The epic world of sci-fi and fantasy romance novels

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Feb 7, 2018

Beyond Shame, the first novel in Kit Rocha's Beyond series, follows the journey of a woman who has been exiled from Eden, the city of the elite, and forced into Sector 4. There, she must wrestle with her own complex feelings of guilt and humiliation, tangled with her dystopian society's taboo attitudes towards sexual freedom. It's a striking read and uniquely emotional take on the saturated genre of dystopian fiction. It's also an erotic romance novel.

The world of science fiction and fantasy romance novels is an oft-underdiscussed area of the romance narrative that’s blossomed into a fascinating subgenre over the past decade or so. Thanks to writers like Rocha, Meljean Brook, Grace Draven, Nalini Singh and many more, the intersections of two seemingly opposing fields have created some of the must-read books for lovers of romance and beyond.

The cover for Beyond Shame by Kit Rocha.

Women have always been present in the world of sci-fi and fantasy literature. Mary Cavendish helped to lay the foundations, Mary Shelley defined it for generations, and figures like Lois McMaster Bujold continue to blaze trails. Yet it's still widely assumed to be a genre by and for men (particularly white men). This leaves little room to dissect the genre-bending conventions that allow it to cross over with romance. The moment romance or a happily-ever-after enters the equation, it becomes easy for an assumed male default audience to dismiss the work at hand.

The term “sci-fi and fantasy romance” is still hard to solidly define. It encompasses so much in terms of ideas, world-building and influences. If you want high-fantasy romance, there are books for that; if you prefer something more rooted in urban fantasy or paranormal influence, there’s a massive array of stories to choose from; there are burgeoning fields for steampunk, dystopia, space opera and much more.

The genre's roots are hard to nail down, but one of its starting points came in the 1960s thanks to a little show called Star Trek. The ground-breaking series was already responsible for the origins of fan-fiction and modern fandom structures, but it was in this growing field that sci-fi romance began to emerge. Through fanzines, Trek lovers started to fill in the gaps with the romances and relationships they wanted to see on the show. Jacqueline Lichtenberg, science-fiction author and avid Trek fan, wrote about the trend on her website in 2010:

"The women who wrote TV pastiche wanted SF-Romance, and wouldn't let the traditional publishers deny it to them. They wrote it themselves. At that time, you could not sell (professionally) any original SF or Fantasy that had even ONE sex scene in it. Fanzine markets grew explosively after STAR TREK LIVES! [a 1975 reference book that discussed the show and its intersection with its fandom] was published by Bantam. Then you could have go-to-black sex scenes in prof SF/F novels."

Whatever your preferences, the opportunities the expansive genre creates for authors and readers alike are near limitless. Kit Rocha, whose latest books in the Gideon's Riders series, Ashwin and Deacon, are available to read now, explained the appeal:

"Speculative (sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian/steampunk/etc) romance has always been my favorite because it combines all my favorite things—the change to build new worlds and new cultures, or the chance to take ours and break it down and put it back together with slightly different pieces. All genres of romance involve a certain amount of worldbuilding, but ours is the most overt. When you get to redefine the rules of what love is and how people express it, you get a lot of opportunities to explore new themes—or old themes from a new perspective."

That change in perspective is key to the unique appeal the romance subgenre has to offer. When the age-old hero’s journey remains a favored storytelling tool in the field, it’s easy to see how such tropes end up falling back on accepted norms of who gets to be said hero. Women are not absent from the genre, but looking at it through a distinctly and undeniably feminine lens is still something of a rarity. Sci-fi and fantasy romances like Grace Draven’s Radiance and Meljean Brook’s gloriously vibrant Iron Seas series not only put women front and center but offer fresh takes on the power dynamics women navigate daily. This is not unique to romance-focused genre fiction, and there are certainly incredible writers who have been doing this for decades. Yet romance as a defining factor of sci-fi and fantasy fiction remains something that is dismissed by so many.

Cover for The Kraken King, part of the Iron Seas series by Meljean Brook.

As you can imagine, romance is a genre that is fascinated by relationships: how they’re formed, how we go through the rituals of dating, how we navigate love and sex and companionship, and how those varying barriers can often disrupt the process. We’re obsessed with seeing how those tales play out, and how they change depending on assorted factors. Sci-fi and fantasy romances simply take that to a new level, splicing epic tales with an intimate touch. As explained by Rocha:

"Love can be a scary thing. It makes you vulnerable to someone else. When you love them, they can hurt you. They can inspire (or require) sacrifice. The wrong partner can make you feel small. But the right one can help you be strong. Romance explores those questions: who is the right partner? What can love offer us? What do we deserve from it?"

