fantasy-romances

Given our culture’s widespread embrace of all things nerdy and the ever-increasing popularity of romance novels, it’s no surprise that readers are flocking to stories of true love in magical realms and soulmates bantering their way through intergalactic intrigue.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

Mika Moon has a large following online, dazzling her audience with potions and her sparkling personality. The difference between Mika and other young women posing as witches with vlogs is that Mika is actually a witch. Taught to keep her abilities under wraps by her overbearing guardian, Mika knows that the biggest rule of witchcraft is that you never talk about witchcraft. Still, she believes her online activities are innocuous enough: After all, who would truly believe that witches exist? When a mysterious estate called Nowhere House entreats her to come and train a group of three young witches who don’t have control over their powers, Mika is immediately intrigued—and worried. After all, generations of witches have stayed safe by not congregating or doing anything suspicious. But she goes anyway, armed with nothing but her trusty dog, Circe, and a winning smile. At Nowhere House, Mika quickly runs into problems, not just from her young charges but also from Jamie, a testy librarian with trust issues who can’t decide if Mika is the answer to their problems or an even bigger problem herself. But as Mika settles into her role, she begins to understand that Jamie’s thorny exterior guards a man who may not be nice but is kind. And his steadfast presence might just be enough for Mika to lower the walls around her own heart.

In The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, author Sangu Mandanna tells a story of found family, taking chances and, of course, romance. Mandanna combines two classic rom-com tropes—forced proximity and a grumpy-sunshine pairing—with the charm of the English countryside, evoking restrained yet fluffy tales of governesses and duty but in a modern setting. Like a good cup of tea, Mandanna’s novel warms you from the inside out. It’s got just enough sugar and cream to bring a smile to your face but not so much that it seems saccharine.

—Laura Hubbard

Eclipse the Moon

Jessie Mihalik returns to her Starlight’s Shadow series with Eclipse the Moon, an action-packed, sci-fi romance with a central couple that readers will adore.

A hacker and bounty hunter aboard the spaceship Starlight’s Shadow, Kee Ildez needs a break from the ship’s close quarters and the presence of one of her alien crewmates, steely Valovian weapons expert Varro Runkow. She thinks a few weeks of solo investigation on the space station Bastion, where someone seems to be trying to start a war between the humans and the Valovians, will help her shake off her frustrating attraction to Varro. But her plan is upended when she realizes that he has followed her onto the space station. As tensions rise between human and Valovian designers during a fashion exhibit, Kee tries to stay professional and keep her mind on her mission. The peace between the two races has been tentative at best, and even something seemingly innocuous could plunge the galaxy into war.

Mihalik moves the plot along quickly, mixing deadly intrigue, fast-paced action and political diplomacy. Kee and Varro are incontrovertible heroes, and Mihalik embraces the idea of good triumphing over evil, giving Eclipse the Moon a vaguely old-fashioned, space Western-esque feel. Their romance unfolds slowly, as their mutual attraction comes to a head amid the danger on Bastion. The mystery plot often takes center stage, which will please more drama- and action-oriented readers. But Mihalik knows her audience and makes sure to include some very steamy moments amid all the dangerous tension and close combat.

—Amanda Diehl 

A Taste of Gold and Iron

A Taste of Gold and Iron is a slow-burn romance wrapped in a fantasy novel full of court intrigue. Alexandra Rowland’s latest novel opens as Prince Kadou of Arasht has made a grievous political misstep, one that leaves two of his own bodyguards dead and angers both his sister, who happens to be the sultan, and the father of her child. In an attempt to save face for the royal family, Kadou is temporarily banned from court and assigned a new bodyguard, Evemer. Evemer’s disdain for Kadou is matched only by his dedication to formality and protocol, but what he lacks in congeniality he makes up for in skill and dedication. As Kadou and his household are pulled into a conspiracy of break-ins and money forgery, Kadou will have to trust Evemer if he is to pull the royal family out of harm’s way.

