Romance. A genre filled with characters chasing after that ever-elusive thing called love, filled with cheesy lines and instalove and vain attempts to rewrite destinies. Or is it?
I should start with a bit of a disclaimer, I suppose. This is a blog dedicated to the fantasy genre, most especially those written for the older groups of YA. So why did I decide to spend a whole month reading romance books? My on-going theory is that by studying the books we read, we’re better equipped to understand what makes certain books work and what makes others fail. And I’m curious to see what the romance genre has to teach its fantasy cousin. If I come across as harsh or critical of these romance books, it’s not meant to disrespect the genre or the people who love the books I mention.
So, with that out of the way, it’s time to take a closer look at the five books I read during the month of February and consider what lessons they might offer the fantasy genre. We’ll be discussing these books at length: 1) Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, 2) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 3) Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, 4) If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, and 5) The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh. If you want to read why I choose these books, I’ll direct you to my Romance Reading Challenge post. This is your warning: spoilers abound. If you want to see my non-spoiler thoughts, then I’ll direct you to my Rapid Book Review: Mistborn and the Romance Reading Challenge.
Breakdown of Books
The set of books we’re going to be discussing today has a smattering of different flavors, allowing for a range of considerations in terms of plot and characters. Two, Eleanor & Park and The Wrath & the Dawn, are young adult novels. Two, Garden Spells and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, is more geared towards adults. Finally, we have a classic, Pride and Prejudice. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler uses a unique narrative format. Pride and Prejudice focuses completely on the romantic elements and yet manages to remain as compelling as some of the best fantasy books I’ve read.
My only major oversight is that none of them offer any major queer representation. I will be reading a book soon called Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo about a lesbian romance which will hopefully rectify this error, but in the meantime, we’ll discuss the ones I had picked out for the February reading challenge.
Centrality of Romance
Unfamiliar as I am with the romance genre, I was fully expecting that all of the books involved would focus on two protagonists falling in love. From there, it had a few different directions it could go: 1)The two characters want to be together but something is stopping them, as in the case of Pride and Prejudice, with social norms and Lizzy’s and Darcy’s own pride; 2) The last thing the two characters want is to fall in love, which we see with Claire and Tyler in Garden Spells, and, more compellingly, between Shahrzad and Khalid in The Wrath & the Dawn; 3)The protagonists get together and the conflict revolves around the messiness of any newly-established relationship, found in Eleanor & Park.
Of course, these novels were supposed to be romance, so I expected the plots to revolve around one of those three story-beats. I was curious to study the pacing of the romance novels, if they were focused on that singular element. Instead, what I found were subplots, same as in fantasy. How well they were woven into the overall narrative directly corresponded to how much I enjoyed the book.
Pride and Prejudice, for example, was simplistic in concept but technical in execution. At face value, it seems like it’s a story that’s about little more than Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth getting over their pride long enough to admit their feelings and fall in love. Instead, it has a mystery–what really happened between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham?–that is directly tied to the fate of their relationship. Even the secondary courtships–between Jane and Mr. Bingley, and Charlotte and Mr. Collins, and then later between Lydia and Mr. Wickham–all direct Elizabeth towards solving the mystery (helped along by Darcy’s letter, among other things). The Wrath & the Dawn has a similar concept grounded in mystery–why did Khalid kill those women?–but it trips up on the morality, and the differences between the likes of Darcy and Khalid ultimately chip away at the latter book’s foundation (see: The Powers of Evil Men below). This, added to the rebel subplot that was never written in a way that made me sympathize with their cause, undermined the whole question of who to root for and, by extension, the very stakes.
If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler admittedly did twine the romance tightly with the mystery of the half-finished manuscripts, but the pompousness of the writing made the rest of the book incredibly difficult to appreciate. I also realized a little too late that it wasn’t really a romance novel. (I won’t be discussing it much on this post.)
For Eleanor & Park, the characters’ own biases and immaturity provided an opportunity for internal conflict and growth spurred on by yet separate from the romance itself. That, added with the ever-present conflict of Richie’s anger, offers multiple points of conflict outside the messiness of newly-forged romances while still remaining tightly bound to the main plot. Again, we can see the antithesis of this point, this time in the form of Garden Spells. The far-reaching power of the book’s antagonist, Sydney’s husband, is flimsy at best. The book sets up several conflicts with minor characters, trying to connect them to the Waverly sisters, but none of their resolutions have any impact on the sisters at all. Sydney and Claire are not even aware of most of them, which makes the story feel like a dozen loose threads knotted haphazardly together.
Love Like a Fairy Tale
What’s interesting is that the endings of most books can usually be predicted in some way or another. When we read, we aren’t necessarily looking for an unexpected ending.When we read a book about romance, we expect the two protagonists to have their happily ever after. When we read a book about rebels fighting against the oppressive governmental regime, we expect the rebels to win. When we read a book from the hero’s perspective, no matter what their end goal, we’re rooting for them, expecting them to succeed.
A story is about an arc. It is a question whose climax should reveal an answer. Romance plots aren’t about will they/won’t they, but rather, questioning what exactly love means, why we fall in love and with whom. Rebellion plots aren’t about being strong enough or clever enough to outwit the government, but rather about the power of hope, the human condition, and what exactly a good society might look like.
The problem is that examples like those above have been asked and answered a hundred thousand times before, in epics and in poems and in modern narratives alike. The Wrath & the Dawn was disappointing because it didn’t ask any new questions. It asked, “If evil deeds form a pit, are love and guilt solid enough to form a bridge? Is being sorry enough?” This is a dangerous question, because it suggests that to deny love to someone vile is to personally withhold from them their own salvation. A modicum of compassion is one thing, but eventually, kindness to one is cruelty to another.