Chelsea Mueller, author of the urban fantasy novel Borrowed Souls, also emphasized the personal angle that romance can bring to the genre:

"That romantic thread has to be about people understanding who they are and how they connect with that other person. So any reader that worries that epic fantasy or sci-fi will be nothing but external conflict and war without the person growing and developing and dealing can come into fantasy romance knowing there will be a person to connect to. Additionally, romance—as a genre—embraces its tropes. Readers know what they’re getting into, and there is comfort in understanding the constructs. SFF has its own tropes, and learning to recognize them may help more romance readers find their home in SFF."

As well as love, sci-fi and fantasy romance can offer a unique perspective on sex. Rocha’s Beyond series features explicit and often very kinky sex scenes across the spectrum of gender and sexuality, which are not only immensely satisfying to read but crucial parts of the genre storytelling. Some stories allow authors and readers to explore undiscussed sexual taboos in a safe space that understands those desires without judgment. I talked about this previously in my piece on beastly romances, but it merits further emphasis. Sci-fi and fantasy romance—as well as its erotic subgenre—is often fearless enough to take on those ideas without turning them into shock material or a punchline.

As well as being genres of exploration, both romance and sci-fi/fantasy can be places of optimism for our pasts, presents and futures. A.A. Freeman, author of LGBTQA+ sci-fi romance Echo of the Larkspur, discussed with us why she writes in the genre:

"Writing sci-fi romance, LGBTQIA romance to be exact, gives me a chance to create a future where people are automatically accepted for who they are and who they love. There’s no fear, no hate, nothing that might be automatically assumed about the world the story takes place in. Sure the same could be done in a fantasy setting, but in sci-fi I create a hopeful future for us all. Something to work forward to. To dream about. I want to give my readers hope of a better tomorrow."

Romance is a genre that can offer certain guarantees: women will be in charge, their needs and desires tended to, and there will be a happy ending. They may be tropes, but they’re no different from the defining features of sci-fi and fantasy. We read these works because we want to be comforted as much as we are surprised. That doesn’t mean there aren’t stakes in romance, or moments that can shock, but at the end of the story, we have some light and positivity. Times are tough, particularly for women, and when we feel like we’re under siege, we want those stories of love and hope more than ever.

Things are looking good for women in sci-fi and fantasy right now. Following the mega-success of Wonder Woman, the acclaim of comics like Bitch Planet and Ms Marvel, the ever-growing love for shows like Starz's Outlander (itself a major sci-fi/fantasy romance) and SYFY’s Wynonna Earp, it finally feels like we’re getting major mainstream representation in the genre. Progress is slow but it’s clearly happening. Yet it still feels like a missed opportunity for us not to give more attention to the stellar work being done in the romance genre.

According to the Romance Writers of America, the romance novel industry is a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise. It makes up 34% of the American fiction market, with 84% of its buyers being women. As of this writing, the third biggest selling book on the USA Today best-seller list is a romance novel, placed ahead of A Wrinkle in Time and the latest James Patterson book.

The numbers speak for themselves, but romance remains the black sheep of the literary world. It’s the genre that everyone, including the other maligned genres, get to mock. When it’s written about in major publications, it’s usually with an open sneer and concern-troll questions about whether or not you can be a feminist and like those books. Such dismissals ignore the rich complexities and variety the romance world has to offer, and it overlooks the striking, women-driven work that crosses over with genres like sci-fi and fantasy. It would do us all some good to throw our weight behind this women-dominated field, and to watch it flourish.

Books to check out:

Beyond Shame by Kit Rocha: The first in a nine-book erotic dystopian romance series that’s high on tension, world-building and kink. Described by the authors as "our 'post-apocalyptic bisexual bootlegger army takes on and defeats an autocratic theocracy in between their kinky orgies' series". Best of all, it's currently free to read on e-book!

Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole: The first book in Cole’s Off the Grid series, which explores a series of relationships after a massive incident leaves the world without any power. Magnetic reads with diverse characters, and Cole's endlessly engaging prose.

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook: Few writers in any genre can craft a world as detailed and engrossing as Brook's steampunk England. Think old school adventure novels with a speculative spin and a firecracker romance at the heart of it.

The Winter King by C.L. Wilson: Full-on epic fantasy romance. Chock full of political intrigue and classic fantasy world-building.

Psy-Changelings series by Nalini Singh: Even if you’re not into the romance – something Singh is exceedingly skilled at writing – try out this series for its stunning world-building. This urban fantasy, with tinges of sci-fi, centers on a world with a psychic ruling class and a society of changelings, who are relegated to second class citizens. You'll be so engrossed by the crackling hot chemistry that you won't notice the world of the series coming to life before your eyes.