About a half of a year ago or so, my neighbor and I bonded over books. She is a fantasy reader who has been exploring romance, and I am a romance reader dabbling in fantasy, so both of us have broadened our reading horizons in this budding friendship.
Our discussions have also gotten me to think more about genre and genre expectations, both as a reader and a writer.
In the thick of one book discussion around the Outlander series, in which I was debating about reading Book #2, she loaned me both Dragonfly in Amber and Kushiel’s Dart, the latter with the caveat, “I wouldn’t give this to everyone. There’s a lot about sex that’s… well, you’ll see.”
Of course, I was intrigued.
What surprised me was how much these two books are alike in their pacing, tone and plot approach, especially considering the fact that the Outlander series is often categorized as romance, while Kushiel’s Dart is (high) fantasy. Both books defy their genre expectations, and neither fit neatly anywhere. The best way to categorize the main plot of both these books is “adventure,” though relationships and romance are essential to both of these. However, neither book puts romance at the center of the story.
Most people are familiar with the premise of Outlander by now due to the TV series: A young married nurse from the 1940s is unexpectedly transported back to the 1700s and sucked into the world of Scottish clans. By the time she has the possibility to leave, she is married (again) and in love. I think Kushiel’s Dart is less well-known… though this may depend on the book circles you run in.
Jacqueline Carey’s debut book became a long series about a fantasy world loosely built in Europe. Our heroine Phédre’s home, Terre d’Ange, is ruled by this premise: Love as thou wilt. Phédre is a courtesan with a rare twist: she experience pain and pleasure as one. But she is also trained as a private spy. As the object of desire of some of the most dangerous members of the aristocracy, she uncovers a plot that may destroy her home, and she is in the unique position to stop it.
Here are the basic similarities I see between Dragonfly in Amber and Kushiel’s Dart: Both these stories feature women who hold subtle power over large-scale events, and both women fall in love with men who are devoted to protecting them, wherever the adventure takes them.
As a writer, what I learned from reading these two books, back to back,was this: regardless of genre placement, I am attracted to certain elements in a story. Specifically, I like romance, especially the ups and downs of growing closer to someone both physically and emotionally. I thought both these books were fun, engaging stories, but I wish the romance featured a little more prominently. This is true of Dragonfly in Amber, often classified as romance, but it was also true of Kushiel’s Dart, despite the fact that its genre (high fantasy) only implies romance of the very… shall we say male-oriented kind.
On the other hand, what I liked about both these books is what I think is missing from too many romance books: Compelling plots. Plots strong enough to stand on their own but, at the same time, woven into the relationship. I loved that both couples were on adventures together, and their relationships grew as they overcame hurdles together.
That’s what I want as a reader, and that’s what I’d like to do as a writer! I want stories that weave compelling external events and relationship growth together. I’m looking for more books that have this balance. Any suggestions?