Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Crossing Genre Boundaries

Do you realize I have eight romances on my Kindle? Eight. Wow.

Four are by Laura Florand – that number will only go up; I’m definitely in line for The Chocolate Touch when it comes out and anyway, I’m sure I’ll eventually buy everything she’s written. Also two by Ruthie Knox, and two by Mina Esguerra (though I’m not sure one of those counts, since it’s really romantic fantasy).

Anyway, eight is a lot for me, since romance has never been a genre to which I’ve paid much attention.

And why have I started reading romances? I can easily identify proximate three reasons:

a) a review at Angieville that made me try Sarah Addison Allen (who, btw, has another book scheduled for release this coming February). This is what first pulled my attention toward romance.

b) a series of reviews at Chachic’s Book Nook that made me try first Laura Florand and then take a chance on Knox and Esguerra.

c) and low prices for many Kindle ebooks, so that it’s the next thing to risk-free to try a new author. It helps when a book also has a charming title and catchy back cover copy, both of which are true for, say, Interim Goddess of Love by Mina Esguerra. Seriously, doesn’t that title make you smile?

But the ultimate reason I’ve started to read a few romances amid all the fantasy and SF and mysteries and nonfiction is that I finally tried a couple that really appealed to me.

Which makes me wonder: What are some really appealing books to recommend to people who don’t read a particular genre? I mean, I would never consider pressing a copy of CJ Cherryh’s Downbelow Station into the hands of an avowed romance fan who doesn’t read SF. Sure, Downbelow Station is a classic award-winning novel, but it is also big, slow-paced, has a huge cast of protagonists, is filled with complicated politics, and contains essentially no romance at all (I say “essentially” because I can’t remember even a faint thread of romance, but don’t want to re-read the book to check.) It would be ridiculous to recommend it to a romance fan just because it is a great book.

But then, what SF novel would you recommend to a romance fan? Or to a reader who mostly sticks to fantasy? What secondary-world fantasy novel would you suggest for a friend who’s mostly a fan of mysteries? And like that.

Some are easy to pick!

Fantasy to Romance
For your fan of fantasy, if you want to recommend a romance, you just can’t beat Sarah Addison Allen! Right? There’s just enough of a thread of magic through her stories to make a fantasy reader happy, so they’re perfect to bridge the gap between fantasy and romance. And Allen’s romances are handled with, how shall I put this? With some delicacy. They are not highly eroticized, which is another factor I think might appeal to readers who have generally avoided romance.

Romance to Fantasy
What if you want to go the other direction, recommend fantasy novels to readers who prefer romance and maybe paranormals, but who aren’t usually drawn to secondary world non-paranormal fantasy? Okay, I get that fantasy-with-a-strong-romance-subplot is not a rare beast. Even so, Bujold’s Sharing Knife series is an obvious pick. What else? Well, the Medair duology by Andrea Höst uses very definite romance tropes, too. I’d also suggest Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn. We get nice development of a secondary world there, and a romance that develops slowly but surely through the whole story. Shinn is a good choice overall, since a lot of her books have a very strong romance component – the Angel series, for example, are all SFF romances.

Romance to SF
Besides Shinn, whose Angel books read more as fantasy than SF, I’d suggest Bujold’s Shards of Honor, particularly for readers of a certain age, because eventually one does start to appreciate a protagonist who’s over twenty-five. For younger readers, um. Right now Höst’s Touchstone Trilogy is kind of on my mind, since it’s probably my favorite read so far this year. Is it okay if the romance doesn’t really start until the second book, or would that be too disappointing to a romance fan?

Fantasy to SF
What about SF for readers who prefer fantasy? No fair choosing fantasies with SF trappings, like Guilt-Edged Ivory by Doris Egan (which ought to be better known, and would be yet another good SFF choice for a romance fan). If you want to choose something that really is no kidding unmistakably SF, what would it be? I’m going to vote for really good space opera. I think you want a story which is fast-paced, with great characterization and catchy dialogue. Something that will draw the reader in immediately and not give him or her time to worry about the SF setting. In other words, Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice. Another good space-opera is Hunting Party by Elizabeth Moon – though I don’t think all her books set in that world are of equal quality. For more consistent quality, Moon’s Vatta’s War series might be a better choice.

