Jul 19 2012 5:00pm

SF/F as the Gateway Drug to Romance Novels: McCaffrey, Carey, Lackey, Feehan and More!

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffreyEvery 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.

Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes LackeyThese 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.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. JamesOne 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.

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline CareyThe 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.

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Darlene Marshall
1. DarleneMarshall
I loved the world building in Kushiel's Dart. The pantheon of Elua's disciples and how they were worshipped demonstrated that there are new ideas in fantasy and science fiction waiting to be explored. It was also a beautiful love story, and I've read all the books in the extended series with a great deal of pleasure.

The SF novel I recommend to people as my favorite romance in the genre is Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold. I can hardly wait for the next novel in the Barrayar universe, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance.
2. AMG
Lackey's By The Sword introduced me to romance in Fantasy novels, along with McCaffrey's Pern books.
I highly recommend Sharon Shinn's books to anyone who loves light fantasy with a dollop of romance.
Also, with the more gentle fantasy is Juliet Marillier. The last third of Daughter of the Forest has me sobbing-alternating between despair and joy. Wolfskin is amazing also.
Also a shout out to Guy Gavriel Kay's books--not romances per se, but the world building is crazy, the prose is beautiful, and there is some heartbreaking love stories included.
Darlene Marshall
3. DarleneMarshall
@AMG--I thought of mentioning GG Kay's books, but they so seldom have a happy ending for protagonists in love that I refrained. They are, however, stunningly well written. I need to re-read A Song for Arbornne.
4. Barb in Maryland
I can concour with Shards of Honor, which is still my favorite of that series by Bujold. (Sad to admit that I am not a fan of Miles--I much prefer his mother!) My absolute favorite Bujold books are the three Chalion books--The Hallowed Hunt has a very strong romance.
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden Universe books are fabulous romantic space opera. I started reading them long enough ago that Agent of Change was the starting point. It is more action/adventure. Conflict of Honors is a more romantic place to start. Warning: Local Custom is a secret-baby book; Scout's Progress is one of my favorites.
Oh, what the heck--they are all wonderful!
I can also second AMG's suggestion of Sharon Shinn. I will confess to being a total fan girl--but all of her books have strong romantic elements.
Also a Juliet Marillier fan--I have the Bridei trilogy on my keep shelf--Dark Mirror is the first in that series.
Lackey's Elemental Masters series--the first, Serpent's Shadow, is a great retelling of Snow White.
Must stop now, else I will natter on all night!
Rae Alley
5. rszalley
@AMG - By the Sword is actually the first Valdemar book I picked up. Then, bc it was mentioned, I had to read the Vows & Honor duo and go find all the S&S anthologies.

@Barb - the Elemental Masters is fun, the first one I picked up was actually Fire Rose which isn't officially, but is, part of the series.

Now I'm going to have to give Sharon Shinn a try, and maybe attemt Marillier again.
6. Isabel C.
Love the Elemental Masters stuff. Love the Valdemar stuff too, but in a more nostalgic way, for the most part--it is really hard for me to give much of a damn about teenagers with low self-esteem these days--although Tarma and Kethry still completely rock.

The Terre D'Ange novels are great, and I actually think they get better with the second two trilogies.

McCaffrey...well, reading her adult books now, I can't get past the rape-is-love and the virgin/whore issues, but the Harper Hall trilogy doesn't have those, and is made of awesome. Menolly/Sebell FTW, as the kids say.

And yay Sharon Shinn! I particularly like the last book in the Twelve Houses series, with the scarred veteran heroine and the older scholarly hero.

I also love the Chalion series. And while Naomi Novik's Temeraire books don't have a lot of romance, the bits that do appear make me very happy. Jane and Laurence rock.
7. Isabel C.
Oh! And Robin McKinley. The Damar books, Sunshine, Chalice, Rose Daughter...even Deerskin, although that one's *heavy* on the angst. (But the hero is awesome, and also there are puppies. Puppies!)
Aly O'Hare
8. wingZER0angel
Lackey introduced me to fantasy. I read Arrows of the Queen when I was like 14 and then read all the rest of the Valdemar books as soon as I could get my hands on them. I
9. amg
I hear your comment about GGKay, but there are some happy endings, albiet somewhat bittersweet. Lord of Emperors/Lions of Al Rassan/most recent bk (I'm away from my bkshelf, so can't remember name), have good/realistic endings for romance. But the fantasy is so gorgeous, I can forgive.

Glad someone mentioned Chalion bks. I can reread Paladin of Souls again and again.
Jennifer Proffitt
10. JenniferProffitt
I 100% credit Mercedes Lackey as my gateway author into romance!
11. poison girl
Another amazing author to check out is Anne Bishop. she has three series out and i LOVE all of them! All three series had me laughing, crying, and wishing more than anyhting i was in those stories. Theres
1 The Dark Jewels Trilogy
2 Tir Alainn
3 Ephemera
12. dej
Andre Norton's Witch World was my beginning. :)
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