I don’t know about you, but when the entire world as I know it is crumbling around me, all I want to do is stick my head in the sand and ignore it.
I’ve been so plugged in lately that my husband has taken to turning off our wifi and hiding my phone from me so he can get some uninterrupted work done. Because otherwise I do this to him 10 times an hour:
Husband: Is it the latest update on the plague?
Husband: Because I asked you to stop doing this.
Me: *nonchalantly hides phone behind back* No. It’s not about the plague. I just wanted to know if you would have a cup of coffee if I made another pot.
Now that I’ve been cut off from all outside communication, I’ve decided that he might have had a point. The sheer amount of negative news was not helping my anxiety. And since we’re already shut up in this house together 24/7, the last thing our relationship needs is more strain in the form of him having to act as a babysitter to my anxiety. I’ve taken it upon myself to set some ground rules.
- Only check the news 2x a day: two hours after I get up and two hours before bed.
- Delete my CNN app.
- Turn off all other social media notifications.
- Exercise every day.
- Employ distraction techniques.
Lately those distractions have been a mix of reading and watching TV. And by watching TV, I mean watching Schitt’s Creek.
For some strange reason, I haven’t been able to read anything new. My anxiety manifests in odd ways at times like this, and the chance that I might pick up a highly anticipated book only to end up hating it has become this weirdly insurmountable obstacle.
So while the newest releases languish on my shelves, I’ve been returning to old favorites. For me, the purest form of escapist literature can be found in romantic fantasies. There’s something about a love affair set in a distant world that is just so transportive.
Today I’m brining you my top five. I’ve read each of these books numerous times, and they are solid five-star reads for me.
1. radiance by grace draven
“You find me ugly, don’t you?”
“Hideous. A hag of a woman. And you? You don’t think me a handsome man?”
“Had you crawled out from under my bed when I was a child, I would have bludgeoned you to death with my father’s mace.”
*falls over laughing*
The above takes place between our two main characters, Brishen Khaskem, a Kai prince with gray skin, solid yellow eyes, razor claws for fingernails, and teeth meant for tearing flesh, and Ildiko, a human woman who happens to be the niece of a king.
They’re destined to marry, and for that, everyone pities them. The two races find each other physically repulsive, and as you can tell, that extends to our MCs.
While their appearances couldn’t be more different, their souls share a kinship. They’re both witty, intelligent, and quick to laugh. Which basically means that their interactions are frigging hysterical.
They first meet just before their wedding, and recognizing this kinship in each other, form an alliance based on mutual respect and honesty.
I KNOW, HOW REFRESHING, RIGHT?!
Their marriage is one that will secure an alliance between their kingdoms, and while both were pushed into it, neither one resents it.
BECAUSE – HOLY CRAP – THEY’RE BOTH DESCENT “PEOPLE”.
What follows can only be described as one hell of a love story, set against the backdrop of a world balanced on the brink of war. As there is no physical attraction between them (at first *waggles brows*), Brishen and Ilkido form a fast friendship. This love story is a slow burn, a realistic joining together of two souls with more meaningful things to draw them to each other.
I just blew your mind, didn’t I? Trust me, this book blew mine. It was so incredibly refreshing to actually buy into a relationship for once, an ACTUAL relationship, and not just people lusting after each other for no frigging reason aside from the OMG, ABS/OMG, BOOBS that dominates most romance novels.
My only complaint is that I wish there were more to this. I wish Draven delved deeper into this world. I wish there were more descriptions of journeys, surroundings, and cities.
But honestly, that tells you just how much I enjoyed being in this world. And how sad I was to leave it.
You can get your copy here.
2. A Heart of blood and ashes by milla vane
There are enemies, and there are monsters. Always slay the monsters first, because enemies may one day become allies – but monsters never will.
I read this book in January and I’m confident that it will be my favorite book of 2020, because I have been waiting for a book like this for years.
YEARS, I TELL YOU.
My two favorite genres are romance and fantasy. Therefore, my favorite subgenre of all time is romantic fantasy.
Do you know how many romantic fantasy books there are? I do, because I have read all of them and there are simply NOT ENOUGH.
With A Heart of Blood and Ashes, Milla Vane has crowned herself as the new queen of the genre for me. Seriously, this book was THAT good.
This story is centered in a fantastical world. It has a sort of medieval setting, complete with towering castles, barbarian hordes, vengeful gods, and evil sorcerers. Also, dinosaurs are a thing. Just an FYI for those of you with shorter attention spans, this is definitely on the high fantasy side of the genre, with extensive world building.
The great thing about that world building is that it never once reads like an info dump. Milla Vane did a genius thing with this. The female lead, Yvenne, has spent her entire life locked away in a tower, so you see the lands and cities she travels through from her awed perspective. Everything is fresh and new, and because of this, the setting and history of all the places she visits unfolds in a natural, organic way.
