Here’s where I make a diversion from my list. *grin* These books actually sit on the romance shelf of your neighborhood bookstore. Moning is originally famous for her more typically “romance” Highlander novels, but her Fever series became a runaway hit. They feature a female protagonist who grows from a fluffy, ditzy-blonde Southern belle into a badass warrior and Fae-killer. Yes, there’s sex. Yes, some credit for her transformation goes to her male benefactor/lover. But over the five books of the series, Mac has one of the best character arcs I’ve had the pleasure of reading. These books are violent. They are epic—indeed, the world as we know it ends. They are one of the best contemporary fantasy series I’ve seen lately, but because they sit in the romance section, they will be largely overlooked by fantasy readers.

There you have it: of these five (series of!) books containing complex romance and, yes, sex, three of them were written by men. Now, I’m not much of a sci-fi reader, but I’d bet my first edition, British copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that epic sci-fi contains romance, too. Are women girlifying SFF with romance? Or is romance just another kind of epic adventure?

What say you, readers? What place does romance have in adventure? What other epic, romance-containing works of SFF can you think of?

8 thoughts on “Are Romance and Adventure Incompatible?

  1. I’ve been hearing a lot about the Fever series and I really want to try it out. I love the idea of a Southern-belle-turned-bad-ass-Fae-killer.

    On a personal note, I did catch quite a bit of flak for not featuring the romance more heavily in my sci-fi, World of Shell and Bone. Something I hate: When the sci-fi women write is called “soft sci-fi,” and regarded as something less than science fiction written by men. Blargh.

    1. Shauna Granger says:

      Ha! You caught flak for NOT featuring more romance! Actually, I caught similar flak in my books. My heroine rejects her love interest in the beginning because she felt betrayed by him and readers often criticize her for being too hard on him. I wonder if it would’ve been different if you’d published under Adrian or if I’d published as Sean.

    2. When I think of soft sci-fi, I think of sci-fi without a lot of heavy science in it. But then, I’m female, so maybe I’m just choosing to ignore the slur against female sci-fi writers. Keep writing stories the way YOU want to, with or without romance, as your muse dictates. 🙂

  2. Shauna Granger says:

    Well said, Kristin! *raises tankard*

    I think this goes back to the cover-flipping argument brought up by Maureen Johnson a few weeks ago. She pointed out that covers of books were often designed based on whether or not the author was male or female, as if that had anything to do with the story contained within the books. And I think we can extend that to the argument of whether or not people will focus/pick up/give much attention to whether or not a story contains romance and/or sex if the author is male or female. I mean, we all know how often an author will use her initials instead of her name so people won’t focus on the fact that she is in fact a she. It’s stupid really to think that books shouldn’t have romance and/or sex in the if they are SFF because, while fantastical, they are still about people and people have emotions and urges and romance and sex play a huge part in our lives, whether you want it, are looking for it, trying to ignore it, whatever. We put real life issues in fantastical books, why would we leave out something that plays such a huge role?

    Anywho, good job.

  3. I say you’re on the mark about romance being a part of a lot of well-respected works that are SF/F AND packed with adventure. Princess Leia and Hans Solo certainly had something going on between them. Tolkien’s Sam just wanted his adventure to end so he could get home to his love. Octavia Butler’s works–the Xenogenesis Trilogy, Kindred, the Patternist series, and even Fledgling–all contain some element of love/romance/partnership. China Mieville…..the list goes on. If romance is part of the storyline, then it’s part of the storyline. After all, even astronauts have love lives, and what could be more adventurous than being in space?

    Nice work, Kristin! And thanks for offering this, Spellbound Scribes!


  4. I honestly never considered that romance would be considered a detriment to Fantasy. Come on, one more complication on an epic adventure is a great thing! I don’t think it should be mandatory or anything, but a romance subplot can add so much to the depth of a character and have a profound impact on a story. I hate that women are criticized for using such a great tool, especially when men aren’t for using exactly the same one. My fantasy series contains approximately three metric tons (tonnes?) of romance along with the other problems the characters face (and yes, the romance does tend to be a problem for them). I’m not ashamed of that.

    Love the Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy, too. Not everyone’s cup of tea, and I don’t love everything about Phedre, but the romance storyline is so unlike anything I’ve seen before that it kept me reading even through the slow bits. Mistborn is already on my reading list; I’ll have to add Tigana and Fever, too. Thanks!

  5. The Kushiel books are so beautifully done. They’re some of my favorite recent fantasy acquisitions. *pats bookshelf*

    Good points, all. Plenty of male fantasy and SF writers utilize romance. I read somewhere a quote where someone (can’t remember who!) asked, “So men writing romance legitimizes it, but women writing sci-fi ruins it?”

    There’s also heaps of romance in Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. Written by men.

  6. I try to add a romantic subplot to my stories, even though they’re mainly fantasy-adventure. No big love story, but my protagonist does have romantic interests. It’s only natural that a person becomes attracted to other people in a series that spans a few years!
    Funnily enough, after I published my first book, the biggest complaint from readers was that there was too little romance in it!

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