Chances are that someone you know is a romance junkie. This condition, which usually manifests itself in hefty consumption of novels whose covers feature the naked, sculpted male torsos of brawny Scottish lairds, sexy assassins, and badass tattooed warriors (see illustration), is more widespread that you might imagine. There are 29 million of us out there, living outwardly normal lives while secretly indulging our unseemly cravings with titles like “Dark Temptations,” or “Betrayed by Desire.”
Even more embarrassing to my family is my particular addiction to paranormal romance novels, which feature titles such as, “Dark Temptations of the Frost Giant,” and “Betrayed by the Troll King’s Desire.” My 13 year old son hates the fact that we share a Kindle account because my books show up in his library. “Ewwww! Mom! You downloaded ANOTHER naked guy book? I accidentally opened the last one and the stuff in there is DISGUSTING.”
My son is not the only one offended by Unholy Demon Troll Love. The literary world, friends, neighbors, strangers in the supermarket, even the guy reading the latest Nicholas Sparks book, all smugly belittle the Paranormal Romance genre. To the world at large, PNR occupies a spot somewhere between surfing midget porn on the internet and stalking 1980s celebrities (oh, Nancy McKeon, what’s become of you?).
How did a former editor of a high school literary magazine, aspiring teen poet, college graduate, Master’s Degree recipient and mother of three plummet to the bottom of the literary hierarchy?
It all started with vampires.
Gorgeous. Tortured. Aloof. Artfully mussed hair. Edward Cullen from “Twilight” was so much like the boys I crushed on in high school I was instantly hooked. Not only was he tragically noble and HAWT, he also had super-powers, which I’m fairly sure my high school crush boys lacked (although one of them was really good at basketball). Add into the mix the thirst for blood as a stand-in for sexual desire (“a metaphor!” crowed my inner English student) and I was hooked.
I was like you once, all judg-y and superior. Romance novels were for the unwashed masses who bought their jeans at Wal-Mart, ate Cheetos, and named their cars. I was a cum-laude graduate of a prestigious college, writer of papers such as “Ethnic Conflict in Former Yugoslavia: The Perils of Nationalism,” and veteran of various book clubs. A voracious reader, I prided myself on having worked my way through all the Penguin classics, marveling at the wit of Austen, the atmospheric rendering of the Brontes, and the tragic beauty of Hardy. I savored the maze-like plotting of Dickens and dismissed Edith Wharton as second-rate. That’s right- I was a totally pretentious book snob.
And then, one day, my curiosity got the better of me, and I picked up a copy of “Twilight” at TJMax. I only wanted to see what all the fuss was about so that I could scoff about it knowledgeably at the next book club meeting. By chapter 3, my inner scoffer went silent as I entered a blissful state I had previously associated only with Jane Austen and dark chocolate. The world fell away and I was completely enveloped in the story of the two protagonists as they each battled their mutual attraction, weathered the disapproval of their friends, and navigated the social pitfalls of a small town and its lurking, otherworldly dangers.
I was hooked.
Soon, I discovered that there was a whole genre of darker, more explicit vampire literature for grown-ups. I lost hours to the mind-reading Sookie Stackhouse, days to the coyote shaper-shifter Mercy Thompson, and weeks to the dark, tortured demonic confections of Gena Showalter (a favorite: Aeron, keeper of the Demon of Wrath. Who knew wrath could be so sexy?).
Like any addict falling down the rabbit hole of addiction, I was constantly adjusting my parameters. Vampires, werewolves and demons were fine, but I would NEVER stoop to read books about faeries! Until I found the “Fever” series by Karen Marie Moning I never knew faeries could be so bad-ass! Books about time-traveling Scottish highlanders were completely ridiculous though…except for the “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. And, dragons? Pu-LEEZ…until Thea Harrison changed my mind. Now, there is no supernatural creature I draw the line at. Harpies. Gryphons. Angels…I just read my first troll book the other day. And I’m not at all ashamed.
Here’s the thing: believe it or not, many paranormal romance books are Enough with the smut-shaming! Often a book with a steam cover also happened to be eloquently written and meticulously researched and plotted, featuring fully realized characters and relationships whose complexity is only enhanced by the fact that they turn into Hell Hounds or Demon Gnomes or whatever. In the spirt of non-shaming, I give you four reasons to give PNR a chance.
1. The Kick-Ass Heroine
Feminists, take note: in the PNR genre, the heroine is more likely to be a bad-ass warrior who slays and dismembers the bad guys than a bland princess who stands idly by One of my favorite characters, Kate Daniels, is a trained, katana-wielding killer who calmly butchers her way through 7 books of evil, slavering monsters while negotiating the romantic advances of the Beast Lord of post-apocalyptic Atlanta.
Similarly, in the books of Amy Raby and Robin LeFevers, fierce lady assassins inevitably find love amid the poisons, knives, and moral dilemmas of their trade. Warrior, assassin, or werewolf (all three?) these women are complex, likable and often flawed protagonists who provide wish fulfillment (she can start fires with her mind! ) while still allowing us to identify with them (she’s afraid of monkeys!)
2. The Super-Hot Supermen
Strong female characters require equally strong men (or shapeshifters, alien princes, demons, etc. ) Consider this description of Aiden, protagonist of Kresley Cole’s “Dreams of a Dark Warrior:”
He had broad shoulders and muscular arms, his build as massive as a bear’s…He possessed all his teeth, and they were even and white. His sun-darkened skin made his wintry gray eyes stand out.
Today, when he’d been in his berserkrage, those eyes had glowed like storm clouds ablaze with lightning.
Not only does this guy have ALL of his teeth, but he berserks like a boss. Tell me you don’t want to read more.
3. The World Building
Many PNF series are as intricately plotted and character-rich as any Russian masterpiece, drawing inspiration from Norse, Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythologies.
“The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.” So begins Kate Eliot’s Spirit Walker trilogy. She goes on to name-check the Celts, the “lying Romans,” and the Phoenicians while describing the birth of the universe. World creation is heavy stuff, and requires close reading and attention to detail, or you won’t know your djeliw from your factotem. Eliot’s universe is so richly imagined that you can practically smell the chamberpots and the dirigibles as heroine Cat Hassi Barahal chases her cold mage across the magical Steampunk tundra.
4. The Happy Ending
And no, I don’t mean Happy Ending in a creepy massage-parlor-under-the-bridge way. The Happily Ever After ending is crucial to the Paranormal Romance- it’s the payoff, the afterglow, the endorphin boost that mutes the brutal cacophony of real life and takes the edge off endless housework, homework frustration, burned meatloaf, dog vomit, and the fearful monotony of our inexorable march toward death. The HEA is the existential crack of the beleaguered housewife and mother.
Doesn’t the guarantee of the HEA make these books predictable? Hells to the yes! We Romance Junkies don’t like surprises! When a HEA is thwarted, usually by the gratuitous, tragic death of one of the love interests, the true RJ goes ballistic, perhaps even throwing her Kindle across the room and sending enraged emails to Veronica Roth demanding that she rewrite the ending of Allegiant OR ELSE.
Okay. So, maybe you’re not convinced. Perhaps you still believe PNR is either poorly written glorified porn, and/or escapist drivel. Porn-drivel has its place (50 Shades of Grey, anyone?) but you can read far and wide in the PNR genre and not encounter it. Now, if Christian Grey was a Beserker, or perhaps a Phillipine Aswang (see illustration below), maybe then it would have been worth reading.
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