The story opens with the murder of the king and queen of one of these nations. Their son and heir, Maddek (the male lead), is a military commander at the time, fighting on the front lines of the allied nations’ territory.
The message he receives about their deaths is cryptic. Because the leaders of the alliance council know he will freak out when he learns the truth. As much as these allied nations claim to be civilized and fair, they know the story they were fed about the deaths of his king and queen is total bullshit.
And so does Maddek.
Seeking vengeance, he abducts the daughter of King Zhalen, the man who had his parents murdered. That princess would be Yvenne, and whoo-boy do they have some instant chemistry.
Real talk: I’m not typically a fan of darker romances. In fact, I usually avoid the subgenre at all costs, because I almost always find the “romances” in them to read more like glorified tales of abuse and manipulation. Seldom do I understand the character choices.
That said, I loved the hell out of Maddek and Yvenne, regardless of the fact that their interactions sometimes dipped toward the darker side of romance. Because, through their perspectives, I understood them both, and though I might not agree with their choices, I could see why they made them.
Thanks to the book blurb, it’s not a spoiler to say that Yvenne is nothing like what Maddek expected. He’d been led to believe that she acted as an agent of her father and betrayed his parents by luring them to their deaths. Imagine his surprise when he finds out that her hatred for her father eclipses even his own. Instead of murdering her, he winds up betrothed instead.
From the moment they meet, they’re on the run. Because Yvenne’s father will do anything to keep the truth of what he did hidden. And he’s even more desperate to keep his motivations a secret.
Yvenne and Maddek are pursued through several nations, guarded by an incredible cast of side characters that I liked so much, I would gladly read a story from each and every one of their perspectives.
Another thing I’ll say is that this is not always an easy read. There are some harder themes in here. The violence is brutal and sometimes gory. I was so invested in these characters that every time one of them was hurt, I got a little bit ragey on their behalf. And it’s not always smooth sailing for our hero and heroine. It’s more like they chartered their course through a storm-swept sea. But what never flags is their heat.
Good lord, these two set the pages on fire.
One thing I loved, loved, LOVED about this book was how inclusive it was. More than half of the cast are characters of color, men and women hold equal power in leadership roles, and sexuality is so widely accepted as being fluid that it’s literally never made into a “thing”. It’s just written along the lines of “she took her to bed”, without further dissection, and amen for that.
Another thing I loved was the way that Yvenne was portrayed. She’s easily one of my favorite female leads of all time. I am sick to death of readers equating traditional male qualities as strengths in heroines. Like, a heroine is only ever deemed “strong” if she swears a lot, and is violent, and is short-tempered, and never cries, etc.
Yvenne is not physically strong. She spent her life locked in a room. She has chronic pain thanks to a knee that was once shattered. But Yvenne is not without strength. Her mind is an exquisite thing. Her political acumen is prodigious. She was cutthroat and manipulative and deceptive and did anything to get what she wanted – all for the good of her people – and I fucking adored her for it.
And Maddek. Oh, Maddek. At times I wanted to punch him in the face. Then half a page later I wanted to climb him like a tree. What I’m saying is that I understood why Yvenne lusted after him and was pissed at him in equal measure.
It’s important to point out that I never, ever gave up on him. I rooted for him as hard as I did Yvenne, and his character arc is as strong as hers. He learns from his mistakes. He strives to be a better man. While he sometimes pissed me off, I totally got why he acted the way he did, and I never stopped believing that he would work through his demons.
Which he does, and lord is it worth it. I damn near cried when this ended.
One last note is that while their romance is a dominant part of the story, it shares space with one gloriously complicated plot. This is a highly political fantasy setting, with kings and queens and gods all vying for power on the same playing board. Just when you think you know what is going on, the rug is pulled out from under your feet. Just when you think these characters have finally made it to safety, a new threat emerges.
I was honestly terrified that this was going to end on a massive cliffhanger and I’d be left waiting in breathless desperation for the next one to come out.
Fear not, fellow reader! This ends with the HEA we expect from romance, but with room for more installments.
You can get your copy here.
3. The bird and the sword by amy harmon
A girl without a voice. A king in chains. A land on the brink of war.
YOU SHOULD BE.
While this is listed as a romantic fantasy, it should be noted that it has all the trappings of a classic fairy tale, and I mean that in the BEST possible way.
There are curses, prophecies, evil sorcerers, gallant princes, reluctant princesses, and creatures of all shapes and sizes.
I absolutely devoured it, reading it in a single sitting. What can I say? Magic infuses these pages, and I found it damn near impossible to resist Harmon’s spellbinding prose. The world she weaves with her words is as enthralling as it was enchanting, and I’m sorry to leave it behind.
You can get your copy here.
4. ember by bettie sharpe
And there you have the whole of it, the truth behind the tale of the Cinder Girl and the Charming Prince. All ended happily, but you do not seem happy to have heard it. Why not? Oh, I understand. You wanted to see heroes rewarded and villains punished. You wanted the prince to be noble and his princess to be kind.
