Basically the truth is, in fantasy, I can take or leave romance, whereas I’m nearly always caught when the primary relationship is not a romantic one.
I think that’s because romances are EVERYWHERE, and too often either:
1. The protagonist is female, and her love interest is an ubër-male, who is described in very over-the-top terms (he is SO HOT, he is SO BEAUTIFUL, he is THE PERFECT IDEAL OF MASCULINITY. All the way through the story, the protagonist swoons over his chiseled features and well-defined abs – even in the midst of a life-and-death struggle. Which the good guys will win, naturally, due to the ubër-man’s extraordinary fighting skills. Plus he is probably rich and has amazing fashion sense.
All this masculine perfection gets tiresome, frankly. Honestly, I would prefer less physical perfection, or at least fewer perfect dudes who are also millionaires. As though the only guy worth falling for has to look like Fabio and have a private fortune that dwarfs the GDP of the typical small country.
Or, if there is no ubër-man, the romance is –
2. Filled with angst and misunderstanding because the people involved won’t TALK to each other. That is even more tiresome, just because I have a low tolerance for angst.
And a correspondingly low tolerance for romance in a novel when both (1) and (2) apply.
Whereas if the (or a) primary relationship in the story is not a romantic relationship, well, that right there is unusual and interesting. It also calls for more thought from the author, right? Can’t fall into the standard romance tropes, so we have to actually think about the way people actually interact with one another. I think that leads to better writing — or maybe it’s more that better writers are usually the ones who think of emphasizing this kind of relationship.
So I thought I would put together a brief list – a starter kit, as it were – of stories where a very important (or the most important) relationship in a story is not a romantic relationship.
Starting, unusually for me, with a TV show: Veronica Mars. Because the relationship between Veronica and her father, Keith, is one of the best father-daughter relationships I know of in fiction. Plus, snappy dialogue! Now that the movie is funded – it was just about the first Kickstarter project I donated to – I guess I should watch the second season. But I really did enjoy the first season, and the relationship between Veronica and her father is a big reason why.
On the subject of parent-child relationships, I recently mentioned Anne Bishop’s Black Jewel’s trilogy as a work that I can easily pick up and put down. That’s true now, and I think this trilogy has some pretty serious flaws, but the first time I read it, it was a real page-turner for me, and this was mostly due not to the big stuff going on in the plot, but to the relationships working themselves out over the course of the series. In fact, there are a lot of things I like about this trilogy, and one of them is the interaction between Saetan and the child Jaenelle. And, for that matter, between Saetan and his two adult sons, too.
There are definitely some excellent parent-child relationships in SFF even when the relationship is not one of blood. How about the relationship between Moon and Stone in Martha Wells’ Raksura trilogy? I love the way Wells handled that. And, in fact, I loved the way she handled the relationship between Moon and his actual mother in the third book, even though we hardly see the mother.
Another example is the relationship between John and Narses in Gillian Bradshaw’s historical novel THE BEARKEEPER’S DAUGHTER, which is also unique because Narses is an eunuch — but he’s still definitely a father-figure for John. Narses is a fabulous secondary character, but in fact John also has a complex relationship with his mother, Theodora. (That’s Theodora as in, Justinian and Theodora, if you know about that bit of history.) And Bradshaw did it again with CLEOPATRA’S HEIR, when she gave her primary attention to the relationship between Caesarion (Julius Caesar’s son by Cleopatra, if you’re familiar with that bit of history) and the Egyptian merchant Ani. These are both great books, particularly the latter.
Another somewhat unusual example of a parent-child relationship is the one between Captain Laurence and Temeraire in Naomi Novik’s excellent book, TEMERAIRE. Sure, Temeraire is a dragon, but still. And this is certainly the central relationship in the story!
Beyond parent-child relationships, a couple of great sibling relationships come to mind. As in, for example, Sarah Rees Brennen’s THE DEMON’S LEXICON – there may be romance going on around the edges, but the primary relationship is certainly the one between Nick and his brother Alan.
And the relationship between Locke and Jean in THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA by Scott Lynch, and even more so in the sequel, RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES. There’s another strong brother-brother relationship, though of course the “brothers” aren’t really related. The second book ended on a pretty intense cliffhanger, but I hear the third book is coming out this year, so we will hopefully find our protagonists getting out of the corner they were thoroughly painted into in the second book.
Okay, with that, I’m running low. Anybody else got a title or two to add to this list? I’d personally appreciate some suggestions for great books that emphasize character and relationships, but are light on romance – I think I overdosed on angsty romance this month!