Or if you really want to choose something other than space opera? In that case, how about Octavia Butler’s Dawn? Anybody who can read the first few pages and put that one down, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t understand their taste as a reader. It is sociological SF, and of course brilliantly written, because, you know, Octavia Butler.

Literary to SF
Before we stop thinking about Elizabeth Moon, though, I would totally offer The Speed of Dark to a reader who is all into literary and turns his or her nose up at SFF. That is, imo, one of the greatest SF novels ever written.

SF to Fantasy
Speaking of snobs, you do get SF snobs who look down on fantasy. What might you press into such a reader’s hands that might change his mind? That’s tricky, because I think some of this SF vs Fantasy attitude is actually a preference for plot-driven vs character-driven stories (I don’t think this is the whole explanation! Just part of it! Don’t jump on me!). But, stipulating a reader who prefers a plot-driven story, what might you recommend? I’m not generally going to prefer a plot-driven story myself, so it’s hard for me to think of examples. But how about Tim Powers? I think Declare might be a good choice. Especially since Powers’ books also have the rigor that some SF fans value, though it’s rigor in historical research rather than physics.

Literary to Fantasy
Come to think of it, Powers might be another good choice for a reader who usually prefers literary fiction. Another fantasy novel I might suggest for someone who usually reads literary would be A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. I think it might have been considered literary or mainstream when it was published, but don’t kid yourself, it’s fantasy. More specifically, it’s magical realism, a big complicated story of generation-spanning scope. Plus, Helprin’s writing is just exquisite.

Mystery to Fantasy
Okay, how about a fan of mysteries who never reads SFF? I think mysteries divide neatly into two categories, so for fans of Sherlock Holms or Agatha Christie, I’d think of the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett, Eric Flint and Guy Gordo. On the other hand, for mystery readers who are into character more than plot, I would think of Barbara Hambly’s Stranger at the Wedding, which is very much a mystery even if it is also a secondary-world fantasy. Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God is also a mystery. Come to think of it, so is Those Who Hunt the Night. I guess it isn’t surprising that so many of Hambly’s fantasy novels utilize the style and tropes of mysteries, since she writes both.

Fantasy to Historical
I don’t honestly think it’s necessary to suggest particular historical novels for readers of fantasy. I think fans of fantasy probably already read historicals, since historicals are basically magic-free fantasy. But just in case: people! If you haven’t already read anything by Elizabeth Wein, are you missing out, or what? My personal suggestion is, start with The Sunbird, but hey, really, with Wein, you can start anywhere. Anyway, the books connected to that one have an Arthurian thing going, so they’re sort of fantasy anyway.

And if you haven’t yet read anything by Gillian Bradshaw? Yeah, you should totally go do that, too. Especially if you like romances. Try A Beacon At Alexandria and go from there.

Historical to Fantasy
Is there anybody who reads historicals but not fantasy? Just in case you happen to know someone like that, there are a zillion great historical fantasies, by which I mean fantasies set in a real historical setting, but with magic. If I had to pick just one to suggest, then maybe it would be Judith Riley’s In Pursuit of the Green Lion (if you like a European historical setting) or perhaps Lord of the Two Lands by Judith Tarr for a Greek/Egypt setting.

Or for fantasies that aren’t exactly historical fantasies, but have a historical feel, maybe Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, or else Temeraire by Naomi Novik.

Okay, I don’t suppose I hit suggestions for all possible genre-to-genre combinations – if I tried, I guess it would be, uh, let’s see, the genres are SF, fantasy, mystery, historical, romance, horror, western, and literary, right? So that would be, what, 56 different possible genre to genre combinations? Yeah, not going to try to be complete! But if you’re so inclined, feel free to add a combination I left out, or add to any combination I included!

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10 Comments Crossing Genre Boundaries

  1. Matthew

    You recommend so many authors that I love that it tempts me to try the romance novels (which is not a genre I delve into).

  2. Rachel

    Hah! Success!

    What can I say? It’s not a genre I delved into, either, until all of a sudden I started to.