Poor dear. I warned you this was no fairy tale.
And so ends one hell of a retelling. Bettie Sharpe takes everything you ever thought you knew about Cinderella and flips it on its head.
I have to admit, this particular story has never been my favorite of the classics – I’m more of a Beauty and the Beast fangirl – but when I saw a bunch of my friends raving over this “erotic retelling”, my interest was piqued.
Let me tell you, this is so much more than just smut.
In this rendition, our young heroine isn’t some helpless damsel in distress trapped in an abusive home until her “true love” rescues her. She’s not some flaxen-haired beauty with doe eyes and a tendency to spontaneously break into song. She’s a redheaded witch named Ember, with a twisted right foot and a temper to match her fiery mane.
…she’s a witch, if ever there was one. She cut off her own finger and made the witch’s bargain with the spirits of fire. She writes her spells in blood. When Lord Campos blacked my eye, she sent a plague of rats and ravens to drive him from the city. And she keeps a little doll made in his image to poke with pins or singe with fire whenever she needs amusement.
Her stepsisters aren’t enemies, but allies, and her stepmother isn’t her nemeses, but a close friend and confidante. Oh, and all three happen to be prostitutes.
Then there’s Prince Charming, a.k.a. Adrian Juste. You see, in this fairy tale, he isn’t some nameless nitwit with a shoe fetish, but a man cursed to live a life in which everyone loves him on sight. Literally. As in, he was actually cursed at birth to be irresistible.
Women all but tear their clothes off in his presence, men who might seethe with jealousy over this instead worship the ground he walks on, and even enemy armies lay down their weapons for fear of harming his handsome visage.
Sounds awesome, right?
Imagine never having to work for love, never having to earn anyone’s trust or admiration. You’d either become a tyrant, or the loneliest person in the world.
Not even Cinderella’s magical abilities lend her protection from his charm, and from the moment she lays eyes upon him, she’s swept up in his spell. But there’s a catch. At the last minute, she’s able to break the hold he has on her and wrench her gaze from him.
It’s hard not to notice the one face turned away from you in a crowd full of your worshipers. The prince notices. And becomes obsessed with hunting her down.
What results is a beautifully written FEMINIST fairy tale even better than the original, if you ask me. It’s filled with thought-provoking narrative, hilarious dialogue, unapologetic badassery on the part of the female lead, wonderful female relationships, and women rescuing themselves.
Plus, there are those steamy scenes all my friends raved about. By the way, I really don’t recommend reading them while on your lunch break.
Because your boss might wander into your cubicle to ask you a question.
And you might nearly self-immolate with the strength of your blush.
Not that I would know.
You can get your copy here.
5. snowspelled by stephanie burgis
This thing keeps happening to me where I have a novella recommended to me (in this case, by my fellow blogger, Brigid), I one-click it, and then it’s just as awesome as it was hyped to be.
I’m not complaining, I’m just saying, one of these times, it’s not going to work out and I am going to be so sad that a good thing has come to an end.
But it hasn’t yet, so rejoice!
Earlier this year, I read Mating the Huntress by Talia Hibbert, and in my review for that I raved about how much stellar world building and character development and feminism she managed to cram into a novella.
Stephanie Burgis did the same damn thing with Snowspelled. In her version of Angland, women rule the nation and men are relegated to being spellcasters. Oh, and she flips the scripts even further, because men are the ones who have to watch out for their delicate reputations or else risk being ruined by a woman – YES QUEEN, OH, GOD, RUIN ALL OF THE STUFFY ENGLISHMEN.
I’ve read a lot of regency romance (I write it too), so to see many of the social pitfalls of the time period turned upside down was beyond satisfying for me.
One of the things about the genre that bugs the hell out of me is how so many authors who write in it ignore the fact that London was an incredibly diverse place at the time. By the close of the 19th century, there were over ONE MILLION people living there and it was the largest city in the world.
Stephanie Burgis knows this. Snowspelled was packed with diversity. At least half of her characters were people of color. Also, LESBIANS, YAS. With their own romantic subplot that I would pay good money to read an entire book about.
Sometimes in novellas authors miss the chance to fully flesh out certain aspects of the story and it can therefore feel rushed. Don’t worry, that doesn’t happen here. Burgis packed more romance and action into this than the full-fledged (highly hyped) novel I DNFed just before picking this up.
Wicked elves, slumbering trolls the size of houses, the risk of a treaty between realms collapsing, and, oh, is that a rakish ex-fiance come to help our heroine?
As I write this, the year is winding to a close and many of my bookish friends are scrambling to complete their end of the year TBR challenges. Well, friends, look no further. You can read this novella in one-sitting, and you’ll enjoy the hell out of yourself while you do so.
You can get your copy here.