Political intrigue dominates much of A Taste of Gold and Iron, so those looking for a book that primarily centers a love story would do well to look to other avenues. However, for readers who enjoy forced proximity and bodyguard romances, A Taste of Gold and Iron offers both, wrapped in a delightful package of espionage and royal duty. In addition to their deft handling of multiple conspiracies and political disputes, Rowland also impresses in their nuanced depiction of anxiety. Kadou has panic attacks that leave him vulnerable to manipulation from both political opponents and his own staff. The story’s acceptance of Kadou’s anxiety expands A Taste of Gold and Iron‘s focus from romantic love to trust and vulnerability as well.

—Laura Hubbard

These reads from writers Sangu Mandanna, Jessie Mihalik and Alexandra Rowland have a couple to root for and a world to get totally lost in.

In Francesca May’s stunning, gorgeously composed fantasy debut, Wild and Wicked Things, a dissipated coven of witches and a meek young woman become unexpected allies.

Annie Mason has led a quiet and ordinary life. When her estranged father dies shortly after the end of World War I, she reluctantly travels to Crow Island to take care of his estate. The island also happens to be the very place her former best friend, Bea, resides in a fancy house on the sea with her new husband. Crow Island is famous across the land for its faux magic parlors and fake spells and potions, but Annie soon learns that its inhabitants also practice true, darker-than-imagined magic. When she rents a summer cottage next to the infamous Cross House, where a coven throws lavish parties that feature Prohibited magic, Annie is given an opportunity to find a place—and maybe a person—that actually feels like home.

May seamlessly transports readers to the shores of Crow Island, straight into the shoes of Annie and de facto coven leader Emmeline Delacroix. Annie is whisked away by the island’s enchantment, and May’s prose echoes F. Scott Fitzgerald to capture the finery and wild parties of the era. And while Annie originally thinks she’s being bewitched by the coven’s magic or the island, she comes to realize that she is simply following her innermost desires. The supposedly cursed island gives her time and space to come to terms with grief over lost loved ones and her internalized shunning of her sapphic sexuality. Emmeline’s inexplicable and undeniable magnetism is a clever plot complication but also the perfect setup for a passionate, slow-burning queer romance that feels forged in destiny.

Under all the glamour, Wild and Wicked Things is also a nuanced exploration of intergenerational trauma and abusive relationships. Emmeline hovers over her adoptive siblings, Isobel and Nathan, even though their abusive guardian, coven founder Cilla, is long gone. Annie finds herself in a similar situation as she tries to shield Bea from a marriage gone wrong, and she and Emmeline bond over their roles as protectors and healers. But nothing is truly black and white, from the witches’ backstories and intentions, to Bea’s desires, to Annie’s past. May does not shy away from the macabre, and every twist is better and eerier than the last.

May’s thrilling fantasy takes familiar tropes, mashes them with a mortar and pestle, sprinkles them with a bit of herbs and throws them into the cauldron, creating a fresh and exciting take on witchy historical fantasy.

Wild and Wicked Things is a stunning, gorgeously composed historical fantasy with a compelling queer romance at its heart.

In The League of Gentlewomen Witches, India Holton returns to the Dangerous Damsels, her magical romp of a series complete with flying houses, adventuring pirates and tenacious witches. In this fast-paced enemies-to-lovers romance, a witch destined to take over a secret society teams up with a roguish pirate captain to recover a stolen amulet.

Charlotte Pettifer is a descendent of the famed Beryl Black, founder of the Wicken League, which fosters the talents of both young and experienced witches. It’s Charlotte’s birthright to lead the league, just like her ancestor, and she’s always thought that her destiny was also her dream job. But a treasure-hunting pirate makes her reconsider her future. When Beryl Black’s long-lost amulet resurfaces, Captain Alex O’Riley sets out to claim it—and so does Charlotte, by stowing away on Alex’s flying house.

India Holton reveals which fictional sorceresses she’d want in her own coven.