  3. Elaine t

    Romance to SF, perhaps Asaro’s Skolian series, which I haven’t actually read, but I’ve seen them called romances with SF elements, and my husband (who won’t touch genre romance) liked the first few entries.

    And there’s several Jane Eyre retellings out recently that might help a romance reader in to the SF/F genre. I finished IRONSKIN not long ago and it was better than I expected. That would be Rom -> Fantasy. Then there’s Shinn’s JENNA STARBORN which is Rom ->SF.

    Fantasy – SF Rosemary Kirsten’s STEERSWOMAN which reads like fantasy but turns into planetary SF.

    Western – SF CJC’s RIDER duo.

    Have you read TOOTH & CLAW yet? What did you think of it?

  4. Maureen E

    If it worked to jump into the series at this point, which I don’t think it does, I’d say A Civil Campaign for Romance to SF too–LMB even dedicates it to “Georgette, Jane and [help my brain is gone–is it Dorothy Sayers or Charlotte Bronte or somebody else?].” However, I highly doubt that anyone starting there would get the full effect, so Shards of Honor is probably better.

    Romance to Fantasy–Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip, maybe? At least I have always found it very swoony. And definitely Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel/Court Duel! (I think you need to read both once, but Court Duel is my favorite and very nearly stands on its own.) Those are both tamer as to content than most romances, but I think they’re aware of the genre.

    Fantasy to Romance–definitely Sarah Addison Allen! I would also say Laura Florand, especially The Chocolate Kiss or Rose for the nice fairy tale touches. (Rose has lovely Beauty & the Beast echoes.) I’m not sure I’ve really read enough in the romance genre to be helpful here, though I know that Eloisa James has a series of fairy tale related books. The one I read INFURIATED me though, because it seemed so historically inaccurate. So take that with a grain of salt.

    Fantasy to SF–Connie Willis’s time travel series, for a certain type of fantasy reader. Other than that, I’m a bit stumped, once you rule out the ones like the Ivory books that seem like fantasy, but exist in an SF world. Bujold, probably, because she writes good fantasy as well.

    Mysteries to Fantasy–maybe The Thief? It does have the kind of plottiness/tangled threads that I tend to associate with mysteries. Or maybe Sorcery and Cecelia. Both of those are written for younger readers but very strong. I feel like there have been a couple of fantasy mysteries published in the last few years, but I can’t remember any of them for the life of me!

    Fantasy to Historical–YES on the EWein, of course. Also, Rosemary Sutcliff, because you really can’t go wrong with her, at least not with her major books which are readily available. I also think Sharon Kay Penman is pretty great, if you’re willing to do tragic Welsh history and longer books.

    Historical to mystery–there are the obvious historical mysteries, like the Gil Cunningham books, or Cadfael, or Y.S. Lee’s Agency series. But I will put in a plug for Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which is the book that turned me into a raving Richard III fangirl, but which is also an excellent mystery. And Tey generally has a kind of historical/academic flavor that I think historical fiction fans would like.

    Historical to Fantasy–I can actually imagine readers who really like Facts and who see historical fiction as Facts presented as Fiction really disliking fantasy. (I don’t know if these people actually exist.) I would start someone like that off on an alternate world, or historical fantasy that’s just barely fantasy. Maybe Jonathan Strange? You could work them up to A College of Magics, or the Dalemark Quartet.

    I identify myself as a genre reader, by which I mean that I read in a number of different genres (all but horror and literary, I think). It’s REALLY HARD to separate out the parts of my brain that like different genres and try to see what might appeal if I didn’t like this other genre which I actually do.

  5. Maureen E

    I don’t see why I can’t remember things before I hit submit! Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series is excellent fantasy/mystery. I know The Book Smugglers gave them an iffy review recently, but I didn’t really agree; I think the narrative is quite aware of Peter’s shortcomings, even if he isn’t. Regardless, I would definitely hand them to a mystery fan who’s willing to try fantasy.

  6. Rachel

    Good suggestions! I didn’t think about westerns, but when I do, Emma Bull’s TERRITORY is the one that comes instantly to mind. I hope she does someday bring out the second book; I wonder what happened with that?

