I don’t feel strongly about most bookish romances – because I’ve read many, and because writing a believable romantic subplot that also stands out is one of the most difficult things to do. To work for me, a romance needs:
- interesting characters. I can’t like a couple if I don’t like or feel like I don’t know the characters themselves. And that’s where most books fail: in far too many books – especially in fantasy – the love interest never gets more characterization than “hot” and “love interest”.
- page time. I don’t care about actual time, I’m not the kind of person who believes falling in love in less than a week is completely impossible – but I need to see the characters interact for a significant portion of the novel. Especially if they are the main couple.
- an interesting dynamic. Which means conflict, but not too much of it (unless it’s a villain romance, which I love, but those have slightly different rules). I don’t want the relationship to be one-note, I want it to develop like the characters do, and I want to see at least a bit of struggling (how much depends on the novel). What I absolutely do not want is to see characters constantly fighting (why are you even together? This is especially a problem in novels with time jumps) or characters who just love each other and never, ever have disagreements.
- I need to get it. This is even more “subjective” than the reasons above, because what works for me might not work for others, and the other way around. Sometimes I don’t get why certain books’ characters even want to be together, but someone else could.
One more thing: I feel like there’s this misconception around aromanticism that makes people think that aromantic people must not like to read romantic subplots, because they’re aro, and that’s not… necessarily true? I don’t like sports and I don’t like playing a musical instrument either, but that doesn’t mean I’ll avoid all books that follow characters who like them. (I don’t need everyone to be like me!) What is true is that I would love to find more books without romance in them, that I have a low tolerance for page-long declarations of love and that don’t reach for the romance genre often, but that’s mostly because I can’t relate (and when you can’t relate, some kind of romantic plotlines get really tiring), not because I hate it or something. But I will be irritated if your book assumes everyone’s main goal in life should be to get in a lasting monogamous relationship.
So here, are my favorite couples, in no particular order.
Miel + Sam, When the Moon Was Ours
- Tropes: friends to lovers.
When the Moon Was Ours has the most gorgeous friends-to-lovers romance ever written. It follows Miel, a latinx girl who grows roses out of her wrists, and her friend Sam, an Italian-Pakistani boy who is still somewhat in denial about being trans. It’s a story about two young people finding each other, accepting each other, and loving each other while they still struggle to love and accept themselves. What this book – and their romance – says about self-acceptance and identity means a lot to me and Miel and Sam will always be one of my favorite couples.
Thuan + Asmodeus, The House of Binding Thorns
- Tropes: enemies to lovers, arranged marriage
So, what are “Thuan + Asmodeus” as a couple: a shapeshifting Vietnamese bisexual dragon prince and a somewhat-villainous gay fallen angel are in a ~dangerous~ arranged marriage neither of them really want; one is a spy and they want each other dead. This is what I call an “interesting dynamic”. One of the best romances I’ve ever read in a fantasy book that isn’t even about the romance. If you like diverse, truly unique fantasy, please read this series. It starts with The House of Shattered Wings, which is good but not as good as its companion The House of Binding Thorns, which has Thuan and Asmodeus.
Lei + Wren, Girls of Paper and Fire
- Tropes: slow-burn.
Who doesn’t want to read about two girls falling in love while trying to survive the Demon King’s court? I love this book, I love everything it stands for, and I love that an f/f book with one of my favorite romances which is set in a Malaysian-inspired world is a New York Times bestseller. (A few years ago, this would never have happened!)
Anyway. Lei, the daughter of a herbalist, and Wren, a warrior girl, fall in love in stolen moments, hiding from the court and the other concubines, and it’s at the same time beautiful and heartbreaking to read. The slow-burn! I’m so glad I finally saw this kind of slow forbidden court romance with two girls instead of always a girl and a boy.
Brezan + Tseya, Raven Stratagem
- Tropes: reluctant allies to lovers to enemies to lovers.
