Every summer my parents would pack up the family to set off on a family vacation. Each of these trips were preceded by several magical hours spent in the local Waldenbooks acquiring paperbacks to keep us quiet and entertained for the hours of interstate we’d have to endure. My mother would head for the suspense; my father would get lost wandering through the entire store while I was inevitably drawn to the back right hand corner where the science fiction/fantasy took up twelve feet of realms to explore.
My dad is the one who initially introduced me to science fiction. While I was still in elementary school, he handed me Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong. He wanted me to see strong female characters who could accomplish anything they put their minds to, and this seemed to occur over and over in science fiction. As I devoured these and started making other choices for myself, he stopped guiding me and started stealing from my collection of books. What drove me to wear out the binding on my copies of the books of Pern, Valdemar and Westeros was not just the amazing world building, but also the relationships within these worlds.
These books became a gateway drug to romance for me. For me, the relationships between the characters were just as, if not more, important than the world built for them. Mercedes Lackey’s novels of Valdemar started to edge me into romance as I became just as invested in the relationships as exploring the world they inhabited. Lackey has a relationship plot device that may be familiar to some romance readers; a Lifebonded pair that begins often at first sight and includes a few extra talents (emotional awareness, ability to channel magic, heightened telepathy). She even has them challenge separation by death a few times.
Elements like this encouraged me to start branching out into romance novels. I was drawn especially strongly to the stories that blurred the line with fantasy like the Christine Feehan’s Carpathians, shape shifters, and a fairy meddling in an Irish pub-owning family. These introductions to a whole new world of reading had me hooked. Authors known primarily for their Romance romance novels often dip into the fantastical. For example, Nora Roberts has three trilogies that I can name off the top of my head; Three Sisters Island, Signs of Seven, and The Gallaghers, with their meddling fairy king. And, of course, vampires are pure fantasy, and are very popular among romance readers.
One of which, rather indirectly, is Fifty Shades of Grey, which was inspired by vampires, specifically Twilight. Much of the hype around that series is tied (no pun intended) to the BDSM elements which that have me reaching from my bonds for my Jacqueline Carey novels. Carey created the world of Terre d’Ange, a country that is not quite France. Terre d’Ange is the home of the followers of the demi-god Eula, who has the driving tenant tenet of “Love as Thou Wilt.” This means that everything, when consensual, is sacred. Carey has written three trilogies set in this world. The first features Phedre, an anguissette—one chosen by the angel who was the Punisher for God. To say she finds pleasure in pain is an understatement, as you learn in pieces without ever getting stomach-churning violent. (Warning: there is one scene towards the end of the first book that does. It is far from sexy, although epically romantic.)
The reason that Carey’s Kushiel series has become a keeper for me is the level of world building and the relationships driving the entire series. The ruler of Terre d’Ange is betrothed to the leader of not-quite-Ireland, which has a matrilineal succession and has a strong bardic heritage. She explores Skaldia, Caerdicca (not-quite-Italy) and parts of what we think of as Africa through the first trilogy. The second explores similar lands with Phedre’s foster son as he figures out who he is, despite his parentage and denying his love for the crown princess. The third travels to the Far East, where many generations after the first two trilogies we find a child of two lands trying to understand who she is while being true to herself and those she loves. The lands are almost as important a character as the people that inhabit them.
The worlds are important, but what makes this series for me is the relationships. The first trilogy explores one of the most interesting couples I have come across in literature: Phedre and Joscelin. When Phedre first meets Joscelin, it seems impossible that this could be the couple that has tales written of them generations later. They hate each other, but not with the clichéd “I love you I hate you” you see so often in romance novels. Her hedonistic nature and religious calling is diametrically opposed to his celibate, straight-laced self. He’s sworn to protect her, to the death, and that loyalty is not something to be taken lightly. He gets banished from the world he has known, kidnapped to frozen wastelands and has to defend her to the point where he is inches away from his own death numerous times—and all that in the first book! This isn’t all one sided, as Phedre puts herself on the chopping block several times to save Joscelin. The novel tears the two apart repeatedly through actions of their own and others working toward their own ends. By the time you get to your HEA at the end of the trilogy for the pair, you hope they can fade into the countryside for quiet days and happy nights.
If you’re looking to broaden your background into science fiction and fantasy, I’d recommend these three authors. If you’re already familiar with these, and are hoping for others, I’m going to guess you’ve already seen Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon books. Another author I’d like to suggest is Alice Borchardt, specifically her Legends of the Wolf trilogy. She may not be as well known as her sister (Anne Rice), but she does a great series of shapeshifting werewolves placed in Rome and a related duo telling the story of Guinevere.
Let me know what you think, and please leave more suggestions in comments!
Rae herds cats for a living as a project manager & theatrical stage manager and is kept hopping at home with an energetic toddler and a music-afficianado husband. She can be found online at RaesAlley or on Twitter as @rszalley.