I was one of those girls – women – who was pretty down on romance as a genre. There are lots of complicated reasons for this. Partly it was a woman thing; I wanted to not be that sort of woman (what sort? I don’t know. I guess I associated liking romances with weakness or something?). Partly it was a genre thing: over here in the disregarded spec fic corner, it’s nice to disregard someone else.
But of course this was always both a) a completely stupid attitude for a multitude of reasons and b) hypocritical. Because I do like reading romances in the stories I’m reading.
I think I’ve finally figured out what doesn’t usually appeal: romances that exist purely by themselves. I’m certainly not saying that they are bad or stupid, but that as a rule they don’t appeal to me (like I don’t love vampire stories as a rule, although I do enjoy the Blade films). What helped me finally articulate this is having read three of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series. (There is a fourth but I don’t plan to read it, partly because the main character doesn’t appeal and partly for Historical Snobbish reasons.) This is mostly because of Tansy.
These are Victorian romances, which means Milan gets to take advantage of some of the interesting social and political and scientific changes happening in the mid-19th century in England (and across Europe). The main point is always about a girl and a boy and how of course they ought to be together but there are all of these problems that might prevent their happiness: scandals in the past, problems in the present, nasty people, social expectations, etc. Some of these relationship problems ring a bit more true than others: I didn’t find Minnie’s ‘scandal’, in the first book, all that convincing, while the problems of the third book were magnificent. Overall, though, the characters are treated sympathetically and the problems carefully – no one of consequence dismisses anyone’s fears without regard, which I found quite a relief. I especially liked that both female and male protagonists get to tell the narrative from their point of view, making the stories much more rounded and feel more genuine than might otherwise be the case.
And around these relationship issues are the social and political themes that Milan uses to flesh out the world. In the first book it’s class relationships and working conditions and rape and marrying for money. In the second book it’s about race and political representation and social expectations and marrying for money and child guardianship and medical ethics and mental health. In the third it’s mostly about science (oh my, seduction by science I LOVED it) and gender expectations. Some of these issues play into the romance, and some of these issues are things that the characters are dealing with quite apart from their romance because of course life exists outside of does-she-love-me and Milan knows that very well. Milan is presenting complex and complicated individuals and worlds.
Of course, this is all within a fairly constrained society: the focus is on the wealthy, with a few not-nobles thrown in (not just as window-dressing but still, they have to meet the expectations of the Haves), almost everyone is white, and so on. There’s a lot of pretty dresses and balls and large houses. But… that’s the sort of book that Milan is writing. A romance set in the middle-class or working-class echelons would be very different and deal with different issues. And wouldn’t have the foofy dresses, which are – as you can see from the covers – important to the story.
I am not going to start reading nothing but romances (historical or otherwise), because I am still mostly interested in space ships and explosions and the odd dragon, and there are so MANY of those I haven’t read yet. But I am very glad I have grown up enough to acknowledge Old Me’s appalling attitude, and I’m very glad to have read and enjoyed these books.