This week my blog is focusing on romantic fantasy. I’ve had several wonderful authors kindly share their time with me, to talk about their writing and about romantic fantasy as a subgenre. Today, Carissa Broadbent, author of The War of Lost Hearts series, talks a little bit about the stigma surrounding romantic fantasy.
The strange, wonderful, ever-evolving world of romantic fantasy – or, stuff to think about before smack-talking romance books
Here’s the interesting dichotomy about fantasy: it pulls us into a world utterly foreign from our own, full of quite literally limitless possibility, and yet, the things that we connect most to in those stories are almost always the most mundane, human elements. The things that are larger than life marvel us, but it’s the things that reflect the qualities we see in ourselves that make us feel stuff. And hey, that’s what I’m in this business for: feelings. Lots and lots and lots of feelings.
My name is Carissa Broadbent and I’m an author. I’m best known for The War of Lost Hearts trilogy, which, at time of publishing, should have just concluded with the release of its third book, Mother of Death and Dawn! I am delighted to spend my days in the wonderful world of romantic fantasy – or, as I often put it, magic-and-kissing books.
But what does “romantic fantasy” mean, exactly?
What exactly qualifies? I’m going to start with the big caveat that no one has carved these definitions into some sacred tablets somewhere – undoubtedly, some people out there have very different definitions of what constitutes romantic fantasy than I do, and I’m in no position to tell them they’re wrong! But here’s how I define it:
Romantic fantasy books focus on a fantasy story and arc, and have a romantic element that is inextricable from that story – meaning, if you were to remove the love interest and romance, the story would no longer exist. That said, fantasy is still the primary genre, so the characters may go on epic multi-book arcs. A great example of romantic fantasy is Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series.
Closely linked to romantic fantasy but ever-so-slightly different is fantasy romance – in which romance is the primary genre, and the romantic relationship is the story. These books follow romance novel conventions and requirements in a fantasy world, meaning that each individual book gives each couple a HEA (happily-ever-after). A great example of fantasy romance is JD Evans’ SPFBO7 finalist Reign & Ruin, which you should read if you haven’t because it’s fabulous.
Most casual readers use these terms interchangeably, and anecdotally I’ve noticed the lines blurring between them significantly as the subgenres enter the mainstream.
Being an author active in the world of romantic fantasy in this era has, to put it lightly, been an interesting ride. It’s such a unique subgenre that straddles two very different worlds, at least one of which has a history of being, frankly, a bit hostile to its existence.
I know! Those are some strong words. Let me explain what I mean.
For a long time, romantic fantasy didn’t quite exist as a defined genre. SFF – particularly adult SFF — was seen primarily as a man’s genre, while romance is predominantly read by women. In the aughts and 2010s, young adult fantasy exploded, and it was here that many women found the female-led SFF stories that they were unable to find in SFF shelves. Readership of YA SFF blew up, not only in teenagers, but with adult women who simply connected more with these stories.
There are, of course, a plethora of reasons why people read YA SFF during this time, and the breadth and variety of stories coming out of this genre go far beyond romantic fantasy. But, in general, a number of women turned to this subgenre during this time because it was simply where female-led or romantic fantasy existed.And that, my friends, created a vicious self-fulfilling cycle in traditional publishing, which went something like this:
- Lots of romantic fantasy titles were published as YA.
2. Lots of adult women started reading these books because it was, largely, the only place that romantic fantasy existed.
3. As many of these readers grew into their 20s and wanted, to put it bluntly, sex in their romance novels, there was a brief push by publishers to create the subgenre of “NA”, or “New Adult”, fantasy – but it never took off, largely because bookstores were not creating entirely new shelves for this subgenre, and this seemed to reinforce the belief that there was “no market” for adult romantic fantasy.
4. But, there very much was a market! Publishers simply kept relegating it to YA. YA fantasy becomes the place where “girl fantasy” goes, while adult SFF shelves were left to more traditionally-male-oriented fantasy books. And because now, even adult readers of romantic fantasy had been trained to look in YA shelves for the sorts of stories they liked, it became even more difficult for adult-oriented romantic fantasy to break out.
