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?