On a Bender

by Nancy and Jeanne

N: Jeanne and I both enjoy books that don’t fit squarely into a niche, romances or books with strong romantic elements that bend the genre lines. So today we’re chatting about those.J: You know, that always sounds hinky. In a Bend-it-like-Beckham kind of way. (Speaking of Genre Bending)

N: Bwhahaha! I didn’t start out reading as much romance as I do now. I discovered science fiction (and comic books) and mystery first. I read YA romances without realizing that’s what they were, courtesy of my local library and the Scholastic Book Club, but I didn’t read romance as an adult. I did read historical fiction with romance in it, but I didn’t pay much attention when the romance genre exploded in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I read a handful of those early sagas, but I was in school, preoccupied with trying to decide where my life was going. I stuck to the genres I’d come to know better.

J: Nancy, you and I kind of followed the same path on this. I too read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, as well as a lot of historical fiction. I also read a lot of biographies when I was younger.

N: Once I started reading romance, however, I was hooked. Even when reading other genres, I now much prefer books that have a strong romantic plot line to those that don’t, although I’ll settle for a pretty low threshold of romance in a thriller. A couple of years back, I read a debut military science fiction novel with an interesting premise. It was well done but didn’t draw me in, and I realized that was because there was no romance in it. None. Zip. Zilch. Nada. So I didn’t read the next book.

The series is now in hardcover, so it clearly has many avid readers. I just don’t happen to be among them.

N: The current market is doing a lot to make me happy. Romance is slowly, sometimes grudgingly, allowing elements from other genres, like action, magic, and suspense, to assume prominent roles. At the same time, romance is establishing a strong presence in science fiction, fantasy and in mystery, bending the genre lines to a degree that wouldn’t have been possible several years ago. I love historical and contemporary romances that are pure romance–nothing extra added in, but I also love the extra elements crossing genres. So today’s blog is about the line benders.

A couple of books I recently put me in mind of this change. One was Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke, which I read because Barbara Vey recommended it when I interviewed her at Dragon*Con. It’s steampunk, with a dark, gritty, distinct world. The worldbuilding and the dark tone are worthy of science fiction, but the romance is the core of the story. The setting seems to be around the turn of the last century, considering the references to King Edward.

The title character saved England from invaders known as The Horde. The heroine is a police inspector on the trail of a killer who dumped a body onto the hero’s house. He joins her because, well, it’s personal now, doubly so when he learns he knew and respected the victim who drew her to his home. Pursuing the killer drags them into a conspiracy to kill the thousands of English men and women, including the two of them, who carry Horde technology they can’t live without.

Conspiracy to commit mass murder is more common in thrillers than in romance. There’s the worldbuilding, as I said, and the dark, gritty tone. Oh, and zombies, who technically belong to horror but have begun cropping up in romance.

J: That’s another mindbender, isn’t it? I mean zombies? In Romance? Seriously? But I’ve been seeing it too. Since you mentioned it to me, I picked up Iron Duke. haven’t had a chance to read it yet though.

N: I know you’ll enjoy it. The other book was Bloodlands, by Christine Cody, who also writes the Vampire Babylon series as Chris Marie Green. Now, I’m not a huge fan of vampire books, particularly not of vampire heroes. But I am a big fan of post-apocalyptic stories, and this is a post-apocalyptic vampire romance Western. Yes, really. I debated with myself in the store for some time, fearing this could be truly terrible, but I couldn’t resist that combination of elements.

While I found the first quarter a bit slow, it was good enough that I felt it was going to get better. So I kept reading. Once the bad guy appeared, things picked up quickly. The hero is a vampire searching for his lost (human) love in the wreck of civilization. People kill monsters–vampires, shifters, and others–so he doesn’t want anyone to know what he is. He has become very good at passing for human. The heroine is part of an isolated community with secrets to keep.

Naturally, his quest and her secrets collide in the midst of the final confrontation against the villain who wants to wipe out the heroine’s community. Despite the paranormal elements and the setting, this book reads like a romance. But it’s published by ROC–perhaps because HEA isn’t guaranteed at the end of the book, and romance requires that.

J: This is another one I’m going to have to read. I mean vampire westerns? Really? But this sounds quite good.

N: I liked it a lot. I’d like to see some continuing couples in romance, romantic arcs that don’t tie up with HEA at the end of the book. The popularity of Eve Dallas and Roarke among romance readers implies that’s do-able, but it isn’t happening so far. Speaking of genre benders, those books are, first and foremost, serial killer police procedurals. The romantic arc, though, is much more intense than is usual in the mystery/suspense genre. It’s a line bender. I’m not featuring it here, though, because with the latest book just out, I don’t want us to spoil New York to Dallas for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

J: I’d love to see more of this too, Nancy. Her series is also a futuristic, and Nora is known to frequently bring other paranormal elements, like witchcraft and psychic abilities.

N: You know I loved Nora’s Sign of Seven trilogy, and that actually had horror elements in it. I don’t usually read horror. Jessica Andersen’s Nightkeepers are romance with strong, strong fantasy elements. Jon Land’s Caitlin Strong series are thrillers with a strong romance element. C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr novels are mysteries, but Sebastian’s love life plays a prominent role.

I’m also seeing a lot of urban fantasy with romance-like plots but romantic arcs that continue beyond the end of the first book. Laura Anne Gilman’s Retrievers are a prime example. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels books (starting with Magic Bites) have become increasingly romantic as the series continued, with the romantic arc being a driving element in the last couple of books.

J: As you know, I love the Retriever Series as well. Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris’s Adept series (although there hasn’t been a book out in that series for several years) has quite the long arc. The ongoing/developing romance in The Adept is subtle, but quite good. The longer arc on the romance seems to actually be more intense in some ways than in a one-book.

N: I just started M. J. Scott’s Shadow Kin, which is technically urban fantasy but starts out just like a romance. The heroine is an assassin with paranormal abilities who comes to kill the hero. He has abilities of his own and turns the tables. I’m assuming this couple will stick together in future books, but we’ll see. I haven’t finished it. The author’s website describes a different couple for the next book, so maybe this one ends with HEA. The book is unusual, at least in my experience, in that both characters are written in first person.

N: Anne Aguirre’s RITA-nominated Sirantha Jax series (first one is Grimspace) are also prime examples. There’s a science fiction primary plot, but the romance between Jax and March is iKathern ntense and often painful. With one more book to go, I’m hoping for a big payoff there.

J: As you know, I love Anne Aguirre’s novels. Grimspace was superb. And since you sent it to me, I’m guessing that’s why I liked it so much!

So, we’d love to know, what are you reading now? Do you like your romances straight, with no paranormal or other elements? Or do you like a bit of boom or magic or other paranormal elements with your romance?