5. More and more romantic fantasy titles are published in YA that are clearly aimed at a much older audience, often with spicier sexual content than one might expect in a YA novel. A Court of Thorns and Roses, which has since been rebranded and re-shelved in adult, is a great example. But the downside is that now, so much of the money in YA publishing was in fact going towards elevating and marketing stories really intended for adults, while actual teenagers in the 13-16 range were increasingly neglected as the audience for young adult books.
6. Meanwhile, indie publishing really starts to take off, and romantic fantasy finds its footing as a genre that thrives in an indie environment not bound by the challenges of traditional publishing shelving.
It’s only very recently – as in, within the last two years – that I’ve seen this cycle start to break, with books like Sarah J Maas’s ACOTAR and Jennifer L Armentrout’s From Blood and Ash series now (rightfully) shelved in adult SFF.
But why did we face this problem at all? Why did publishers feel the need to create “New Adult” as a new subgenre, instead of moving these series to regular old SFF shelves? I can’t see into anyone’s mind here, so I’m theorizing, but… well, sexism probably had something to do with it!
The perception was that adult SFF is where the boys hang out, with their big chonky dragon books and grimdark stabby things and throne games. And those books are just so different from this girly stuff over here, with, you know, kissing and whatnot. No, those things aren’t for real grown ups.
Look, I don’t think anyone was sitting around twirling a mustache while scheming over these things! But I really do believe that many people felt that those two things were incompatible. And can anyone blame them? Historically, SFF circles have been a bit hostile to romance. Describing something as “like a romance novel” or “basically a Harlequin romance in disguise” was considered a blatant insult. I would frequently see SFF authors try to describe their romance plots as “not like other romance,” attempting to elevate their own work by diminishing the craft of romance novels. Many SFF readers and even authors made it very clear that they had little respect for the artistry or craft of romance books.
Of course, I will never ever fault anyone for personal taste – we all like different stuff, and life would be really boring if we didn’t! And so many of us – long ago, even myself included – have been trained by society to see traditional romance novels as “lesser than.” It’s such an ingrained perspective that I guarantee that most of the people who say things like the examples above don’t at all consider it sexist.
I’m thrilled to say that I have been seeing these attitudes shifting so much in a very short period of time. I was a bit nervous to enter my book Daughter of No Worlds into the Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off, because I feared that I was putting my book in front of an audience that was simply not interested in what it had to offer, which is always a little scary as an author.
But not only did Daughter of No Worlds perform quite well, gaining a semi-finalist title, this was also a banner year for romantic fantasy in general in the competition! I was delighted that Reign & Ruin took a well-deserved finalist slot, and I have also heard the Legacy of the Brightwash, another highly-lauded SPFBO finalist, has a strong romantic subplot (coming up on my TBR!).
Even just the fact that so many SFF blogs – like this one! – are doing features on romantic fantasy says a lot to me about shifting attitudes towards romantic fantasy in the broader SFF community.
There is so much beauty in romances. I love the genre – in fantasy, and in every other subgenre – because it’s all about people connecting. And if you’ve never read a romance or romantic fantasy book, maybe it’s time to give it a shot!
A well-done romance novel is a masterclass in character writing. And those lessons are core themes that carry over into every other type of book – whether it be sci-fi, fantasy, historical, literary fiction… pick your poison.
After all, is there any more universal human experience than to fall in love?
About the author:
Carissa Broadbent has been concerning teachers and parents with mercilessly grim tales since she was roughly nine years old. Since then, her stories have gotten (slightly) less depressing and (hopefully a lot?) more readable. Today, she writes fantasy novels with a heaping dose of badass ladies and a big pinch of romance. She lives with her husband, one very well-behaved rabbit, one very poorly behaved rabbit, and one perpetually skeptical cat in Rhode Island.
To purchase books: Amazon