You want to stick it to the patriarchy this Valentine’s Day? Read a romance novel!
We know what you’re thinking: A delicate (yet heaving) bosom falling into the muscular embrace of a rugged (yet gentle) rascal is hardly progressive. What’s the pursuit of true love and hot sex in light of our country’s driving need for the advocacy, safety, and equality of all minorities?
1. Have you met any congressmen who feel the need to sacrifice love and sex for basic rights?
2. When was the last time you read a book that centered on women’s desires, where those desires were explored and celebrated and ultimately rewarded with a stable, loving relationship? What about for people in the LGBTQ community? For people with disabilities?
3. Why should we be limited to reading books in which the bosoms lie motionless, the rogues have no souls, love is ironic, and people — let’s face it, mostly women — who just want a little love and passion to leaven a brutal world end up victimized, dead, alone, or unhappily married?
The best romance novels — and they get better every year: more diverse and self-aware — offer escapism, fantasy, humor, titillation, and catharsis, without sacrificing the protagonists’ fully realized humanity. Maybe they fall into the wrong cowboy’s arms (who hasn’t?); perhaps they’re stubborn or spiteful (who isn’t?); life is still going to work out okay for them because they are people, and in the world of Romance, being a person means you can be smart, quirky, different, flawed, horny, and happy ever after.
good, right? Here are some of our recent favorites. You’ll be hooked.
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I. Heaving Bosoms, With a Twist
My Lady's Choosing
by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris
This choose-your-own-adventure novel offers several enticing paths: Do you seek true love? Chase a delicious bad boy? Travel across Europe with another adventurous lady? A creative spin on the romance novel, My Lady’s Choosing puts you in the driver’s seat, speeding gleefully toward your idea of HEA.
Wicked and the Wallflower
by Sarah MacLean
Powell’s resident romance enthusiast McKenzie W. raves, “I absolutely, thoroughly, endlessly love this book. I thought I adored Sarah MacLean already, but now I'm ride-or-die devoted! Felicity and Devil have apocalyptic chemistry and their journey is dark, scandalous, passionate, and wonderful. I can't recommend Wicked and the Wallflower enough.” A clever, Regency-era take on the classic plain-girl-turns-gorgeous-and-brilliant-with-help-of-man (except-she-was-always-gorgeous-and-brilliant-and-the-man-was-a-fool-for-not-noticing-sooner) love story, Wicked and the Wallflower also boasts a complicated conspiracy plot and deliciously seedy descriptions of the London underworld.
by Katharine Ashe
The Prince is the type of romance novel that seems superficial on the outside (see: ambiguously exotic abs on book cover), but it delves refreshingly into issues of otherness and race, and the love it portrays manages a nice balance between super steamy and mutually nurturing. The novel stars, unsurprisingly, an exiled prince (the artist Ziyaeddin) and Libby, a brilliant surgeon who’s forced to dress as a man to attend the exclusive Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. When Ziyaeddin discovers Libby’s secret, he promises to cover for her under one condition: she must sit for him as a portrait subject. Cue friendship, cultural barriers, longing, and lust.
The Duke With the Dragon Tattoo
by Kerrigan Byrne
In a starred review, Publishers Weekly notes, “Readers who feel guilty about craving the thrill of a Victorian bodice-ripper will appreciate the moral reassurance of Byrne’s sensitive characterizations.” The Duke plays with a lot of romance tropes — emotionally distant, hot manly pirate; an evil older brother; a not unwillingly kidnapped bride — but it does so with multifaceted characters who have compelling backstories and emotional depth. It’s sexy and thoughtful.
When a Scot Ties the Knot
by Tessa Dare
MacKenzie W. writes that “Blackmail, lobster sex, and more kilts than you can shake a bannock at, not to mention witty banter and maximal romance” make When a Scot Ties the Knot a supremely pleasurable read. When young, very shy debutante Maddie decides that creating a fictional beau is far more satisfying than finding a real one, she has no idea that her safe fantasy will turn into an unexpected house guest, legal complications, and deep love.
II. Diverse Heroes and Heroines
A Princess in Theory
by Alyssa Cole
We really love this novel about a foster child-turned-epidemiology student who falls in love with an entitled African prince (in disguise, of course). In Naledi, Cole gives us a brainy woman with a complicated past that informs her approach to romance in unexpected ways; additionally, the inclusion of a fictional African country allows Cole to play with the theme of self-discovery through cultural exchange while giving Naledi a chance to brandish her nation-saving disease identification skills. It’s a cute, sexy, and refreshing read.
From Lukov With Love
by Mariana Zapata
For those of you who stop everything to watch the Winter Olympics. Facing the end of her ice skating career, Jasmine Santos takes a risk and teams up with her least favorite person for a chance to win the gold in pair skating. This indie romance has all the fire you’d expect from an enemies-turned-lovers plotline, plus a strong message about accepting your faults and allowing others to love you despite them.
