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The Best Fantasy Romance Books

recommended by A.K. Mulford

A River of Golden Bones by A.K. Mulford

A River of Golden Bones
by A.K. Mulford

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Fantasy romances top bestseller charts, and also dominate an enormous fandom and fan fic culture. Where did this turn towards intimacy in the fantasy epic begin, and what does it offer readers? Bestselling author A.K. Mulford guides us through the delights of romantasy novels: comforting reads, immersive worlds, and a central concern with emotional intimacy – in all its varieties.

Interview by Sylvia Bishop

A River of Golden Bones by A.K. Mulford

A River of Golden Bones
by A.K. Mulford

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Distinctions are made between fantasy romance, romance fantasy and romantasy – we’ll discuss books from all three today, but could you guide us through the terminology?

Sure! Traditionally, whatever the second word is, that’s the predominant theme. So if it’s romantic fantasy, it’s predominantly a fantasy-themed book with romantic elements in it; versus a fantasy romance, where the predominant plot is romantic, but it is either set in a fantasy world or has fantastical elements. Romantasy is a nice hybridization of the two, which doesn’t really function if you take out the fantasy plot or the romance plot.

Great. Your first choice is Jasmine Throne by Tasha Siri – could you introduce us?

Oh my gosh, it is such a gorgeous book. I mostly listen to audiobooks, and this was one of those books where I found myself just looping around the block again – “Okay, one more go around the block! I just want to find out what happens!” It’s a sapphic fantasy set in a fantastical, Indian-inspired world. There’s a princess, Malini, who’s been banished and imprisoned by her tyrant brother, because she wouldn’t burn herself and sacrifice her life to these fire gods that he believes in – so as punishment he sends her to a far-off province, and she has to stay in a magical temple called a Hirana. The other character is Priya, who’s hiding out in this town as a lowly maidservant, serving in one of the regent’s households and keeping very quiet – but it’s clear from the very start that she’s more than she seems. She ends up getting tasked to be one of the maidservants in the temple where the princess is being kept. And even though they try and keep them apart, the princess finds ways of making her stay, and she becomes her main maidservant. They get thrust together, and they both need each other: the princess wants to escape, and the maidservant is trying to redeem her people and get magic back in the world. They both want to get rid of the evil brother – and in doing so, they also start to fall in love.

It’s wonderful, and for me as a queer person having sapphic fantasy is extra special. Whenever I read it or listen to it, it just lights me up. It’s a really beautiful story, really well written – I love the feeling when you’re fully immersed in a fantasy world, and you feel like you can see and taste and smell everything, and it’s one of those books.

One of the heroes has a hidden true nature – that’s a common trope in fantasy romance books. Why does that work so well?

Don’t we love it? Everybody loves a sexy secret! I’m a sucker for hidden identities, I write them a lot in my books as well. I think fantasy really pulls out elements in the real world – in some ways I feel like fantasy is almost more honest than reality, it can heighten the real world and our emotions in a way that’s easier to digest than reading a contemporary book. So when you have something like a hidden identity… A lot of us feel like we’re hiding parts of ourselves or we can’t reveal everything, and we can’t be open and raw and vulnerable. I think there’s something intriguing about secrets, but also relatable about them too, which I find really enjoyable.

Your next book features another popular trope – an enemies-to-lovers story. Could you introduce us to The Bridge Kingdom by Danielle L. Jensen? 

The Bridge Kingdom is one of those books where after the first chapter – after the first scene – I was so invested. With a lot of fantasy books, it takes me a while to feel, “Okay, I really want to know what happens next…” –  but the way that Danielle wrote that first intro to the story was so epic, you’re immediately thinking, “This is the most badass female main character, and I want to see her burn the world down.”

She’s a princess called Lara, and she’s been trained to be a spy her whole life. She is married off to a king, of the Bridge Kingdom. It’s an important kingdom geographically for Lara’s kingdom; it controls all of the trade and all of the routes everywhere. So there’s a lot of political intrigue. They’re the enemies, who have left Lara’s kingdom starving without resources for so long – or so she believes…

And then she gets sent off to this guy who is not quite as evil as he’s been made out to be her whole life. He was actually very loyal to his people. I think one of the most desirable qualities in our romantasy character is that kind of loyalty – the heroism, the will to drop everything and do the right thing and be there for you. She sees that kind of loyalty in him towards his people. So then she starts to think, “Well, is he really that evil? Maybe I haven’t looked at this impartially either.” I love that kind of theme, because it really shines a light on our own prejudices about the world, about other people and what we’ve been raised to believe. It’s about questioning all of that – starting to say, maybe I need to think for myself, and look at this more holistically and dispassionately. And of course, then she starts to fall for him.

