So, I was thinking some more about romance in SFF – about “pure” romances, where the romance is the point of the story.
I completely agree with a recent commenter that the romance in THE SCORPIO RACES (by, as I’m sure you know, Maggie Stiefvater) was really well handled. The reason it worked for me – and everything about this book worked for me – was because both Sean Kendrick and Puck Connelly were really focused on something other than the romance – on the Scorpio Races, in fact; and on getting other super-important aspects of their lives to work out. The romance in this story was more something that was waiting for later. You can see that it may well work out for Sean and Puck, in a nebulous ever-after that takes place after the book itself is over.
What worked particularly well for me was how both protagonists were so focused on getting other things in order that they really did not spend any emotional time at all dwelling on each other’s hotness and pining after each other and being all obsessive about their budding relationship. In other words, Stiefvater wrote them as complicated protagonists with real problems, and the romance was only tangentally one of those problems and definitely not the ultimate focus for either protagonist.
How about “pure” romances, where the romance is a central feature of the plot?
Oddly enough, considering how little contemporary YA I read, it’s contemporary titles that come to mind when I think about romances that really worked for me. Like, THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson, which instantly became one of my top-ten favorite books of all time when I read it – was that just last year? Imagine, a contemporary YA winning a slot on my all-time-favorites list! Who would have expected that, right? And the whole story is about romance. Like this: Nothing has been like this, nothing has made me feel like I do right now walking up the hill to Joe’s, like I have a window in my chest where sunlight is pouring in.
Except the book really isn’t about romance – not really. It’s about grief and recovery. (Despite this, the story isn’t a downer. It’s really not. You should go read it! Seriously!) So maybe, given that the romance could be seen as central but isn’t really, this book isn’t a fair example?
So contrast that with, say, CATALOG OF THE UNIVERSE by Margaret Mahy. The romance isn’t the only thing going on in this little gem of a novel – we also have the standard theme (for YA) of figuring out who you are. But the romance is certainly more central to this one than to Stiefvater’s book. And CATALOG is completely charming all the way through, beautifully written with humor and life infusing every page.
But then, how about “pure” romance, if there is such a thing? Are there any that really and truly work for me? Of course there are. And here I find myself switching back to adult titles. For example, THE CHOCOLATE THIEF by Florand. This is a straight contemporary romance, and very charming it is; light and quick, a story you’re clearly not supposed to take too seriously, yet with (behind the humor) one or two serious themes. Plus, mmm, chocolate!
Or, speaking of charming, how about Sarah Addison Allen? Her novels may be adult rather than YA – though some protagonists are certainly YA protagonists. Certainly the themes – of finding one’s place in the world, of coming to terms with family – are very YA themes. And one thing we can expect from Allen is one (or more) romance that develops into a satisfying, mature relationship. It’s remarkable how much she can do in such a short novel, and how she can handle a quite complicated cast without getting lost. Really, she’s a writer to study. But you won’t be studying technique the first time your read one of her novels; no. You’ll just be enjoying the working out of the relationships.
We get that kind of healthy, mature relationship relatively rarely in SFF, it seems. I believe a commenter recently mentioned The Sharing Knife series by Bujold in this context. Because we may have Giant! Flying! Bats! and various other things to deal with, but the point of the whole story is the romance, which matures into a solid marriage. It is such a delightful series if you are pleased by watching a relationship work out and don’t necessarily need nonstop action. For me it is SUCH a comfort read, possibly my number-one series to reach for when I don’t want to start a new book and just want something to wrap myself up in and enjoy.
So there’s a short list of the kind of romance novels that really do work for me – romances that are amazingly angst-free and often build, or might be expected to build into the kind of relationship in which some normal, sane person might really want to be.