Mar 9 2011 7:00pm

Paranormal Romance 2.0: Dark Romance

RoseYour heroine and the man of her dreams finally just came clean and professed their feelings for one another. Your heart is full, and you’re wondering how there’s going to be enough time for the steamy love scene you’ve been waiting for because there’s only about 3 pages left, but you’re hopeful. Then BAM, the vampire you thought your heroine took care of in the last chapter is alive and he injects her with a tiny dose of the serum she’s been working very hard to shelter from the public, and everything goes black. She wakes up to discover she has no idea who or where she is, or why this unfamiliar hot guy is asleep in the chair by her bed, and then the book is over. (Clearly this is my poorly executed attempt at creating a story from the bowels of my imagination . . . and this is why I leave the storytelling to the professionals.)

Had this story existed, it would have earned its place as an inductee into the newest genre of romance I’ve noticed, something I’m labeling Dark Romance. I’m seeing it bleed the lines between Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, even Sci-Fi Romance, and my twisted black heart couldn’t be happier. Lately, perhaps inexplicably, I’ve been more interested in the stories that make you work for that happy ending than in the tales that offer up the HEA without a lot of fuss.

Unholy Ghosts by Stacia KaneMy obsession with the darker side of romance became abundantly clear to me after reading The Downside Ghosts series by Stacia Kane. I noticed right away that the writing was phenomenal, so I knew I’d enjoy the story, but I was amazed at how desperately the romantic in me was screaming for a particular outcome. Quick rundown: The heroine of the story is a witch who’s addicted to pills and winds up getting roped into working for her dealer because she’s late on a payment, but if her employer gets wind of any of this, then she’s out on the streets, and she grew up on them, so she knows just how scary that outcome would be.  Not romantic-sounding, is it? But let me just say, those were some of the sexiest 3 books I’ve read. And I can’t say romantic; they’re plain sexy. Kane mixes grit with her passion, making the chemistry almost dangerous. You’re aware of it from the very first (steamy?) scene.

A couple made out against the gritty stucco wall on the side of the club. Chess watched them for a second, embarrassed to do so but unable to turn away, something quiet and small twisting in her chest.

The girl was a little thing, platinum blond, in a mini-skirt and a pair of platform heels that looking like they weighed more than her entire body. Her thin legs crossed at the ankle behind the guy’s waist, while her tiny, pale hands dug into his back. Chess couldn’t see her face; it was almost entirely hidden by the guy’s hands, cupping her cheeks like he thought the bones might break. Chess didn’t think she’d ever been touched like that. A pang of pure envy ran through her.

The girl caressed the back of his neck and lifted her hands to twine her fingers in his hair. His hips pressed forward, pinning her against the wall, and he dipped his head to kiss her throat. The light caught the prominent ridge of his brow and the crooked bump of his nose.  

Unholy Ghosts

So, after my run-in with Ms. Kane’s books I found myself hungry for stories that had a razor-sharp edge. What piqued my interest most was when answers normally given in a romance-driven story were purposefully being held back. “Does she love him?” “Does he love her?” “Are they gonna push through this?” “Is it going to work out?” And my interest spiked further when I saw the book had at least a few reviews saying things like “What kind of ending is that?” “WTH?” or “OMG, I can’t believe it, my heart is in pieces!”

Magic to the Bone by Devon MonkAnd thank goodness, I found some. I was lucky enough to discover Devon Monk’s Allie Beckstrom series, Carolyn Crane’s Disillusionists series, J.A. Saare’s Dead, Undead, or Somewhere in Between, and recently discovered Allison Pang’s A Brush of Darkness, to name but a few. Every time I’d dive into one of these books, even though I expect the unexpected, I was still amazed when the wrench is inevitably thrown in the storyline sending the couple back to square 1 . . . well, maybe square 1.1 .

