For any readers who might be curious, what exactly is a battle couple?
The battle couple, as I define it, is certainly a trope rooted in violence. Some people would expand the scope of that definition to include virtually any couple that figuratively goes to battle together, the idea being that they support each other on more or less equal footing in various confrontational spheres.
The books I’m going to be presenting today feature people who belong, in some form or fashion, to the character class of fighters. If this were Dungeons & Dragons, they would all be fighty types. These couples literally fight together and support each other in battle.
What attracts you to this trope?
I feel like many of us read books to live out our power fantasies. We read stories to experience a character dynamic and a world in which people gain or exert a specific kind of power. When I’m reading books, playing video games, and watching movies, my power fantasies usually involve helping people, but I also have always really enjoyed martial arts.
When I was growing up, my mom was always signing me up for various activities, trying to find the one that would stick. I was always a reader, and I always loved video games, but I tried soccer, baseball, and track and field, and none of these hobbies really stuck with me.
When I discovered Renaissance Faire stage combat, that was it. That was where I wanted to live. I volunteered for years at my local Renaissance Fair with the Chessmasters group, which was a stage combat group that fought with rapiers, broadswords, staffs, and fists. We put on a performance every year that was people engaging in duels on a living chessboard. I love fighting.
Your first recommendation for us is the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. Could you introduce us to these books?
It’s an urban fantasy series about secret magic in the modern world. October Daye, also known as Toby, is a half-fae changeling, which is a marginalized group within the fae world of the story. The first book in the series is titled Rosemary and Rue, and the rest of the books are also named after Shakespeare quotes. I love that.
Toby initially works for a fae duke as a knight-errant, which is like a private investigator. Even though Toby is only a dogsbody, she has sword-fighting skills, low-level illusion skills, and a specific blood magic that is particular to her.
In the prologue of the first story, she’s living in San Francisco with her steady boyfriend and their daughter. Then she gets cursed to be a fish for fourteen years. Between the prologue and the first chapter, she comes back, but by the time she’s back to normal, her boyfriend has married someone else and their kid is in high school. It’s very tragic.
“Many of us read books to live out our power fantasies”
She’s alone in the world. She works at a grocery store. She avoids everyone from her old life, and she becomes a hermit. Then she is, once again, magically cursed. In this case, she’s cursed to find her friend’s killer.
The rest of the books follow this format. She’s solving a mystery, finding a missing person, finding a missing object, or figuring out who murdered whom. The books are steeped in fairy lore and magic, with aristocratic fairy courts and their queens and intrigue. These novels contain everything that the grandfather in The Princess Bride says when he’s introducing the book at the beginning of the film: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.”
But it’s also a kissing book—where does the battle couple come in?
Toby has had a tumultuous upbringing and been living on the streets, so she is tough from jump, and she gets even tougher. Her partner, in terms of the battle couple dynamic, is Tybalt, who is a king of the court of cats. He has various magical abilities, including shapeshifting between human and cat forms. He’s strong, handsome, and sarcastic.
Their relationship is a very slow burn, though it’s initially quite catty—pun intended. At the moment in the book when Tybalt gives Toby his jacket, I remember thinking, ‘This is inevitable. I don’t care who else is involved. They’re definitely going to end up together. As soon as they exchange clothing and she keeps it, that’s it.’
When it comes to stories with any kind of romance in them, I think a lot about the power dynamics of the pairing. In a lot of category-romance novels, the man intrinsically has more power than the woman, whether it’s physical strength, social standing, money, or some other factor. With battle couples like Toby and Tybalt, there may be an initial power differential, but ideally it’s resolved before they enter into a relationship.
This novel doesn’t become a Cinderella story of a lowly half-fae being seduced by a king because Toby becomes more of a political player as the series progresses. She unearths secrets about her past and becomes stronger and more magically and physically powerful, to the point where they can meet as equals, instead of Toby relying on Tybalt in a fight, leaning on his political reputation, or always needing to be rescued because she pushed herself too hard and everything is a mess. That does happen, though!
They balance each other out, as they each have their own specific strengths and weaknesses. Individually, each of them is a powerhouse. Of course, it’s a romance, so they grow stronger together.
Let’s move on to the next recommendation you have for us, which is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews.
“Ilona Andrews” is a husband and wife team. I love all of their series. They all have battle couples in them, but I single out the Kate Daniels series because it is the longest-running and most fighty series. It’s urban fantasy, but it isn’t secret magic, where everyone has to keep the magic hidden. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of Atlanta, which is where I live now.