“Every single book in this top five has powerful, badass female main characters”

I feel like every single book in this top five has powerful, badass female main characters who can really go toe-to-toe with their powerful love interests, and there’s something incredibly endearing about that – that they’re so brave and competent and capable, but they’re still kind of fumbling their way through it. There are no damsels in distress. If you look at this kind of fantasy versus more non-romantic epic fantasy, more predominantly written by men, there it’s quite often a male hero lead, and the female characters – not always, but sometimes – are written in support of the male main character’s plot and story. So it’s great to have these female main characters who have complete agency and control, and even when they make mistakes and are fumbling, they still can wield the sword and kick ass.

Both halves of the romance have to be worthy of each other. They both need to be bringing something to the table. It’s not like one is just attractive and the other has all the skills, you know? And often they end up getting thrust together in some sort of external mission that they have to complete together, where they both require their skills, and they’re showing off how powerful they are combined against some enemy. It’s not, “You sit on the sidelines while I go handle this.” It’s, “We’re both going into battle together.”

We come back to another hidden true nature in your next choice, Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalco. Could you introduce us?

This is not a book to read when you’re hungry. It’s set in this magical version of Sicily, and it centres on this streghe witch – and their family has a restaurant. The descriptions of the food… I had to run off to cook! It was so rich and vibrant, and you can tell it was written with a lot of love and care towards the setting – not just the food, but the environment and the town. It felt very much like you’re walking through the streets of some form of ancient Sicily.

Emilia is a twin, and her twin goes missing. She finds her violently killed, and has to discover what happened to her – and in doing so she summons one of the princes of Hell. It’s Wrath, of course – the sexiest of all princes of Hell, right? Because you want them angry!

It’s a really great enemies-to-lovers, because they’re thrown together – they have to form an unwilling allyship to discover what’s going on and why all these witches are being killed. Wrath says that he’s been tasked with investigating these witch deaths, and Emilia’s trying to find out what happened to her twin sister. Wrath is tied to her via the magic she used to summon him there, and their investigation ends up leading into the underworld, dealing with all the different princes of Hell. There’s a lot of different princes in the first book who all have their hands in the pie, and you’re wondering who’s really pulling the strings behind what’s been happening…

The sexual tension in the book is great. You can tell they hate each other but they’re really attracted to each other, and I feel like that’s one of the best starts for a fantasy romance.

That’s a very fine line for these stories to get right… You need them to want each other on some level, hate each other on some level, and be unable to leave each other. And all three of those points have to be convincing.

Yes! I think that’s one of the hardest things in the writing of these books: coming up with some plausible reason that they have to be together physically in order to have a romance develop, but also not having them immediately fall for each other. They have to have all these misbeliefs about each other and secrets that they’re hiding from each other, and then see redeeming qualities in each other and start to build attraction. But you can’t do that if they’re just constantly leaving each other! So you have to have some sort of mechanism that ties them together. For me, I love a good quest – they both have to go rescue someone, they both have to go get something. Travelling through these fantastical worlds is a great way of throwing two characters together. Working on a mission or defeating a common enemy, things like that, are a great way to make them say, “Okay, well, we’ll work together for now and then we’ll hate each other later” – but then they end up falling for each other.

I wonder if that accounts for the link between epic fantasy and fantasy romances? So many of them do seem to be epic, rather than low or cosy, and epics do provide motives that trump personal feelings…

Right! There’s battles and complex systems of magic and action scenes and monsters…

Also, I have a theory that for a lot of us who write fantasy romance, we grew up in the era of this resurgence of epic fantasy shows and movies – Tolkien and things like that. And we’re all thinking, “Just somebody kiss, please.” We love the fantasy world, we’re obsessed with the world building and the gowns and the languages and the lavishness of these worlds, but there’s no intimacy. There are no emotions. There are no moments of two people just staring each other in the eyes – except for a bromance between, you know, all the Lord of the Rings characters. Sam go on, just kiss Frodo, come on! Give us something! You get a little bit of Aragorn and Arwen, and all of the eight-grade girls just had to watch that one kiss over and over and over.

