I've been slightly under the weather for the last week, which means, of course, soup, self-pity and comfort reads. Rather than my traditional winter-sniffles re-re-re-read of the Belgariad, I thought I'd go wandering around the historical romance category. That is: duchess porn.
And lots of it.
After swimming in the skirts of Christi Caldwell, Eloisa James, Tessa Dare, Courtney Milan and Ellie MacDonald, I've now got some theories. The books are, of course, a total blast: cheeky and entertaining; page-turners that rely wholly on empathetic and interesting central characters to be a success.
So what are five things that my favourite comfort genre - epic fantasy - could learn from historical romance?
Most epic fantasies have the good sense to draw a curtain when things start getting squishy. And that - in and of itself - is a bit weird. There are few qualms about detailed violence, for example - combat, torture, the works. All of which is passed off as 'exciting' or 'realistic' or 'character building' ... but then, so is sex. So why are fantasy authors (and readers? publishers?) shy about building characters through something fun and joyful, rather than, you know, carnage. This is becoming especially noticeable in the grimdark trend; as sexual violence can be threatened on every page, but consensual sex is swept off-screen. (Possibly this comes from epic fantasy's engrained Medieval morality? Where all sex is more-or-less seen as 'dirty', and we expect all our Chosen Ones to be Galahad?) Regardless, fantasy's made an art of writing the fight scene - and that's great - so how about brushing up on other athletic endeavours as well?
And/or 'benign anachronism'. It is amazing that historical romance that's ostensibly set in actual real history is willing to be anachronistic when it comes to sexual equality: packed with female characters with agency (also: opinions, dialogue, fully-fledged personalities, quests, ambitions, achievements, etc, etc). Meanwhile, completely made up epic fantasies based in secondary worlds hide behind 'historical accuracy' when it comes to treating women like shit. And, for the record, that ain't even accurate.
Basically, given a completely imaginary universe where the author can devise anything they want, epic fantasy still far-too-often falls back on virgins, mothers and whores. Whereas in historical romance, in which - arguably - the female characters only exist to have sex - they are still better and more fully realised. Kind of astounding.
Picking and choosing detail
There's definitely dress-porn in these books (also jacket-porn, breech-porn and occasionally carriage-porn). But what isn't there? Lengthy descriptions of travel, architecture, politics, or religious ceremonies. Or long extracts of poetry or 'historical' texts. What details we have - even if those are the buttons on a duke's jacket - are there to describe the characters, not the world.
One interesting note: in the Eloisa James Desperate Duchesses' series, several of the main characters are all addicted to chess - yet, across seven books, we don't get bogged down in the details of a single game. Their skill, and their obsession, are both conveyed through dialogue, action and even the responses of others. We get all of the importance and none of the granular detail.
Not world-building, mind you (epic fantasy definitely has the edge there) - but I've noticed that historical romance series have a really interesting way of developing in parallel. There's a plot arc that goes across all the books, but each individual volume is focused on a specific pair of characters, while teasing the main arc in the background. So everyone is connected, but the mini-plots are all resolved before moving back into the 'overarching' plot. For example, in the Desperate Duchesses sequence, the love triangle between Jemma, Beaumont and Villiers is the overarching plot, and those three are the primary characters in the series. In each book, they appear, progress a bit, and influence others. But they don't get a book 'of their own' until the fifth in the sequence. The first four (and #7) are all primarily focused on their friends and acquaintances: each book has a girl-meets-loses-finds-boy plot of its own.
Epic fantasy is more progressive (in that, the plot goes in a linear fashion from stable to throne), but I would love to see a series of interconnected books in the romance fashion. A bit like a shared world, but all from the same author and voice. Multiple-viewpoint series like A Song of Ice and Fire have slightly shifted epic fantasy into this direction - but the frustration with ASOIAF (especially) and its ilk (more generally) is that there's still the expectation of a single, all-encompassing resolution. Tyrion on a wagon for 800 pages and/or the entire Dornish plot are therefore read as distractions, and not individually-resolved, satisfying, standalone plots. Perhaps epic fantasy needs to be like this: advancement and conclusion are the roots of the genre, after all. But it'd be interesting to find a series that favours, on balance, the individual episodes more than the overarching plot. Even as an experiment. (The Black Company maybe? But it is still very clearly about a central protagonist and his own plot development.)
A sense of humour
Possibly the most striking part of Tessa Dare's Romancing the Duke (a book I picked up off the Goodreads Choice shortlist) is that it is... hilarious. Like, laugh out loud funny. At the core of the story, of course, there's a penniless (but well-raised) young woman and a grumpy duke and a lot of bonking. But the story comes to life with Dare's descriptions of the falling down castle, an irritable ermine and a horde of - extremely tongue-in-cheek - fans. Isolde Goodnight, the aforementioned young woman, is also the Tommy Taylor of her generation, a real (fictional) person living in the shadow of a fictionalised version of herself. With all the real (fictional) consequences thereof. On one hand, we have the predictable escalation to duke-bonking. On the other, we have the ongoing entertainment of Isolde's crazy life (and not-life).
Although Romancing the Duke is the most overtly funny of all the books I've read, virtually every historical romance has had a healthy dose of humour. The characters fall in mud puddles, hide in closets, have horrible things happen with wigs, argue with overbearing mothers, even have a long, drawn out subplot involving backed-up water closets (When the Duke Returns). It isn't slapstick as much as self-awareness - keeping the situations from becoming ponderous by ensuring that the characters have flaws and human weaknesses.
Epic fantasy... not so much.
There's the slapstick jester figure - the Tasslehoff Burrfoot or Tom Bombadil - but with few rare exceptions, epic fantasies embrace the ponderous. Self-awareness, I suppose, is seen as the barrier to suspension of disbelief. If someone chuckles at the dragon (or deals with the water closet), everything might lose its epicness. Except... that's not actually true. Often the best, most endearing (and enduring) characters in epic fantasy are those that have human flaws, and can embrace the humour of their surroundings without breaking the fourth wall. Raistlin, with his occasional digs at Tanis' love life, is funnier than Tasslehoff, and despite being Chaotic Evil, a far more empathetic character. Tyrion Lannister is another - there's are many reasons he's a fan favourite, and the fact that he can laugh is one of them. And, of course, the books of Joe Abercrombie. In the savagely post-revisionist series that is The First Law, one of Abercrombie's great inventions was bringing laughter to epic fantasy. Bayaz, naked, exploding assassins from his bathtub. That's brilliant; it doesn't 'ruin' the world and it is a lot of fun.
What's interesting about epic fantasy and historical romance is that they are both (extremely) formulaic. The reader understands what is going to happen: the Stableboy will defeat the Dark Lord; the Governness will marry the Duke. The artistry in both genres is how the author goes about making the already known into something engaging. In epic fantasy, that often falls to world-building: unique magic systems, unusual worlds, complex prophesy-related scavenger hunts, intriguing monsters and political chicanery. The same thing happens in every book, but the setting is often interesting enough to keep you turning pages. To continue the wild generalisation: historical romance eschews the world-building to focus on the characters instead. The humor, the attitudes, what they do and how they act. The same thing still happens in every book, but the characters are what keep you involved - you're cheering for the inevitable, even as you pretend they're the underdog. Although both genres face the same problem, they solve it in very different ways.