The greatest appeal of the paranormal genre and its various limbs—urban fantasy, steampunk, dystopian romance—is the endless possibility contained within. This is a place where authors make their own rules, and with these limitless boundaries, we've moved from standard vampire and werewolf fare to a kick-ass grim reaper heroine, a hospital exploding not only with demons but every supernatural creature you could dream of, a futuristic dystopia with a complex vision of the planet in the coming centuries, as well as a return to another era, re-imagined to include mechanical flesh and steam-run engines, just to cite a few. These series offer some of the most unusual worldbuilding in romance. Creativity abounds in spades, and this is where romance is really cutting edge, evolving constantly so there's something for everyone.
Charley Davidson is Darynda Jones's unique heroine: part grim reaper, part private investigator, all trouble and never-ending humor. The fact that she's in love with the son of Satan adds another bizarre component, but it all works together in a series that is equally paranormal, mystery, and romance. Each addition to the series is that perfect balance of serial and mythological, with a supporting cast that enhances every element.
I've had the ability to see the departed all my life. I had been born a grim reaper, after all. The grim reaper, though I didn't discover that little jewel until I was in high school. Even so, the departed have never been able to enter my dreams, to make me quake and quiver and, I admit, beg.
As far as my ability goes, there's nothing particularly special about it. The departed exist on one plane, and the human race exists on another, and somehow—whether by freak accident, divine intervention, or psychological disorder—I exist on both. A perk, I suppose, of grim reaperism. But it's all quite simple. No trances. No crystal balls. No channel surfing the dead from one plane to the next. Just a girl, a few ghosts, and the entire human race. What could be easier?
And yet, he was something more, something... not dead. At least he seemed that way. The person in my dreams radiated heat. Dead people are cold, just like in the movies. Their presence will fog your breath, make you shiver, stand your hair on end. But the man in my dreams, the dark, seductive stranger I'd become addicted to, was a furnace. He was like the scalding water rushing over me, sensual and painful and everywhere at once—First Grave on the Right, Darynda Jones
Lauren Dane's Federation Chronicles series is a pioneer on the dystopian romance scene. Dane's intricately developed world has such carefully crafted detail to make it seem real. It's a place where political classes and social structure are no less complicated than present day, but human themes of loss, longing, and love are still at its heart. For Abbie and Roman, separated by class in a tale as ancient as Romeo and Juliet, there's a blend of the old with some of the most creative world-building to be found.
“It's really too bad you and I can't be together. You need a woman like me to keep your arrogance in check.”
He kissed her. She tasted like snow and laughter—and regret. “You're a puzzle, Abigail. Are you angry? Sad? Happy? Do you like fighting with me?”
“I'm angry that the Council is messing with me when I'm trying to do something basic and right. But I understand why. People don't like change, they don't like what's different and it's a threat to share what's yours, what's been your sole possession for all this time.” She caught his bottom lip between her teeth and pulled until he moaned.
“I'm happy to be with you and to be sharing this thing we both believe in so much. We're not that different, you and me. We approach it in different ways, but we both want what's best for Ravena and her people.”-Relentless, Lauren Dane
Even the most passionate paranormal fans may have grown a little strung out on the usual players. But when a series' claim to fame is a family of bad-boy Seminus demons who run Underground General Hospital, a hospital strictly for the purpose of treating any and all supernatural creatures who cross its doors, it makes us stand up and take notice, as in Larissa Ione's Demonica series. Ultimately, there are greater things at stake, like the fate of the world, and seeing wild brother Wraith, a gorgeous half-Seminus, half-vampire, partner with treasure hunter sweetheart Serena in a globe-trotting adventure are the things romance are made of.
“I have a proposal. You let me tag along on your little treasure hunt, and I'll keep my trap shut.”
He took a swig of whiskey. “I guess you don't want the key that badly.”
Angry read splotches put color in her cheeks. “That's blackmail.”
“I'm intrigued,” he said, and it wasn't a lie. “It's not often I find someone who does the same job I do. I mean, you've got the stuffy archaeologist types, but they do everything so slowly. So carefully.” He took her glass from her, took her fingers in his, and studied her fingernails. Short, square, strong. Not manicured, and kept in the perfect condition to be functional instead of pretty. “But you don't do slow and careful, do you You like the hunt. The chase. You like to jump in. Use your hands. You crave the rush. The burn.”His own adrenaline pumped through him at the mere thought of the rush of the hunt and chase, whether it be for blood, sex, or an ancient artifact.
A slow rush worked its way up from her neck to her scalp, and yeah, she was getting excited too. Aroused. He waited for her denial, but she surprised him by leaning in aggressively, mischief dancing in her chocolate eyes.
“You're wrong about one thing,” she purred.
He angled inward so their faces were only inches apart. “And what's that?”
“I don't like it,” she said, her voice breathy and husky and bed-me-baby hot. “I love it."—Passion Unleashed, Larissa Ione
If there's an author who has defined steampunk romance, it's Meljean Brook. Her Iron Seas series is another take on history, one where the Horde empire invaded England, effectively launching an industrial revolution of not only steam-powered devices and airships, but terrorizing the British people, infecting them with nanotechnologies and mechanical body parts. There are zombies running rampant through the countryside, giant kraken monopolizing the seas, a pirate with a heart of gold, and a talented little blacksmith who captures it. Quite simply, there isn't anything quite like it.
Mad Machen studied her face, his gaze dark and unwavering. “Fix it, Ivy. You'll have mechanical flesh to work with. Yasmeen is traveling to London now to collect it from the Blacksmith.”
She frowned at the plans, then at the aquarium. Using mechanical flesh could offset some of the weight, but the locomotion couldn't function like a squid's. The material simply wasn't that fluid. “It can't be done.”
“It has to be.”
“Why?” She couldn't imagine any use a kraken might have. “What do you plan to do? Frighten sailors? Tear apart ships?”
His implacable expression and the conviction in his voice stopped her. That was what he planned to do. Her chest tight, she looked down at the plans. “I won't build a monster for you.”
His face darkened. He moved in suddenly, solid behind her, pushing her hips against the table. Her fingers clenched, crumbling paper. Trembling with shock and anger, she waited, but he only stood behind her, chest heaving. She felt his ragged breath against her ear, then her neck. Her stomach tightened as calloused fingers slid her hair aside. Warm lips caressed her nape. Oh, blue. A shudder wracked her bones, and she didn't know if it was anger or fear... or something else.-Here There Be Monsters, Meljean Brook
Have you read any of these series? What aspects of these authors’ worldbuilding do you like the best?
Tiffany Tyer is a writer and editor who loves reading and analyzing all things romance. She also works as a vocalist, a tutor, and a non-profit ministry assistant, and she loves it that way. Her book reviews can be found at Happy Endings Reviews, a blog she co-founded.