Each of these authors push their heroines—and their readers—beyond the standard levels of frustration with endings like: Being sent 100 years in the future by a demon just when you’ve decided you’re going to give this love thing a chance, or having your memory wiped by your boyfriend just after informing him that you don’t really love him because you still love the other guy and then that other guy is crushed because he thinks you’ve just changed your mind, or waking up from a week-long concussion after a huge battle to discover you can’t remember the last few weeks (including the part where you met and feel in love with this really great guy). You’ll have to read the books to find out which ending goes with which though. *evil grin*

So what is it about the brooding, un-easy side of love that I find so much more interesting these days? The men are as equally delicious, the women are just as tough, but I’ve found that the challenges that your favorite couple have to go through before they can end up where you need/want them to, makes the eventual good bits all the more sweet. And now I understand what Aerosmith means, when they sing “Life’s a journey not a destination” . . . well, actually, okay, so Ralph Waldo Emerson might have said it first, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

Am I a sadist for enjoying books that leave me slightly dissatisfied? Does it make the romance less tender if the journey is bathed in amnesia and kidnapping instead of chocolate and roses? All I can say is don’t knock it till you try it. Maybe you could take a walk on the dark side and find out for yourself.

For more on how the Paranormal Romance subgenre is branching out, check out Aliza Mann's post Beyond Para'normal': Redefining the Edge in Paranormal Romance.”


Rose image courtesy of oseillo via Flickr.


Jessica Turner reviews Urban Fantasy, Paranormal and Sc-Fi Romances on her site The Spinecracker and is a trained chef who lives in San Diego with her very Irish husband.

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Carrie Strickler
1. DyslexicSquirrel
If you're a sadist, so am I. That's one of the reasons I love Karen Marie Moning's Fever series. The ending was so worth it.
Jessica Turner
2. TheSpinecracker
@Dyslexic Oh yeah, Barrons is ubber infuriating! :D

...what other Dark Romance books did you abolsutely love?
3. JulieYMandKAC
Wonderful article Jess! I'm still a sucker for the obvious and inevitable HEA of a true Romance book but once in a while it's nice to shake things up with a great story like the ones you mentioned. You're right, the writing in those books is it would have to be to ensure readers still love you and want to keep reading even after making them go through so much poop!
4. Spaz
BRAVO Jessica!!! You know I'm totally on board with you on this, seeing all the books you mention are in my Top Favorites! And, we are totally sadists :P
Jessica Turner
5. TheSpinecracker
@Julie: LOL, yes I think "poop" is the technical term. love it!

@Spaz: Should we make T-shirts?! "I'm a sadist hear me RAWR"
6. SharonS
you nailed it! I am a dark romance lover too. I haven't read Unholy Ghosts, but it is very high on my list and JA Saare is a genius! I love that story and can't not wait for the next one. Dark romances are so full of passion (not just the sex kind) there is anger, jealousy, angst, betrayl, greed...all those *dark feelings that people try to hide. I love it when a book stirs up those emotions in me.
Jessica Turner
7. TheSpinecracker
@SharonS: First off, you must go read Unholy Ghosts (and should probably go ahead and by all three books in that series). You have a reading assignment! LOL

Yes, I think you're exactly right. "Passion" is not defined as easily as "romance" is. Passion is allowed to include those unpleasant emotions that so often accompany love. Explosions can't take place without a little fire! You are spot on.
8. SharonS
@Spinecracker: Yes, ma'am! Will there be a test at the end ;)

I think I will go get them (looks at ARC pile, looks at credit card bill. shakes head. I am so weak...)

