Relationships in SFF

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!

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12 thoughts on “Relationships in SFF”

  1. Have you ever read The Lost Conspiracy, by Frances Hardinge? A relationship between sisters is central. And Ana and Thea and Megan Whalen Turner all love it!

  2. Anne Bishop has the page turner gift, doesn’t she? But boy does the Black Jewels series have flaws.

    Um… how about the sisters’ relationship in HOUSE OF SHADOWS? That between Bertaud and Karaithin in GRIFFIN MAGE? It’s subtle, but strong and the thread that holds them together. (I’ve been rereading it.)

    For that matter, MWT’s CONSPIRACY OF KINGS.

    CJC’s FORTRESS series, where the main relationship is non romantic between Tristen and Cefwyn. Also the Rider books, relationships, especially dealing with hero worship in the first, and no romance. (I wish she’d write another.)

    Maybe Freda Warrington’s GRAIL OF THE SUMMER STARS, which I finished about fifteen minutes ago. Sibling relationships are very important, there is romance and some drooling over looks. if not to the ‘chiseled abs’ extent, besides not many characters are actually human in it. Confusion of identity, and some angst not particularly in the main romantic pair, but a mother and son. Or so is my first take on it.

    Most of Rosemary Sutcliff’s work although I don’t know how available she is these days. I read her growing up, and she’d probably be categorized YA now.

    An awful lot of McKillip seems to turn on parent-child relationships.

    By the way, apropos of the GRIFFIN books, I was wondering: if griffins can be ‘called’ is there someone out there who might have the calling of people? It would be like people speaking in Hale’s Bayern books. I don’t see any reason there couldn’t be.

  3. A second vote for Frances Hardinge. None of her novels to date feature romance, but all have strong relationships. The orphaned heroines of both FLY BY NIGHT and A FACE LIKE GLASS develop prickly but touching relationships with two rather unlikely father figures.

    Also, the relationship of cousins Kate and Cecy in SORCERY & CECILIA. Both girls have love interests, but I think their bond with one another is what makes the book memorable.

    I’m currently reading Helene Wecker’s debut novel THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI. I’m only halfway through, but at this point the two main characters are developing a friendship based on their difference to everyone else around them. I don’t think this relationship will turn into a romance, and will be rather disappointed if it does.

  4. Outside SFF, Veronica Mars reminds me that mystery series very often have a non-romantic key relationship, obviously going back to the ur-source of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I expect that echoes into SF mystery series as well, though the only one I can think of offhand is Asimov’s Lije Baley/R. Daneel Olivaw books (which I can’t recommend to you).

  5. The Scorpio Races seems to have strong family relationships, though there is also an understated romance. But I think you have read it already?

    The Dubious Hills. Haven’t read it recently, but it is all about family, blood-related or not, with an orphan taking care of her younger siblings and everyone else.

    I think Heather Tomlinson’s books are also more about family relationships – I don’t remember about Aurelie, but Swan Maiden and Toads and Diamonds definitely are. I didn’t love Toads and Diamonds though.

    I did love Jane Lindskold’s Firekeeper series. Don’t know if I’d like it so much now, and in many ways the focus is on adventure and discovery at least as much as relationships.

    Elizabeth Wein’s Arthurian cycle is amazing. If you have never read it, look for The Winter Prince to start. I don’t recall any romance in the sense of eros – though they are definitely romantic in the sense of a grand story where things have significance. It’s sort of historical fiction that reads like fantasy – but you’d be hard-pressed to spot any magic. They are also extremely intense.

  6. Thought of a couple more: Carol Berg’s LIGHTHOUSE duo. A *very* understated romance, and a strong affection between males of various ages and no blood relation. Her Collegia Magica trilogy (start with THE SPIRIT LENS) is also very understated on the romance with strong relationships between unrelated people. And a strong family relationship set up in the first, carried over.

    i think all of Pamela Dean’s books have strong relationshipsalthough I’ve never cared for the trilogy. Mention of DUBIOUS HILLS reminds me of Jo Walton’s LIFELODE, which is sort of that book crossed with a Gothic, crossed in Jo Walton’s brain to be unique. I don’t quite believe in the relationships depicted, but they’re a very strong part of the story.

