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Why Are The Worlds of Fantasy Romances So Grim?

Dracula by Arantzatu MartínezThe genre of high fantasy romance (sometimes simply called fantasy romance), offers what its title suggests. You can expect elements of epic high fantasy: invented worlds, fantasy creatures, magic, royalty, great forces of evil to defeat. You can also expect a focus on romance, love, sex and sexual attraction. However, if you read a lot in this genre you might notice another dominant feature: grimness and brutality. By this I mean that the worlds of fantasy romance are dark places you wouldn’t want to be in, especially if you’re a woman. They are rife with torture, violence, rape, forced marriages and depraved villains.

This might come as a surprise, because we typically associate the word “romance” with happily-ever-afters and feel-good rom coms. But when romance is blended with high fantasy, rainbows and sunshine are rarely what you get. To analyse why this is, I thought I’d break down some common grim elements in fantasy romance and what I believe their function to be.

DEPRAVED VILLAINS

Gentleman by YefimLike the antagonists of traditional epic fantasy, villains in fantasy romance are evil, uncaring, violent and bent on domination. But they usually have an additional twist to make you loathe them all the more: depravity and perversion. The villains of fantasy romances like to hurt others – they like to enslave and torture, to rape women or men, to be cruel to children. Sometimes they are incestuous or have deviant sexual desires. You only need to look at the villain in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander or the twisted nobles in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series to see how sadistic these antagonists can be. Even an antagonist who shows no obvious sexual perversion can be twisted in other ways, for example the villain in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, who takes pleasure in torturing animals and forcing people to hurt themselves.

While this might seem unusual, if you think it through, it’s not so surprising. Fantasy romance adds a hefty dose of “good” romance and sexual tension to epic fantasy as heroines and heroes find love, pleasure and safety in one another. To threaten that, the villain manifests the opposite: they are incapable of love or consensual intimacy and determined to abuse and torment the hero or heroine. Traditional epic fantasy offers asexual villains like Sauron because it also offers near asexual heroes and heroines. High fantasy romance does not.

These twisted villains also add tension because we love to loathe them, and we fear it when our favourite characters are at their mercy. Their defeat is satisfying not only because good that has triumphed over evil, but because love and decency have triumphed over depravity.

POWER AND CONTROL

Follow Me by Vladimir KrisetskiyAll fantasies deal with power, usually of the political, magical and military variety. But in fantasy romance there is more exploration of small-scale power and sexual power as characters try to control and dominate the lives of other characters, and this struggle can take on sinister shades. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart is a prime example, weaving sexual and political power plays together as a courtesan becomes embroiled in the politics of a nation. Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy offers an antagonist driven by a jealous desire to possess, control and humiliate the heroine. In C. L. Wilson’s Lord of the Fading Lands the somewhat bestial “Tairen Soul” must bridle his desire to protect and possess the heroine if he hopes to win her heart.

Given the focus fantasy romance places on personal relationships and intimacy, it is unsurprising that power plays also become personal and bound up with sexuality. Additionally, power struggles can act as obstacles to delay the lovers’ happily-ever-after. Whether it’s the power others have to split them apart and forbid them from marrying, or their own struggle for power over one another, it adds tension and conflict. Struggles for power within relationships in the form of seductions, manipulations or other attempts to dominate can also add sexual tension.

Lastly, because the hero or heroine’s love is usually shown as a good, pure and selfless thing, any desire the antagonists display must be born of something else. Their motivation usually ends up being a driving need to possess and control, or simply a jealous desire to be the one that emerges successful and dominant.

ABUSE

Oliver Twisted by karichristePart of what makes the worlds of fantasy romance novels so strikingly brutal is the prevalence of abuse. Fantasy romances often contain torture and rape, or the looming threat of these.

In C. L. Wilson’s Lord of the Fading Lands an immediate threat to the heroine comes in the form of a lecherous man who aims to trap her into a marriage and clearly intends to force himself on her. In Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, the protagonist goes through a torment (I won’t go into detail) that makes it hard for her to trust men afterward. In both the Throne of Glass and the An Ember in the Ashes series, regular reference is made to the whippings, disfigurements and cruelties the protagonists have endured as slaves and the threat of rape they faced. The male love interest in Outlander endures all kinds of twisted abuse and torture.