These books are set in a contemporary world, but one where magic suddenly came back into this world of technology after thousands of years of being dormant. There was a cataclysmic event, and society crumbled and then recovered. Technology still exists, but it alternates with magic, in waves. One will work and the other won’t. That’s a fun complication. People have learned to live with the mess that this causes. A car may have two engines: a gas engine and a magic engine, or some people ride horses instead because they don’t want to have to deal with it.
Compared to our world, it’s more dangerous because you have shapeshifters, vampires controlled by necromancers, mages, witches, and monsters. The monsters range from low-key nuisances to the extremely nasty, people-eating kind.
At the start of the series, Kate is a mercenary. She’s a low-level grunt who does violent jobs for money, working as a bodyguard, rescuer, monster exterminator—whatever she gets paid to do. She’s constantly broke because this is uneven income, so she’s always hustling. Relatable!
In the first book, Kate’s former guardian is murdered, and she sets out to solve that mystery. This brings her into contact with the Order of Merciful Aid, for whom he had worked. She ends up crossing paths with the Beast Lord, Curran, who’s in charge of all the shapeshifters in Atlanta. There are hundreds of them.
The first time they meet, in a dark alley, Kate sasses him by saying, “Here, kitty-kitty.” He turns out to be an enormous werelion. She thinks he’s an overbearing jerk with an inflated ego; he thinks she’s all mouth and no brains, that she is only a sword arm with nothing between her ears. Their romance is a slow burn that builds over the course of the series. Their respective histories and secrets are revealed gradually as they fall in love with each other.
What do you like most about them as a (battle) couple?
As battle couples go, they complement each other well. Kate has strong magic, encyclopedic knowledge of mythology and monsters, and endless weapon skills. She can fight with anything: a knife, a spoon, a broken bottle. She is a weapon incarnate. In D&D terms, Curran is a tank. He can bench press a car, wrestle like a pro, and he turns into a giant lion. What are you going to do against that?
The interesting thing about them as a couple is that they each are extremely powerful from jump, but Kate is hiding her potential, for plot reasons that are explored over the course of the series. Curran, politically speaking, is way out of her league. He is the head of this entire pack of shapeshifters, which makes having genuine relationships difficult for him, if not impossible. Because of the power dynamics, he’s not on a level with anyone.
In the first book, they both go on dates with other people in the same place. Kate’s is with a plastic surgeon who is very invested in appearances and views her as arm candy. She hates it, and she’s bored the whole time. Curran is on a date with a shapeshifter who can’t look him in the eye because she’s so scared of him. At that point, neither Kate nor Curran can be their authentic selves.
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But when they’re back to back in a fight, they can let loose. They can be their true selves without having to worry about what other people think. She won’t let him boss her around or intimidate her. And because of that, he gets to stop being the boss around her and can just be a man with feelings and needs. They can have a relationship based on this mutual disregard for their respective levels of power.
It’s a very interesting dynamic. One of the intrinsic elements of a battle couple is that they have to meet as equals on some level. When you have characters for whom that equality is lacking, they have to get to that place before they can have a relationship. They have to accept and understand each other and believe in each other. If you’re in battle together and you’re back to back with somebody, you have to trust that they’re going to protect you as you protect them. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that is built on trust.
Your next recommendation is the Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs.
This is an urban fantasy series about a coyote shapeshifter named Mercy Thompson. She works as a mechanic in the Tri-Cities area of Washington state.
These books initially straddle the line between open magic and secret magic. The fae are the only-non human group that is currently “out” as the series starts, but there are also vampires, werewolves, witches, and other magic creatures going bump in the night, so to speak.
Mercy is a mechanic, both literally and figuratively speaking. She fixes cars—primarily Volkswagens—and solves paranormal problems between the various factions in this Tri-Cities area. In the first book, Mercy helps a werewolf who shows up at her shop looking for work. It turns out he is being chased by evil people who want to run experiments on him.
Mercy’s neighbor, Adam, is one of the love interests. They have a contentious relationship. He is protective of her, and she disdains this. She’s always leaving her beater car in the backyard, where he has to look at it. He hates it because it’s ugly, and covered in graffiti, so she does this to mess with him.
Adam is the leader of the local werewolf pack, which includes the kid who showed up to her house as a werewolf, so she asks Adam for help. She ends up being embroiled in this entire mess that has nothing to do with her. The rest of the series tends to follow the cozy mystery format of ‘Why am I involved in this?’ It does turn out to be intrinsic to her character, her friends, and her relationships. She’s an agent of chaos.
