I started reading romance in the Old Skool days—late ’70s and early ’80s. I was in junior high and high school, and romance novels were my main source of information about sex. I learned more from Catherine Coulter, Johanna Lindsey, Rosemary Rogers, and Kathleen Woodiwiss than I ever did at school or home.
Then, somewhere around the mid ’80s, I stopped reading romance completely. It wasn’t just that I’d grown bored with the sweeping historical sagas featuring seventeen-year-old virgins who orgasmed the very first time they had sex with forty-year-old pirates or aristocrats or plantation owners or highwaymen. The main problem, as I recall, was that those books weren’t fun to read. The characters in them were fierce and brave and passionate, but they didn’t seem all that happy. Now, it’s been over thirty years since I’ve read these Old Skool romances (except for dipping into Kathleen Woodiwiss books for this column), but I still remember finding these books depressing after a while. So I went off to devour high fantasy and low science fiction for the next decade.
While in college, I worked at Waldenbooks and my opinion of romance novels hadn’t changed. In fact, when the store was slow and we were bored, we’d pull categories and historicals off the shelf, open them to random pages, and read them to each other. I still remember one line that we kind of adopted: “For everyone knew that to be found in the palace of the Sultan meant death.” Good times, good times…
But it was while I was working at Waldenbooks that I discovered The Windflower, which was published in 1984. That book was a revelation and a genre changer. It deserves a post of its own, which I’m working on.
About ten years after that, I discovered Amanda Quick, and through her books, Regencies in general. It was Quick who showed me that the romance genre’s New Skool was a whole lot more fun to read than the old ones I’d grown tired of.
I knew just from looking at these books’s covers that they weren’t the romances I’d read years before: There were no clinches, no improbable placement of limbs, no flames or sea foam or man titties. In fact, the covers didn’t feature people at all; usually it was just a pastel abstract pattern and maybe a symbol or picture of something pertaining to the story—a mask or a mirror or a statue, something like that. The cover flat—i.e., the inside flap—might feature a soft-focus clinch, but the covers weren’t embarrassing to carry about in public (unless someone happened to read the titles: Deception, Mystique, Ravished, Reckless...) Anyway, not even the cover flats had the lurid feel of the Old Skool books.
If the covers were surprising, the stories inside them were even more so.
The heroes were alpha males, of course; usually titled and always wealthy and powerful. They frequently had issues—heartbreak, resentment, old hurts. But they didn’t make the heroines suffer for those past wounds. In fact, they didn’t make the heroines suffer at all. They might be arrogant, high handed, maddeningly steadfast in their assumption of superiority, but they didn’t rape or terrorize or kidnap or sell or emotionally (or physically) batter the heroines. None of them ever had call to use The Cream. (If you don’t know what The Cream is, ask me in the comments and I’ll explain.)
And the heroines were great—not a seventeen-year-old convent runaway in the bunch. They were older, by Regency standards, maybe even on the shelf, perhaps all of twenty-four or twenty-five. They were independent, intelligent women. The Quick heroine always had an interest or a calling she was determined to pursue, even if the hero, the man she loved, the only man who’d ever stirred her loins, wanted her to pipe down and pop out babies.
One heroine was a fossil hunter. One was carrying on her father’s study of a lost civilization. One, if I recall correctly, had accidentally killed her abusive husband while defending her father. (If I’m misremembering any of this, let me know in the comments.)
The men didn’t abuse the women, and the women weren’t sitting around waiting for some guy to come along and save them. In short, these were not your Old Skool heroes and heroines.
The heroes and heroines liked each other. They didn’t always start off liking each other, but they didn’t start off hating each other, either. They were tormented just enough to make me want to read more, but not enough that I got depressed. The dialog was sassy and snappy; these people were having fun, at least part of the time.
These were people I would’ve liked to know. These were stories I’d have liked to be. I never wanted to imagine myself in a Kathleen Woodiwiss story, but being the heroine in an Amanda Quick would’ve been a lot of fun. It was Amanda Quick who showed me that bodice rippers were passé, that it was safe to go back in the romantic waters.
And I am so happy I did.
NOTE: Amanda Quick is a pen name of Jayne Ann Krentz and Jayne Castle. As Jayne Ann Krentz, she writes contemporary romantic suspense. As Jayne Castle, she writes futuristic/paranormal romantic suspense.