Fantasy and science fiction are my favorite genres to read. But when you also enjoy the occasional sappy love story, cliches and all, or find yourself wanting to read something a bit more in-depth and emotional, it can be hard to find a book that satisfies all of your desires. While the genre is not often talked about, cross-genre romance is by far my favorite — fantasy romance, science fiction romance, and historical fiction romance make up a good portion of my favorite books.
When combined, the cross-genre combinations provide me with everything I look for in a book — detailed world—building; elements of magic, technology, mythology or whimsy; strong lead characters; and at least a hint of romance between two characters, although if I’m being honest I want everything that comes with romance: cute moments, passion and to be honest, sex.
In this regard, the Vaginal Fantasy book club has been my saving grace — they have so many good recommendations, an amazing community, and choose new books to discuss each month.
In an effort to provide more resources for fans of the genre, as I know how hard they can be to find — looking for recommendations in the fantasy and science fiction romance categories is particularly hard — I decided on Spells, Swords & Hearts. From informative pieces on romance topics and new releases to opinion pieces and recommendations for some of my favorite books that fall into the category, Spells, Swords & Hearts is meant to be a gateway into the fantasy romance community.
If you have been following my reviews for the past year, you’ll notice that I end up comparing a lot of books that fall into the romance category in some way to Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles series. I haven’t stopped talking about it, in fact, because for me it has set a precedent of sorts in the fantasy romance category — it has everything I want to see in the genre: incredible world building that features a blend of mythology and magic, a strong female lead character, an interesting story, and of course, all of the elements of romance that make it engaging — love, passion, and all the steamy sex scenes you could ever want. On top of all of that, it’s incredibly well written. As such, the series will be the focus of my first installment of Spells, Swords & Hearts, which will discuss mythology, magic, and might.
About a year ago, I started getting back into the fantasy romance genre, starting with A Promise of Fire. I revisited the series again early this year after watching the Vaginal Fantasy discussion of it and was finally moved to discuss my opinions on the novel. Like many others, I voiced my concerns and hesitation in picking up the book — I wasn’t sure how to feel about the love interest, Griffin, nor was I keen on the idea of love forming out of a seemingly forced relationship. Quickly, my mindset changed, with each book in the series transforming my opinions about the relationship between Cat and Griffin, along with each individual character, as an incredible amount of growth occurs throughout the series, not only for Cat and Griffin but for almost every character involved. So without further ado, here are a few of the reasons why The Kingmaker Chronicles have set the current bar for fantasy romance in my mind.
Romance Influenced by Mythology
It’s not often that you see elements of romance fuse with the world—building of a novel, and this makes sense, as the concept of world-building refers to creating an imaginary world with a developed history and geography. The world described on the page is fully fleshed out — it features politics, religion, and currency, and you are made aware of its history and mythos. World—building can make or break a fantasy or science fiction novel — if there’s not enough information, the world and its magic fall flat, but if there is enough, the reader can picture the characters interacting in that world, and believe every word that is said about it. When multiple elements are brought into a fantasy novel, such a romance on top of an intricate system of magic, class struggles, and power balances, one element usually falls behind in terms of depth, but Amanda Bouchet does not disappoint in this department. Instead, she makes mythology a key component in world-building, character development, and even romance, and it’s incredible.
The incorporation of Greek mythology begins early on in the series; its sprinkled into Cat’s magical powers, which include invisibility and the ability to detect falsehoods in other’s words, but it also makes itself known through the oracular dream that brings Griffin and Cat together, culminating in the intermittent appearance of Poseidon and Cerberus, as well as the shocking waves of thunder and lightning that Cat finds herself creating during periods of intimacy and tension.
