Thoughtful Thursday: I wanna know what love is

Did you all have a wonderful Valentine’s Day? Isn’t commercially mandated displays of affection wonderful? When you get beyond the flowers and jewelry and chocolate and uncomfortable underwear, what you’re left with is a wonderful core — the breathtaking beauty of two people coming together in a relationship of pure happiness. Or at least that’s the way fairy tales make it look.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsSo, if Moulin Rouge! is right, and “Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!” why is it so hard to depict love in a book? Most romances in fantasy are completely unbelievable. Big strong man rescues damsel in distress from evil overlord. Damsel falls in love with big strong (usually dumb) man for no other apparent reason than gratitude. Man accepts love as his due for rescuing her. Reciprocates love based on woman’s ability to not stab herself with a weapon and/or be good in the sack.

So maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But anyone who has been in love recognizes what it is and is not, and while a well written romance adds immeasurably to a book (in my opinion) a badly written romance can ruin it. I went back and reread the original Pern trilogy not too long ago and was absolutely appalled at what passed as romance in those books — F’lar basically abuses Lessa when she does something he doesn’t like, and the sexual encounters driven by the dragons mating come dangerously close to rape. While this never really stood out to me when I was a teenager, now that I’m an adult I’m appalled at what is passed off as romantic or acceptable relationships in some of the genre.

So, dear readers, I have a series of questions for discussion: What makes a literary romance work for you? What makes it fail? And what books can you point to as examples of either direction?

Anfantasy and science fiction book reviewsd if you want to get potentially controversial, have gender roles in fantasy evolved with time? Or are the sexist tendencies (hello, basically any cover ever published by Boris Vallejo) just more subtle, and we haven’t really moved beyond basic stereotypical depictions of romance?

Leave a comment, and we’ll enter you in a drawing to win a copy of John Shirley‘s Bleak History. Or, if that book isn’t to your fancy, we’ll let you pick one out of our stacks.


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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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14 comments

  1. I can’t really say that I’ve ever read any literary romance that’s really been believable. When I’m reading a book with romance in it I just accept it as fantasy and don’t worry about it.
    I think that most people who are reading fantasy or romance books are looking for that escape from the real world. They don’t really want to get abducted by a pirate or mercenary but they don’t want to read about trying to find a free night and a baby sitter just to go out to a romantic dinner either.

  2. Love is pretty complex and individual experience, so I don;t expect authors to be perfect when trying to portray love in a story. There are a few however I think do a good job. Pat Rothfuss does a decent job in portraying Kvothe’s fascination with Denna and her compulsive indifference towards his affections. I also think Patricia Briggs does an ok job with the Mercy Thompson series, with the juggling of the complex love triangle that goes on in the story, though the last book may have ruined that track record. I’ll comment more on that when I write my review for it. Those who have read will likely know what I’m talking about.

  3. I tried to think of book with a realistic couple and drew a blank.

    As a happily married woman who rarely argues with her husband I feel quite excluded by fictional romances. I know it’s more exciting to have a roller-coaster relationship but it hardly true to life

  4. sgiden: YOU CRACK ME UP. That’s a good way to think about it. :)
    Esther makes a good point — roller coaster angst, jealousy, love triangles, etc are exciting to read about, buy maybe not so exciting to live…

  5. Anonymous /

    Somebody famous once said that happy families are boring. I suspect the same is true of romance. I don’t want my romance to be all gushy and perfect nor do I really like it when it’s “I hate you, I hate you… Oh my gosh, I love you.” What I expect in good fiction is that the nature of the dysfunction and function reveals something insightful or unexpected about the characters’ deeper motivations. So, if a character likes to be abused or falls in love with someone abusive, why? What does that tell us about the character or about the human experience. Lori Handeland had what I thought was a very revealing love scene between a young woman and a man who basically rapes her without her permission, but she’d been fantasizing about him in prurient terror for years and enjoys the experience physically and then afterward is conflicted about it and romanticizes it. While I do not enjoy rape scenes or abusive relationships generally, I found that particular scene to be quite real in the context of the novel. Her failing to stand up to the man made her a more realistic character if less of a hero.

  6. I react to most romance or love scenes the same way I reacted to my mom and dad kissing when I was a kid. Something like, “Come on, seriously, right here in front of me”. Embarrassing. It all seems too cheesy for me.

  7. I draw a blank too, but if you have a discussion for most bad:censored:ed fight scene, I could post pages and pages of comments.. :chase:

  8. For me it has to be about more than about the love interest’s appearance. I’m happy for characters to find other characters attractive, but if the only reason they want anything to do with the person is because they’re good looking, it’s a severe turn off for me. [I recently read “Under the Andes” by Rex Stout and while it’s not a romance, it does revolve around the fact that one particular woman is amazingly gorgeous and sexy and so it doesn’t matter how cruel and self-absorbed she is.]