I often say that this series has no romance, and it’s technically true. (That’s usually what happens when the main character of the series is already dead at the beginning of it, I guess.) But there is a subplot following two side characters that is kind of a romance in the second and third books: Brezan and Tseya’s story. Brezan is a general, Tseya is a beautiful assassin, and they’re trying to kill a mass murderer. They’re supposedly on the same side, but are they really? It’s one of my favorite romances even though it doesn’t have that much page time, it’s full of betrayal and twists, and I loved its conclusion in Revenant Gun.
(Also, I love how the answer to the question “are there any straight people in this series?” is “yes, one, he’s trans and in love with a trans woman”)
Yeine + Nahadoth, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
- Tropes: human/paranormal creature romance
Monster romances are my weakness and this is probably my favorite monster romance. Who doesn’t want to read about a woman and a genderfluid, polyamorous chaos god getting together while a lot of court intrigue happens? I love this book so much and I never hear anyone talk about it, even though Jemisin is probably the most popular female adult fantasy author at the moment. This is one of the best fantasy romances ever written, it’s beautiful and diverse, and it should get more recognition. (Also, I really need to reread it.)
Yên + Vu Côn, In the Vanishers’ Palace
- Tropes: human/paranormal creature romance, single mother
What did I say about monster romances? If Beauty and the Beast retellings are usually kind of hit-or-miss for me because some of them end up feeling too much like Stockholm syndrome, this f/f retelling in which the beast is a Vietnamese shapeshifting dragon woman and the main character’s agency is really important was great. I’ve wanted to see this kind of paranormal monster romance with women for so long and I’m so glad I found this book. Vu Côn, the love interest, is a single dragon mother and I love her so much. One of my favorite love interests ever.
Laila + Hannah, Final Draft
- Tropes: friends to lovers.
The only YA contemporary book on this list! I like realism in contemporary, and Final Draft is one of the contemporary books that felt more real to me – romance included. Anxious Laila and abrasive, somewhat-mysterious Hannah make such a good couple, they bring out the best in each other and I just loved their dynamic so much. Also: Laila is a plus-sized biracial Ecuadorian girl who uses the label “pansexual” on-page and Hannah is a Korean lesbian.
Likotsi + Fabiola, Once Ghosted Twice Shy
- Tropes: second chance
Of course I loved this second-chance f/f romance following two black women falling in love – and then falling in love again – in New York city! Fabiola and Likotsi actually had chemistry, which is something that I feel about… a surprisingly low number of fictional couples? I loved reading their interactions, I understood what they saw in each other, and I can see them being in a lasting relationship. Also, the reasons for the miscommunication and what kept them apart were completely understandable and not contrived. I love them as characters, and as a couple they were adorable.
Kaz + Inej, Six of Crows
- Tropes: slow-burn.
This couple will be on so many lists this week and we all know that it deserves to be there. Not only Kaz and Inej are wonderful, complex, incredibly compelling characters to read about on their own (which is, by the way, the main ingredient for a good romance), their relationship dynamic itself stands out from every other YA fantasy romance. I haven’t read any other book in which the two characters both have haphephobia or touch aversion and respect that about each other, a story in which both character are recovering from trauma but the romance isn’t everything that drives their recovery, even if they do tend to bring out the best in each other.
Marianne + Rhiannon, The Dark Beneath the Ice
- Tropes: shy girl/tough girl pairing.
This couple means a lot to me because this book does. Marianne and Rhiannon (Marhiannon!, I say, because it’s objectively one of the worst ship names ever) are two queer girls who are trying to survive high school – survive, because in some cases that’s the most one can do – and while they have very different strategies to do so, they find and help each other and it’s… a lot, especially considering how dark this book goes.
Miles + Tristan, Witchmark
- Tropes: human/paranormal creature romance.
[Ok, I’m cheating. This is eleven couples, not ten. But I don’t care.]
This is one of the cutest m/m romances I’ve ever read. These two!! Miles is a surgeon who is hiding his life from his controlling family and his magic from society, while Tristan is an Amaranthine, a magical creature who reads like a fairy and an angel at the same time. The way they start trusting each other and helping each other to solve a mystery threatening their lives and the lives of those around them… I loved their story. I had so many feelings, I love well-written gay romances that manage to feel fresh even when they’re trope-y.
What are your favorite book couples?