Yes, and it does seem we’re seeing more intimacy now in all forms. A twin relationship is central again in your own book, A River of Golden Bones. Could you introduce us? And maybe talk a little about these non-romantic relationships?

A River of Golden Bones started because I wanted to try a fairytale retelling or reimagining, and I thought, “What if Sleeping Beauty wasn’t rescued by the prince, but by a secret twin sister?” We don’t need no princes! And I knew I really wanted to write wolf shifters. I’m a former wildlife biologist, I needed to have some animals! – and I thought wolf shifters would be great, and that it’d be fun to bring them into more of a high fantasy setting. They’re usually in paranormal stories.

The story centres around Calla, who has been in hiding most of her life with her twin sister. The twin has trained her whole life to be a princess, and Calla has trained to be the shadow, the assassin and the warrior who’s the protector of her sister. Her sister is betrothed her whole life to their childhood friend, who’s the prince of a different wolf-pack kingdom, the Silver Wolf kingdom. Calla has always had a thing for him, and very early on in the story you come to realise that actually it isn’t her sister who’s his moon-blessed mate, it’s Calla.

Then a sorceress arrives and curses her twin sister, a sleeping curse, and takes her away. And nobody is willing to go and save her. So it’s up to Calla to sneak out and go on this quest. She goes into the human realm and starts meeting more humans, and hides out with a merry band of musicians. It was clear to me from the very start that her character would be gender-fluid, exploring the gender binary and stepping out of rigid wolf society into a more fluid human society. I had no intention of writing her that way at the beginning, but even from the first chapter, it was very clear she was grappling with all of this indecision. She only really knew who she was in relation to her twin; whatever her twin was, she was the opposite. I think for myself and for a lot of genderqueer people, we’re looking so much to be informed who we are by the outside world, then once you get to a certain age you start to realise – “Oh, I don’t need other people to tell me who I am! I can actually discover this for myself.” So the first book is Calla’s journey of gender identity and self-discovery whilst also going on this epic quest – both an internal journey and an external journey.

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And yes, non-romantic intimacy is important. For me, it’s all about relationships. Found family is one of my favourite tropes, especially as a queer person; a lot of us don’t necessarily have community and support from the families we were born into. Then we go out into the world, and we find other people. Calla falls in with this group of humans and musicians who take her in and become like a second family to her. And then that hybridizes by the end with her own actual family. That idea of people who deeply see you and understand you, and encourage you to be yourself and not have to perform for them – I feel like everybody needs and deserves that. I love that level of relationship and intimacy set against epic moments of monster battles – we’re fighting monsters and then we’re talking about what self-identity is! We’re bopping back and forth with loyal friends, who want to sit around and talk about how they’re feeling right now, and then go back to some epic adventure.

I love an “alpha male” in fiction but it enrages me when it’s used out in the real world. As a wildlife biologist, I’m like, “That’s not how it works!” So I decided, no, we’re going to do wolves, we’re going to make them queer, we’re going to have lots of male emotions.

Perhaps even more classic than twins is the orphaned hero, up next… Could you introduce us to The Hurricane Wars by Thea Guanzon?

This was such an interesting book for me; it’s fantasy, but has sci-fi elements to it too. It’s a magical high fantasy world, and our main character, Talasyn, is part of a nation that’s under attack by the Night Empire. She’s a foot soldier trying to protect her homeland, and then she runs into Prince Alaric of the Night Empire who realises she’s secretly a light weaver, with all this magic…

Over a fair amount of time, they keep bumping into each other and almost killing each other, but they just can’t do it – they keep letting each other get away – there’s something about them. Then Talasyn finds out that she’s actually the heir to a neutral territory that’s not part of this conflict – secret royalty. We love a secret royalty trope. She needs to work with this prince to combine their powers: the light and the darkness.