Unlike the other series that we’ve talked about, this one starts with a love triangle. Love triangles are the devil’s geometry—I hate them. This one involves Mercy, Adam, and Mercy’s childhood sweetheart, Samuel, who’s also a werewolf. Mercy is much lower on the power scale than these guys are. She’s a mechanic, so she’s not in charge of anyone but herself.
She does have hand-to-hand fighting skills. When she goes to martial arts lessons, she has to pull her punches because she’s stronger than humans, but she isn’t as strong as a werewolf or a vampire, and she doesn’t have the same toughness or supernatural healing abilities. She can sniff out magic, which is unique to her. She’s much better than others at running and hiding. In her little coyote form, she can snuggle into small places where a giant wolf wouldn’t be able to fit.
Samuel’s centuries older and much more powerful than she is. He’s the son of the big boss werewolf of the whole country, but he’s a lone wolf. Although Adam is not as old or as powerful as Samuel, he’s a former soldier who runs a very successful private security company. He’s loaded, and he has government contacts, so he’s a big deal.
“Love triangles are the devil’s geometry”
Personally speaking, I’m not a big fan of age gap romances. When the gap is hundreds of years, it starts to get weird to me. I’m not trying to yuck anyone’s yum, but I don’t dig it too much. In this case, it means that Samuel has a lot of baggage that he has to deal with before he can have a healthy relationship.
Adam, on the other hand, is also older than Mercy, but only by a couple of decades. They are closer to being on the same level, in terms of their upbringing and their experiences. To become a real battle couple, they have to prove that they can fight as a team, and they do.
We see the same protective urges that tend to come out in these werewolf shapeshifter romances, but they have each other’s backs, they trust each other, they spar together, they go after their enemies together, and they treat each other as equals. They play to their respective strengths, while acknowledging that they have them.
At no point is either one made to feel as if they don’t contribute to the relationship on an equal footing. I think that’s important when you have these kinds of battle couple dynamics.
The next recommendation you have is The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.
Robin McKinley is one of the first authors who introduced me to women kicking butts, which started me on this questionable path of wanting to solve problems with violence. I’ve never stopped loving this trope of the woman with a sword in her hand.
The Blue Sword is a secondary world fantasy. It takes place not on earth but in a different place with some overlap of certain experiences and ideas. Its prequel is The Hero and the Crown, in which the protagonist, Aerin, teaches herself how to fight a giant dragon and then does it. The two books take place centuries apart, and the prequel is the ancient history of The Blue Sword.
The main characters in The Blue Sword are Angharad ‘Harry’ Crewe and King Corlath. Harry is part of the colonizer culture. Because she is orphaned and has no money and nowhere to live, she’s sent to live at a desert outpost in another country to be near her soldier brother. Corlath is the king of the Hillfolk, who are native to this area. Supposedly he has very powerful magic, but Harry’s people don’t believe it.
Corlath’s magic tells him that he needs to kidnap Harry, so he does, and she is once again displaced from her home. Now she’s stuck with these desert nomads who have no idea why she has been kidnapped by their king, because he himself doesn’t know. He only knows that it’s important because the magic said so.
This is a ‘fish out of water’ story. Harry has to learn the language and the customs. She learns to sword fight and to ride horses the way that the Hillfolk ride. They don’t use bridles and bits.
Side note: I’ve never been a horse girl. Horses alarm me. Whenever I have the opportunity to have somebody in one of my stories ride a horse, I simply have them walk. Even if I have to ride a horse in a video game, I’ll think, ‘Do I actually have to ride this horse or could I simply not?’ I respect horse girls, but I have never been one.
Harry discovers she has magic skills, and she rises in the ranks of these Hillfolk. Ultimately, she does prove herself and she joins the battle that is forming against the demonic northern tribes that Corlath rightly believes are preparing to invade. This threatens to harm not only him and his people, but also Harry’s people, their outposts, and everything they’re trying to accomplish.
You’ve mentioned how the power differential for all the other battle couples eventually balances out. This seems like a particularly unbalanced power dynamic. Is it ever equalized?
Here we have another romance where the woman starts out at a disadvantage. She is a random nobody from across the sea who has lived as a woman does in that society. I want to say it’s about Regency or Victorian level: she walks around in a dress, reads books, and drinks tea. We don’t have the sense that women are on an equal footing with men in this culture, but neither are we given the impression that they’re oppressed or that there are strong misogynistic tendencies.
