Last month, I did a weeklong feature that focused on comedic fantasy. This month’s focus is on romantic fantasy. Today, I am lucky to have Fiona West, author of the Rocky Royal Romance books, share a guest post, talking about romance in fantasy.
Drawing Lines: Reflections on Romance, Fantasy, and Where they Meet
Fantasy is in my blood; I cut my teeth on My Father’s Dragon when I was just learning to read, and spent many nights listening to my mother read books like A Wrinkle in Time before bed. I read Dealing with Dragons so often, I wore out my copy. Looking back, that series was a nice primer on romance…sword-loving princess who bucks tradition and makes cherries jubilee meets disorganized, magic-wielding king: clearly, a match made in fantasy. My love for steamy romance came much later. It should be no surprise: romance has always been a type of contemporary fantasy to my mind. Sure, there are fewer ogres (though I’ve written a few ex’s who’d count), but there’s a similar respect for magic and a fairy-tale ending. The magic just can’t be contained in a gold ring or an ancient sword; it’s the chemical, physical kind in the held gaze of someone you really, really like. And you’ll never convince me that’s not magic in its own right.
But when it comes to categories, it can truly be confusing. Where’s the line between fantasy romance, romantic fantasy, and fantasy that just has a love story subplot? Here’s the quickest way to tell: If you can pull out the romance and not affect the plot? That’s romantic fantasy. It gives us the relationship as a side quest, so to speak. If, on the other hand, our whole emotional and plot arc is wrapped up in the happily ever after? That’s fantasy romance. If it doesn’t have an HEA, it’s not a romance. Plenty of love stories (cough Nicholas Sparks cough) do not qualify as romance, and those who have dared to suggest that they do have suffered the public flagellation they deserve. Likewise, romance tips into erotica when the sex is the plot. More on that in a moment.
And of these options, I admit to loving fantasy romance the most, only because I want to know that whatever these two go through, they’re ending up together. It gives the mind a safe place to unpack some of the most troubling topics, trauma of all shapes and kinds. For all the flack the romance genre gets, it is uniquely suited to hold the most difficult circumstances because we know that this ship is sailing safely into the harbor at the end, and that allows the reader to ride out any storm the author can throw at them with hope. And truly, hope is the gift that the best romances aim to give more than any other.
For example, in my first fantasy romance, Chasing Down Her Highness, the female main character has a chronic illness that prompted her to give up her right to the throne and choose instead to live on the streets of a foreign country. As you might suspect from the title, her fiance does not accept this sudden abdication without question. In my own chronic illness circles, I heard people talk about how illness had broken their relationships, and I wanted to show a world where two very different people–one well and one ill–could still find happiness together. Not everyone can appreciate this strange mishmash of reality and fantasy, but I find a specific joy in pulling back the mundane and allowing love and relationships to flourish in a world that has different limits. It makes me more aware of my own, more grateful for my own set of problems. Yet at the same time, it activates my creativity: What would love look like if I had magic gifts to bestow? If I were a princess? If dragons stood between me and my beloved?
And of course, the most controversial part of any fantasy that contains romance or a love story is the sex scenes. I heard Elena Johnson, the undisputed queen of sweet (no-sex) romance, say recently that the most important part of her books is often a large gift given at just the right time, in the moment of the heroine’s greatest need, because it shows that he knows her. And I would argue that this is also why sex scenes can add to a book in a unique way: when two characters give their bodies to each other, it pulls back the curtain on an inner life that we often don’t see any other way. Their scars, their insecurities, and their questions all to the surface where there’s (literally) nowhere to hide. Are there other kinds of gifts to give? Sure. But this gift, this sharing of souls, often means more, because it is a way of knowing unlike any other.
When we cross boundaries, intentionally or unintentionally, it changes us. It changes our relationships. Ultimately, that’s what fantasy romance offers us: a chance to see characters grow together into who they’re meant to be and stand in their fullest selves together…preferably over the severed head of their enemies.