Science fiction and fantasy romance

Here’s an interesting post from the SFWA site: Romance tropes for SFF writers by Jeffe Kennedy.

…a recently released debut science fiction novel was marketed to romance readers as science fiction romance (SFR), but violated a major romance expectation … readers were especially incensed because the book violated the One Rule at the very end of the book. It did not have an HEA [Happily Ever After]. There are also indications that there will be a new love interest in the sequel, which is a precarious use of romance tropes.

Romance readers were enraged? Well, no kidding! The shocking thing to me about this is that this incident evidently sparked an “intense online debate.” What grounds for debate can possibly exist here? This is marketed as a romance but doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending? I, too, would be ranting and flinging the book across the room.

Jeffe Kennedy makes the point that the readers who don’t understand this are the non-romance-readers:

An argument that gets introduced in a lot of these conversations – always from non-romance readers – is that the HEA/HFN is not mandatory. That it’s okay for a story to end tragically. “Romeo and Juliet” gets trotted out. And sure, that’s true! But “Romeo and Juliet” is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies! Sure, there’s a romance in it. You can even say the romance is the core of the story, but that doesn’t make it a romance. Why not?

Because it ends tragically, not happily.

I, as a reader who reads mainly SFF and also some romances . . . a reader who has always liked the occasional well done SFR but has only recently started reading contemporary romances . . . find this too obvious for words. So do experienced SFR writers, such as Sharon Shinn, who I’m sure would never dream of ending one of her SFR novels tragically. Her books totally have happy endings. As they should, because they are romances. Can you imagine Archangel if Gabriel had walked away from Rachel at the end and she had had shrugged and gone off with some other guy? Or in The Sharing Knife, if Dag had gone off to hunt malices and Dawn had cried a little and then married a farmer boy? Apparently that’s pretty close to what happened in the book in question.

As an ending, fine. As an ending for an SFF novel, fine. As an ending for any kind of romance where “romance” actually is meant to describe the genre, completely unfine.

This reminds me of my recent post about tension and suspense versus action, and how I commented how it’s interesting that the hugely popular romance genre is a fundamentally low-suspense genre. This is entirely because of the mandated HEA ending. I thought everyone understood this. Apparently some publisher’s marketing department doesn’t. It’s particularly annoying because every single romance reader who got suckered by this book is probably going to write off the author, when the marketing decision probably wasn’t hers at all.

Now, excuse me while I go read a romance so I can count on enjoying a happy ending.

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10 thoughts on “Science fiction and fantasy romance”

  1. I can recommend Linnea Sinclair as a great sf romance writer ^^ – Finders Keepers and Accidental Goddess are my favourites of her standalone ones.
    Pertaining to your actual post here, I totally agree with you ^^

  2. The Teen seconds Accidental Goddess which my husband actually picked up and I didn’t read till sometime after marrying him. And I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind for such a romance-y story, but it wasn’t bad.

    Asaro is supposed to write SF romances, but that’s another writer my husband reads and I haven’t gotten around to yet.

  3. Now I’m idly imagining other genre expectation bait-and-switches. I wonder if fans of grimdark fantasy would feel cheated if there was an unexpectedly happy ending?

  4. I’ll definitely try Accidental Goddess — having looked at the Amazon description, I have to say, that’s a peculiar set up for a novel!

    Craig, I’m sure they would! I bet grimdark fans are probably pretty committed to endings where the good guys more or less lose.

  5. I think different genres have different firmness when it comes to expectation. Mysteries have a relatively set formula, but there are famous examples of subverting most of the criteria without being drummed out of the genre. (Though do it very often and you’re probably writing an allied genre like hardboiled detective or police procedural.)

    Superhero stories have a huge list of conventions, but some of the field’s classics are specifically about seeing where they break and what happens when they do. (Alan Moore made his reputation doing that in Miracleman and Watchmen, for example.)

    SF and fantasy are so flexible they barely have any hard boundaries to challenge. But even there, there’s, say, Randall Garrett’s “Despoilers of the Golden Empire”, which arguably managed to subvert the fundamental expectation of a science fiction story, and still got published in Campbell’s Astounding.

    I wonder if it’s possible to present a non-HEA romance in a way that the result is a surprise, but feels right enough not to be a betrayal. It may be that it’s just a more formal genre. (Jazz welcomes improvization, but you generally don’t want someone freestyling in the middle of an orchestral performance.)

  6. Rachel, because you said “apparently”, I’m assuming you haven’t actually read the Sharing Knife series. I have, and there was never any moment in the series where it looked like Dag will go off on his own and Fawn will then settle down with a farmer boy. Just setting that straight because I love LMB and all her works. Sharon Shinn is one of my favourite comfort reads because I am always certain of a HEA ending.

  7. Estara, yep, that’s right — sorry if that wasn’t clear, Kootch! I definitely agree that there was never the slightest possibility of Dag and Fawn failing to wind up together.

    Mike, interesting to think of romance as a more formal genre, but in fact I think it is. More stylized might be another way of putting it. We expect *these* beats in *this* order and while variations on the pattern are welcome, actually breaking the pattern is not.

  8. Lol, and the shortness of my attention span stands revealed! The debut novel was mentioned all of five paragraphs previously so already lost in the mists. I just saw Dag and Fawn mentioned and leapt to the defense.

  9. Kootch, an understandable reflex! Though I would not be so attached to Dag and Fawn if the series had stopped with the first two books. I really like the second two better!

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