As I couldn’t restrain myself from writing multiple paragraphs for every trope (I really can’t shut up when it comes to favorite anything, can I), this got long – half a top ten tuesday and half ten discussion posts – so I decided to cut it and talk about seven tropes instead of ten. I hope you don’t mind.
Hero/Villain Sexual Tension
My favorite trope.
I usually call it “villain romance“, but as a description it’s slightly misleading, as these situations are often very unromantic and usually don’t end well for at least one of the people involved.
I love this trope because I find it as fascinating as it is horrible, and – when executed well – I end up understanding why the characters feel the way they do, and why they choose to fight each other anyway. It’s twisted and always on the verge of becoming a total disaster if it’s not already, and… it’s just a lot, emotionally.
I like many versions of this trope, but as I like it more the more it gets messy and toxic and unacceptable, my favorite versions do not include anything similar to a redemption arc, as they often end with at least one of the two dead (if the other person in the couple killed them: now that’s what I call perfection).
Also: The queer versions are better, that’s just the truth, I’m actually not that into the “villainous guy/morally gray but still overall good girl” version anymore.
I read my favorite example of this trope in Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee. This book made me think “I can’t believe [villain] did that and I can’t stop laughing but I also want brain bleach and [villain] to drop dead”, which, yes, more of that (the “couple”, and I feel weird even calling it a couple, is m/m). Another example, which is more of an exploration of feelings from loyalty to grief to the awareness of being in love with an objectively despicable person is The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, a story about the relationship between a courtesan turned revolutionary and the series’ villainess (f/f).
It seems that I love reading about people who are deeply conflicted because of what they feel?
Some other books to keep in mind if you like this trope:
- The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley, adult sci-fi, f/f/f triangle with villain romance;
- The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard, m/m, adult fantasy, “villain romance” shading to “enemies to lovers” in an arranged marriage;
- Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear, adult sci-fi, not romantic at all but clear sexual tension between main character and the evil pirate lady (f/f)
Atmospheric forests are already one of my favorite settings, and to have a straight-up horror forest? That’s perfect: I am studying botany, which means that I have a lot of opinions about trees, and I have a history of dendrophobia, which means that these books always hit close.
My ideal plant horror setting is one in which:
- the author gives you an idea of which trees there actually are – I don’t need scientific names, something like “white pine”, “beech” or “quaking aspen” is enough; I need to be able to visualize it.
- the main source of horror are the plants themselves and not something else roaming in the wood, though that’s also welcome.
I still haven’t read a book that fulfills both – Uprooted is one of my favorite plant horror books because the plants are the creepy ones, but it doesn’t tell you which trees there actually are (as far as I remember); Wilder Girls was lovely because it did tell me which trees there were but what was actually creepy were the animals, not the plants; same thing for Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé and Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton. They were still really atmospheric, and what I loved the most about them was the setting.
I’ve never been a fan of stories about haunted places, or stories about possessions, but I love stories about haunted people. If stories about possessions are usually about the evil that is in every person being brought to the surface, and if stories about haunted places are usually about the past coming back to bite people, stories about haunted people are stories about isolation.
They feel a little like a dark version of the imaginary friend, and an obstacle at the same time – hard to have a functional social life in that situation, especially if the “ghost” is a person in their own right, which adds so many complications. You will be isolated, but you will never be lonely. It is at the same time comforting and terrifying, and the effect depends a lot on which side the author decides to lean on more.
And, especially in cases in which the author is taking “haunting as isolating obstacle” as the main angle, this trope is a portrayal of mental illness without directly talking about mental illness. Metaphorical representation has its own place and value, if the author knows what they’re doing: my favorite portrayal of anxiety is in the horror novel The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé, a story about a haunted girl which uses the haunting as a paranormal metaphor for anxiety and avoidant behavior. The fact that the character isn’t cured and is explicitly portrayed as mentally ill makes the representation even more valuable to me. And it works: some things are better when approached indirectly, or they are too emotionally painful to read.
Some other examples of this trope I love: I was having a lot of feelings about the Cheris/Jedao living situation in Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee since I heard what it was about (a woman has to ally with the ghost of a murderous and very likely evil general to win a space siege, and it really does feel like a haunting story with a sci-fi twist). Another story with this trope I loved is Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy by JY Yang (free online!) which takes more the imaginary friend/maladaptive coping mechanism angle than the “evil obstacle” one.
I’m currently rereading The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, set in a post-apocalyptic version of Paris in which there are fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons, and there’s something both deeply beautiful and sad in seeing people’s everyday life in the ruins, and I love this kind of setting.
In books, “ruins” are usually something ancient and mysterious and abandoned. But my experience is that ruins are everywhere in various states of decay, from so many different times, and we live here. We build around them, and they’re still somewhat mysterious without even really being dead places.
Authors should find a way to make the mysterious and the ordinary coexist more often. I just think it’s fun – characters who live in places that have a mysterious History but that are not actively hostile to them? That’s great. Why have obviously evil haunted ruins when you could have unpredictable magical palaces that might or might not have an agenda and maybe are kind of falling apart?
I’m not going to write examples for this one, as this trope is often a plot twist, my favorite kind of plot twist.
I love the dissonance of it. How a character might do something that you could never, ever justify, and the story makes you look at the motivations, and maybe you can’t help but think for a moment that maybe the character had a point, however – the well-intentioned part can’t erase the extremist part. And the extremist part can’t erase that not doing anything would have been worse. There are often no good answers, and if there are they are not simple, and I love this.
Kind of an answer to the previous trope: if that’s about a character who is dissonant exactly because we can understand them and kind of wish we didn’t, this is about characters who don’t even understand human ideas of morality. (Or, what I wish fae in YA fantasy were, instead of what we usually get. The blue-orange-nonhuman version is just more interesting than the toxic masculinity because I said so version.)
I expect aliens – especially aliens who are not usually in contact with humans – to be some version of this trope; I remember that the first portrayal of aliens I ever really liked was the one in the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie: the things the Presger translator said didn’t make sense to the main characters (and were, often, funny and kind of terrifying), and that was refreshing, because why are aliens always so easy to understand? I still have no idea what the Presger are actually like as a society, but I’m fine with that.
The weirder it gets, the happier I am. Especially if the author goes for the “it’s so advanced it looks like magic” route, it has so much potential for really unusual body modifications.
Almost everything Kameron Hurley has written is a good example of that; my favorite is the universe of The Stars Are Legion, in which there are parthenogenesis and biological spaceships involved, but many of the worlds seen in Meet Me in the Future were just as interesting for that aspect.
And it’s been a while, so I don’t remember it as vividly as I’d like, but I also remember loving what was done with organic technology in Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. It didn’t make sense, but when you go all the way into not making sense territory, the book might end up being great. Here, it did – I especially loved Borne himself, the creature that couldn’t clearly be described as animal or plant or anything, really.
There is something about taking the shapes of everyday life and reminding you of how much inherently gross parts there are about living that makes all of this really appealing to me. Life is weird.
What do you think of these, and do you have any recommendations?