Close quarters turn Charlotte and Alex’s rapid-fire banter into a sort of foreplay, but despite their mutual antagonism, their romance skews more toward the sweet and heartwarming end of the spectrum. The dashing, daring Alex provides the perfect foil for buttoned-up and duty-bound Charlotte. It’s not exactly a grumpy-meets-sunshine pairing—more like a stuffy character falling for a free-spirited one. Alex oozes charm; he already made a grand first impression in Holton’s debut, The Wisteria Society for Lady Scoundrels, and he will further secure his spot in readers’ hearts here. They will immediately understand why Charlotte is envious of Alex’s freedom, especially as the weight of becoming the head of the Wicken League looms over her. His very existence and infectious spontaneity make Charlotte waver on her commitment to the league. Can she really live the life she wants while also fully committing to the role of leader?

Holton takes readers on a wild ride through a fun, limitless world, where frivolity and whimsy reign supreme and skilled swordwork and grand displays of magic abound. It’s all a hodgepodge of delightful silliness, with over-the-top action, exaggerated villainy and the fact that it’s possible to fall in love with your sworn enemy while recovering an ancient amulet. Think Mel Brooks meets The Princess Bride with a dash of Austen-esque comedy of manners. And then crank that all up to 11.

It’s impossible to know where the series will go next, but after finishing The League of Gentlewomen Witches, readers will be completely on board for more of Holton’s imaginative, rollicking romances.

Mel Brooks meets The Princess Bride, with a dash of Austen-esque comedy of manners, in India Holton’s imaginative, rollicking romance.

A River Enchanted, Rebecca Ross’ adult fiction debut, is an elegant fantasy novel of homecoming and mystery. With its lyrical prose and tight world building, this story is both modern and timeless, drawing from the traditions of genre greats like Steven Lawhead and marrying them to the sensibilities of modern works like Genevieve Gornichec’s The Witch’s Heart and Tana French’s In the Woods.

The novel opens with the prodigal Jack Tamerlaine’s return to Cadence, the isle of his youth, a land where magic and spirits run free and gossip is carried on the wind as easily as smoke. He soon learns that young girls are going missing on Cadence, seemingly plucked from the air by a formless spirit, leaving no trace of them behind. Adaira, heiress to the laird and Jack’s childhood nemesis, has summoned Jack back to the island to help her find out exactly what has happened to the girls—and to get them back before it’s too late. She wants him to sing down the spirits as her mother once did so that Adaira can ask them what matter of mischief is afoot. But as Jack and Adaira delve deeper into the mystery, the spirits begin to suggest that a far darker secret lies behind the loss of the girls.

Already known for her young adult fantasy novels, Ross has created a world both rich and wonderful in Cadence. The island is full of so much magic, so many feuds and stories—enough that capturing them all in one novel, even a nearly 500-page one, seems a difficult task. But somehow Ross succeeds, guiding readers through the intricate warp and weft of the island and its traditions and creating a brilliant tapestry full of mystery and wonder. And while Ross does revel in world building, she doesn’t tell her story at a remove. The four characters that the book centers on—Jack, Adaira, guardsman Torin and healer Sidra—are vibrant and fully realized, keeping the myth-making quality of the book at bay and instead grounding the story in these characters’ heartaches and fears, their desires and attractions. A sublime mix of romance, intrigue and myth, A River Enchanted is a stunning addition to the canon of Celtic-inspired fantasy.

A sublime mix of romance, intrigue and myth, A River Enchanted is a stunning addition to the canon of Celtic-inspired fantasy.

A Marvellous Light

Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light takes us to Edwardian England, where manners are surface-level, magic is real and mysteries abound around every cobbled street corner. Robin Blyth takes a mysterious job in the government’s Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints division. In his rather baffling first 15 minutes on the job, Robin meets the somewhat awkward and brisk Edwin Courcey, who informs Robin that magic is real and that his predecessor was murdered by magical means. Though Robin and Edwin would each prefer working with someone else, it’s up to the two of them to find out what happened to the man Robin replaced, revealing a conspiracy that threatens all magical people in England. Come for the incredibly rich setting, stay for the romance: Robin and Edwin’s relationship anchors the narrative, and the way that they challenge and then question and then accept each other is captivating. Marske deftly contrasts the couple’s affection with the stuffiness of the world that surrounds them, making their love all the more resonant.