Nevertheless, once she gets into this other group, she finds herself at a huge disadvantage that she has to work to correct. It’s extremely difficult for her, but she works hard and gains the respect of the people. She literally fights her way to the top of the ranks to prove that she can hold her own and be at the king’s side.
There still is that power differential, in that she’s a penniless orphan and he’s a king, but she earns her place through her own actions and her own efforts. By the end of the novel, they are equals because she has come into her own, in terms of both her magical powers and her combat skills.
She ends up serving as the bridge between the two cultures. It’s a mostly peaceful resolution to a colonizer dynamic that, in itself, can be extremely bad and wrong in a lot of different stories.
You mentioned this author and this book being formative influences for you. Could you speak a little more about that?
This is a book that started me on a specific path in terms of my preferences. In many romance novels, even if the woman starts out with a sword in her hand, all too often, by the end, she is overshadowed by her love interest, not only in terms of strength and skill, but in that he may be protective and overbearing to the point where she stops sword fighting and just lets herself be protected.
No judgment on that dynamic. That structure, as romance goes, can be hot and satisfying, but it’s not for me. My power fantasy definitely involves strong women taking charge, kicking butts, and getting things done. Those are the stories I gravitate towards, and The Blue Sword is definitely one of them.
Your last recommendation for us is Hunt the Stars by Jessie Mihalik.
Hunt the Stars is the first book in a trilogy of space opera romances. It takes place in a future where we’ve colonized the stars, and we zip through wormholes to get from one place to the next. The book sets up a galaxy where you have two factions: humans and Valoffs. Valoffs are predominantly human but have some key differences.
The two groups were at war and now they’re at peace, but there’s still hostility between them. The humans fear the Valoffs because they have psychic powers, including telepathy, telekinesis, healing, and teleportation. The humans think, ‘If this person can lift me into the air and crush my bones with his mind, this is very intimidating and scary.’
The power dynamics come into play right from the start. The main character, Octavia ‘Tavi’ Zarola, is a soldier—technically, a captain—turned bounty hunter. Her crew is made up of former squadmates of hers from the military. When Torran Fletcher, a former Valoff general, offers Tavi a significant sum of money to find a stolen family heirloom, she wants to decline, but her crew reminds her that ships and food cost money. After some grumpy negotiations, she accepts the job.
Everything is way more complicated than what I’ve described, and it doesn’t resolve quickly. I will not get into deep spoilers here, but Tavi and Torran are in close quarters on the ship with their respective crews for a long time. They cook together, spar together, and get to know each other. Eventually, they fight together.
Even though their power levels never become equal, Tavi still holds her own. She has the military skills of a soldier, including hand-to-hand combat, and guns. This couple’s arc is enemies to lovers. Before they can act on their mutual attraction, they must earn each other’s respect, resolve their cultural issues, and deal with their respective baggage from the war in which they fought on opposing sides.
So I’m sure you can guess my question now: what do you like most about this battle couple?
I like that they are both former military and that they both were officers. Even though they had different ranks in their respective militaries and different scopes of responsibility, they both understand command and strategy, and can relate to each other on the level of being responsible for other people.
I like it when opposites attract and it’s a super fun pairing, like the cinnamon roll sunshine character and the grumpy guy. But I also love it when two people may not be identical, but their priorities, values, and personalities have a substantial overlap that allows for deep connection and trust, which are essential components of a good battle couple. I love the dynamic between two people who may be slightly too similar.
This is something you actually explore in your new book, Where Peace is Lost—can you tell us a little bit more about it?
This, too, is a space opera that takes place after a war. The main character, Kel, is a refugee who has holed up on a planet, like Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars. She’s a hermit, and she doesn’t want to deal with anything.
The love interest in this book is Dare. He is a former soldier, and eventually she discovers this. The two of them are very similar, in terms of having a stoic personality and a wry sense of humor that emerges at unexpected times. They tend to be very quiet, but in a fight, they will go all out. They both are sword fighters, but Dare is a brute-force, giant sword guy while Kel has a more sword-and-board technique using a shield. She is more of a bodyguard; he is more of a whirlwind.
Unbeknownst to each other, they are enemies from opposite sides of the previous war. They do have to overcome their distrust and that underlying enmity while acknowledging their mutual attraction. And they have to fight back to back, because that’s what battle couples do!
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