Welcome to Smugglivus 2015! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2015, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2016, and more.
Who: Sunil Patel, a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. He is the author of our very own The Merger. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fireside Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, The Book Smugglers, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, among others. Plus, he reviews books for Lightspeed and he is Assistant Editor of Mothership Zeta. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more at ghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”
Give a warm welcome to Sunil, folks!
I Read a Bunch of Romance Novels and You Should Too
Heaving Bosoms + Throbbing Members = Romance Novels.
This is what I thought for most of my life. This is what the common perception of romance novels told me, this is what I assumed from the covers of romance novels, this is what I internalized from years of hearing people do nothing but mock an entire genre (the bestselling one, no less).
But in the last couple years I’ve become friends with several romance authors on Twitter and seen both the positive impact they have on their readers and the negative impact of every single condescending article about the work they’re pouring their hearts into. I knew people who read romance, reviewed romance, wrote romance, loved romance…and I respected them and their tastes. Surely if they liked these books, they couldn’t be as bad and laughable as I thought they were, right? I wanted to support my friends, but how could I combat these misconceptions they were railing against when I still had them?
I searched my feelings, I knew it to be true: I was part of the fucking problem, and I needed to read some fucking romance.
It made sense. I wasn’t against romance, in fiction or in real life. Romantic relationships pop up in nearly everything, and I am there hoping for our hero or heroine to find True Love and Happiness. And I’d read plenty of books under the romance umbrella. In junior high, I went through a Mary Higgins Clark phase, devouring more of her books than I can remember now, and I remember being teased for Loves Music, Loves to Dance. I considered them mysteries, but they had strong romantic elements. I enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories. I considered them fantasies, but, again, their DNA was Regency romance.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, my journey to discovering romance novels began last July with Delilah Dawson’s novella The Mysterious Madam Morpho, which I won in a Twitter contest and read because I liked her on Twitter and wanted to read her books but they seemed kind of romance-y and thus not my thing. Spoilers, this novella was totally romance and I ended up reading an explicit sex scene in a Mexican restaurant while sitting next to children.
In November, after falling in love with Zen Cho’s work, I checked out her historical romance novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, which contains the greatest sex scene I have ever read. It’s raunchy and hilarious, so rooted in the main character’s neuroses. I didn’t even know I could enjoy sex scenes in books; I was always perfectly happy to fade to black.
I was still not sure I wanted to read an actual romance novel, though. Then for last year’s Smugglivus, Justin Landon posted his Open Letter to Dudebros. He made a compelling case for Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War, and…I think it was the first time I’d seen a man openly admit—“admit” like it’s a fucking crime or something, I’m still doing it—to reading a romance novel, and somehow that made it okay for me. Despite gobs of women talking about how great Courtney Milan’s books were, despite Courtney Milan being awesome herself on Twitter, it took a man to normalize it, make me feel like it was acceptable for me to read.
The Duchess War was free. Free! I put it on my Kindle. A few months later, Courtney Milan released her first contemporary romance, Trade Me, and I grabbed an ARC off NetGalley. I had resolved to give romance a try, and I’d read one historical romance and one contemporary romance, and that would be the end of it, I would have done my due diligence.
Sokath, his eyes uncovered: I had read some fucking romance, and I wanted to read some fucking more.
Why? Oh, I’ll tell you why.
The Characters Are Complex and Relatable
Over and over, every book I read, it was clear to me that characterization was Courtney Milan’s strong suit: she was fascinated by what made these people who they were, and how their relationships with family and friends shaped them. I have enjoyed countless romantic comedy movies where I didn’t understand the characters nearly as well as I understand these, largely because I got pages of reflection and introspection and heart-to-heart conversation where they revealed to me their innermost secrets, but not in a cheesy way. Your family thinks you’ve made nothing of your life and you know you’ll never please them? Yeah, I feel you, bro.
Romance novels weren’t just “These two people want to bone.” They were “These two very specific people with very specific histories and character traits want to bone, and they complement each other in beautiful ways, and they acknowledge and respect each other’s flaws, and they fill each other’s holes emotionally and also did I mention the boning.” As a reader, I knew the two people would get together, but it was up to Milan to convince me they belonged together. Reading Milan’s characters taught me how to write more fully fleshed-out characters, to dig into what makes them tick and why they do what they do.
