The main rule of the romance genre is an HEA—happily ever after. It’s surprising then, how the genre deals with death. A number of novels use the threat of death as a plot device—looking at you, romantic suspense. However, when death isn’t a threat, but part of the whole of the story, the romance takes a different turn.
Let’s look at Gena Showalter’s Firstlife, its sequel Lifeblood just came out. The point of this novel lies on a choice of where you go after you die. Does heroine Tenley choose Myriad, the Dark realm, or Troika, the Light realm? Being a YA heroine, she is, of course, very important to both main factions in the plot. What’s interesting, however, is that while most everyone around her contemplates and hinges their lives on which realm they’ll choose after they die, Tenley doesn’t. There are a lot of conflicts and plot twists that I could spend the whole article going into but suffice to say, Tenley focuses on the here and now, at least while she’s alive. Showalter toys with the idea of one death becoming not the end but rather the desired beginning all humans hope to achieve (suicide is out though) which makes the novel’s concept so interesting.
(Spoilers for J.R. Ward's Lover Unbound ahead)
Another icon of the romance genre, J.R. Ward, has never shied away from the concept of death, rebirth, and reincarnation. There’s a lot about how she deals with the afterlife and the concept of truly having a Happly Ever After, especially in The Shadows (more about that here) but I find I what she does to heroine (kind of passive heroine), Jane in Lover Unbound, spoiler alert, the heroine ends up as a ghost who is really only accessible to the hero. There are big sacrifices made by other characters in order to achieve a Happily Ever After, but the only way an HEA is possible is in death. You have to wonder how much autonomy Ghost Jane really has in terms of her afterlife? Well, she literally chooses to be a spirit, that’s her ultimate choice and her way to stay as a handy medical professional when the Brothers’ shitkickers don’t do the job.
(End of Spoilers for Lover Unbound)
Even when death isn’t the main focus of the novel, there’s always a fascination with the afterlife instead. Many authors have built unique concepts of what happens after soul leaves body. For Larissa Ione’s demons in the Demonica series, they enter Sheoul-Gra, a place of waiting for rebirth back on Earth. Showalter has killed off two of the Lords of the Underworld and resurrected both of them. In the meantime, however, they hang around in a place that isn’t Heaven or Hell, but kind of a Limbo where they wait. At the same time, they’re able to see what’s going on in the physical realm so the author doesn’t have to re-explain the plot when they're resurrected (neat!).
Romance—particularly paranormal romance— gives authors the chance to literally cheat death, if they so choose, through a number of different plot devices. What about, however, when one of the individuals happens to be dead/a spirit already. A great tension builder in romance is the forbidden kind, the one you’re not supposed to have or want. What’s better than loving someone with the biggest divide of all - death and the physical realm.
We have so many romances where an angel or demon or spirit falls in love with a human, and they get their HEA. A unique take on this is Renee Carlino’s Lucian Divine. The heroine hooks up with her drunken guardian angel, a big glass of NOPE in the world Carlino’s created. What’s interesting about the plot though is that the angel and the human have a physical relationship before the romance and wooing actually started. It’s up to them to find their HEA, but romance has shown a good physical relationship can lead to a happy and loving one.
As readers, we might want to question why we consume media that gives us a Happily Ever After with the prospect of death involved. There is NOTHING wrong with wanting an HEA and finding romance as that medium. I just wonder what some of us want in terms of characters going “beyond,” “have a thing for a demon,” or “want to learn about a good angel gone bad.” Romance has certainly worked as a medium to help readers deal with grief, frustration, and loss. I wonder about when we aren’t in that emotional state, when we just pick up and flip through the pages of a favorite genre, we’re looking for an HEA; but for books that deal in death, the afterlife, and everything in between, are we really looking for something else?
Learn more about or order a copy of the books mentioned in this post:
|Firstlife by Gena Showalter|
|Lover Unbound by J.R. Ward|
|Pleasure Unbound by Larissa Ione|
|Lucian Divine by Renee Carlino|
H&H Editor Picks:
Sahara Hoshi reviews for Wicked Lil Pixie and is a lifelong reader of romance. Favorite genres include new adult, paranormal romance, contemporary romance and erotica.