I think it was inspired by Reylo fan fiction, you can see the elements in there, but it’s totally a unique world too. The world-building’s incredible. Guanzon’s from the Philippines, and that informs the world… I’ve lived in a lot of different countries as a wildlife biologist, on four different continents, in a lot of different jungles, and tried to learn a lot of different languages. I love a fantasy story where you can tell that the author’s really thought about the entirety of the culture, from the food to the textiles they’re wearing to their inside jokes, or things that don’t translate into other languages, and a belief system that might be different from region to region… World-building where you can really immerse yourself in it, and feel like you’re in this other place.

The way that the prose was written in The Hurricane Wars too, it just felt like a treat. You stop and say, “Oh, that’s just beautiful. I love that sentence.” So it felt like an indulgent read.

It does feel like we’re seeing a more exciting range of settings in quest fantasy than we used to…

Yes! My first series was about fae, witches and humans, set around the five different countries that I’ve spent most of my time living in. So there are different courts that are kind-of South Africa and Guatemala and New Zealand… I just felt like it would be fun to have a not-completely Eurocentric fantasy view of the world, but have lots of different regions with their own fantasy systems – as opposed to the Middle Earth inspiration that I think a lot of us pull from, us Tolkien nerds.

You have one last enemies-to-lovers book for us… Tell us about The Witch Collector by Charissa Weaks.

The book centres around our main character, Raina, who is thinking that when the witch collector comes this year, she’s going to kill him. The last time he came, he took her sister. They take witches because they need to use their magic.

All of her plans go awry, and she ends up having to travel with him through a wintry landscape of the frost kingdom – and much like in The Bridge Kingdom, he ends up being actually kind-of nice. Her sister’s alive and okay, living a great life. And Raina has all of these secret powers – again, secret! –abilities that she’s been keeping hidden, untapped. The witch collector knows more than he’s letting on about who she is, what power she has, and he’s keeping secrets too about his actual identity. They’re trying to get through this snow kingdom, to get to her sister and defeat the Frost King.

I love a good fantasy set in snow because there’s so much scope for body heat tropes – that’s a great way to force proximity when you have two people who hate each other. That’s actually in A River of Golden Bones as well. You’ve got two begrudging characters who are fighting, but when it’s really cold outside, you’re still going to cuddle up for warmth… I love looking for how characters are forced together, and for the romantic walls – the blocks that keep them away. For me, you can’t have the same romantic walls more than once or twice – you need a new escalating reason why they can’t be together as they become more emotionally attached to each other. Then usually around three quarters of the way through, they’re committed, but something physically tears them apart. I’m always interested when I read a really unique new one, where people come up with some new reason why two people can’t be together, and I think – “Ooh that’s good! I like that one!”

I think sometimes, especially with romance, romance readers like the formula of romance – they just want your own unique spin on how you do it. If you didn’t have them fall in love by the end of the book, they’d be thinking, “What are you doing?”

With fantasy romances booming, is there anyone else we should be looking out for?

It was so hard to whittle it down to five. It depends how close you stay to romantasy… There’s other books, like The Night Circus, which is more magical realism, but you could include that. And The Priory of the Orange Tree – it feels more fantasy dominant, even though there is a romance subplot through it; I don’t know that someone who likes these five books would necessarily make an easy jump over to that, because it is heavier on the world building.

For romantasy you’ve got people like Scarlett St. Clair – King of Battle and Blood is great; Raven Kennedy; and Sarah J. Maas and Jennifer L. Armantrout are the queens of the genre. Elise Kova is amazing… I’m probably forgetting a million people!

I feel like a lot of us are reaching for escapism right now, to fall into a new fantasy world and to fall in love. It would be great to see more romance-led fantasy series out there. There would be an absolutely ravenous audience for it that, as of now, is still untapped. (We can’t all watch the one obligatory kissing scene over and over—give us the whole story!). There still seems to be a common misconception that fantasy is liked mostly by a male audience and therefore needs to cater more towards them. I think once Hollywood realizes how profitable the romantasy genre is, it will start a new wave of shows, or at least that’s my hope. I’d love to see any one of these five books adapted into a movie or show.

Interview by Sylvia Bishop

January 27, 2024

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A.K. Mulford

A.K. Mulford

A. K. Mulford is a bestselling fantasy author and former wildlife biologist who swapped rehabilitating monkeys for writing novels.