Noor

If you haven’t yet had a chance to experience Nnedi Okorafor’s singular voice, take the plunge now. In her sci-fi thriller Noor, Okorafor’s unique perspective is on full display. Anwuli Okwudili is a Nigerian girl who was born with deformities in her legs and one of her arms, intestinal malrotation and only one lung. After a car accident further limits the use of her legs and gives her debilitating headaches and memory issues, Anwuli gets a whole raft of biomechanical body enhancements. Viewed as half human and half machine, she flees her village after killing several men who attacked her. While on the run, she meets a shepherd called DNA (short for Dangote Nuhu Adamu), who is also on the run from the law. In a world where cameras track your every move, Anwuli and DNA try to stay ahead of a reckoning they know is coming. A leading voice in the subgenre of African futurism, Okorafor’s power on the page is confident, vivid and uniquely her own. This story is tight, violent, uplifting, damning and thoughtful all at once. Okorafor’s examination of technology’s influence on health, nature, local communities and so many other parts of life is as precise as it is disturbing. Noor is a cautionary thriller, told with exuberance and conviction.

Sistersong

If British history (and the mythology that surrounds it) sets your heart ablaze, then Lucy Holland’s mystical Sistersong is the book for you. A story of family, magic, romance and betrayal, Sistersong lingers long after its final page. Britain in A.D. 535, recently relieved of Roman rule, is full of many independent kingdoms. One of these, Dumonia, is home to three sisters. Each sister yearns for something: Riva for a body healed from the fire that disfigured her, Keyne for a place at her father’s side in battle, and Sinne for her true love. But it’s a tumultuous time for Dumonia. A Christian priest seeks to rid the kingdom of the old gods, the Saxons begin their invasion of Britain and new, unfamiliar faces appear at court. The sisters have to choose whether to take matters (and magic) into their own hands or let their kingdom fade into the past as a new Britain rises. Holland nails an early Middle Ages aesthetic, using it as the backdrop for some intensely personal storytelling. Be prepared for triumph and tragedy, fantasy and folklore, might and magic.

Think “Downton Abbey” would have been better with magic? Then this month’s SFF column is for you!

Heather Walter’s debut novel, Malice, transforms the familiar fairytale of Sleeping Beauty into a captivating fantasy romance between the storybook Princess Aurora and the dark sorceress Alyce.

Walter’s immersive world building plunges readers into the Briar Kingdom, built on a system of inequality and discrimination. The fae, known as Graces, are kept as magical servants for cold-blooded mortal nobles. The Graces can create beauty and light, but Alyce’s magic seems to produce only ugliness and pain. Known as the Dark Grace, Alyce is the last descendant of a type of fae known as the Vila, and her relationship with the other fae is complicated—some avoid her, all fear her and most are willing to throw her under the bus. 

When Alyce decides to attend a masquerade ball despite not being invited, she is outed as the dark fairy by one of Princess Aurora’s failed and jealous suitors. Alyce flees, but Aurora runs after her and Alyce is shocked at how down-to-earth the princess is. Aurora must find her true love by age 21 or she will be cursed to sleep forever. She has been kissed by many noblemen, often strangers, to try and break the curse, but none have succeeded. As Alyce and Aurora grow closer, the Dark Grace becomes determined to find a way to break the spell.

Told through the puckish voice of Alyce, Malice is a sympathetic take on the traditionally one-dimensional figure of the dark fairy. Alyce’s wry wit and determination to save Aurora make her instantly sympathetic, a refreshing change from other fairytale retellings that attempt to conjure some meticulous, outlandish backstory to explain the evil doings of a nefarious character. Alyce is feared, yes, but for things she’s had from birth and can’t control. Her growing love for Aurora and her increasing resistance to the status quo shine through her gloomy outlook, and as she learns about the history of Briar and the truth behind the treatment of the fae, Alyce learns some unexpected truths about her powers as well.

This heartfelt, ever-escalating story of true love burns bright, encouraging readers to brush aside shame or condescension and follow their hearts.

Heather Walter’s debut novel, Malice, transforms the familiar fairytale of Sleeping Beauty into a dark and compelling fantasy romance between the storybook princess and the dark sorceress Alyce.

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