The Plots Are About So Much More Than Romance
The Duchess War is about two people with scandalous secrets that threaten to ruin their reputation, and there are lots of stratagems. The Countess Conspiracy is a fucking alternate history of scientific discovery. Trade Me is near-future science fiction that deals with classism. While the romance between the two leads was always the core of the story—and even though I was guaranteed a Happily Ever After, that didn’t mean the story ended immediately upon a mutual declaration of love, or the first time they had sex, or even when they got married—the characters had so many other things to deal with! This…this seems kind of obvious, in retrospect, but like I said, I had terrible preconceptions about romance novels and somehow assumed that every page was just two people mooning over each other until they finally got together or whatever. In fact, they’re like any other book that has romance in it, it’s just that the importance of the romantic plot is increased, and it is more relevant to the other plot mechanics.
Guys, it’s almost like romance novels are novels that can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of gender.
Well-Written Sex Scenes Drive the Narrative
Sex scenes are like action scenes: the best move the story forward through deliberately chosen choreography and character development. Like the sex scenes I’d encountered in the two romance novellas I’d read, the sex scenes in Milan’s books were important to the story, never gratuitous. While some of the anatomical descriptions and euphemisms made the prose feel a bit purple at times, those words made up a small percentage of the scenes, which focused more on the characters and how they felt about each other. They were key moments that changed their relationship. Also I learned about Victorian condoms.
Even masturbation scenes gave the story, uh, narrative thrust. While I was used to books eliding over the act, I found that, uh, elongating the moment gave me insight into the character. I never felt like these erotic scenes were meant to titillate; instead, they merely acknowledged that humans are sexual beings and, more importantly, that there’s an emotional component that makes the act compelling on a deeper level.
And a small note: while describing consensual sex scenes in great detail works, it’s not at all necessary to depict a rape scene. I was hesitant to read The Governess Affair because it was about a woman who had been raped, but, thankfully, the act is never shown, and the novella explores her trauma with remarkable sensitivity, showing how it’s changed her views of men, sex, and intimacy.
The Women Respect Themselves
No one’s bosom heaved at all. These were strong, interesting women with rich inner lives, who had goals and desires apart from wanting to marry a man. Hell, sometimes they deliberately pretend to be The Worst because they don’t even want to get married because their sister would be kicked out and lose access to necessary medical treatments and The Heiress Effect was weird okay. But these were far from the simpering heroines clutching rugged, bare-chested billionaires I had believed to be characteristic of the genre. They were chess prodigies, feminists, scientists, suffragettes, generally awesome women who needed no man to be any more awesome. But wanting a man did not make them any less awesome. And they took no undeserved shit from their men, or even deserved shit, because they believed in themselves and put themselves first. Also they’re super snarky and witty and therefore endearing.
The Men Respect Women
If there is one single reason I think men should read romance novels—and specifically Courtney Milan’s, as those are the ones I have read—it’s this one. There is an incredible scene—I may be conflating two, actually—where a man is completely aroused, raring to go, and a woman is even willing, but he refuses because she is emotionally vulnerable and he would be taking advantage of her. He has his left hand, he says. He’ll manage. And that, that is the sort of scene that needs to infect the mind of every cis-het man who may still foolishly believe that we are controlled by our hormones, absolutely helpless to disobey the desires of our dicks. The men in these books lust after women, but they also respect them as people; they are turned on by their bodies and their minds. (Seriously, sometimes a man is literally like, “Damn, her feminism is hot.”) They don’t idealize them or put them on pedestals; they treat them as equals.
Sometimes now I catch myself thinking, “What would a Milan Man do?”
The Books Work as Standalones and as a Series
I only intended to read The Duchess War, but I am so glad I read the entire Brothers Sinister series because it simultaneously satisfied my love of standalones and satiated my natural need for series. Each novel (or novella) focuses on a different couple, so you can read any of them individually and have a rewarding experience. But when you read them all in order, you appreciate each one even more because of their connections to each other. A secondary character in one book becomes the main character in another. A subplot in one book becomes the main plot of the next. You come in with built-in investment for the character, excited for him or her to pair off and find their own Happily Ever After. Better yet, they can then make cameo appearances in future books! There is no overarching plot arc to Brothers Sinister, so there’s no need to read them all in order for a huge payoff (though The Countess Conspiracy has a culmination feel to it, being the last book focused on an actual Brother Sinister). But it’s shown me a different way a series can be structured, allowing multiple entrypoints for new readers.
Courtney Milan Is a Huge Nerd
I have been trying to make these topics applicable to the genre as a whole but I must point out that The Suffragette Scandal has an amazing Monkey Island reference.
Where do I go from here? Well, Courtney Milan herself recommended me Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke, and I have her When a Scot Ties the Knot sitting on my Kindle. I’m looking forward to branching out and exploring more of the genre. While my primary reading will remain science fiction/fantasy/horror, I’m so thankful I gave romance a try. I’m Happy for Now.