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who didn’t warm to TOADS & DIAMONDS. Did it feel unbalanced to you?

  7. Yes – in THE DUBIOUS HILLS, romance is just not an option for the main character as her community is so small and isolated that there are no males in the right age group who aren’t blood relatives. Plus, she’s got a lot of other things on her plate.

    LIFELODE doesn’t feature much romance, but lust for an outsider is certainly a major cause of dissension in a previously stable four-way relationship.

  8. Toads and Diamonds may have been unbalanced (it seems like one of the sisters does much more than the other), but I think it is something in the Oriental-storytelling aesthetic which I dislike: perhaps emotional detachment, a sense of fatalism (whatever happens is what was meant to happen; also tied to lack of character development since they don’t have to make hard choices), lack of dramatic tension, flat characters or caricatures, lack of morality: characters may be harmful or helpful but that doesn’t seem to make them or their actions good or evil, or at least the storyteller won’t say or even imply so.

    I similarly disliked Bridge of Birds (superficially funny, but as I recall the characters are all caricatures), Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (actually kind of cute, but I didn’t love it), Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix (just didn’t care).

    On the other hand, I really liked Book of a Thousand Days and enjoyed Curt Benjamin’s series.

  9. Thanks for the pointer, Charlotte! No, I haven’t; and with a list of recommenders like that, I’m sure I should add that one by Hardinge to my TBR pile. I still haven’t managed to read anything at all by Hardinge, but any day now, surely!

    Elaine — good point about the Fortress series, that’s a perfect example. I thought about adding the Cloud’s Rider series to my post, but honestly, it’s been a good long time since I read this series, so I wasn’t sure I dared comment about it without re-reading it.

    I never thought that someone might have a “gift” for calling actual human people! Hmm. Good thing I’m done with that series or I might have to work that in.

    Cheryl — I forgot about SORCERY AND CECILIA, but yes, that’s a perfect example. I really liked the first book much better than the other two; just wondering, what was your take on the sequels?

    Joshua — I’ve never heard of THE DUBIOUS HILLS; guess I should look that one up. I didn’t actually love either of the Tomlinson books I’ve read — in T & D, my suspension of disbelief was strained both by the way the royal characters reacted to the jewels, and by how long it took for anyone to get the connection between the snakes and the rats. In THE SWAN MAIDEN, the protagonist seemed pretty dim, like she was screwing up her life on purpose. I tried SILVER PHOENIX and really wanted to like it, but I think it was written for much younger readers who don’t care about believability or coherence. For me it was a DNF. I think the characters in BRIDGE OF BIRDS are broadly drawn, but I think that was deliberate and I for me, it worked really well.

    I totally agree that Wein’s Arthurian series is amazing. I read THE SUNBIRD first and it blew me away, then I went back and read the rest. They are indeed extremely intense — they almost define the upper limit of intensity for YA, I think.

  10. Rachel – yes, the two sequels to SORCERY & CECILIA just seem to lack the spark that makes the original so good. Perhaps because they were written much later to fulfill a publishing contract? The first book reads as if it was written just for fun!
    Incidentally, the recent anthology QUEEN VICTORIA’s BOOK OF SPELLS contains a story by Ellen Kusher and Caroline Stevermer which is written in the epistolary style and reminded me a lot of SORCERY & CECILIA. Unfortunately, the anthology as a whole didn’t do much for me.

  11. Yes, that was how I felt about the sequels, too; like they were written by the numbers, but without a lot of enthusiasm. Too bad! But I see I still do have them on my shelf, so I did like them enough to keep them.

  12. Joshua, yes, it was that the snake girl had to go out and do things, accomplish things, while the jewel girl got to sit in a palace and fall in love with a prince. I also didn’t connect with the characters, they seemed deliberately distanced, etc., rather like you. Rachel’s not around, but I’m wondering what was wrong with the royal’s reaction to the jewels? Seems reasonable they’d want to keep them, certainly that they’d fear them getting into rebel hands.
    As for the snakes and vermin issue… yeah, I can see that, although I’ve also read supposedly accurate reports of real people missing equally obvious interactions.
    i also didn’t care for the SWAN MAIDEN; character was a twit for far too long.

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