As the series continues, mythology as a world-building component grows exponentially, adding to character development and proving to be the catalyst that brought Cat and Griffin together in Breath of Fire. Each character is touched by the gods in some way, Griffin is altered and pushed in the right direction, leading him to Cat; Kato is given the powers of Titos; Cat has the blood of the gods running through her veins. Taking it a step further, the gods regularly intervene in the lives of the characters — they are not only a mythos that makes up the history of the world in which the characters inhabit, but they come into contact with the characters, challenging them to grow. Last but not least, they directly influence the romantic outcome of the series — Cat and Griffin are the only ones that can peacefully unite the realms.
Mythology is not something that is brought in for show and its not just an element that enhances the backstory — it is the backstory; it’s a living, breathing component of the novel that makes so many actions and events make sense. It gives power and strength to Cat, making her a female lead to look up to while making Griffin’s character seem less protective and overbearing — Griffin and Cat really do belong together, and he really is meant to be her protector.
More often than not, magic is underdeveloped in the fantasy genre. Complex systems and unique powers are mentioned in passing as a part of the character’s genetic makeup. When I look for a good fantasy romance novel, I went the best of both worlds. I don’t just want a character that can shoot fireballs or perform acts of strength, I want a character that is built around magic. Magic isn’t just something they can do, it’s a part of them, whether it is a genetic trait or a skill learned through hard work and dedication. Cat is a perfect example. Not only is she a strong female lead, but her magic is a part of her character. Not only it is described in detail, but it makes her who she is. Cat is power. She isn’t fearless, but she won’t break under pressure — she will do everything in her power to save others and fight for her cause.
In addition to mythology being the backbone of the story found in the Kingmaker Chronicles, it is the source from which Cat develops her powers. Not only is she born with them as a descendant of the gods, but she is given them by the gods for going through trials and tribulations. Magic makes Cat strong, but it also gives her a purpose. It sends her on a journey, and that is what fantasy is all about.
Developed Romantic Relationships
All novels are subject to tropes and cliches that are indicative of the genre in question. In the fantasy romance genre, there are tons of them — the alpha hero, the tortured heroine, love at first sight — all of which occur to some degree in the Kingmaker Chronicles series, but not without cause. Instead of throwing cliches in to make an enjoyable story, Bouchet builds the relationship from the ground up, and while Cat’s seemingly easy acceptance of Griffin may seem a little too easy, the mythology aspect of the plot plays into the romance in a believable manner here. Although you could argue the same of fate and destiny play a role, at least the relationship, and Cat and Griffin’s insistence that they are made for one another, have a basis in fact.
The romantic relationship between Cat and Griffin is given time to develop. So much time, in fact, that another qualm that I have seen quite often in reviews is the prolonged sexual tension between the two characters. Cat and Griffin are given time to get to know one another, and although Cat hides many of her secrets, Griffin knows a thing or two and is pretty receptive of them — while he might not know for sure, he does have a few theories and unravels her past quite quickly.
On the topic of romance, Bouchet provides readers with well—written and detailed sex scenes. For anyone that reads romance or erotica a lot, you will know that this is actually a difficult feat. Some authors use weird language, others merely allude to what is happening, and some skip the sex entirely after building the entire novel toward the first romantic encounter between two characters. While none of these approaches is wrong, sometimes the author’s choice to deal with sex does not fit with the novel as a whole. For example, when an author provides every little detail about a romantic relationship, including the sexual tension that exists between the two characters, it wouldn’t fit to have a one-line fling thrown into the story as the release of the tension that was developed over numerous chapters.
If anything, the few cliches that find their way into the series are well founded and fit the character’s personality types; they don’t seem forced or over the top, but rather actual situations and scenarios that the characters themselves could believably fall victim to, such as Cat’s overreaction to a fight that occurs with Griffin in A Promise of Fire.
Although there is no novel without a flaw and all readers enjoy different things, if you are looking for a good fantasy series that has elements of actual romance, you will definitely want to give Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles series a try. There are plenty of hidden twists, challenges from the gods, and unbelievable encounters that will keep you on your toes as the series progresses, all while a relationship is unfolding between two characters that will definitely grow on you.