As an unrepetant fangirl, there are elements of romance that I tend to gravitate towards more because they appeal to my deep and abiding love of fanficiton. While this concept certainly isn't unique to fanfiction, I first really took to the idea of the slow burn in fanfic form. After all, nothing is as agonizing (and beautiful!) as watching your OTP (One True Pairing) languish through seven seasons of telelvision before they kiss. (I'm looking at you West Wing.) In fanfic, the rules of canon are manipulated and a slow burn story leaves you wanting quicker updates from your favorite writers, and—OMG—just kiss already feelings for your OTP. And my soul, that craves angst down to its very core, can never get enough of a slow burn romance.
What precisely is a slow burn? Well, the best way I know to describe a slow burn is by what it's not. A slow burn is not insta-love, it's often not even insta-attraction. It's akin to a strong current just beneath the surface of the water. You don't necessarily see it, but the pull is strong and it will most certainly drag you down in the best of ways.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love romances where the initial spark is undeniable and the kissing happens twenty pages in, but for me, I gravitate more to the stories that really make me wait for it and earn that HEA.
A slow burn doesn't fulfill your desires right away. Because of this, they're sometimes harder to fall right into. The long, protracted dance may not be for everyone, but when done well, the chemistry and heat between two characters who are just this side of stupid in love makes for a phenomenal real you'll come back to over and over and over again.
Rarely ever is there a straight line to forever happiness for our two loveable idiots in a slow burn. They journey from friends (though often they're enemies) to lovers is filled with major pitfalls and lots of misunderstandings.
There's often no kissing, no touching, no sex of any kind in the first 3/4 of a slow burn romance. Seriously, this is all about the wait, but oh boy, does the wait make it so much more delicious when you actually get it.
One thing that slow burn romances share in common with those you wouldn't list in that category is that there is always an obstacle—sometimes big, sometimes small—but something needs to be overcome in order for our two knuckle-head protagonists to be together. In a slow burn, an often seen obstacle is cluelessness on the part of one protagonist. That's not to say that there can't be real issues—and in Mariana Zapata's books, there often are—but often slow burns lend themselves to internal conflicts of one beloved character being sort of a dolt.
Slow burns are often trope heavy stories, frequently falling into enemies-to-lovers or friends-to-lovers territory. They deal heavily with the angst of a character realizing his or her true feelings for someone and either not realizing at all what they feel means, being in denial about what that means, or plain ol' missing the giant flashing I-like-you-so-much-I'm-going-to-go-home-and-meet-your-family signs.
There is a steadiness to the tension of a slow burn. It goes through many phases, but each one is a measured step that brings the characters closer and closer to the big, revelatory payoff of the novel and the happy, sometimes cluessless couple finally, painstakingly reaching their HEA.
Zapata's books are slow burn romances for the ages. They're delicious, tension filled tales of often broody, quiet men, and women who are fiercely wonderful and totally clueless that these men adore them. Two of my favorite novels from Zapata are Kulti and The Wall of Winnipeg and Me.
This story hits so many of my romance sweet spots: athletes, age difference, a woman of color heroine who is quirky, and slightly neurotic, and a hero who isn't personable, but would literally walk through fire for his heroine.
The story is a journey, and one you have to settle in for because there's a great deal of exposition about how much Salome (Sal) is enamored with former soccer superstar Reiner Kulti. It's so important to get this insight about Sal because when Kulti finally shows up and is no less than a total ass to her, it makes his fall from grace in her mind so palpable and a little sad, and boy does Kulti have room to grow because of that.
One thing that Zapata does particularly well is limit Kulti's POV and only let us in on what Sal is feeling and seeing. Even then, Sal misses the neon colored signs of Kulti's affections. She honestly believes that Kulti singles her out in practices and offers to train her one-on-one out of spite. She deeply believes that Kulti doesn't like her and finds her to be a nuisance. As a reader, we get a different perspective of Kulti, who happens to pop up where Sal may be, or waits for her by her car, or offers to go home to her parents' house with her.
He loves you, silly Sal.
It's not until Chapter 24—nearly 90% into the book—that we even get Sal and Kulti's first kiss. We quite literally get to see their love grow, watch them banter, read their wacky and ridiculous nicknames for each other and swoon so hard when they finally, finally kiss.
The conflict that stands between Sal and Kulti is the fact that he's her coach, and until he's not, they can't be together, but for a very long time in the novel that's not even on the table. There is so much character growth for both Sal and Kulti and it gives a depth of authenticity to their love story that I find to be unique to the slow burn format.
The Wall of Winnipeg and Me
Another sports superstar meets a diminutive, but mighty heroine at the outset of this novel, however, one of my most favorite tropes of all time—marriage of convenience. Fake married AND a slow burn? It felt like Christmas morning when I read this book.
Vanessa at the outset of this novel is entirely frustrated with Aiden, football star and the man she's personal assistant to. After overhearing an insult from Aid an's agent Trevor, Vanessa decides to say sayonara to her personal assistant job and start her graphic design company she's finally saved the money for. Too bad for her (but so good for us), Aiden's got other plans and doesn't want to see his personal go...also he needs a wife in order to stay in the country. Talk about a zinger.
Vanessa is worried about the, er, legality of marrying for a green card, but her concern for Aiden overrides her fear of prison time, and the two embark on a fake relationship. Aiden is a quiet giant, not prone to saying much of anything so it's no surprise that there are assumptions from Vanessa about the nature of their relationship.
The build of this novel includes “platonic” bed sharing, a bit of jealousy, and miscommunications that culminate in a story that that takes you through the emotional ups and downs that a slow burn is well known for.
My only complaint about The Wall of Winnipeg and Me is that I wanted more from the ending. We waited oh, so long (nearly 95% of the book!) for the first kiss, first “I love you,” and first sexy times between this couple.
Zapata's Under Locke and Wait For It are two more titles I highly recommend for people who love slow burns. Their formats are very similar to Kulti and Wall of Winnipeg, but that doesn't at all diminish my love for them in the slightest. The palpable tension and building heat make for a satisfying ending and a well-earned HEA.
Do you have a favorite slow burn romance? Do you hate them? Tell me in the comments!
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