At face value, The Wrath & The Dawn‘s question may seem to be the selfsame one that Pride and Prejudice asks, but this is not, in fact, the case. Darcy is not an evil man. He is not prone to fits of anger. In fact, he goes well out of his way to be kind to his servants and his tenants, and the only one he seems to have wronged is Mr. Wickham, but even that is revealed as a false assumption. Instead, pitted against the business-like marriages of Charlotte to Mr. Collins and the reputation-saving marriage of Lydia to Mr. Wickham, with the addition of copious disdain for the behaviors of most of the Bennet women, Austen’s novel asks, “When everything is stacked against you–societal norms, knowing that marrying someone, anyone, is the only way to support yourself, and even your very own pride and presumptions–how could love possibly prevail?” It is this question we as readers are more invested in, even moreso than whether or not Darcy and Elizabeth will ever actually marry, although both questions are tightly woven together.
The Power of Evil Men
Interestingly, out of the five books I read, only one of them, Pride and Prejudice, did not include a bad-tempered antagonist (or, in the case of one, a bad-tempered antihero). If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler has a translator who mixes up the manuscripts just to spite The Other Reader. Eleanor and Park features an abusive stepfather who looms over nearly everything that Eleanor does. Garden Spell’s “antagonist” is a man named David who winds up following Sydney Waverly back home and threatens her with a gun. And, of course, in The Wrath & the Dawn, Khalid’s own short temper and supposed murderous tendencies paint him as a dark male character.
First I would like to compare the effectiveness of Eleanor and Park‘s Richie with Garden Spell‘s David. It’s very easy to turn bad-tempered male characters into cartoonish figures. This is an issue of storytelling no matter the genre: treat any character like they have only one defining character trait, and they will be nothing more than cardboard cutouts. David is exactly that: a flimsy, cartoonish character whose anger is the romance equivalent of twirling a mustache and laughing maniacally. He has no motivations, no character depth, no switches that shift him from the charismatic man he presents to strangers and the furious man he reveals to Sydney. When he finally tracks her down at the Waverly manor, David should have been faced with the choice: should he present his charismatic face to these strangers with his wife? But in the end, it doesn’t even seem to have been a possibility. He draws his gun, shouting at Sydney in front of her friends and family as if doing so would provide her with the validation she doesn’t really need.
Richie, on the other hand, is terrifyingly effective. It’s not in the way he yells, because we don’t actually get a lot of direct contact with his anger. Instead, it’s in the way Eleanor’s mom has to keep a lookout so Eleanor can take a bath in their doorless bathroom, how Eleanor describes her mom as empty shell, her passions and delights a distant memory. It’s how the family molds their actions around Richie’s moods so as to not set him off, how Eleanor is emphatic about not letting Park’s mom do anything to her hair or face that can’t be undone before she leaves so that she can keep her visits at Park’s house a secret. The way Richie is written is the equivalent of writing about a war and, instead of showing the battle (chaotic, confusing, and difficult to write in a way that shows the actual tragedy of it all), choosing instead to describe a lone shoe or an abandoned doll or the charred remains of a home. A monster is always scariest when it’s just out of sight, provided we as the reader can also see the aftermath of what they’re capable of.
This may be why Khalid’s character feels rather flimsy. Ahdieh has to toe the line between making Khalid villainous enough that everyone is quick to rally against him while also making him likeable enough that we as readers can root for Shahrzad and Khalid’s romance. He is certainly not as one-dimensional as David. He has a tragic backstory, and it has made him care too much even if he cannot show it. But it is not even his willingness to kill a hundred brides that turns him into a villain–not when we as readers hold no emotional connection to any of his previous brides–or his refusal to open up to Shahrzad. It’s his quick temper and his willingness to kill. These traits are written as if they’re supposed to be romantic, his willingness to go to great lengths to protect Shahrzad’s reputation and her life, yet it’s hard to see him as a romantic when Shahrzad must also protect her friends and family from his famous wrath. Angry men don’t find one woman with whom they cannot be angry.
Conclusion: In Regards to Fantasy
This blog, of course, is primarily dedicated to the art of good fantasy novels. I do these reading challenges to consider what the fantasy genre can learn from its fellow fictional cousins. It is especially poignant when one remembers that fantasy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Because the nature of fantasy revolves predominantly around setting questions rather than plot, it still frequently employs subplots surrounding romance, mystery, history, and horror. Studying these genres essentially allows us to consider what it is about them that makes them work, and how their subplots in the fantasy genre might be strengthened.
Although romance might seem pretty straightforward, the conflict that stands in between the two people can be as varied as one’s imagination allows. As Cashore notes in Bitterblue, “Every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself,” and that stands here as much as anywhere else. Whether it’s as simple as one’s own pride or as complicated as toxic (step-)parents standing in the way, the main question is never whether or not the characters will actually land together. It’s whether or not they’re compatible to begin with, whether or not they can grow together.
As for the antagonists, I think it just serves as a much-needed reminder, that however absent a villain must be for most of the novel, allowing the protagonist to grow in power until they are able to defeat them, the villain’s shadow must be frequently seen and rarely forgotten. It allows the reader to remember the stakes, always, to know what the villain is capable of and fear that the protagonist will meet the same fate. And remember, the scariest antagonists are the unpredictable ones, not because they’re angry all the time, but because it’s impossible to guess when they will be.