You know, I should probably add that despite my recent post, I have nothing at all against a well-handled romance in a SFF novel. I like to have other things going on in addition to the romance, but a secondary romantic thread is a pleasure to read.
Take Maskelle in Martha Wells’ WHEEL OF THE INFINITE. Maskelle develops a fine relationship with Rian in that novel, without the least hint of angst, because she’s old enough to know what she wants and, though he’s younger than she is, so is Rian. There’s no fumbling around with how to do a relationship in this story – in fact, it’s hard to think of any other relationship in any book that works more smoothly from the very beginning than this one. This particular romance is a satisfying thread through the story, but it’s hard to even call it a sub-plot because the relationship really works itself out too easily to be a sub-plot.
We get almost the same kind of satisfyingly smooth relationship in Gillian Bradshaw’s ISLAND OF GHOSTS, one of my all-time favorite books. It’s not like the relationship between Ariantes and Pervica is problem-free, actually, because first there’s the culture clash what with him being a Sarmatian (a steppe nomad) and her being British and a Roman subject. And then there’s the little problem with the druids and stuff. And, sure, Pervica very reasonably wonders whether she can possibly match the (deceased) “golden princess” of Ariantes’ previous life. But the thing is, Ariantes doesn’t wonder about that. He falls for Pervica and sets out win her, and he does, and they suit each other perfectly, and you can definitely see the happily-ever-after coming for them, and it’s all, as I say, very satisfying.
Or how about the romance threaded through THE CURSE OF CHALION by Lois McMaster Bujold? I don’t mean the dashing rescue of Iselle by Bergon of course, though that was fine in its way; I mean the romance that was much more integral to the main story, the wistful gazing-from-afar thing where Cazaril slowly falls for Betriz but thinks he is too old for her, and then you get the maybe-they’ll-work-out, maybe-they-won’t thing through the whole story. Of course Caz feels older than he really is, and Betriz is not so very young, and they are actually a fine match. If you’ve read this book, then you know there is so much else going on in this story – this romance is just a thread! But this book wouldn’t have been the same without that lovely slow-motion romance.
Sometimes we get to see more than a romance developing, too. Sometimes we get to watch a romantic relationship first develop and then settle into a wonderful marriage. I’m thinking here of the Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly – my favorite mystery series ever, set in 1830s New Orleans (The first book is A FREE MAN OF COLOR). Benjamin meets Rose early in the series, falls for her, courts her, and eventually marries her and then they go on with married life. You can just do a lot, with no need to rush things, when you’re writing a long-running series.
Though sometimes there’s no need to watch a romantic relationship slowly develop. Sometimes it’s already established when the story opens – as in, for example, THOSE WHO HUNT THE NIGHT, a truly outstanding paranormal-ish novel, also by Hambly. Of course the vampire, Simon Ysidro, is a great character. Of course he is. A bit scary, true; he is definitely not the sparkly sort of vampire. But what makes the book is the relationship between James Asher and his wife Lydia. Asher is a linguist and he used to be a spy, and Lydia is actually a medical doctor – pretty unusual in the gas-lamp era. Both are extremely well drawn. It’s hard to think of another writer who delivers truly excellent characterization more consistently than Hambly.
And what I want to point out here is that in every one of these romantic relationships, the people involved are mature adults. One of these days, I need to think about YA relationships a bit more and figure out why some YA romances annoy me while others draw me right in or are even genuinely moving, but one thing is, I think, already clear: Whether the reader is being drawn along while the protagonist begins a new relationship or is coming into a story where the relationship is already well-established, it’s probably just hard for a YA protagonist to match the confidence and self-assurance of an adult protagonist. And, for me, that kind of romantic confidence and self-assurance are often very satisfying.