and I *love explosions ;)
10. JenM
I like dark and angsty in all of my books, even the traditional romances. For example, the best romance I read recently was called Fallen From Grace by Laura Leone. The hero is a high-class male prostitute who goes through hell trying to get free of that life. As for UF, the darker the better. Have you read the Horngate Witches series by Diana Pharaoh Francis? Pocket After Dark offered Bitter Night as a free read last month and it blew me away. I just finished the second book, Crimson Wind, and it was just as good as the first one. It's very dark. The tone is very similar to Jennifer Estep's Elemental Assassin series (another one that I would highly recommend if you like dark UF) although the plots are completely different.
11. ReaderCarolyn
I can't help but love angst, or would that be that I'm a fan of love angst? Well, either way, throw roadblocks up and let me dangle, not knowing if an HEA is in sight. I think it takes a certain mentality to like not having everything tied up in a pretty bow. Yes, I'm saying we're mental. *g* Of course, I like my pretty bows, too. I'm just a sucker for a well-written story.
Virginia Campbell
12. VirginiaCampbell
Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance is based on a harsher, darker world with escalated drama and violence. The heightened tension leads to more intense sensual situations. All of these elements combine for a knockout punch, but they have to handled just right to avoid overkill and remain readable. One feature of Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance that really appeals to me is the natural evolution of strong, kick-booty female characters!
Jessica Turner
13. TheSpinecracker
@JenM: OMG, I can't believe that I missed that read last month on PAD! Yes, I've been wanting to dive into Diana Pharoah Francis' books, but just haven't had the chance. Now, I'm moving it up the list.

I'm actually reading Estep's Tangled Threads now, and hope to have a small preview for you here, on H&H soon. Fun series!

@ReaderCarolyn: I'm totally fine with being "mental" ... so long as I have company :D

@VirginiaC: I completely agree about kick-booty female leads! They are the best superheroes. Do you have a favorite?
14. Marta Acosta
Hi, Jessica, great list and I loved Stacia's books (and am anxiously waiting for the next). I'm not a romance reader and I prefer darker grittier urban fantasies. I adore ambiguity and tension, so I'm adding these other books on my to-buy list! (Carolyn Crane's Disillusionists books call to me like sirens.)
Jessica Turner
15. TheSpinecracker
@Marta: Why hello, oh great one. *bows graciously to you*

Grit, Tension, Dark you're speaking my language. I love talented authors, like yourself, who don't shy away from the tough stuff when the story needs it. I'm just obsessed with it.

Hey, got any "pull" for Ms Kane's next book? I'm not too attached to my right kidney if that helps at all :P
16. Marta Acosta
Hi, Jessica, thanks for the kind words! No, all I know about Stacia's next is that it's called Sacrificial Magic. I just sent her a message and told her you'd love a review copy. (I'll buy my copy!) I'm sure she would be a great guest on your blog. Her contact info and great excerpts are on her website.

As an aside, I do not get all the authors without websites, particularly the YA authors who just want you to join their Facebook Fan page. Seriously, WTF.
Carrie Strickler
17. DyslexicSquirrel
@Spinecracker: Gah, way to go me with the late reply. When I read the last Fever book I was literally yelling at the book while I was reading. Good thing no one was around...

I love JR Ward's new Fallen Angels series (and of course her BDB series is always awesome). I'm kind of newer to the darker side of romance. I've read a lot of paranormal, but most of what I've read in the past was all historical lol.

I have a newly formed addiction to the Downside Ghosts series, though. I started reading it after I read this article and now I'm hooked.
Jessica Turner
18. TheSpinecracker
Squirrel: Now I get to be the one who appologizes for the late response! LOL

I loved Ward's BDB series but have yet to start the Angels' series.... it's on the list somewhere.

I am jumping up and down that you're reading and loving the Downside series. Sexy right?! You have to spill. Are you done with all three? Do you have Terrible fever? always up to chat anytime ;)
Carrie Strickler
19. DyslexicSquirrel
Man, I need to make a new list. I lost mine somehow when I got a new computer. ): Cause I actually had a LIST. It was all OCD, divided by release date of new books and already released books by author lol

I was lost after like the first chapter of the first book! I bought the first one as an e-book cause I had a day off from work and ordered the other two from Amazon. Well, I finished the first one, and Amazon was taking waaaaay too long to send my shipment, so I bought the e-book version of the second one (which made me cry, by the way) so I didn't have to wait lol! I got the books when I was on the last three chapters of the second book.

I am now a little obsessive about the series and I'm addicted to Kane's website (to put it lightly). Doesn't matter when the next book comes out, it will not be soon enough! I don't even care that the next book is supposedly a little more Lex involved (cause Terrible is my favorite, hands down!), I just Want. It. Now. It's a great series!
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