    Yes, I just finished TOOTH AND CLAW. I liked it, but I don’t think I really liked it as much as it deserved. Part of that was the society — I mean, all the bad aspects of Victorian society, plus cannibalism and infanticide! Plus the villain was SO villainous, I found him pretty unbelievable. Also, while I liked the ending, I did think Walton made things work out too pat. What was your take on it?

  7. Rachel

    My feeling is that McKillip doesn’t use such clear romance tropes as some other writers, though of course I also think EVERYONE should love McKillip no matter what else they read! Hmm, maybe I should try to get my mother to read one of McKillip’s books just to see how it works; she really sticks very closely to mysteries and nonfiction.

    I have Crown Duel/Court Duel on my Kindle, I definitely want to read them, but I don’t want to start something that long that might really suck me in, because I need to keep working on my own WIP and that would interfere. But I really look forward to reading them! I also have The Chocolate Rose on my Kindle, but I didn’t know it was playing with Beauty and the Beast tropes! Knowing that moves it up on the must-read-soon list.

    I think Sorcery and Cecilia is a brilliant suggestion, perfect for mystery readers! I think perhaps I should try Ben Aaronovitch’s series, too.

    Maybe I should try Penman — just how tragic are we talking, though? I’ve only read one by Tey, I guess I need to try a couple more.

  8. Maureen E

    Yes, I think McKillip would work for a romance reader who doesn’t demand a lot of attention to the actual romance and is invested in having a real plot (which is basically me). And I think some of her books work more on that level than others–Ombria, as I said, or Tower at Stony Wood.

    Penman is fairly tragic, especially if–like me–you find decent people doing their best to hold the world together and not QUITE succeeding maybe more tragic than out and out failure. However, there are some lovely characters and relationships, and she does her best to pull some good out of what is ultimately some fairly sad history. (When it comes to things like this, I find it even sadder when I think about the fact that it’s real.)

    Brat Farrar, The Man in the Queue, and Daughter of Time are my favorites by Tey, though I like most of her mysteries. Oooh, or The Singing Sands for a bit of a thriller!

  9. Elaine T

    I didn’t think of TERRITORY for a couple reasons:

    1) it didn’t work for me. (when I find myself remarking things like ‘ She remembered she needs to put in sensory cues! … it is a bad sign.)

    2) it doesn’t read like a genre Western, all the cues are wrong. CJC’s RIDER books struck me from the first pages as using Western cues/tropes. I think they’d work better for the genre readers. … At least if the genre readers read in the L’Amour, Zane Grey, Max Brand, etc. branch. If they read in the Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurty branch of Westerns, maybe the Emma Bull would be the right thing. As I’ve bounced off both McC/M’s works I couldn’t say.

    I had to fish TOOTH & CLAW off the shelf and read the last few chapters, as it’s been a few years and I didn’t remember all that much about it. What I liked about the book was the meticulous working out of the biology and the world building. Yes, the ending is a bit flat and pat. I haven’t dug up the Trollope she was riffing on to see if it’s the same pat wind up.

    I’ve read Penman, but only really liked her first one, SUNNE IN SPLENDOR, even though sometimes the writing grated. I haven’t done well with her Welsh books, I think partly because I long ago imprinted on Edith Pargeter’s (Ellis Peters) dealing with the same people. And partly the writing, again.

    Tey’s DAUGHTER OF TIME is an amazingly entertaining book considering the main character spends the whole time in a hospital bed, and it’s all talk. I’ve decided Richard may well have offed his nephews, though. Mostly because deposed kings are way too awkward to leave alive.

    Jonathon Strange strikes me as an iffy suggestion, unless your reader has a high tolerance for strangeness from the start. And some people just don’t want that slow language style. If they need to be more comfortable before things get weird maybe Marie Brennan’s MIDNIGHT NEVER COME, where it’s a while before the overt strangeness moves into the ‘real world’. Even if there is a self contained faery court we see from the beginning.

  10. Rachel

    I definitely need to pick up a few more by Tey. The only one I’ve read is Brat Farrar, and I had trouble with it because, as a twin myself, I had a very difficult time believing the twin in the story was the bad guy. I kept thinking Tey was just setting him up to LOOK evil and was going to provide a twist, and that distracted me from the actual story.

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