Romance. It sounds a bit extreme to say a romance subplot can make or break a novel, but the truth is, they can. In YA fantasy, especially, relationships are often either too insta-lovey, abusive, or both. Admittedly, most romance subplots, I’ll just read over and ignore, not feeling the chemistry between the love interests.
Sometimes, though, a relationship is just too good to ignore. For one reason or another, the love interests not only connect with each other, but also the story. So, below are the romances that I think stand out in the YA fantasy genre for that very reason.
5. Cress and Thorne…or Scarlet and Wolf
The Lunar Chronicles puts familiar fairy tales in a sci fantasy setting, so it’s no wonder that the romances shown tumble into the OTP trope. The soulmate trope has never bothered me as a trope, except of course when it’s done poorly, but if two characters have chemistry, then I’m not going to complain. And boy, do a lot of these characters have chemistry. It’s hard to choose between the pairs, but I loved Thorne’s swashbuckling demeanor, and how Cress looked out for him in… book 3, I think? But Scarlet and Wolf are just so precious together.
What puts the Lunar Chronicles on this list is how healthy the romances tend to be. Cress is quiet, shy, and lacking in confidence…the direct opposite of Thorne. But Cress brings her own skillset to the table, and they improve one another. With Scarlet and Wolf, it’s the same way, and despite the genetic modifications that Wolf has been subjected to, Scarlet is always there to remind him he’s still a human being, and that she loves him regardless. Plus they’re just such a dynamic fighting duo, it’s brilliant.
4. Sean and Puck
Scorpio Races reads like a book that cannot possibly have a happy ending. Both Sean and Puck enter the Scorpio Races because they need the money. For Sean, it’s to buy the water horse that his employer currently owns, a horse that his employer cares little for while Sean absolutely adores and loves. For Puck, it’s a little more desperate. She needs that money for her family, to help with debts that they’ve found themselves drowning in.
So it seems a little far-fetched that Puck and Sean could find themselves falling in love with each other. How could they, when the thing that brought them together–the races–is a thing that must inevitably divide them? But these races aren’t just some random horse race. They are deadly and dangerous, with humans trying to tame carnivorous horse creatures long enough to get through the race. Sean’s respect for the horses, and Puck’s pluckiness, sends them hurtling towards the conclusion that is both unexpected and yet perfectly written. Sean ultimately willingly gives up his chances at winning the races because he knows that Puck needs the money more, but then Puck turns right around and helps him get what he wants most. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
3. Tessa and Jem and Will
The Infernal Devices had no right to pluck my heart-strings the way that it did, but alas. Jem and Will are what are called parabatai, Shadowhunters who have chosen the other to be their fighting companion. As all (most?) parabatai, they are about as close as two friends can be. Then in walks Tess, and they both fall in love, and she falls in love with both of them.
What’s amazing about this romance is how it sets up the love triangle. Will and Jem both love Tess, but they don’t let it destroy their friendship. Rather, each end up, at different points of the story, trying to shunt Tessa off to the other boy because they don’t want to take away their best friend’s chance at happiness. Will falls into the inevitable bad boy trope while Jem is the soft, kind-hearted opposite. But Will isn’t a bad boy just for the sake of it; he thinks he is cursed to kill anyone who falls in love with him, and so pushes everyone out of his life to save them. Jem, on the other hand, was forcibly addicted to a magic substance that is going to kill him, and is expected to have a short lifespan. The magical setting of the story allows, in the end, for Tessa to have her happy-ever-after with both boys in a way that does not, weirdly, feel at all cringey.
2. Kaz and Inej
Say what you will about Six of Crows, the relationships in the duology are, for the most part, very sweet. I should say Jesper and Wylan are my favorite, and they are a cute couple, but for me, Kaz and Inej take the cake. Both are from the slums of Ketterdam, both have some dark elements to their past, and both (well, all six of the Crows, to be honest) have a particular skill they add to the group.
What the Kaz/Inej relationship manages to do is take two very flawed characters who have the opportunity to leave their flaws behind, or at least work to improve them, and yet, very humanly, they resist change. A very memorable quote for me, from Crooked Kingdom, is from Inej. “I will have you without armor, Kaz, or I will not have you at all.” She stands her ground with him, and it goes to show that love will not conquer all. It’s not enough for Kaz to feel overprotective of Inej. It’s not enough for him to value her as part of the group, for her skills as the Wraith. If he wants to be with her, he has to take his armor off: his gloves, and the vulnerabilities that come with removing them.
1. Graceling Realm (all of them. it wouldn’t be fair to separate them)
If you made me choose a romantic pairing from the Graceling Realm series, said, “Hey, the pairings are in a burning building, and you can only save one,” I would literally be incapable of deciding which pair to save. Should it be Fire/Brigan, the selfless monster and the cold commander who falls in love once he realizes how selfless that monster is? Should it be Katsa/Po, who show it’s okay to have an unconventional relationship, who so obviously are utterly head-over-heels in love with each other? Should it be Bitterblue/Saf, who show it’s okay for a relationship not to work out, or even Bitterblue/Giddon, the slow-burn whose payout will (fingers crossed) be shown in Winterkeep? Or should it be Raffin/Bann, the literal most wholesome gay couple to grace the pages of any book.
“Raffin and Bann stood together, propped against the wall and against each other, half dozing. At one point, Raffin, not knowing he had one small, curious witness, gave Bann a sleepy kiss on the ear.”Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
I just love that Bitterblue sees this, and it makes her wonder about her own relationship, about the power dynamics between Prince Raffin and his commoner assistant, Bann. All of the relationships just feel so perfect, each pairing having obvious chemistry, though the characters usually have to work for it. I’ve always found them to be a good template for real-world relationships, not just the ones that work, but also the ones that don’t. Like Fire ending things with her lover, Archer, because she was tired of how suffocatingly protective he was. Or Saf, who found he could forgive Bitterblue for lying, but who rightly pointed out that, as a queen, Bitterblue didn’t understand just how far the power dynamic between the two of them was. And I think that’s good. It’s a rare find in fantasy novels, where two characters don’t work out, and they admit it before the end of a story and don’t kiss and make up at the end.