The Kiss Quotient
by Helen Hoang
The Kiss Quotient received rave reviews on NPR, in Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly, and we love it too. It’s diverse and quirky: Stella, the heroine, is autistic and a highly accomplished, wealthy economist. Her love interest, Michael, is a half-Vietnamese fashion designer who works as an escort to pay for his mom’s medical treatments. Stella turns to Michael to work out some of her awkwardness around flirtation and sex, and well, you can basically guess where the book goes from there. It’s sexy and compelling, with a whole cast of endearing characters you love and root for.
by Jasmine Guillory
Another witty romance featuring diverse characters, The Proposal plays with two delightful tropes: a cringe-inducing public proposal (in this case on a sports arena jumbotron), and a friends-with-benefits arrangement that threatens to turn into an actual relationship. The Proposal is sexy and fun, but what makes it shine are the careful, vibrant portraits of the characters and the way Guillory explores their relationships, platonic and romantic. It’s also subtly about female consent, and the way American society pillories women who spurn the fairy tale model of romantic partnership.
The Matchmaker’s List
by Sonya Lalli
This novel is for anyone whose parents or grandparents take an unhealthy interest in their love life! Tired of being single and 29 (a scandal in her Indian immigrant community), Raina lets her grandmother take charge. Cue a hilarious slew of unsuitable bachelors, and a really funny, thoughtful examination of arranged marriage and generational differences in immigrant families.
III. Love Takes Many Forms
Hot and Badgered
by Shelly Laurenston
Hands down Powell’s staffs’ favorite new romance novel, Hot and Badgered has the audacity to add honey badgers (fierce weasels known for fighting lions and starring in this YouTube video) to the long list of creatures starring in sexy, shape-shifting paranormal romances. Zany, hilarious, and chaotic in the extreme — we dare you to dislike it.
Five Moons Rising
by Lise MacTague
If you like your romance a little more Buffy-style, you’ll enjoy MacTague’s paranormal lesbian romance standalone, Five Moons Rising. Mary Alice Nolan is a genetically modified Hunter, trained to exterminate supranormals like werewolves and vampires. Ruri Samon is a werewolf, hell-bent on avenging the death of her pack. The two should hate each other, but, well… if you’ve made it this far into the list, you know how these things go! They join forces in more ways than one.
Romancing the Werewolf
by Gail Carriger
Powell’s bookseller and romance fan Mecca A. recommends this book, which features another werewolf couple, this time the depressed playboy Alpha, Biffy, and his spurned Beta, the reliable Professor Randolph Lyall. This tender gay romance has a lot to love: humor, Christmas in London, the resolution of a years-long romance (mentioned in several of Carriger’s other books, also set in this world), a steampunk setting, and furry man-beasts. Basically, something for everyone.
by Donna Grant
It’s cool — not everyone’s attracted to werewolves. But who can resist dragons? Who wear kilts? Denae Lacroix, beautiful and kickass M15 agent, is about to find out. Being used as dragon bait is no picnic, but when a wounded Denae is taken in by the powerful (and celibate… for now) Dragon King Kellen, their instant attraction ignites a fire that threatens humankind and the dragon realm alike. This book is so much fun, but be warned: it’s definitely a gateway drug to the fabulous world of dragon romance.
IV. Written by or Featuring LGBTQ+ Folks
by Austin Chant
In this retelling of the Peter Pan story, Peter is a trans man who was assigned Wendy Darling at birth. Frustrated with life and identity in early 20th-century England, Peter returns to Neverland, where he finds himself falling in love with his old enemy, Captain Hook. Peter Darling gets into the pain and complexity of coming out as trans, while showcasing a stable and loving queer trans relationship.
The Burnt Toast B&B
by Heidi Belleau and Rachel Haimowitz
This is a favorite of author Austin Chant (see above), and it’s easy to see why: In The Burnt Toast B&B the main character’s trans identity is just one element of who he is — he’s also a professional stuntman and all-around sweetheart — and the authors’ attention to his physicality never feels voyeuristic. When Ginsberg Sloan meets the macho Derrick Richards, surly owner of the B&B Ginsberg’s staying in, sparks fly and banter ensues.
by Damon Suede
Funny and fairly raunchy, Hot Head follows two lifelong best friends, both firefighters, who decide to pose for gay porn site to make some quick cash. There are a few reasons to love this book: First, it’s written by a gay man, which is surprisingly rare in the gay romance market. Second, even though it gets racy, the themes of deep friendship, unrequited love, and the pain of being a closeted gay man in a macho work environment take center stage, making this a very heartfelt read. And finally, the title. It’s not what you think it is, but also… it is.