The prevalence of these violent and shocking scenes in high fantasy romance novels is probably due to several things. Many high fantasy worlds are modelled on a medieval or ancient society. Fantasy romances, often told from the perspective of women, don’t shy away from the darker aspects of these historical periods – namely random violence, the breakdown of law and the mistreatment and subjugation of women. Pitchfork by winona nelsonThey often show us a world where heroines are at the mercy of their fathers and husbands, where even royalty can be forced into unhappy marriages, and where the threats of indiscriminate violence and rape loom large. Some books like the Black Jewels trilogy flip things around to a degree, showing women in power that are using and abusing men.

The adult audience and content of the genre also plays a role. Just as these books can acknowledge the existence of sex, they can also acknowledge the existence of rape and torture and present more graphic content.

Lastly, it’s about contrast and hope. The joy, happiness, pleasure and rightness embodied in an epic romance will seem all the more acute when surrounded by bleakness and cruelty. Like a light in darkness, it offers hope for us to cling to.

IT’S NOT ALL GRIM

Oath by wlopIn all of this, I should stress that fantasy romances aren’t all brutality and sexual violence. Many only allude to the grimmer elements and don’t present graphic scenes of abuse, and even those that do still contain love, romance, noble deeds, and kind-hearted souls. They focus on the triumph of love over hate. They simply amplify that triumph by making the evil a twisted, brutal and bleak one.

The worlds of fantasy romances expose the worst aspects of humanity, while at the same time showing us its best. They don’t sugar-coat romances but make them something hard-earned and precious. And while they might not be everyone’s cup of tea, they fuse epic fantasy and romance in a way that makes us explore situations, emotions and conflicts we wouldn’t often encounter in other fantasy sub-genres.

Title image by aling.

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3 Comments

  1. Such a wonderful article. Thank you Nicola for delving into what can be seen as a confusing or misleading genre of fantasy. Romance, has everything, means such different things in the hands of fantasy writers.

  2. Lilaer says:

    Thank you for this article. Honestly, I finally /get it/. I’m an avid fantasy reader and I’ve tried most all of these books and while I enjoyed Tairen Soul and An Ember in the Ashes, some of the others have shocked and, well, offended me to a wall-hitting degree. To be honest, I suspected the authors themselves of being perverts.

    But it actually makes sense to me now. These depraved villains are an equivalent to Sauron with a sex drive. Fantasy showcases the good and noble and true and in a ‘chaste’ fantasy, this is about political and spiritual kinds of power. Why shouldn’t it be about sexual and or obsessive/possessive power in a relationship in a fantasy romance?

    I suspect this genre still isn’t for me, but yeah, I suddenly respect and understand it so much more.

    Also, these images are the perfect illustrations of your points. The last one is gorgeous.

  3. Morgan Smith says:

    Another factor is the one of rising/escalating expectations.

    Once one writer goes there successfully, every other writer falls into the trap: that future readers will now expect that level of sex/depravity, and therefore, to gain ascendancy over other writers in the field, there’s a pressure to “one-up” that previously successful writer.

    Once GoT started killing off every main character in sight, the pressure was on all other authors to start “confounding expectations” by killing off main characters. Once Carey introduced the idea of S&M as an acceptable avenue of exploration, every other writer felt the pressure to introduce elements of sexual bondage as part of their worlds.

    It’s very hard to resist that kind of trend. Writers do, after all, have to respond in some way to market forces.

    If readers didn’t like those specific trends, they would stop buying, and writers would stop writing those into their work.

    And, in fact, there are beginning to be signs that readers may have had enough. Only far-off hints, of course, since erotically-charged and pervert-laden “fantasy” novels are still a huge part of the fantasy market overall (it really isn’t confined to fantasy-romance, but has leaked/flooded into more mainstream fantasy genres, too) but hints, nonetheless, that writers who don’t go graphic on the violence and sex in Chapter One are beginning to make a comeback.

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