    It helps a lot if the romance ‘helps’ the two lovers in some way (ie. they find something they need in the other person, something that makes their life easier to live, or more entertaining).

    I will read and accept a lot of romances fairly uncritically, but the best romances for me are ‘partnerships’ – a meeting of minds and interests. A great many stories have this whole ‘domination’ thing (“she could only love a man who bested her”) and that’s quite a turn-off for me.

    It’s a severe turn-off if an otherwise sensible person becomes a fool or is somehow lessened in the presence of their love. That works in both gender directions – I hate female pov romances where she’s smart and brave and independent, and yet keeps getting into messes that the hero has to extract her from. And I hate male pov romances where the guy turns into a bumbling fool in the presence of one particular female.

    An example of that would be Pryor’s “Laws of Magic” series. The main character, Aubrey, is smart and self-willed and when he comes near his lady-love he blithers and becomes dull. You also saw it, to a certain degree, in the latest Sherlock Holmes, where Holmes is suddenly less capable when Irene Adler is around. These relationships always seem to be hyper-critical toward them male pov, and I don’t find them enjoyable at all.

    Good romances for me are like, “The Blue Sword”, or like Dwight and Deborah in the Magaret Maron mysteries. Where you can see the two people are just…happier when the other’s around.

  9. Here are some romances I enjoyed at the time I read them. Can’t say for sure I’d enjoy them all right now, though.

    Robin Hobb Farseer (Fitz and Molly)
    Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, & Thorn
    Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre & Joscelin

    A romance I really hated was Bujold’s The Sharing Knife books. I love Bujold, but the romance killed those books for me.

  10. It’s hard to think of one that fits in the fantasy genre. I’ve read quite a few on the SF side where it works well because there is a romantic interest, but not a ‘romance’ subplot. In Urban Fantasy, I like Briggs Mercy books at least the couple I’ve read so far, and the romance in Laura Gilman’s Retriever novels is pretty well done at least in the first few. I guess I like the ones where the characters accept each other as basically equal partners each allowing the others strengths to shine without the chest beating male and the I don’t need a man female nonsense. I know there have to be more, but I’m just drawing a blank right now.

  11. I like it when romance is handled well in a fantasy or other genre fiction – plain old romance novels with nothing else going on all seem so fake and contrived most of the time. Here are some fantasy ith some romantic plot elements I thought were done quite well:

    The Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb – Hobb isn’t always romantic, but I thought this trilogy certainly was. Loved the strong female character and hw friendship can turn to romance was quite believable.

    Daughter of the Forest (The Sevenwaters Trilogy, ) by Juliet Marillier. Like a Celtic romance, beauty and the beast type story.

    The Mirror of Her Dreams (Mordant’s Need, Book 1) by Stephen R. Donaldson – He can really write, I thought the romance was well done and very realistic. Heroine and hero are flawed and both learn a great deal from each other.

    Archangel (Samaria, Book 1) by Sharon Shinn – kind of typical romance plot but so much else going on in this book

    Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones – cute fairytale/ YA, Jut love this book to pieces, my little niece said she loved the romance in it!

    Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is basically romance but pretty good

  12. I have to agree about Howl’s Moving Castle. That is a romance based on commitment and sacrifice, and as a result feels very real to me.

    Which brings me to the Beatles. My brother once commented that, in their songs, the Beatles understood dating really well, but they didn’t understand real love. Infatuation, yes. Real love, no.

    Most fantasy authors seem to be that way, too. Any time an author portrays consequence-free sex, they lose me. For example, Mercedes Lackey lost me as a reader because I finally couldn’t believe in the romance anymore. Characters will somehow know of an herb that prevents pregnancy, or it’s done with magic, and somehow that takes care of every potential negative consequence of promiscuous sexuality. (What would it be like to live in a world without STD’s?)

    It may be true that finding a sitter so you can snatch a few hours at a restaurant may not seem particularly romantic, or that happy families are ‘boring’–but an author that can find the romance in the mundane and the excitement in happiness is my kind of author. It’s the kind of author I’d like to be.

    Andrew
    peteandthedog.blogspot.com

  13. I think that is very difficult to describe the true emotions of a love relationship: romantic fantasy and sf tales are usually very superficial in their descriptions. So I content myself when I find a good love story that, even if it isn’t very well described, is at least functional to the development of the story. In this way Catherine Asaro Skolian empire series (Primary Inversion in particular) is the best example of romantic science fiction, while Rob Hobb six reigns series is my preferred fantasy with romance.

    sandro50

  14. The winner is…..Andrew Cannon

    Please contact me via the contact form
    http://www.fantasyliterature.com/contact-fanlit/

    Congratulations and if you don’t want that particular book, then pick one from our stacks
    http://www.fantasyliterature.com/fanlit-stacks/

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